The Five Qualities

Andrea Wulf concludes her magnificent biography of Alexander von Humboldt by emphasizing his singular contribution to environmental learning: “we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination.” For Humboldt, “the imagination soothed the deep wounds that reason created.” Humboldt’s active imagination was stimulated by his extraordinary observational powers, his ability to synthesize information, his interpretive originality, his dynamic expressive approaches, and their manifestation as exemplified by both his scientific work and his outspoken critiques of colonialism and slavery. What is the 21st century version of this sequence—observation, information, interpretation, expression, manifestation?

In a previous essay, The Anthropocene Curriculum, I explore how Humboldt’s vision and his emphasis on the imagination provides inspiration for a 21st century approach to environmental learning. I outline a template for curricular design potentials covering Biosphere Studies, Urban Environments, The Ecological Imagination, Social Networking and Change Management, and Sustainability Life Skills. I’d like to propose a parallel template, but this time emphasizing the conceptual learning pathways, or qualities, that contribute to environmental learning.

I describe these learning pathways as qualities because they represent distinctive attributes. Each quality entails intrinsic learning processes. All of the qualities and learning processes are simultaneously enfolding and unfolding. They encompass each other while they reveal deepening insights. These qualities are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

This is not an empirical theory, but rather an informal template, based on four decades of teaching and thinking about environmental learning. I offer this approach in the spirit of educational experimentation and improvisation. There are multiple ways to arrange these qualities. Nevertheless, I present them with some predispositions.

First, I’m intrigued by the dialectic between perennial qualities and adaptive considerations. A perennial quality represents an educational virtue that is consistent across cultural place and time. Environmental insights emerge in similar ways in a variety of cultural settings. Yet the context of learning is never the same. People, cultures, and organisms respond to changing circumstances. Hence learning is also adaptive. In the first decades of the 21st century, dynamic environmental change and the acceleration of information technologies are the context for adaptive learning.

Second, I don’t think educators spend sufficient time considering how people learn, especially in higher education. Most curricular controversies are substantive. How you learn is as important as what you learn. The skills of lifelong learning are typically internalized when you learn how to learn, and these skills receive insufficient reflective attention.

Third, ecological thinking embodies a paradigmatic shift in how we think about learning. That shift transcends interdisciplinarity per se. It assumes innovative approaches to how we engage as learning organisms in complex environments, how we see ourselves in the biosphere, and how we expand our concepts of place and time.

Fourth, I conceive organizational schemes as mandala sand paintings. You create a temporary order of symmetry, coherence, pattern, and meaning, and then you let it all dissipate and recreate it as necessary. Learning is a reflective blend of structure and improvisation, pattern and chaos, coherence and dissonance.

Fifth, the best way to think about any organizational scheme is to personalize it, using it as a way to explore how you learn, how you observe the way others learn, and by considering how learning is a reciprocal relationship between the self, culture, and the environment.

I encourage you to experiment with these qualities and rearrange them to suit your own purposes.

And now for the five qualities:

Observation

Observation emphasizes a broadened understanding of biosphere patterns, including the ability to design learning activities and research approaches that enhance perception of global environmental change, an understanding of the relationship between local and global, and the ability to move between spatial and temporal scales. Observation entails perception, identification, and pattern recognition. Perception is the development of sensory awareness, so as to apprehend movement, metabolism, pace and behavior. Identification allows an individual to enter the lifeworld (umwelt) of other organisms. Pattern Recognition is the ability to assimilate perception and identification by using scale to detect symmetry, cycles, waves, thresholds, interstices, flows, and species interactions. For a comprehensive discussion of these issues, and for specific examples from the field of ecology, please see Rafe Sagarin and Anibel Pauchard, Observation and Ecology.

Information

Information describes the ability to gather data from a variety of sources, organize that data, assess its relevance and application, and understand how to use it effectively. Information entails sourcing, browsing, and networking. Sourcing involves understanding the origins of information, its dissemination, its transformation, and how it is manipulated or translated based on opinion and perspective. Browsing involves the survey of information, including scanning (seeing the breadth of the field), scaling (understanding its context), focus (knowing how to look more deeply), and granularity (finding its constituent pieces). Networking entails mapping information, tracing its routes and paths, determining its speed of transmission (mobility), and understanding who has access to it. An interesting way to conceive of information, and an approach that is facilitated by computer graphics, is the emerging field of information design and visualization. Information design uses the above concepts and develops visualization processes to enhance our understanding of them.

Interpretation

Interpretation is the challenge of generating meaning from observation and information. This includes constructing narrative, amplifying and articulating personal voice, and developing themes and approaches for communicating complex environmental issues. Interpretation entails synthesis, dissonance, and narrative. Synthesis is the ability to find coherent relationships within diverse fields of information while finding the essence of ideas and explanations. Dissonance reflects the tensions inherent in synthesis, the recognition of nonlinearity, different perspectives, and contrasting possibilities. Narrative is the ability to create arcs of unfolding meaning, embodying both synthesis and dissonance through the use of allegory, metaphor, and story. In the 21st century, electronic communications make new forms of narrative available and novel forms of expression possible, including the use of diverse media, and reliance on iconography, design, and virtual/visceral matrices, demanding innovative approaches to interpretation.

