A Reunion : Bringing Humans Back To Nature

 

We older folks are leaving an ecological mess for our younger generations. 

While thoroughly enjoying my senior years, I have experienced a profound internal struggle as I try to understand why we older folks are leaving an ecological mess for our younger generations.

As a scientist and conservationist, I see this process of “Nature denial” taking place. I see the everyday activities of ordinary people impairing important ecosystems with activities as simple as dog walking in legally restricted or prohibited areas where dogs have a negative impact on important ecosystems. Warning signs created by knowledgeable ecologists are completely ignored by some members of the adult public. When a dog walker is approached by a smiling and polite steward of Nature who is also a member of the local community, tension ensues. In many cases, the dog walker continues on with the dog without leaving the area. No amount of courteous and compassionate dialog will sway the dog walker because he or she believes that the dog has a “right” to be there.  Where I live, this interchange happens often.

This kind of thing is happening by seemingly responsible adults at all levels, from walking dogs to climate  denial. One does not have to dig very deep to discover that the human world is facing some major environmental crises unless some real changes take place in humanity’s worldviews about Nature. I feel this very deeply because my current group of students, and their offspring,  will be the first generation to experience some pretty awful things as they reach middle age. I feel for this generation of young people, aged 25 years and younger, as I face them in the classroom every week. I accept my share of the responsibility because I am part of their problem.

Thinking that there is an infinite supply of goods available to us in our garden of Eden, the members of my generation have fueled over-consumption that has resulted in straining the finite resources of Earth. We have seen ourselves as separate from Nature instead of being dependent upon Her. We have erroneously believed that our  technology can control Nature and will offer miracles that will prevent the bad things from happening.. And, we adults have failed to see that the relationships and interactions between things are far more important than the things themselves. We have failed to realize that we humans need Nature but that Nature does not need us.

Inside of me, I find myself silently dealing with a growing anger for some people’s  total disregard for the environment upon which all of our lives depend. I find myself trying to understand what is going on. But, most of all, I seek solutions to offer my students. I see brightness in a group of adult heroes who are positive exceptions within my generation. These folks are environmental educators, thought leaders, and scientists. These people are bringing the truth of the near term future to our young people and offering solutions.

My discomfort has driven me to do a lot of reading as I seek the perspectives of some great thought leaders of our time. I have come to realize that the climate change problem and the dog walking problem are the same problem, They both call for the same solution. Among many, I am particularly grateful for the persuasive thinking of thought integrator Jeremy Lent, environmental and political activist George Monbiot, philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, speaker and writer on themes of human cultural evolution Charles Eisenstein, environmental educator David W. Orr, and the father of modern systems thinking Fritjof Capra. At the end of this essay, I offer online references for each of these thinkers.

The one basic idea expressed by every one of these people is that of a misguided and misinformed human culture that has driven us to a point in our Earth’s history where we all feel separated from Nature. We feel separated from our very source of life. If we can understand that actions by humans are motivated by separation, we may have a chance at helping our youth forge a new pathway to both survival and happiness. For, it is through our youth that we humans have a chance of saving our race.

ClimateHealers  describes this story of separation:

This story of separation is the core story that is truly failing us. With the technological strides we have made in the last two centuries, most of us live in concrete jungles with little to no exposure to the terrestrial biodiversity on Earth. Other than our pets, we rarely meet any other animal species in our daily lives except in zoos and circuses or packaged as meat in supermarkets.”

Some people have concluded that we are separated from Creation in an unconscious enactment of the Old Testament story. In Genesis 1: 26 of the Bible (KJV), we are told that humans have dominion over the Earth:

Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics, says:

In civilization, what you are is a discrete, separate individual, among other individuals, in an external universe that is separate from you. In religion, you are  a soul encased in flesh. In psychology, you are a mind encased in flesh. In biology, you are the expression of DNA serving to maximize your reproductive  self-interest and greed. And that conception of self has basically poisoned our planet, because we treat the planet as if it were an other. That is, not only are we separated from Creation, but we are separated from each other. While climate change is a symptom of  the fever that our Earth has contracted, the underlying disease is the disconnection from Creation that plagues human societies throughout the Earth.

While this story of our separation justifies and drives many of our daily actions, it is in fact a story of human exceptionalism, the idea that we are somehow different from and better than other species. It is based on the false notion that while other species all have to live in harmony with Nature, we are somehow exempt from that requirement since we can fashion our own environment.

This notion is patently false. The cascading environmental crises are signals from Nature that there are no such exceptions in the family of Life. We have no choice but to live in harmony with Nature because we are a part of Nature.

This story of separation is closely aligned with ‘speciesism’, which is discrimination and exploitation on the basis of species identity. It is due to speciesism that we consider the murder of humans to be wrong, but the hunting of other animals to be sport, concentration camps to be evil, but slaughterhouses to be humane, jails to be avoided, but zoos to be toured.”

 

We are entering a story of Reunion

 

Throughout all of this human created chaos,  Charles Eisenstein sees hope. He says that:

Individually and collectively, we are on a journey from a story of Separation to a new yet ancient story of Reunion: ecology, interdependence, and interbeing.”

Indeed Eisenstein’s words define the pathway of this Reunion which is the solution to the climate problem, the dog problem, and other human created environmental problems.  We must take the Reunion pathway if we are going to empower our youth by creating a new human consciousness of our interdependence with Nature in the minds and hearts of our current and future generations. A consciousness for interbeing among all things in Nature.

Interbeing means to inter-dependently co-exist. The meaning of interbeing recognizes the dependence of any one person on  all other people and objects. Not only is no man an island, but rather his interbeing is shared with the plants and animals he eats, the people who make his clothes and food, the people who populate his home, country and the very world he perceives, the insects that pollinate the trees that yield his fruit, shade him from the sun, and provide lumber for his house.

This essay begins a series of essays that describe  some of the ideas that are expressed by current thought leaders regarding the human role in resolving the current ecological crisis and bringing we humans back into a Reunion with Nature. Some of the subjects that this essay series will address include:

  • The Necessity of Our Interbeing With Nature
  • Empowering Our Youth
  • The Danger of Fundamentalism
  • The Vital Importance of Systems Thinking By Humans (Our Earth’s Living Systems)
  • The Power of Legacy

 

Here are references to each of the thought leaders who I have mentioned:

Jeremy Lent

George Monbiot

Kathleen Dean Moore

Charles Eisenstein

David W. Orr

Fritjof Capra

 

For Your Further Consideration

 

This essay is part of a series of essays that present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   The emphasis is on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. 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 includes 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 place-based 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.

Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.

If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

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A Compassionate Consciousness

The word “consciousness” is not just a philosophical, spiritual, “hippie”, or “tree hugger” idea. Consciousness means being aware of something.

“Connections”, “interconnectivity”, “interrelationships”, “links”, and interdependence are all words that describe Nature and life. The idea of everything being connected in Nature is essential because life is defined by the energy that is transported between all living creatures and transformed into useful forms within all living creatures. By understanding the simple idea that everything is interconnected, we also understand why Nature is so complex.

We now understand that the origin of everything in the Universe begins with the atoms created by the stars. When we look at the night sky, we see our ancestors. From these relatively simple beginnings, our world of Nature has evolved into highly complex interdependent systems such as the bodies of all living creatures, the organization of ecosystems, and the flow, distribution, and transformation of our sun’s energy. In fact our Universe, as we know it, could not exist without everything being connected and interdependent in some way.

A consciousness about interdependence in Nature is essential to the survival of humanity on this earth. If we fail to understand interdependence and how we depend upon other creatures of our Earth, we are unable to define how we humans are able to thrive in Nature. If we fail to be compassionate and conscious about how any of our actions might affect other creatures, we might end up hurting ourselves. This compassionate consciousness requires the humility of stewardship instead of the prevalent arrogant attitude of many humans (and government agencies) who wish to control and manage Nature without understanding the consequences of their actions.

The secret to resolving our environmental crises is to develop a consciousness for the idea of Nature’s interdependent connections. through our young people. Young people have fresh minds. They are unhampered by the biases we develop as we get older. And, they learn and associate through awe and wonder. Many environmental organizations are beginning to realize that sustainability education within our schools is a powerful means to correct the ecological mistakes of the past. Instead of offering the common doomsday approach, environmental education uses stewardship to build a basic consciousness toward interdependency in Nature that will serve as a foundation for sound ecological decisions in the future.

Climate Change Is A Moral Issue

Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children”

— North American Proverb

I am privileged to be mentoring an environmental education program at a local high school. As I began preparing for another school year, five of my new students approached me and asked that I focus some of my classes on issues involving climate change. I was overwhelmed with delight by this spontaneous and unsolicited request from our youth. I regarded it as a precious responsibility that I must develop with great care.

As I focused on how I might describe the reality of climate change to my students, I knew I had to think about two things:

  • We adults have left a horrible ecological mess for our young people to clean up.
  • Without much positive guidance from we adults, we have left our young people to define how to take action to clean up the mess.

It would be easy for me to write a few lectures about human induced climate change impact on our planet. After all, there are large collections of online information and books available for that task. But, the real problem with human induced climate change is not the technical facts. The real problem rests with the reasons for decisions that we adults have made. Our youth cannot find viable solutions to the climate change issue until they first understand the erroneous worldview of the adults who shaped the problem in the first place. For, in understanding the adult worldview, our youth have the potential of forming new moral guidelines that will reverse the current deadly trends.

Why did we humans allow this mess to happen in the first place? What factors drove us to choose the  directions that we decided to take?

Author Jeremy Lent suggests that humans have been trapped in an erroneous worldview about Nature for a long time.  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.

The 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.., many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.

Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is seen 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. 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 human disconnection. In 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.”

This Western world view has led mankind to the extremely flawed idea that humanity can control Nature. Indeed, the Bible gives humanity the mandate to have “dominion” over Nature.  However, the truth is that Nature is our home upon which we humans completely depend in order for our life to be sustained. Furthermore, systems science has taught us that any human impact upon Nature’s ecosystems (like human population growth, fossil fuels, agricultural emissions, and human over-consumption of our Earth’s resources) can lead to unexpected and far reaching results that cannot easily be changed. Add to all of this the human-created fallacy that our intelligence and our future technology will save us. These impacts caused by human beings are what have created the climate crisis — a crisis that may not be reversible.

The late Rachel Carson offered a powerful, message as a precursor to a major paradigm shift in Western science that took place around 1960.  Her message is also the answer to curing our current environmental ills about climate change by changing mankind’s incorrect and misguided current view of control over Nature to one of interdependence of all living and nonliving things in Nature. In her “Essay on the Biological Sciences” written in 1958 she said:

Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships  is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.”

Because ecological relationships are a fundamental necessity for all forms of life, the idea of conserving Nature’s relationships becomes a moral issue. Philosopher’s like Kathleen Dean Moore look upon climate change as a moral issue. Morals are ethical guidelines that help us decide what pathway to follow when action is required. Dr. Moore says:

“Many times, the American people have created dramatic and rapid social change — the War of Independence, the emancipation of the slaves, the mobilization during World War II, the civil rights movement. In every case, while economic and political considerations were undeniably at play, the change itself was powered by widespread public affirmation of great moral principles of justice and human decency. Action on the greatest of our challenges — climate change — will require the same moral resolve. The essential questions are not what is politically feasible or what is profitable, but what is right and what is deeply, devastatingly wrong.”

Moral guidelines for climate change action are particularly important at this juncture in human history because we adults have left our young people with the huge problem of resolving the climate crisis. The current trends of political expediency and economic growth will destroy the human habitat. Our youth must create a new moral foundation based on interdependence between and within all creatures on our Earth including ourselves. It is the responsibility of environmental educators to help our youth develop a consciousness about Nature that embraces the rules by which Nature operates rather than the invented rules of previous human generations where control and predictability were prevalent erroneous concepts. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy suggests that a “great turning is required where our consciousness must shift from valuing individualism to humbly embracing interdependence on a vast scale”.  As a minimum, this great turning must contain these moral guidelines :

  • We live in a world of nested systems. All living things are created by and are dependent upon their interdependent relationships to others and to the environment,
  • We humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world where many other forms of Nature such as animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans for the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere. We are most human when we are moved in a humble relationship to these things around us.
  • Nature does not need humans. But, humans need Nature. Humility is an essential quality for adapting to change. Philosopher Mary Midgley suggests that acknowledging our own littleness does not easily fit our current image of human status. While humility is not a fashionable virtue, this sense of our own inadequacy is surely something our ancestors must always have had because it is an essential element in adapting to change. If we ask how those hard-pressed ancestors managed to survive so many disasters, so many shocking changes of place, food, and climate, we can see that they certainly did not do it by having superior scientific knowledge. Nor did they have the encouragement of believing that they were exceptionally powerful. They survived by using qualities of humility that actually lie at the root of science itself—open-mindedness, versatility, realism, the willingness to learn.
  • With all of this, and above all,  we need to have a passion for Nature. We need to be in love with Nature. Love implies a close interrelationship and interdependence. Like our predecessors, we need to look upon Earth as our mother. We must be grateful to her for our very being. With this kind of love, we become capable of caring for her and for all of her creatures, including our fellow human beings. As a result, climate change issues disappear.

