Ecoliteracy : We Need An Ecoliterate Citizenry

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“In the opening years of the 21st century, we face enormous challenges. We can no longer afford the luxury of pursuing various intellectual and vocational disciplines apart from environmental and social realities. We must reform our economy and way of life towards a life sustaining society. To do this, we need an “ecoliterate” citizenry, aware of our interconnectedness with all living beings, and willing to act on that awareness. Now all education must include ecological education.”    — Molly Young Brown

Unlimited human population growth is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources.

Unless you live in the most remote and inhospitable reaches of this planet, I challenge you to find land or sea areas where there is no sign of mankind. Much is written about mankind’s huge negative impact on this planet. By 2050, the human population will have grown from the present 6 billion people to 9 or 10 billion people. To feed 9 billion people, every acre of agricultural land in the world will be used to produce food. Wars will break out over the control of land. The structure of human societies will need to be altered. Survival strategies will replace the ethics of a civilized society.

Eco-journalist George Monbiot says that:

“For many years, scientists have warned that we are crashing through the Earth’s ecological limits. We know we are in the midst of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Yet we seem constitutionally incapable of acting on this knowledge

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of  meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct ,argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilization and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. This worldview underpinned the scientific revolution, which brought us the astonishing marvels and benefits that have transformed our lives. But it also embedded in our minds some catastrophic root metaphors, that help to explain our current relationship to the living world. Among them are the notions of human detachment from nature and our dominion over  nature. We need to change our root metaphors.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon science: far from it. The study of complex systems reveals nature as a series of self-organised, self-regenerating systems whose components are connected to each other in ways that were, until recently, scarcely imaginable. It shows that, as the great conservationist John Muir proposed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately  connected to processes we can never fully control.

Human over-consumption of earth’s limited resources has raised deep concern by many. But yet, any positive changes in the attitudes of many humans about Nature seems elusive. We face a void of meaning. We seek to fill it with a frenzy of consumerism. “

To change our behavior, Jeremy Lent  suggests that humans need a culture shift that redirects humanity’s path to a flourishing future. He says:

“Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of  values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.

Early hunter-gatherers, for example, understood nature as a ‘giving parent,’ seeing themselves as part of a large extended family, intrinsically connected with the spirits of the natural world around them. When agriculture first emerged about twelve thousand years ago, new values such as property, hierarchy and wealth appeared, leading early civilizations to view the universe as dominated by a hierarchy of gods who required propitiation through worship, ritual and sacrifice.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a radically new, dualistic way of thinking about the universe emerged, conceiving a split cosmos divided between a heavenly domain of eternal abstraction and a worldly domain polluted with imperfection. Christianity, the world’s first systematic dualistic cosmology, built on the Greek model by placing the source of meaning in an external God in the heavens, while the natural world became merely a desacralized theater for the human drama to be enacted. 

The belief in the divinity of reason, inherited from the ancient Greeks, served as an inspiration for the scientific discoveries of pioneers such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who all believed that they were glimpsing in the mind of God. The ensuing Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age. We accept technocratic fixes to problems that require more integrated, systemic solutions on the premise that nature is just a very complicated machine. A machine that is entirely separate from humanity.

We see continued economic growth in Gross Domestic Product(GDP)  as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. And the world’s financial markets are based on the belief that  the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.

These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of disconnection. Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.”

From the ancient Chinese culture that viewed harmony in nature, we can say that the idea of a sustainable flourishing of our earthly home, Nature, is not new. It has simply been ignored by our western culture. Domination and control of Nature is the westerner’s idea of existence. Yet, Nature operates in a harmony created by interconnection and interdependence that is necessary for life’s critical energy to flow between and through all forms of life. It is this unwillingness of we western humans to accept the physical reality of how Nature operates that could ultimately destroy our race.

Nature can live without we humans, but humans cannot live without Nature

One perspective of this crisis comes from the concept of deep ecology which suggests that we humans free ourselves from behaviors based on outmoded notions of our separateness from Nature. The Deep Ecology Platform listed on the web site at Schumacher College  is reproduced here:

1. All life has value in itself, independent of its usefulness to humans.

2. Richness and diversity contribute to life’s well-being and have value in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs in a responsible way.

4. The impact of humans in the world is excessive and rapidly getting worse.

5. Human lifestyles and population are key elements of this impact.

6. The diversity of life, including cultures, can flourish only with reduced human impact.

7. Basic ideological, political, economic and technological structures must therefore change.

8. Those who accept the forgoing points have an obligation to participate in implementing the necessary changes and to do so peacefully and democratically.

In contrast to reform environmentalism, which treats the symptoms of ecological degradation – clean up a river here or a dump there for human well-being – deep ecology questions fundamental premises of the Industrial Growth Society. It challenges the assumptions, embedded in much Judeo-Christian and Marxist thought, that humans are the crown of creation and the ultimate measure of value. Deep Ecology offers us a broader and more sustainable sense of our own worth, as viable members of the great, evolving community of Earth. It holds that we can break free from the species arrogance that threatens not only ourselves but all complex life forms within reach.

Legacy-focused environmental education can restore an active ecoliteracy to human culture

The Deep Ecology Platform, however, needs a vehicle that will help embed these ideas into the western culture. This vehicle is the environmental education of young people up to age 25. This group, represents half of the world’s population. This group is generally free of the constraining and destructive worldviews of those over 25 years old. And, this group responds positively to hands-on, place-based education where connections are made to their senses of awe and wonder. Environmental educators, instead of offering uninspiring lectures on ecological theory, would engage in Socratic (inquiry-based) dialogues that focus on energy flow in Nature. In doing so, the very definition of life, interconnection, and interdependence, becomes the primary theme. This systems approach to environmental education has the potential of creating a legacy, a consciousness, and a respect for the flow of life. Furthermore, the idea of conserving Nature by conserving Her energy flow pathways has the potential of altering current ineffective conservation strategies. An active ecoliteracy provides the knowledge and the tools that equip our youth to take the positive action that is necessary to sustain a healthy environment for all forms of life on earth, including us humans. This active ecoliteracy must be passed on to future generations through our youth.

Here is a current list of essays about ecoliteracy for your consideration. This list will expand with time.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays about ecoliteracy that present ideas to environmental educators, students,  and all stewards of Nature.   These ideas come from some of our modern great thinkers. The emphasis in these essays will be on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy to all life. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview is based on the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and take place outdoors if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the passing of this consciousness to future generations.

Please Comment 

The purpose of my essays is to develop a dialog with my readers. You are strongly encouraged to comment on this essay in the space provided below.

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.