Expression

Expression is the ability to effectively communicate interpretive approaches by cultivating creative possibilities in venues such as storytelling and eloquence, writing and personal reflection, information design and display, artistic mapping, public art, soundscape design, animation and video, music and dance performance, game design, and other forms of iconography and representation. Expression entails imagination, improvisation, and activation. Imagination is a unique blend of creativity, visualization, and reflection, allowing the mind to form uninhibited images and possibilities by exploring the unconscious, and melding psyche with the biosphere. Improvisation is the ability to spontaneously respond to dynamic changes in the environment by adapting structures of knowledge to new contingencies, or playing with forms and ideas as they emerge. Activation is the application of imagination and improvisation through experimentation, innovation, and implementation. Electronic communications enable a spontaneity of response that can have wide (but not necessarily deep) impact in a short period of time. How can expression be simultaneously deep and wide, perennial and adaptive, structured and improvisational, active and reflective?

Manifestation

Manifestation refers to the generosity of interpretation and expression, applying narrative forms to enhance human flourishing in the biosphere. This includes an understanding of social and emotional intelligence, interspecies empathy, the ability to form collaborative connections and challenging learning communities in multiple cultural settings, the ability to engage in creative conflict, and the awareness to improvise in and adapt to diverse learning venues. Manifestation entails generosity, posterity, and flourishing. Generosity is the ability to demonstrate kindness, compassion, and respect in service to cultural community and ecosystem integrity. It encourages empathy, dialogue, connectedness, and love. Posterity requires awareness of past and future generations, the ability to act with respect for legacy and outcome, and to do so with an expansive time scale. If we combine posterity and empathy, we consider our actions in all of these contexts—intergenerational, multicultural, inter-species, urban/rural, local/global, and cosmopolitan. Flourishing is the ultimate goal of environmental learning, to create settings that allow for optimal human thriving in the dynamic biosphere. Flourishing promotes pleasure, virtue, equity, opportunity, collaboration, community, restoration, and reciprocation.

I realize this is a hefty list. Any of these qualities require elaboration and specification. They are most useful when placed in a substantive context. For example, these qualities can be neatly juxtaposed with the five curricular design potentials listed above. I’ll do so now:

Curricular Design Potentials: Biosphere Studies, Urban Environments, The Ecological Imagination, Social Networking and Change Management, Sustainability Life Skills.

The Five Qualities: Observation (Perception, Identification, Pattern Recognition), Information (Sourcing, Browsing, Networking), Interpretation (Synthesis, Dissonance, Narrative), Expression (Imagination, Improvisation, Activation), Manifestation (Generosity, Posterity, Flourishing).

It’s also helpful to juxtapose the curricular design potentials and the five qualities with the “new professions” I previously described—social entrepreneurs, media innovators, information analysts, infographic consultants, game designers, computer networkers, curators, graphic facilitators, planners, healing professionals, green retailers and marketers, street artists and performers, digital artists and photographers, and bloggers.

How do all of these possibilities help us conceive a new generation of environmental learning venues? What is the role of colleges and universities in taking bold educational initiatives? What support do we provide students, faculty, and administrators? How can trustees and other stakeholders be included in these initiatives? And how do we work with communities to better understand the dynamic environmental and conceptual changes of the Anthropocene?

In my next columns, I’ll move away from these abstract formulations, and provide some examples of on-the-ground projects, both in the classroom and in the community, that combine vision and practice and offer hope and solutions.

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

The Purple Crayon and The Fog Man

The Purple Crayon and the Fog Man

 

As a way to introduce my thinking about environmental learning, I’d like to share some of my most vivid childhood experiences. When I was five years old, my parents took me to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I was thrilled, daunted, overwhelmed, and inspired by the virtual trip into outer space. For a souvenir I asked if I could bring home Herbert Zim’s Golden Guide to the Stars. I spent hours flipping through that book. It taught me about scale, space, time, and all the possibilities on my horizon. It instilled a sense of wonder. It helped me locate the Earth. I realized that I lived on a planet!

I had another favorite book as well. I loved Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. As Harold wandered off to sleep he floated wherever his imagination would take him. His magic crayon enabled him to draw his reality. When he got lost and overwhelmed by the prospects of his imagination, he could find his way home by drawing the moon outside his bedroom window. His home place gave him the courage to explore the farther reaches of his imagination. I learned about the boundaries of home, and how I could use my imagination to travel through space and time.