 

In addition to basic ethics, Kathleen Dean Moore suggests some ideas for human adaption to a changing Earth:

“As global warming forces a fundamental re-imagining of how we live on Earth, we have the chance to choose adaptive strategies that create justice and honor life, and refuse those that protect and perpetuate injustice and destruction. To that end, I offer five essentially moral questions that I believe we should ask of every plan for adaptation to climate change:

1. Does the adaptation effort take urgency or resources away from the immediate, overriding moral necessity of stopping the fossil fuel-based destabilization of the climate?

2. Does the adaptation plan impose unjustified costs on future generations?

3. Does the adaptation effort privilege the wealthy and powerful, at unjustified cost to the poor and dispossessed?

4. Does the adaptation effort protect and honor species other than human?

5. What does Earth ask of us?”

You are strongly encouraged to add your own moral guidelines in the comments space below.

Empowering Stewards of Nature (Free Study Guides)

Empowering Stewards of Nature

Lessons From the Web of Life

 


For Nature at all levels to exist, everything in our universe, in our world, and in our local communities must be connected because Nature’s fuel is energy which must flow between all plants and animals. Everything is connected. Nothing is self sufficient. Every rock, bird, beast, plant, and human being is dependent on each other in some way that is important. Without interconnectivity, Nature would not be here on Earth.

 

Everything lives within this web of life. A plant is connected to our sun because the plant needs the sun’s energy to live. An animal, such as ourselves, needs the plant because the plant gives us the energy that we need to live. And so on. The conservation of our natural environment is the identification, understanding, and protection of these vital connections in Nature.

 

I am pleased to offer this series of lesson guides that focus on the theme that “Nothing In Nature Exists In Isolation”. The material is in the form of a PDF eBook which is provided, free of charge.

 

The objective of this book is to help environmental educators instill the need to preserve an interconnected Nature in the consciousness of our young people. The strategy of the material is to demonstrate the vital importance of identifying, understanding, and protecting connections in Nature. Equipped with this consciousness and new knowledge, a young person is in a position to influence his generation and future generations about how the conservation of connections in Nature will preserve the Earth’s environment for ourselves and for other creatures.

 

This book is written for environmental educators and their students. The material and methodology has been successfully used in environmental education programs in junior and senior high school levels. Modified and simplified material has been used from fourth grade up to sixth grade. I’ve found that all students, no matter what grade level, love the question and answer approach. I have also trained my high school students to become the mentors for sessions given in the lower grades. Young students seem to follow the lead of other students better than the lead of adults.

 

The material in this book is a collection of lesson modules that focus on our interconnected world of Nature. Individual lessons may be used separately or the complete lesson set may be used in the sequence provided as activities that focus on connections in Nature. Each module can be printed as a handout to your students.

 

The methodology sets aside the formal presentation of facts in favor of individual exploration and discovery. Instead of being a purveyor of facts, the “teacher” acts as a mentor who only asks questions. The research and the answers must come from the students.. Through Socratic style seminars and discussion groups accompanied by hands-on place-based education, this material will assist a student in engaging, exploring, and discovering Nature’s interconnected world. The Socratic approach is used because it builds critical thinking skills and strongly encourages students to do their own Internet research.

 

An important part of this book is the process of regularly providing updated editions. New material and ideas are openly welcomed and will be incorporated into new editions. Those who download a copy of this book will be asked for an email address so that new editions can be sent automatically. In effect, the book is a community project where, with time, the expertise of many environmental educators will be represented.

 

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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments – List Of Collaborators
  • Who Should Read And Use This Book?
  • Welcome
  • Suggestions For Using The Material in This eBook
  • Student Instructions For Participating In Seminar Sessions
  • Seminar Material On Connections In Nature
  • What Is Nature?
  • What Does “Engaging Nature” Mean?
  • What Are Connections In Nature?
  • What Is Energy?
  • What Are Ecosystems?
  • What Are Habitats?
  • What Are Food Webs?
  • Why are Wildlife Corridors Important ?
  • How Are You The Same As Rocks, Birds, Animals, and Rivers?
  • How Are Plants And The Sun Connected?
  • How Are Plants, Animals, And Humans Connected?
  • Why Are Sounds In Nature Important?
  • Why Are Forests Important In Our Lives?
  • How Can I Identify Connections In Nature ?
  • How Can I Protect Connections In Nature?
  • Case Studies
  • Our Sun’s Energy
  • Our Moon
  • Air
  • Water
  • Ice Bergs
  • Log Beaches
  • Winds
  • Storms
  • From Raindrops To Rivers
  • The San Pedro River
  • Estuaries
  • Fiddler Crabs
  • Forests
  • Lichens
  • Cow Pies
  • Grasslands
  • Fire
  • Deserts
  • Sand Dunes
  • Nursery Plants
  • Insects
  • Bugs And Flowers
  • Spines
  • Spider Webs
  • Emergent Behavior
  • Gray Whale Migration
  • Salmon Migration
  • Ant Colonies
  • Ants and Eggshells
  • Penguin Colonies
  • Elephant Seal Mother And Her Pup
  • Bull Elephant Seals
  • Salmon And Bears
  • Gentoo Penguin And Chicks
  • Albatross Predators
  • Pelicans And Seals
  • Turkey Vultures
  • The Baby Dies Too
  • Coyotes
  • Wandering Albatross
  • Frigate Birds
  • Bison
  • Beavers
  • Soundscapes
  • Fractals
  • Case Studies – Connections Broken By Man
  • Whale Catcher Boats
  • ATVs And Turtles
  • Fences
  • The Killing Of Wolves And Other Great Predators
  • Activity Sets In Nature
  • Using Students As Teachers
  • Engaging Nature With Photography
  • Identifying Sounds In Nature
  • Identifying Connections In Nature – The String Game
  • Applied Connection Identification Activities
  • Developing A Conservation Plan
  • A Final Note – Gifts Of Wisdom Passed On To You

My Video Essays

Here is a list of video essays that I have created over the years.

An Antarctic Adventure

In 2004, as part of a two-week excursion in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, we explored parts of the Antarctic Peninsula.    Of particular interest to me, was breaking through ice fields to allow another ship to pass. Also, the incredible wildlife, visits to research stations, and the awesome experience of crossing the stormy Drake Passage as we headed back to Cape Horn and the southern tip of South America.

