Ecological Literacy – The Path To Human Survival

In June of 2009, published an important  essay that offered a basis for how we humans must develop a relationship with Mother Earth in order to survive as a race. The essay was based upon ideas first proposed by  Fritjof Capra, the father of modern systems thinking. This blog post is a paraphrased summary of that essay.

What is Life?

The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life which is called “metabolism.” Metabolism is the ceaseless flow Miksang-4021of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions. This enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself through the intake, digestion, and transformation of food. Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. Said another way, life is the transportation and transformation of energy.

The fundamental facts of life are that:

  • Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation.
  • Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.Diversity assures resilience and survival.
  • Energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
  • One species’ waste is another species’ food.

Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs. Plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; Together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Ecological literacy

ES_Quest-1055We need to “understand how Nature sustains life because sustained life is a property of an entire ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization is what we mean by ‘ecological literacy’.”

The survival of humanity depends upon our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of a connected Nature and how to live accordingly. This means that ecological literacy must become a critical skill for all humans to embrace if we are to remain on Earth.

Systems thinking

In order to become ecologically literate and to survive on this Planet, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household. A living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. These “systemic” properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. Consequently, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Systems thinking  means that understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships. Each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem may still be resilient enough to survive if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity. Biodiversity is a popular word that describes the complexity of Nature’s network of relationships. Nature’s ecosystems.


Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from Nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – Energy-conservationhuman and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

Current world problems

Once we become ecologically literate, we can understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life. We can then understand that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems. This means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. Virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security. The vicious circle of humanity’s population growth  pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources. This means falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on. The depletion of resources, aggravated by human triggered climate change, produces failing governments that can no longer provide security for their citizens. Terrorism then becomes a means for temporary human survival.

All of these problems must be seen as different facets of one single crisis — a lack of ecological literacy. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.

There are solutions to the major problems of our time. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key world views that must be part of a new paradigm that portrays the vital interconnections between food, health, and the environment. This profound transformation in the global thinking of all humans is needed for humanity to survive.

Worth Your Extra Attention :

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

4 Responses to “Ecological Literacy – The Path To Human Survival”

  1. Colette says:

    Well said Bill. So how do we get our governments to adopt systems thinking and begin a program of ecological literacy?
    Last time I looked, I felt a district lack of faith that any government in the ‘first world’ is taking our population problem very seriously….Recent events in national trends seem to be following a ‘divide and conquer’ policy of separation and elitism rather than one of ‘cooperation.

    • Hi Colette: Thanks for your comment. Like yourself, I am frustrated with what I see. I live in Mexico where separation and elitism are as rampant as in the USA. BUT, there is also a growing force in environmental education where, my city we are focusing heavily on providing environmental studies to the next generation that we hope will result in an awareness and a consciousness before it is too late. But, there is always some politician lurking in the shadows and causing interference.

  2. Barbara says:

    The best complement I can give to this essay is to say that I am passing it on to my grandchildren who will benefit from thi king critically about the vital connection between Mother Earth and human beings, as you stated.

    • Hi Barbara: Thank you so much !!! Your response is what I had hoped for when I created the essay. Like you, I look to my legacy to save this Planet from harm. In addition to my children and grandchildren, I hope to make a lasting impact on my students where I teach. I am training my high school students to be environmental educators and teach the younger ones.

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