Both books taught me a great deal (even as a five year old) about scale and the imagination. They also provided a glimpse into the wonderful world of books. To this day, I can endlessly wander through stacks of books, browsing their contents, synthesizing their meaning, exploring the various paths to insight and understanding. Over 60 years later I get immense pleasure from browsing my own library, an intellectual archive of my dreams, hopes, and aspirations. I savor the extraordinary variety of ideas sitting on those shelves. I get similar pleasure from browsing through other people’s libraries, glimpsing aspects of their intellectual lives.

At a young age, I learned to love the newspaper. I started with the sports page. It connected me to baseball games played in distant cities. I then migrated to the international news. As I got older I explored all of the other features of the paper. I learned how to scan the paper for stories of interest, and how to read between the lines. I began to understand that what wasn’t reported was also of importance. The daily newspaper taught me how to browse, surf, synthesize and interpret information.

Sixty years later, I still wander through the morning news, but now I do so by visiting various websites or discussion forums. The speed and access of my approach is greatly accelerated, but the basic principles of browsing, synthesizing, and curating is strikingly similar to the habits I learned reading the daily newspaper as a child.

There’s another great way to start the day and that is to observe the natural world. Many years later (the 1990s), I discovered a lovely essay, “Readings for Morning” by Joseph W. Meeker, the opening piece in his delightful book, Minding the Earth. Meeker suggests that “[i]t is too much to say that you are what you read in the morning, but it is a sure bet that you aren’t what you don’t. . . . It is worthwhile to pause for a moment and reflect upon the character of the Morning Reading pursued by each of us. . . . A good day in the life of a living system begins with recognition and affirmation of life.” Meeker reiterated the necessity of observational ecology as an educational practice.  

I have a darker memory, too. It started as a frolic but ended as a headache. In the 1950s, our suburban community regularly sprayed DDT in the neighborhood. A man would come in a small jeep and dispense a cloud of chemicals, resembling a misty fog. We called him “the fog man.” I remember running through “the fog,” delighted that I had access to the same clouds I observed in the sky. I soon realized that these fog adventures would typically result in a headache, and from then on I stayed away. In my adult years, as a 39-year-old and then more recently, I’ve had cancerous but encapsulated tumors removed from my body. I often wonder whether “the fog man” seeded these mutations. This experience taught me about cognitive dissonance.

In retrospect, some of my environmental learning came from listening to the stories of my parents and grandparents. My mother was born on a farm in Cyprus, a Jewish family that fled pogroms in Russia, only to be initially denied access to America. The family emigrated again when she was nine years old, arriving at a cold water flat in Brooklyn. My mother spoke three languages, but not English. She and my grandfather would tell stories of how much they enjoyed the farm, and how difficult it was to emigrate, even though they knew it would bring more opportunities for the family. I learned about migration, diaspora, and the importance of intergenerational experience. It’s a long way from a farm in Cyprus to the Hayden Planetarium and the Fog Man, but these memories help me understand how I came to learn about the natural world. They influenced my career as an environmental educator. I’ve used them as templates for dozens of teaching activities.

I’ll conclude this brief snapshot of vivid learning moments for now, although I would also like to stress that I could cite dozens of additional incidents and memories, and they would reveal many other forms of participation and engagement. And I know that you can, too! It’s instructive to trace how you learn through a lifetime, to see what’s changed, and to observe that the essence of how you learn is both perennial and adaptive. Harold and the Purple Crayon is just as meaningful today as it was in 1955. Yet I’m aware, too, that in these times, Harold is as likely to take his journey with an iPad app or a YouTube video.  

There is a perennial quality to these anecdotes. You can also travel through space and time, or learn about scale and perception by reading Rumi’s poetry. Artists, visionaries, mystics, and scientists use the imagination to explore scale. Harold just happened to use a purple crayon. And the dark shadow of the Fog Man lies close to so many communities. Consider London’s famous polluting fogs and all of the health damage they caused. For countless generations, families have told origin stories that help them understand where they come from and where they are going. There are extraordinary environmental narratives layered in those stories.

What I wish to convey is that how we engage in learning has a perennial substrate, both through the ages and over the course of a lifetime. Yet it’s essential to pay attention to the adaptive qualities of an active mind. The context and milieu of environmental learning is always changing. For example, shiny new technologies easily take over our lives, and in so doing they alter how we observe and what we perceive. Can we be mindful of how these technologies influence how we learn, and then how we interpret what we observe? I believe there is a somatic and evolutionary substrate that informs sensory perception, structures our imaginative capacities, and enables us to form concepts and ideas. How is that substrate enhanced or diminished in different learning environments? This is my overriding concern as I consider learning pathways intrinsic to the Anthropocene. How do we navigate the shifting templates of dynamic change and what are the conceptual pathways that best inform environmental learning?

Sherry Turkle’s most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, explores how social media is dramatically changing the very essence of how people engage in conversations. For example, when texting is ubiquitous, protocols emerge as to when it’s appropriate to make eye contact, how you divide your attention between virtual and visceral conversations, and how social bonding is both enhanced and diminished. This is just one example of countless studies that document how social media and other communication technologies significantly change how we think and learn. These technologies and their applications change so quickly that it’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the rapidly evolving protocols, let alone the changing conceptual dimensions of their use. In my view, the field is moving so quickly that we still don’t understand the long-term implications of social media, and I’m wary of trendy prognostications and catchy metaphors. Moreover, much of the research is culturally specific and based on relatively affluent users. 