Sights and Sounds In The Southern Ocean

Since it is physically impossible for me to transport you to some of my favorite places, through the magic of my videos I can share some of the sights and sounds that I have experienced.  Here is a 9 minute video of creatures and their sounds that I encountered while visiting South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Below the video there are explanations for each clip.

Visting My Elders

One of my favorite spots for engaging Nature is Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson, Arizona. In the secluded solitude of this wonderful desert, I am alone listening, observing, and meditating without any human interruption.

As is my daily practice, I sit outside at dawn anticipating the “golden hour” when the Saguaro Cactus glows from the light of the morning dawn and the birds greet the day in song. Thomas Merton calls this the “virgin point” of the day when Nature asks permission to be.

BIrd Flocks Are Airborne Ecosystems

Each year I set aside some time to observe and photograph the flocks of Sandhill Cranes that migrate to Southeastern Arizona and New Mexico. There is some kind of magic in a flock of birds. There is a synchrony of leaderless energy as the group flows through the air going here and then there while changing shapes that respond to some hidden force. I want to share with you my passion for the migrating Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near McNeal, Arizona. I captured this video during the 2015 and 2016 winter seasons.

Here is a list of nature videos created by other people

A Systems Thinking Reference List

The Systems View of Life Is A Unifying Vision

Author Jeremy Lent suggests that we must understand Nature as a networked system: 
 

“The systems perspective offers important insights into the nature of reality that upend many assumptions forming the basis of the predominant worldview. It tells us that the relationship between things is frequently more important than the things themselves. It emphasizes that everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and that biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we therefore need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.”

 
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. But in other cases, the decimation of one species may have destroy a working ecosystem.
 
All of this invites the ethical side of systems thinking.
 
This essay is a list of references about systems thinking that I have found useful in my teaching and my research.
 

Systems Literacy

 
Peter Senge: “Systems Thinking for a Better World” – Aalto Systems Forum 2014
 

Systems Thinking with Dr David Orr, Oberlin College
 
David Orr – 2011 Systems Symposium
 
David Orr – Seminar at Schumaker College
 
PBS Systems literacy
 
Systems Literacy Network Web Site
 
The Systems Thinker – A huge systems thinking web site reference list 
 

Systems Education

 
David Orr – Ecoliteracy and Ecological Education
 
Systems Thinking in Biology Education
 
How To Practice Systems Thinking In The Classroom
 
Linda Booth Sweeney —  Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy
 
Linda Booth Sweeney’s systems resource room
 

Interbeing and Interdependence

 
Creating An Interdependence Map
 
Interbeing – No Man Is An Island
 

Ethics

 
A wonderful collection of talks (videos) by Kathleen Dean Moore.There is great wisdom in her world views. Her wisdom suggests solutions to humanity’s growing crisis on Earth.
 
If your time is limited, I recommend this one by Kathleen Dean Moore: on climate change, moral integrity, needed four virtues, moral integrity, wholeness and hope.
 

Climate Change

 

 

 

It has been said that climate change is no longer a technical problem because we already know how to overcome the effects of climate change. Climate change is a moral problem where much of humanity is not motivated to action despite the strong potential for a disaster for humanity. Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore, is a philosopher, writer, and environmental activist from Oregon State University. Her early creative nonfiction writing focused on the cultural and spiritual values of the natural world. Her more recent work is about the moral issues of climate change. 

 

Here are two videos where Kathleen Moore discusses how and why climate change is a moral issue.

 

 

 

In this passionate call to action, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg explains why, in August 2018, she walked out of school and organized a strike to raise awareness of global warming, protesting outside the Swedish parliament and grabbing the world’s attention. “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions,” Thunberg says. “All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

 

 

 

 

 

 
Using Systems Thinking To Understand Climate Change
 

For Your Further Consideration

 

This essay is part of a series of essays that present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   The emphasis is on two key ideas:
 
  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. 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 includes 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 place-based 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.

 

Why Do I Write These Essays?

 

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.
If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

 

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An Environmental Educator’s Check List

This essay offers environmental educators and other stewards of Nature nine items that I consider vitally important when I am working with my young students. I urge you to offer your comments in the space provided at the end of this essay. 

Prepare Our Youth For  A Changing World

Many things in our world will be changing soon. Our world will become an uncertain and very different place for all life on Earth including our young people, their children, and their grandchildren. Here are four examples of what is predicted by many scientists and sociologists :

  • By the year 2050, the effects of climate change will start redefining how we live. Locally, climate change will cause rising sea levels that will flood many coastal regions worldwide.
  • We humans are over-consuming the resources of the Earth at a rate that will not sustain human life after the year 2100. As a result of these and other human-caused changes in our planet, the ethics of a civilized society will be gradually displaced by the ethics of a hostile society that is competing for limited resources.
  • The human population could increase from the present 7.6 billion people to an environmentally unsustainable population of 10 billion people by 2100 but perhaps as soon as 2050. With a population of 10 billion people, there will be no more land available to grow food.
  • Economic inequality among humans will continue to increase. Only a small percentage of the human population will own a huge percentage of the economic wealth. This trend will promote the uncontrolled expansion of multi-national corporations which will result in a negative impact on our environment.

These and other environmental and social crises are caused by human adults, mostly older than age 25, who have a very inaccurate worldview of how Nature operates.  Most of our adult population does not believe that we humans are totally dependent on Nature for our life’s energy. They erroneously believe that we humans have dominion over Nature and are able to control and predict Nature and its environment. Our disconnected elders erroneously believe that our technology will save us if anything bad, like climate change, takes place. The result is the growing crisis that we humans are now facing.  Indeed, the destructive worldviews of our elders are leaving a horrible mess for our young people. No matter what career students choose, these young people will be forced to plan their lives based on political instability, economic instability, and environmental instability in the years to come.

In the face of this crisis, what can educators do to offer our youth a chance for a productive, sustainable, and happy life? The answer lies with educators because educators have the capability to empower our youth with a worldview that is compatible with the way Nature and society do operate.

The fact is that all of Nature, including we humans and human society, is interconnected and interdependent. Life on Earth depends upon the flow of life’s energy from our sun to our Earth. This energy is then transported and transformed from one organism to another organism. These processes are both ecological and social. They form networks of interconnection and interdependence. The greatest gift that we can offer our youth is the power of a worldview that sees everything on Earth, including Nature and our human society, as interconnected and interdependent. With this way of thinking, called “systems thinking”, our young people and future generations will be empowered to understand and resolve current environmental and social crises.

