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Reinventing the textbook in environmental law: time for something new?

I have spent most of the last 30 years in a Sisyphean state of writing and rewriting an environmental law textbook. The process of producing new editions every 2-4 years has involved too many late nights, missed holidays, and general angst. However, the collaboration with other deep thinkers in environmental law has been hugely rewarding, and the writing process has provided a surprising level of intellectual satisfaction.

Taking stock of this exhausting but rewarding experience now seems timely. If academics are to continue these labours of love, changes in technology and the educational experience force us to think about what we are doing in writing textbooks and how we are doing it. Are our intellectual and physical energies being well deployed? Do we have the right vision for student textbooks?

Back in 1988, there wasn’t much competition for student texts that covered the basics of environmental law. There were isolated examples of general and more specialised textbooks, but there was room for something new. When Simon Ball and I first agreed (or perhaps persuaded each other) to try writing a textbook for the relatively new and emerging subject of environmental law, we had a vision of what we wanted to achieve. We wanted the book to be accessible and directed at the non-specialist reader—it was never intended to be a definitive source—and we certainly weren’t interested in writing for the typical academic audience.

We were unashamedly committed to the idea of engaging learners in a way that was simple without being simplistic. We wanted to use a personal, informal tone. We talked about having maps, pictures, and photographs to provide a real-world context for case law, and (horror of horrors) we committed to having no detailed references or footnotes to distract the reader, but instead to have a narrative “Further Reading” section at the end of each chapter where we discussed the sources of the academic ideas in a very simple and abbreviated form of literature review. We wanted it to be short and compact. This approach wasn’t so much a stance against anything, but more of a reflection of the book we wanted to write in the way we wanted to write it. It felt exciting.

Fast-forward 30 years, the shape and tone of the book and the general “market” for student texts have fundamentally changed. There has been a steady flow of new editions and texts and now we have a relatively mature student library. There are traditional textbooks (both general and subject specific) and US style “sourcebooks” with commentary, cases, and materials. There are even revision guides and non-specialist, very short introductions.

Authors face an ongoing cascade of legal developments in trying to map the ever-expanding nature of the subject…

Over time, the student textbook I first started writing in 1988 has acquired a team of authors and is no longer short and compact. Some old and worn chapters have been consigned to the online resource centre (just as a dearly loved pet goes “to live on a farm”) to be replaced by newer, shinier chapters addressing “contemporary issues.” There have been tweaks of presentation as well, with introductory learning outcomes for each chapter, boxes dealing with important case law or specific issues, questions and a context setting example.

Notwithstanding the contemporary typesetting and pedagogic features, I wonder if there is a danger of this sort of textbook becoming anachronistic. Like penny farthings or fax machines, will they soon be perfectly useable but increasingly irrelevant? Today’s students have instant access to a much broader and deeper range of sources than ever before. Google provides an immediate “blagger’s” answer to any question and an almost infinite range of primary and secondary sources can be collated and accessed through a single link on a Virtual Learning Environment. University online teaching platforms compete directly with textbooks.

Authors face an ongoing cascade of legal developments in trying to map the ever-expanding nature of the subject and the increasingly blurred edges between disciplinary boundaries and publishing cycles that render books out of date within days or weeks.

So, to return to my starting point, is it time to think about a new form of environmental law textbook? If we want to engage (and inspire and motivate) a new generation of learners, what might an environmental law textbook for the 21st century (and beyond) look like? Here’s some starting suggestions. Perhaps a text could:

1. Be fully open access. There are obvious advantages of affordability, portability, and navigability, but there would also be the freedom of open-endedness and the opportunity for customization and co-production. Encouraging learners to network and collaborate within a much wider learning community provides real opportunities to become producers rather than consumers of knowledge.

2. Act as a hub that links directly to a wider range of open educational resources. Let’s admit defeat in the battle with ever-increasing complexity and focus on user-friendly overviews whilst encouraging digital literacy, including analysing and evaluating a wide range of digital resources for relevance and accuracy.

3. Engage with a wider range of learning outcomes that might be relevant to understanding the real-world context of environmental law. Perhaps an introduction to coalition formation and negotiation theory when dealing with climate change treaty negotiations? Or basic quantitative or qualitative research methods when analysing data on waste arisings or consumer behaviour? Or even more generic skills such as learning in groups or effective written and oral communication? Shouldn’t we recognise that learners develop much more than knowledge and understanding during a process of active learning?

4. Be structured around the true context for environmental law—authentic, messy, multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary problems that cut across traditional boundaries rather than self-defined silos of knowledge.

5. Finally (and critically), reframe the basic approach that textbooks traditionally take of flagging the environmental problems that law is designed to address but not necessarily presenting law as an active part of a pathway to a solution. Perhaps a new generation of textbooks should explicitly encourage learners to co-produce innovative solutions or pathways to solutions?

Learning whilst trying to make a difference—sounds cheesy doesn’t it—but perhaps that is a worthy manifesto aim for aspiring academic authors who are interested in trying something new?

Featured image credit: Arranged books by Pexels. CC0 via Pixabay.

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