However, just as the Anthropocene reflects accelerating environmental change, the same technological capacities that enable those changes are accompanied by accelerating conceptual changes. The challenge for environmental learning is how to understand the implications of both dynamic processes—environmental change has conceptual implications, and thus informs how we learn about the biosphere. I have written about this parallel process in Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change (The MIT Press, 2001). For example, I consider how the technologies of speed (both the Internet and the Interstate) dramatically alter how we perceive environmental change—pace is intrinsic to perception.

What’s the relationship between Harold’s purple crayon, the Fog Man, my mother’s emigration, and the accelerating technological changes of the Anthropocene? I think the best way to formulate an educational strategy is to carefully reflect on your own experience as a learner. There are many paths to environmental learning, depending on your age, your culture, your background, and your values. This includes varieties of developmental sequences, cognitive abilities, and multiple intelligences. Your path is an educational narrative, one strand in a collective narrative that yields more generalized insights. The very best educational approaches and curriculum find ways to weave between individual and collective experience, while also paying attention to what’s perennial and adaptive.

In the next section, I’ll propose a conceptual sequence for environmental learning in the Anthropocene. Similar to the adaptive curriculum I proposed in a previous column, this sequence is meant to be evocative, unfolding, and versatile, reflecting the fast-paced changes of our contemporary milieu. My hope is that this sequence will serve as a template for new approaches to educational delivery and assessment.

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

The Future of Environmental Learning (Part Three): An Adaptive Curriculum

Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene (Part Three):  The Anthropocene Curriculum

 

By Mitchell Thomashow

In her remarkably informative and pertinent biography of Alexander Von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf explains how Humboldt “plaited together the cultural, biological, and physical world, and painted a picture of global patterns.” Over two hundred years ago, Humboldt’s effusive, prolific, and ambitious global explorations established the intellectual foundations ofenvironmental change science. His multivolume work Cosmos inspired Darwin, Thoreau, and Emerson, as well as an entire generation of natural philosophers and emerging scientists. Humboldt emphasized the importance of comparative natural history, the integration of imagination with rational thought, the relationship between environmental exploitation and social justice, the necessity of networking and collaboration, and the sheer wonder of scientific and artistic exploration.

The boldness of Humboldt’s pioneering vision serves as an educational foundation and guide for environmental learning in the Anthropocene. I derive both inspiration and reassurance knowing that an ecologically oriented, discovery-based, imagination-fueled approach to learning has a two hundred year legacy. Just as Humboldt was an educational innovator so many years ago, we have to be correspondingly bold in our curricular objectives. How can we build on Humboldt’s vision given all the extraordinary conceptual tools available in the twenty-first century?

I’d like to address this question in two ways. First, I’ll provide a generalized template for the substantive curriculum that should inform environmental learning. Second, and in a subsequent column, I’ll explore some of the “learning pathways” that are emerging as essential conceptualizations in an era of big data, social media, and surplus information. These approaches are complementary. The knowledge base of a curriculum should never be separated from the teaching and learning process. Indeed, they inform each other.

Before I proceed, I’d like to offer some comments from practical experience. As a former college president, and as a sustainability consultant to many colleges and universities, I am acutely aware of how hard it is to promote, design, and implement transformational curricular change. The faculty steward the curriculum. More often than not, they have strong opinions based on their disciplinary bias and research orientation. Administrators often present their own conservative biases, usually informed by multiple stakeholder concerns, donor considerations, financial issues, or political contingencies. Most educational institutions have elaborate protocols and procedures for curricular innovation, and they tend to favor incremental change and the status quo. Since the late 1960’s very few institutions have been able to implement systemic curricular change. Of course there are exceptions (Arizona State University comes to mind), but they are always controversial and easily subverted by the risk averse.

Perhaps the pervading turbulence in higher education—from questions of accountability to relevance to cost—will provide a catalyst for systemic curricular change. It seems to me there are three generalized responses to this turbulence. One is to administer financial cutbacks and administrative efficiencies. A second is to try to find additional revenue to support the status quo. A third is to transform the institution with new programs, delivery models, and revenue streams. Some institutions try all three of these approaches. That can be very confusing! In my view, colleges and universities that promote visionary, imaginative, yet practical, and career-oriented programs will best survive these turbulent years.

If you’re reading this, and you work in an environmental-related field at a college or university, you have an opportunity. You won’t be able to transform the curriculum unless you make a conscious choice to do so. That choice will require time, perseverance, commitment, vision, and creativity. Whether you’re a student, a faculty member, a dean, or serve in some other function, you will only transform the curriculum if you take the responsibility for helping to implement the change.