About 50% of all humans on earth are 25 years old or younger. For the most part, these young people have fresh minds that have not been corrupted by the disconnected worldviews of their elders. The relationship between our educators and our youth is a critical connection if our teachers are able to offer their students an education that stresses systems thinking in every subject including biology/ecology, history, social studies, and mathematics. In doing so, our youth can acquire the wisdom of interdependence and systems thinking. This form of education stresses that human society, like Nature’s ecosystems in which we humans live, are intimately interconnected where the connections between each part in a system are more important than the parts. In other words, we must first understand how the connections are made between things before we can understand the whole system.  Education of our youth must be based on the premise that each person find identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace.

However, there is one characteristic of modern education that may stand in the way of achieving a meaningful holistic education. In order to understand our world, young people and adults must be able to see life as a collection of systems and elements that interact and are dependent upon one another. But in school, many of us are taught subjects in a compartmentalized way, with history in one class, natural science in another, social studies in yet another, and so on. In other words, we are taught to understand Nature and society in parts. We are not taught how these parts are connected. We are not taught how and why things in life are interdependent. Yet most real-world issues, like climate change, terrorism, and water use, are understood by connecting disciplines such as politics, geography, history, and biology. The current compartmentalized approach in most schools reinforces the incorrect idea in the minds of our students that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts that are not connected. This lack of systems thinking provides little opportunity for students to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines in their real world.  Our students need to find identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Indeed, with an understanding of living systems like ecosystems, climate change, and other ecological challenges, we humans will be able to assess what we are doing wrong that causes bad things to happen.

In summary, a system of education that teaches how all of life interrelates and is interdependent should be a fundamental part of 21st-century education and anyone’s lifelong learning plan. It will be this revised system of education that will give our youth a worldview of connection and interdependence in our moral philosophy, our society, and in Nature. It will be this revised worldview that replaces the destructive worldview of our elders. It will be this worldview of interdependence that equips our youth to solve our problems of over-population, unsustainable consumption, climate change, and other issues.

Educators are a critically important influence in making this change. What follows is a preliminary list of important things that our educators must do to begin the process.

A Curriculum Must Be An Interrelated Collection Of Subjects

If educators are going to emphasize relationships and interdependence in the hearts and minds of our students, these concepts must be reflected in the curriculum. We must stop teaching such subjects as mathematics, history, or literature as separate subjects. In addition to teaching facts in each class, we must now emphasize how the material relates to the other subjects we are teaching. For example, a history class must now explore the interrelationships between human actions and historical events including what might have happened if the human actions were different. A math class should now emphasize applied mathematics where the student uses new math/statistical skills and network diagrams to calculate events and relationships in Nature. A religion or ethics class should conduct seminars with case studies about how religion and ethics can be applied to social systems. All of these classes should now employ an inquiry-based (Socratic) seminar approach (described in the next section) where students participate in seminar discussions rather than listen to lectures.

Use Inquiry-Based Learning (Socratic Learning)

Imagine, for a moment, teaching and learning that looks like this:

  • Picture a seminar-style setting where the teacher is a facilitator and the students consider assigned questions and do their own research to provide answers in front of their peers and their teachers.
  • Young people who continually question why things look and function the way that they do.
  • Their natural sense of wonder is at the center of their learning and drives the direction that learning will take.
  • Knowledge is dynamic, collectively constructed, and provided by many sources instead of being contained in a single textbook or classroom lectures.
  • Information is investigated, analyzed, and negotiated between students and their teachers.

This is process is called “Inquiry-Based Learning”.

Education is much more than force-feeding information to students and measuring how well they regurgitate that information back to the teacher on command or through testing. With the facilitator asking questions instead of lecturing, the student is required to think and probe. This process of critical thinking embeds knowledge and creates curiosity and a yearning to learn more. Critical thinking encourages the exploration, adventure, and discovery that we see in outdoor education.

When I was a student, one of my truly great life experiences was two years working on a Master’s degree at Harvard University.  In this program, we used no text books. There were no lectures. Classes were totally inquiry-based where the professor played the role of facilitator by continually posing difficult questions. We students would prepare for a class by doing research and gathering facts to support conclusions. That preparation was vital to building a knowledge base for a given class session. We learned the value of good research. We gained the ability to think about and defend our ideas. Most importantly, we built critical thinking skills as we defended our ideas in front of our peers and our professor. This Harvard experience became the model for my role as an educator. I was amazed to find that the inquiry-based approach to learning worked well with my university graduate students as well as my primary (5th grade and up), secondary, and high school students.

Benefits of Inquiry-Based learning include:

  • Honoring students’ questions increases their motivation, leading to higher levels of engagement, improved understanding, and a love of learning.
  • Inquiry stimulates students’ curiosity, leading to progressively deeper questions and habitual critical thinking.
  • Inquiry builds lifelong learning skills that become greater than simply learning facts, listening to lectures, and taking tests.

Eliminate Exams. Use project-based learning.  Grade each student based on preparation and participation

What is needed are tools to help the student explore relationships in our world. Exams do not accomplish this. However, a student project provides the opportunity for the student to learn about relationships, exercise that knowledge in a practical way, and to be evaluated.

While both projects and exams will get a student to memorize new information, the skill that is needed is applying the information.  Project-based learning will teach the material, and then guide the student to seek out information, then apply the new knowledge to explore real world examples, and encourage working in groups to reinforce the new knowledge.

When we eliminate the compartmentalized idea of exams in the curriculum, how are we able to evaluate student progress? Inquiry-Based learning provides an automatic tool for evaluating progress. That tool is to grade students at each class or seminar session according to their participation and preparation. When the facilitator calls upon a student to explore a certain issue in class, it will become quickly apparent whether the student has prepared for the class. In addition, active and voluntary, meaningful participation should be rewarded with a higher grade.

I start each school year by giving each student a grade of 10.0. This grade can be reduced if a student fails to prepare or participate. In addition, a student can receive a restored good grade if the student demonstrates improvement in participation and preparation.

Hospitality – People Learn From People/Things That They Love

The metaphor of hospitality is an extremely important part of education that is often forgotten by educators. Henri J.M. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, author, professor, and pastor who wrote over 40 books about the spiritual life. One of his books, “Reaching Out” uses the metaphor of hospitality – a gracious host serving the needs of a guest – to describe many different human relationships. One of the relationships that Fr. Nouwen examines is the relationship between a teacher and a student. He does so in a very profound and effective way that becomes a guide for any teacher who cares to challenge his/her students to reach new horizons.

