Ecoliteracy : The Poverty of Human Insight

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

Scientist Joe Hutto, in his book “The Light In High Places“, offers his perspective:

“It is not the greed of multinational corporations with their vicious bulldozers, chain saws, and oil rigs that consume resources, but rather individuals like you and me creating these insatiable demands. The real problem is our many non-negotiable needs for fuel, transportation, our modest twelve-hundred-square-foot houses, and worse, the incessant demand for industrially grown food that requires the proliferation of strip mines, chemical companies, and the mind-boggling complexity of the energy and transportation networks. Each of us standing on the brink of our own individual crisis fuels these insatiable demands”

In addition to ignoring an exponential and unsustainable human population growth, humans have come to believe that they can predict and control Nature. With this belief comes the false idea that humans are not dependent upon anything. Sustainability guru Justin Mog says:

“It may be that we live in an age of hyper-connectivity and “big data,” but I contend that the fundamental reason why we’ve managed to construct the most highly unsustainable culture the Earth has ever seen is precisely because we have not been taught to see the connections”.

Indeed, Western humanity sees itself as separate from Nature and having dominion and control over Nature. We do not accept the idea that we are interdependent creatures who need Nature to survive. We have an arrogance about us that may destroy our race.

I live in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico where we have a community known as San Carlos. In addition to the Mexican community, San Carlos has a permanent expatriate Anglo community and a sizable group of Anglo visitors during the winter season. Our community is adjacent to a beautiful estuary, called “Estero Soldado”, which empties into the Sea of Cortez. Estuaries in the Sea of Cortez are called “nurseries of the sea” because they provide both nutrients and new life to the adjoining sea.In addition, this estuary hosts a group of migrating birds who spend the winter feeding and giving birth. The estuary is a federally protected and internationally recognized bird sanctuary. There are signs in English and Spanish prohibiting the presence of dogs. Yet, the Anglo community walks their dogs in the protected area every day. Since, due to budgetary constraints,  there is little enforcement.  The Anglo community views the presence of their dogs in the protected zone as an “entitled right”.despite environmental education programs that emphasize the ecological risk created by dogs. As a result, some birds have been injured by dogs biting at their legs. Since the birds view all dogs as predators, the bird’s feeding processes are interrupted which affects the storage of energy that is needed for their migration to the north. There are many local areas where one can walk a dog without affecting wildlife. Yet, this group of Anglos chooses to ignore the rules and walk in an environmentally protected area.

The Estero Soldado story is a classic example of mankind’s disconnection from Nature. It is a sad story of the unwillingness of many people to accept scientific findings because it results in an inconvenience. These attitudes are an ingrained part of the adult human Western worldview about Nature. Fortunately, this worldview is not generally embraced by people 25 years old and younger.

An online article entitled “Systems Biology: A systems approach to understanding the complexity of biology talks about how modern science has embraced the same idea of separation from Nature that is portrayed in the example noted above.

Scientists base their research on a principle hypothesis that complex systems can be understood by seeking out its most fundamental constituents. In other words, the complex problems are resolved by dividing them into smaller, simpler, and more tractable units. Hence, physicists search for the basic particles and forces; chemists seek to understand chemical bonds, and biologists explore DNA sequences and molecular structures focusing on a particular gene or a protein in their efforts to understand organisms. This approach of “divide and conquer” is termed “reductionism.

A biologist’s reductionist approach is a science of convenience and complacency. Complacency, however, does not imply correctness. This is best illustrated by John Godfrey Saxe’s poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant”. The poem is based on a story originating from India. The story is about six blind men who want to know what an elephant is like. Each blind man describes the Elephant to something different (side=wall; tusk=spear; trunk=snake; knee=tree; ear=fan; tail=rope,) because each one assumes the whole elephant is like the part he touched (Wikisource). In a similar way, the Reductionist biologists investigate individual molecules to understand the complex life processes. Further, they extrapolate dogmas from their observations and claim that is the true account of the complex process.

In the last 50 years, the reductionist approach of analyzing individual constituents of biological systems has been successful in revealing the chemical basis of numerous living processes. It has had a profound influence and still impacts on the biological and biomedical research of today. However, due to this level of success, the holders of the reductionist point of view assume that the reductionism, by itself, is sufficient and they can be likened to a parent generation who want their children to walk the same path of success as they did. The reductionist view fails to notice that their approach does not account for the big picture of complexity and robustness of life and similarly the parents seem to be unaware that the world has changed and nothing is the same.

The reductionist thinking of biology has encompassed clinical medicine to an extent where the clinicians focus on individual parts to explain the whole. They focus on the disease rather than the state of the person contributing to the disease. They emphasize homeostasis and restore it back by correcting the deviations. They look for one risk factor-one disease because of their inability to work with multiple factors and comprehend their collective influences. They treat each disease individually assuming minimal effects on the treatment of other or additive response of the individual treatment.”

Our education system is a classic example of reductionism inappropriately applied where systems thinking is far more appropriate.

In school, many of us were taught subjects in a compartmentalized way, with history in one class, natural science in another, social studies in yet another, and so on. Yet most real-world issues, like climate change, terrorism, and water use, cross disciplines such as politics, geography, history, and biology. This approach reinforces the notion that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts and provides little opportunity for students to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines. Young people and adults must be able to see such important issues as systems, elements interacting, and affecting one another.

To understand the nature of life, an organism cannot be treated similarly to machines, a mere collection of components. An organism is a complex system with dynamic relationships and interactions between the components leading to a behavioral system. In order to have a better understanding of the system-wide behavior, three factors need to be considered: (1) context – the inclusion of all components involved in a process. (2) time- to consider the changing characteristics of each component; and (3) space- to account for the topographic relationships between and among components.

As Linda Booth Sweeney explains , “the systems approach with its focus on interactions and interrelationships of the components explains the behavior of the system.”

A new systems literacy by members of the human race is essential if we are to take our place in the Earth’s community and assure our survival. This need for systems literacy is discussed further in a companion blog post.

Here is a current list of essays about ecoliteracy foir 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 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 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.

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