Curriculum development is a dynamic, situational, and participatory process. That’s why so many curricular efforts repeat themselves. We often hear about the inefficiencies of “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to curriculum. It is obviously useful to be aware of what others are doing, and to be inspired by great ideas. As stewards of the curriculum, most faculties aspire to incorporate their expertise and values as essential to the teaching and learning process. Hence there are many “home-grown”curricular efforts that are inherently subject to compromise. That is why I am proposing adaptive curricular guidelines that may be relevant in diverse institutional settings, acknowledging, too, the rapidly changing external environment that brings new knowledge and situations to bear on academic preparation.

I propose five broad categories as a curricular foundation: biosphere studies, urban environments, the ecological imagination, sustainability like skills, and social networking and change management. These are mutually reinforcing and reciprocal categories. For each foundation I’ll briefly present a core learning process, distinguish a personal and public dimension, and then suggest some areas for substantive inquiry and experimentation. Consider these suggestions as a catalog of emerging curricular design potentials, to serve as a basis for dozens of possibilities.

Biosphere studies emphasize an understanding of scale, learning how to interpret spatial and temporal variability, linked to the dynamics of biospheric processes and local ecological observations. The challenge is to develop a conceptual sequence that helps students perceive, recognize, classify, detect, and interpret biospheric patterns, what I’ll describe as “pattern-based environmental learning.” The purpose is to better understand and internalize global environmental change. The personal dimension involves the development of natural history observation skills so as to enhance appreciation of home and habitat. The public dimension involves how to contribute those observations and assessments to global networks of biospheric data collection. Examples for study may include bioregional natural history, biogeochemical cycles, atmospheric and oceanic circulations, evolutionary ecology, restoration ecology, the movement of people and species, watersheds and fluvial geomorphology, biogeographical change (species migrations, radiations, and convergences), plate tectonics, and climate change. 

Urban Environments integrates the ecological dynamics and footprints of cities with the political economy of globalization, urbanization, and municipal organization. The personal dimension involves understanding cities as networks of community life, multicultural and multigenerational diversity, concentrated dwelling spaces, hubs of innovation and knowledge generation, centers of regional and international commerce and exchange, while exploring the ecological context for those activities. The public dimension involves understanding the design, organization, governance and nature of cities, their impact on the biosphere, their metabolic and microbial flows, and how community networks can enhance social justice, economic equity, resilience, and a sustainable material life. Examples for study include ecological urbanism, globalization and the city, cosmopolitan cultures, urban design and sustainability, urban metabolism, resilience studies, innovation and knowledge diffusion, and cities in space and time.

The Ecological Imagination entails the cultivation of an aesthetic voice, personal expression, and improvisational excellence to enhance the arts, music, dance, play, literary narrative, and philosophical inquiry. The personal dimension emphasizes how to use the creative process as a means to explore questions of ethics, meaning, and purpose, how to maximize aesthetic joy, and how to express emotional responses to challenging environmental issues.  The public dimension develops the capacity for collective expression in social milieus—how to use public spaces such as buildings, parks, campuses, etc to promote learning about sustainability and environmental issues. Examples for study include environmental art and music, acoustic ecology and sound design, biophilic design and architecture, environmental interpretation, environmental perception, environmental ethics, ecological identity, the aesthetics and epistemology of patterns, game design, information design, and biomimcry.

Sustainability Life Skills is the application of sustainability principles to the routines, behaviors, and practices of everyday life. The personal dimension involves the individual behaviors of sustenance, shelter, transportation, health and domestic life. Further, it emphasizes how to incorporate sustainability principles into one’s career and professional choices. The public dimension involves how to support organizational or regional sustainability efforts, including procurement, ecological cost accounting, recycling, health services, and/or other forms of community capacity building for sustainability. Examples for study include organic agriculture, nutrition, home building and engineering, construction, alternative energy, energy and water conservation, alternative transportation, sustainability metrics, habitat restoration, gardening, urban and regional planning, career development, reflective practice, and service learning.

Social Networking and Change Management describes how to enhance, cultivate, and utilize social capital. This includes a personal dimension—providing students with the ability to better understand how they learn and think, how they respond to stress, and how to maximize psychological and physical wellness. The public dimension promotes the ability to interpret collective behavior in organizational settings. The learning process involves how to integrate the personal and social dimension so as to maximize human flourishing in diverse institutional settings. Examples for study include cognitive theory, neuropsychology, organizational process, change management, behavioral economics, ecological economics, social entrepreneurship, decision-making science, adaptive management, and social networking theory.

In Northfield, Massachusetts, the independent Northfield-Mount Hermon school once had two beautiful sprawling campuses, one on each side of the Connecticut River.  Some years ago they decided to move all functions to the Mount Hermon campus. The campus on the Northfield side is essentially mothballed. I’ve often thought about how exciting it would be to use that campus to design a brand new college, one based on the subject matter described above. Students and faculty would turn the campus into an exemplary sustainable facility, using the Anthropocene curriculum as a guide.