In his book, Fr Nouwen said:

“One of the greatest tragedies of modern education is that millions of young people spend many hours, days, weeks, and years listening to lectures, reading books and writing papers with a constantly increasing resistance. Students perceive their education as a long endless row of obligations to be fulfilled. They are considered as poor needy, ignorant beggars who come to a man or woman of knowledge. Teachers are perceived more as demanding bosses than as guides in the search for knowledge and understanding.

While the ability to think critically and the opportunity to develop one’s talents are far more career-defining than any subject matter that is taught, educators continue to define themselves by offering memorized and regurgitated knowledge. The teacher is trained to offer solutions without the existence of a question. Consequently, critical thinking skills are never developed and talents are never encouraged because the student rarely gets the opportunity to argue a question.

Hospitality is the creation of a friendly empty space by a host where a guest can fearlessly reach out to fellow human beings and invite them to explore new relationships. Hospitality is much like gardening. We cannot force a plant to grow but we can take away the weeds and stones which prevent its development.

Hospitality can take place on many levels and in many kinds of relationships. One such relationship is that between a teacher and a student where the student is treated like a guest who honors the host’s house with his/her presence and will not leave it without having made a unique contribution.

The good host (the teacher) is the one who not only helps guests (the students) see that they have hidden talents, but who also is able to help them develop and deepen those talents so they can continue their way on their own with new self-confidence. “

This journey of discovery can be accomplished through inquiry-based  (Socratic) learning that is described earlier in this document.

Add seminars in systems thinking to the curriculum

All of life in our world, from a molecule to the entire earth can be defined as systems of relationships that permit energy or social interaction to flow from one organism to another organism. The study of these relationships has matured over the years into a discipline known as “systems science” or “systems thinking”.

Systems thinking is the study of the causes and effects of relationships. Systems thinking allows us to visually portray what is happening as we study a particular system. It allows us to see and analyze our world in simpler terms. Systems thinking focuses on the characteristics of the connections in a system. Systems thinking helps us define what is going on in our world.

On the Internet, there is a huge wealth of information about systems thinking and the teaching of systems thinking. Many lesson plans are offered. Here, I provide an essay that I wrote  about systems thinking so that you can get more detail.

In my view, an excellent way to introduce systems thinking to students is through biology or ecology classes because these subjects introduce interconnected and interdependent energy flow in Nature. In my program, systems thinking is introduced to primary (4th grade and older)  secondary, and high school students. Both in-class inquiry-based learning and field trip experiences are offered with the primary goal being to develop a love relationship between a student and the student’s world.

Integrate Ethics Development In All Classes

One must love something in order to protect it. If we are to succeed in helping our students live in the world that they face, the faculty must cause a love relationship between each student and the world as it is today. This love must include a growing passion to protect what we love.

Ethics is a set of guidelines that we must exercise regularly if we are to protect our world. Ethical guidelines lead us as we apply what we have learned in biology, mathematics, history and all of the other subjects that are taught in school. A suggested list of ethical principles might be:

  • Everything in Nature, including we humans, is interdependent.
  • The actions of one can affect the whole.
  • Nature is always changing.
  • Conservation is a necessary part of human morality.
  • Compassion means that we humans cannot assign a greater value to one person or species over another.

Ethics development should take place in every class. Ethics development should not be compartmentalized into a single subject or class. Through inquiry-based learning, teachers should regularly ask their students to discuss “what if” scenarios that relate to the ethics of the subject matter being taught.

Empower Our Students To Change The World

An important part of the education that schools and teachers offer students is in guiding them to act upon that which they have learned. In particular, with the climate crisis, educators need to help students act in a way that might help them cope with what they might be facing after they graduate.

Here is my suggestion:

Students should be working with student groups in their local community, their state, their nation and around the world to bring awareness and to protest to the adults who have allowed the climate crisis to happen. One possibility might be to join with students from other schools to work with their government to lower our carbon footprint. As successes become a reality, our students will then have the opportunity to set an example for the world.

There are a number of youth groups forming worldwide. Students would have the opportunity to communicate with these groups by way of the Internet, seek their advice and learn from their experience, and join forces with these groups.

Below are three Internet references that talk about the power of youth to act and to resolve current environmental issues:

The Climate Kids Are All Right

Youth around the world are rising to the climate challenge — and they don’t care what the trolls have to say about it.

Youth Activists Are Building A Climate Justice Movement

Youth are building new models for social movements. Young people are no longer sitting back and waiting for older generations to make the change we know needs to happen.

Greta Thunberg gives a speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, has become very famous and has developed a strong following all over the world. You can Google her name to see many of her activities concerning climate change and the power of young people. Your students can communicate with her.

For Your Further Consideration

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms the energy necessary for all life to exist. The key to an active group of ecoliterate humans 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 – particularly our youth. This worldview (the “Living Earth Story”) is supported by the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental educators,  their students, scientists, and all stewards of Nature  are a powerful progressive force that, through their knowledge about Nature, through the legacies that they create for the future, and through their informed actions are capable of overseeing the well-being of our home —  Mother Earth
  • Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must include the acts of passing a worldview of a Mother Earth on to Environmental education must be hands-on, and action-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of all of our youth.
  • This website offers a free PDF book entitled “Empowering Stewards of Nature – Lessons From The Web of Life”. The book offers education methodology and content for creating Nature’s “Living Earth Story” within our youth and all stewards of Nature.. To download this book, follow the instructions on the right side of the web-site when you click the photograph of the book. 
  • If you are interested in working with me, other environmental educators, and other stewards of Nature to build a legacy of young people who will embrace and evangelize the worldview that “Everything on Earth is Connected and Interdependent”, please provide your questions and comments in the space provided below or by contacting me at my Twitter account @ballenamar.

 

Please Comment  Below

 

Rachel Carson and Climate Change

 

Rachel Carson’s Legacy Applies To Climate Change Issues

Earth Day 2019 has just passed by as I write this essay. I came across a fine Earth Day essay on Rachel Carson at one of my favorite blog sites called “BrainPickings” . In writing about Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” on Earth Day, blogmaster Maria Popova stated:

Carson’s aim with Silent Spring was threefold — to transmute hard facts into literature that stands the test of time, to awaken a public hypnotized into docility to the perils of substances so mercilessly marketed as panaceas by chemical companies, and to challenge the government to rise to its neglected responsibility in regulating these perils. She admonished against the fragmentation, commodification, and downright erasure of truth in an era when narrow silos blind specialists to the interconnected whole and market forces sacrifice truth on the altar of revenue. When citizens protest and try to challenge those forces with incontestable evidence, they are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” In a sentiment of striking resonance half a century later, Carson exhorted: “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.” Above all, she countered the pathological short-termism of commercial interests with a sobering look at “consequences remote in time and place” as poisons permeate a delicate ecosystem in which no organism is separate from any other and no moment islanded in the river of time.”