Now that I spend much of the year in Seattle, I often walk past the campus of Antioch University. The building was recently sold as it represents prime downtown real estate. Antioch will move elsewhere, a few blocks away. But I think about what it would mean to repurpose and retrofit the current building and turn it into a new college with an Anthropocene curriculum. How would the Seattle campus and the Northfield campus be both similar and different? Perhaps we need dozens of new schools, colleges, and universities, at all levels of education, designed by the prospective participants, uniquely configured to take on the environmental challenges of the forthcoming century. What can be more important than such an educational project? How can you stimulate this kind of thinking where you live and work? Is there a reasonable scale for attempting this approach?

While you think about these options and possibilities, remember, too, that the Anthropocene demands new learning concepts and pathways as well as substantive knowledge. In the next column I’ll look at these approaches, including scale, patterns, metabolism, networks, perception, design, improvisation, iconography, and imagination. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quote from Steven Johnson’s fine book, Where Good Ideas Come From. “Unusually generative environments display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene (Part Two)

Environmental Learning in  the Anthropocene (Part Two)

 

The Whole Earth Catalog was inspiring for many reasons. It made me aware of a huge talent pool of people who could be mobilized to live a more creative, wholesome, and responsible life. So many decades ago, the sections of the original book—understanding whole systems, shelter and land use, industry and craft, communications, community, nomadics, and learning—served as both a curriculum and a vision for a parallel catalog of new professions. Whether it was software engineering, community activism, sustainable design, or management consulting—a close look at the Whole Earth Catalog reveals dozens of ideas for new professional identities and categories. The classic Whole Earth back cover aphorism was “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” But you could also interpret that as: “Use your talent wisely and well. It’s needed. Be imaginative. Improvise and take risks.”

I have a hunch. I believe there is a vast talent pool of people, many of whom are between 25-40 years old who are engaged in the equivalent “new professions” of 2015. These are creative, motivated, independent, and flexible people who care deeply about “the fate of the planet” but don’t have the venue for expressing their concerns or lending their voice to problem-solving solutions. Here’s a preliminary list of these emergent 2015 professional identities and categories—social entrepreneurs, media innovators, information analysts, infographic consultants, game designers, computer networkers, curators, graphic facilitators, planners, healing professionals, green retailers and marketers, street artists and performers, digital artists and photographers, and bloggers.

I am curious about people who are not intrinsically drawn to the environmental and sustainability fields but nevertheless are concerned about those issues. I am not describing the sustainability professional or environmental activist. They have already made their professional choices. We need to attract people in professions that may not be ostensibly environmental, but who can lend their expertise and imagination to how we perceive global environmental challenges, and who can design clever, resilient, and unlikely solutions.

On Super Bowl Sunday, if you take the time to watch the game, beyond all of the hoopla and hype, there is another show, too—all of the new, flashy, sparkly, speedy commercials. Forget for a moment the values they promote, the products they sell, and the lifestyle they espouse, however attracted or repulsed you might be. Consider instead the thousands of hours of creativity and craft that go into the production of those commercials. Talented and imaginative women and men are working on these ads.

For much of the year I live in a boutique “green apartment” building in “hip” Belltown, a few blocks north of downtown Seattle. Most of the apartment residents are in that 25-40 year old age group. They work for Amazon or Microsoft, or they work independently as graphic designers, website builders, computer programmers, or any of the professions I list above. Some of them take long “recreational” trips in between professional opportunities. One fellow works at a local bank so he can support his aspiration as a writer. A woman I know is pursuing joint degrees in health infomatics and business. Another young man works at ZipCar. A younger friend teaches band at a local middle school so he can support his main professional aspiration of becoming a game designer. My next-door neighbor is a fashion blogger. And it’s not just these well-educated people. Spend some time in Seattle’s lower income Central District and speak to people who work in the schools, NGO’s, and community centers. Speak to street artists and musicians. You’ll be blown away by the extraordinary talent and vision.

I’m a chatty guy and I like to talk to these folks. What matters to them? Why do they do what they do? What are their aspirations? Just a few minutes of conversation with them and it’s clear that they are talented, motivated, and interesting people. I am convinced that almost all of the people I speak with genuinely care about the same environmental issues that concern me, but they are unlikely to become engaged with those issues because they lack venues for doing so. For the most part, they aren’t going to join a march, or get politically engaged. Maybe they will try to live more sustainable lives, but it’s not necessarily a priority, like it is for the environmentally converted.

I’ve spent over four decades in the environmental field. I’ve worked with hundreds of mission-driven, sincere, hard working professionals. Like all mission-driven projects, there’s an implicit assumption that we have to recruit more people to our cause. If they know what we know, they will be as concerned as we are. Let’s grow awareness so as to promote more effective action. It’s an obvious logic model for environmental activism. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked. Why? Broadening awareness of global environmental change takes time. It requires reflection, imagination, deliberation, and experience. It’s not a conversion experience, although some will explain it that way. It’s not an awareness that emerges from a single exposure, or an outrageous transgression, although it can happen that way. It’s a slower, cumulative, cultural process.

I don’t want to recruit a brilliant advertising person to develop the environmental ad of the decade. Or convince a brilliant marketing analyst to prepare a marketing campaign for broadening awareness of endangered species. Such projects may have short-term effectiveness. You might be able to sell a car that way, or a pair of sneakers, or even a president. But you won’t influence deeper values. And you certainly won’t build awareness of a challenge as complicated as the biosphere and global environmental change.

Rather I’m hoping to organize a riveting, reciprocal, informative learning process. I would like to mobilize the vast talent pool of innovative, creative professionals. More importantly I want to know what they’re thinking. I want to understand their motivations, aspirations, and concerns. I’d like to better understand the kind of world they want to live in today, tomorrow, and twenty-five years in the future. I want to know how they intend to get there. I want to ask them questions that they aren’t often asked—questions about meaning, purpose, and right livelihood. Who are you? What matters to you? Where is your path taking you? How can we work together? I envision a multigenerational, multicultural, multidisciplinary group of learning professionals, who want to shape the world by cultivating their ecological awareness, as linked to the other priorities of their lives and times. 

Just as the environmental profession invented itself over the last four decades, it must adapt to a dramatically new workplace environment. Glance through this infographic compiled by Russ Dawson (www.russdawson.com).

Do our environmental studies programs help students understand this shifting workplace? Or for that matter are these dynamics covered as crucial curricular foundations for liberal arts programs? Typically not. Yet today’s students probably won’t maximize their success unless they understand where they fit in this matrix. The successful professionals I refer to above mainly figure this out independently. They find ways to see themselves outside of the traditional workplace. They reinvent their professional identities accordingly.

So what does all of this have to do with environmental learning in the Anthropocene? I’d like to stress three ideas for further conversation. First, environmental learning must involve a wide range of professional pathways engaging the future of work, multiple stakeholders, and convergent interests. I envision global change scientists working with information graphics experts, game designers, or street artists. Consider conservation biologists working with social entrepreneurs, media innovators, and digital artists. Mix and match as you choose. But these combinations must be supported actively at all levels of schooling—from elementary education to graduate programs. Second, environmental learning must incorporate new cognitive orientations. All of the “new professions” are learning a great deal about multiple psychological dynamics—from decision-making behavior to attention and perception. This data, perhaps intended for proprietary purposes, such as consumer choice, also penetrates the realm of values and meaning. Sophisticated game designers, for example, have a profound understanding of how to engage people using all of their senses, developing strategic and improvisational thinking, collaboration and competition, visual and iconic aids, and immersive experiences. Third, environmental learning must conceive of innovative learning spaces. Educational institutions will always have a prominent role to play, but only the most innovative systems will be flexible enough to overhaul the curricular foundations of environmental programs. Where else can and should environmental learning occur, especially given the future of work diagram? We might prefer that no child is left inside, but for many children, outside is a city street. How can we mobilize zoos, aquariums, and museums to expand how they think about environmental learning? Are there workplace venues, media and virtual spaces, public festivals and gatherings, markets or sporting events where such learning might occur? And how do all three of these possibilities mutually reinforce each other—new professional pathways, cognitive and perceptual understanding, and innovative learning spaces? There are strategic “learning spaces” that may emerge beyond the boundaries of institutional education—places like museums, community centers, corporate forums, small business gatherings, civic meetings, street festivals. Perhaps the philanthropic community can seed public learning spaces that encourage creative collaborations in service of community, place, and ecological awareness.

I’m excited to see that some of these collaborations are beginning to occur. They often happen for serendipitous reasons—spatial proximity, freewheeling hubs, recreational associations, community gatherings, or virtual convergences. But how much more effective would these collaborations be if we seeded them in colleges and universities? What if Schools of Communication, for example, developed curricular and career approaches with Business Programs and Schools of the Environment? And what if you bring Art Colleges into the mix? There are dozens of interesting, topically rich, career-relevant combinations. Perhaps it’s time that we consider a grand overhaul of environmental programs as well. In the next installment, I’ll make some suggestions for what an ideal Anthropocene environmental learning curriculum might entail. 

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Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene

 

Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene

See the full text of this article, along with illustrations from Jake Seven at:

www.terrain.org

Since the days of The Whole Earth Catalog, circa 1969, in my formative late teen years, I’ve been concerned about the ecological fate of the planet. Anyone who was paying attention then could observe the daunting threats: changing oceanic and atmospheric circulations, altered biogeochemical cycles, species extinctions, declining biodiversity, and habitat degradation. All these decades later, many of the environmental concerns and challenges we recognized in that era remain unresolved. The scientific data is much more precise, our ability to monitor earth system changes is increasingly robust, and our understanding of the biosphere is more sophisticated. In 2015, climate change is a household word (if not a household concern), the sustainability movement has made great strides, and the global consequences of environmental change are much better (if still imperfectly) understood. 