Carson, of course, had written Silent Spring to protest the widespread use of DDT and warn of its dangers to both mankind and the environment in which humanity lives. It struck me on Earth Day – 2019 that Rachel Carson’s words could also be directed at climate change issues. In Silent Spring, if one were to remove the word “DDT” and replace it with the words “climate change”, Carson’s profound wisdom would still apply.

In the course of making her case for the harmful effects of DDT and other insecticides and weed killers, Carson skillfully defined an interdependence between various living creatures and their environment. Then she recorded man’s ignorance of these crucial connections.  Her message concerning connections in Nature is reflected in a quote by her biographer, Linda Lear.

I don’t think Rachel should be or would want to be credited with starting the environmental movement or banning pesticides. I think what she was hoping to do is raise the American consciousness about the natural world and our interconnection to it, instead of thinking we can control nature.

Carson’s powerful, message was a precursor to a major paradigm shift in Western science.  It is also the answer to curing our current environmental ills about climate change by changing mankind’s current view of Nature to one of interdependence from a worldview of control over Nature. In her “Essay on the Biological Sciences” written in 1958 she said:

Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships  is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.

Rachel’s Advice To My Students

As I ready myself to say goodbye to my high school students as they leave for a new life in their colleges and universities, I always prepare myself to offer them some final advice. This year I wanted to say something about climate change challenges to our youth. But, Rachel Carson has done the job for me:

The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.

Therein lies our hope and our destiny.

For Your Further Consideration

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

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. 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 includes 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 place-based 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.

Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.

If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

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I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter using the sign-up form provided at the upper right corner of this web page. As a subscriber you will receive regular email announcements of new essays that I publish or popular essays that i have previously published. In these essays you will have the opportunity to share comments and ideas about a topic. Your security is important to me. Please know that your email address is never distributed to anyone.

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The Architecture of Biodiversity

 

What Does Biodiversity Mean?

Biodiversity is an interesting word so commonly used that it is beginning to sound like “motherhood” and “hot apple pie”. Said another way, many people, especially students, learn the word and are told that it is good. They are told that we must preserve biodiversity. So they agree with it. But, without further help from an environmental educator, they are not sure how or why. They are told that:

  • Biological diversity means the variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic systems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.
  • Biodiversity is important because It boosts the ecosystem’s productivity where each species, no matter how small, has an important role to play.
  • Biodiversity within an ecosystem helps create resilience from the effects of external environmental events that interact with an ecosystem
  • Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms

The word “biodiversity” is not an action word. It is a descriptive word. Biodiversity is a desirable state of being  in Nature. The word does not tell us how that state of being is achieved even though we are told that we must achieve some form of biodiversity. This is a paradox both in the field of environmental education and in scientific research.

Harper and Hawksworth, in their 1994 paper, Biodiversity: measurement and estimation,  address this paradox:

Within six years the word ‘biodiversity’ has exploded into the vocabulary of the popular press, governmental and intergovernmental reports, scientific papers and meetings. In the scientific literature the growth in usage of the term has been dramatic. It seems reasonable to ask of a word that is so widely used, just what is it supposed to mean. Is it just a new linguistic bottle for the wine of old ideas – a changed fashion label designed to attract funding – or does it refer to new and fundamental questions in science? Most especially, it seems sensible to ask whether ‘biodiversity’ is a property that can be measured and if so what is the most appropriate form that such measurement should take. We may wish to ask such questions as: ‘Does biodiversity confer stability?’; ‘Does biodiversity confer productivity?’; ‘Does biodiversity reflect sustainability?’; ‘Does biodiversity reflect the evolutionary time elapsed without major disturbance?’; alternatively, ‘Does biodiversity reflect the frequency of major disturbance in ecological or evolutionary history?’* We might reasonably expect to have some measure of this thing that we call biodiversity that we might use in a graphic plot or statistical analysis designed to answer these questions. In particular, we may wish to ask whether one species (or population, or community) is more or less diverse than another. Until we have decided how to measure ‘biodiversity’ we cannot begin to mobilize serious science into answering these questions and others posed in the research.”

The authors go on to raise the following questions:

Is biodiversity just the number of species in an area? If biodiversity is more than the number of species how can it be measured? Are all species of equal weight? Should biodiversity measures include genetic variance? Do some species contribute more than others to the biodiversity of an area? Are there useful indicators of areas where biodiversity is high? And can the extent of biodiversity in taxonomic groups be estimated by extrapolation? ‘How do we best measure organismal biodiversity? … The word ‘biodiversity’ may mean quite different things to different people….it is easier to identify the issues than to provide scientifically sound and testable answers

If one is willing to accept the findings of this scientific paper, it appears that the scientific community, conservation workers, and environmental educators, while regularly using the word “biodiversity”, are unable to provide concrete ways to define and then measure biodiversity. This severely limits the usefulness of the idea of biodiversity in developing conservation programs. It also causes environmental educators to ask “How do I teach biodiversity?”

This is not to say that the idea of biodiversity is not useful. After all, in many cases we can physically observe biodiversity in an ecosystem and we can sometimes count the number of plants and animals in an ecosystem. But the questions of “how” and “why” elude us without more tools.

This problem has concerned Kevin McCann, a researcher at the University of Guelph. In his 2017 paper, Protecting Biostructure,  he states (parapharased) that:

“Biodiversity researchers ( and environmental educators) have focused on biological diversity at the cost of ignoring the networks of interactions between organisms that characterize ecosystems…. That biodiversity is in sharp decline is no longer in question, but scientists still heatedly debate the functional consequences of this loss. Attempts to tackle this problem have mainly involved trying to establish a direct link between species diversity and the sustainability of ecosystems. But in taking this approach, scientists have concentrated on diversity at the expense of ignoring the biological structure that maintains ecosystems….But it is the network of interactions between organisms, not diversity, that breathes life into ecosystems. To understand the implications of biodiversity loss, it is crucial to monitor changes in the underlying biostructure. “

The point is that when we address issues of biodiversity, we really should be focusing on the underlying basis for biodiversity which is the structure of energy flow networks that unites all of the flora and fauna in a given ecosystem. In other words, we need to be talking about energy flow networks that  describe the energy flow relationships between all organisms in an ecosystem. We need to employ the scientific principles of “systems thinking” to describe biodiversity.

The transportation and transformation of energy is a fundamental and essential process of life that is carried out by every plant and animal on Earth. Life cannot exist without this process. The process can only take place when there are energy flow conduits between life forms. This network of energy flow interconnections is called an ecosystem. Fortunately, the application of systems science to the quantification of ecosystems sits in the wings waiting for our attention. With systems science, we have an avenue for quantifying biodiversity and identifying the diversity of a given ecosystem in more specific terms. Systems literacy and systems consciousness is a skill that people who do conservation work must acquire because it is the flow of life’s energy that must be protected. A consciousness for the energy flow networks of Nature’s living systems should be a priority goal of every environmental education program. Systems science has a history of quantifying networks. Systems literacy is something that environmental educators need to be teaching and demonstrating to their students.

In this essay, I offer some detail about the usefulness of applying systems thinking to the definition of biodiversity.

All organisms connect and interact with other organisms and the environment within an ecosystem that Kevin McCann calls “biostructure”, This biostructure is what contains life’s energy flow networks and defines the biodiversity of an ecosystem. It follows that, to understand the biodiversity of an ecosystem, one must first understand its biostructure. Generally, one portrays biostructure by portraying energy flow through the construction of food web diagrams.which give a picture of how the ecosystem operates. With this energy flow diagram, one can hypothesize the effect of adding or removing a component in the ecosystem under study. These diagrams are also wonderful teaching tools for environmental educators.

As an example, I provide a food web diagram for an estuary that borders the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

Food webs, such as the one displayed here, are methods for visualizing biodiversity. The food web is an important conceptual tool for illustrating the feeding relationships among species within a community. They reveal species interactions and community structure. They provide an understanding of the dynamics of energy transfer in an ecosystem. They show how plants and animals are connected in many ways to help them all survive. They provide a framework to link community structure with the flow of energy and material. In doing so, food web diagrams help reconcile biodiversity with ecosystem function. Food web studies explore how energy flow (feeding) relationships influence the stability of communities. Food web studies help predict how species losses propagate through communities as well as influence community stability and the functioning of an ecosystem.

By visualizing biodiversity and merging biodiversity research with food-web theory, new and important avenues for ecological research emerge with implications for biodiversity conservation. In particular, these studies help define the negative impact of eliminating highly connected species within an ecological community.

You don’t have to be a scientist to define what would happen to the estuary depicted by this food web diagram if certain organisms were removed from the lagoon. The most obvious is the mangrove trees. These trees, that bring energy to the lagoon from the sun are so vital to the flow of the lagoon’s energy that their removal would have a highly significant negative impact on the flow of energy. Take another look at the food web diagram and mentally remove the mangroves from the picture. Which species would be affected? Yet, it was once suggested that this lagoon be developed into a marina.

Another tool for portraying biodiversity of complex ecosystems is a network diagram which is a schematic diagram portraying how things are connected as well as the dynamic relationships. Nature’s complex systems contain special networks that facilitate the flow of energy. These networks have a physical architecture and associated organizing principles that control and connect the components within the system. Understanding these systems can come from looking at both the routes for energy flow (called network architecture) and the dynamic relationships within these networks. The objective  of the diagram is to  understand the organization of energy flow relationships between species which are a system’s connecting points (called nodes) in a complex system. A network diagram, shown below, is a schematic diagram of how nodes are connected. Nodes are usually represented by heavy dots, circles, or iconic representations of natural objects.

The most successful of Nature’s network patterns have a high connectivity within their systems. They are said to be “complex networks” because they have a structure that doesn’t exist in simple network models. Instead, their structure is somewhere in between totally regular and totally random. It is important for the naturalist to understand the energy flow networks within an ecosystem under study and how certain phenomena or human interference might adversely affect those energy transportation and transformation pathways.

The complex network model portrays much of the complexity in Nature’s energy transportation and transformation networks. Scientists have identified two key characteristics of Nature’s complex networks. They are:

• Complex networks are self-organizing. Energy networks are dynamically formed by the continuous addition of new nodes.

• New nodes are very specific about which existing nodes they will attach to. They are said to employ “preferential attachment”.

To illustrate the characteristics of a complex network model, we examine an airline route map which is probably familiar to many airline travelers.

Here, there are very few highly clustered hub cities, where flights connect with many small towns. Atlanta and Salt Lake City are hubs on this map. But, there are many small town airports whose airline routes are connected to only one or very few hubs. The airline hubs contribute heavily to the overall connectivity and resilience of the network. Small town airports contribute very little to the network’s connectivity. If a snowstorm hits the region of a small airport, there would be little or no effect on travel within the route network. But, if the Atlanta or Salt Lake City hubs have severe weather, the entire airline travel network will be adversely affected.

The architecture of the airline route network map is an example of a complex network much like the complex energy distribution networks we find in Nature. The contribution of the highly clustered hubs to the overall connectivity of the network is very high. The connectivity contribution of the nodes with fewer links is much lower.

The airline route map is a complex network that is similar to a system in Nature that is biodiverse. A “hub” in an airline route system is the same as a keystone species that has energy flow connections to numerous other species. If one species that is remotely connected to the energy flow of a keystone species goes extinct or is severely disturbed by humans, the keystone species is probably not affected. But, if the keystone species is killed off, many species will also die because they depend upon energy flow from the keystone species. This, by definition, is a measure of resilience.

The Antarctic food web shown above is a good portrayal of the idea of biodiversity and resilience. Krill is a keystone species in the Antarctic and the Southern Atlantic Ocean because it is a primary food (energy) source for many creatures. The krill population is considered a “hub” in the diagram of the ecosystem shown here. If the krill were to die off, there would be a major crash in the ecosystem because the food for many species would no longer be available. But if only the penguins were to die off, the ecosystem would probably survive.

Systems Thinking Is A Important Skill That Is Necessary To Understand Biodiversity

This discussion suggests that what is needed to understand biodiversity and resilience is a systems network consciousness. Systems thinking must be taught in schools wherever and whenever  biodiversity is taught.   This includes the practice of identifying energy flow conduits and the construction and analysis of visualizations much like those that have just been discussed.

There is a wonderful video entitled “Biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecological networks produced by the California Academy of Sciences. The video describes much of what has been discussed in this essay. In a special note to environmental educators, I strongly suggest that this video be part of any instruction about biodiversity because it emphasizes the need for the development of a network consciousness when one studies biodiversity.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays that present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.  The emphasis is on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. 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 includes 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 place-based 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.

Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy on Earth, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.

If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

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Ecoliteracy : The Poverty of Human Insight

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 

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