In 1969 there weren’t any environmental studies programs that were named as such. You could study ecology or forestry, or approach the traditional disciplines with ecological topics in mind. Or you could enroll in a geography program, perhaps the most intriguing interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues. There was an entire generation of baby boomer students who were motivated to change all of that. Indeed, my entire career was oriented around developing, designing, and implementing various approaches to environmental studies. This was a generation-wide effort. The result is profound. We now have an international network of robust environmental studies programs at every conceivable educational level. These programs are further expanded with the emergence of sustainability as a rubric for considering human impact on the environment. 

Take a few minutes and think about all the words you can summon with green, eco, environmental or sustainable in the prefix. Whether it’s ecopsychology, environmental ethics, environmental economics, green business, sustainability science, ecological restoration—or whatever words and concepts you might conjure—few, if any of these subjects, appeared in the lexicon or as fitting educational subjects prior to 1970. The environmental literature is now profuse. We’ve come a long way conceptually and educationally. That’s a very good thing!

Yet still, environmental concerns are trumped by seemingly more pertinent issues—economic and social equity, health care, resurgent tribalism, violent conflict, global poverty, among many others, and the connections between these issues and the ecological fate of the planet are not easily perceived. What is the role of environmental studies in making those connections more clear?

Lately there has been much talk about the meaning of the Anthropocene, a dramatic concept suggesting that human impact on the earth is a significant enough biospheric and ecological dynamic so as to proclaim a new era on the geological time scale. Since Paul Crutzen, the atmospheric chemist proposed this term, we’ve seen an engaging literature discussing the appropriateness, interpretation, and significance of this concept, including numerous books, websites, and even a journal (Anthropocene, published by Elsevier). Whatever the scientific merits of the term, like the equally evocative “Gaia” it is sufficiently controversial to generate interesting discussion and commentary. What I take from the concept is that the terms of how we conceive environmental learning are rapidly changing. Forty-five years have passed since the first publication of the Whole Earth catalog. How shall we conceive of environmental learning all these years later? And how can we build on some of the important concepts from the first phase of environmental studies—place-based learning, bioregionalism, wilderness conservation, ecological restoration, natural history education, environmental justice, ecological economics, global environmental governance—while we confront the Anthropocene reality?

I’ve been considering six dynamic challenges that must be incorporated, internalized, and activated to expand environmental learning—the urban planet, a cosmopolitan culture, ecological equity and social justice, the proliferation of information networks, virtual natural history, and synthetic biology. These are by no means inclusive categories. There are countless ways to think about environmental learning in the Anthropocene. In my view, environmental studies is necessarily adaptive and the conditions that inform its structure are always in flux. Let’s launch the conversation.

Page through any contemporary world atlas, or compare maps of the world from 1950 to the present, and you will observe an extraordinary planetary urbanization process. Widen the temporal spread slightly and you encounter a stunning statistic. In 1900, two out of every ten people lived in an urban area. By 2050, it’s projected that seven out of every ten people will be urban dwellers. To cite the title of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything. Environmental studies must include urbanization as a critical informing dynamic. Accordingly programs in urban ecology, ecological urbanism, urban sustainability, among other configurations, are emerging. Blogs and websites such as The Nature of Cities (http://www.thenatureofcities.com), Next City (https://nextcity.org), 100 Resilient Cities (http://www.100resilientcities.org/blog#/-_/), The Urban Sustainability Directors Network (http://usdn.org/public/About-us.html) reflect an exciting proliferation of solution-based ideas and projects. Cities are centers of innovation and it is likely that the most groundbreaking ecological solutions will originate in urban systems. 

Planetary urbanization contributes to a vibrant cosmopolitan culture. Global cities include people from a great variety of cultural backgrounds. Some arrive there by virtue of choice and opportunity. Others arrive as a consequence of displacement—refugees from war, political upheaval, or environmental change, especially climate. Indeed, the unfortunate resurgence of anti-immigration sentiment is a reactionary, fear-based response to the inevitable planetary diaspora of people and species. Cultural diversity is parallel to biodiversity, and threats to both are equally challenging. How do people from different backgrounds learn, live, and work together? This challenge, too, should be fundamental to environmental learning in the Anthropocene.

Thomas Piketty’s great work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, develops the unassailable case that income inequality is a structural dysfunction of modern economies. The oligarchic concentration of wealth has huge implications for human flourishing, and important ramifications for natural resource distribution and ecological services. The term “ecological equity” brings attention to the connection between wealth inequality and the political economy of global environmental change. The advanced technologies and information networks of the Anthropocene have the potential to exacerbate wealth inequality or provide interesting new solutions for wealth sharing and creation.  Are there new approaches to both global environmental governance and local, bioregional politics that facilitate participation and engagement, and in so doing, bring the challenge of ecological equity to the foreground?

The proliferation of information networks continues unabated, bringing profound changes to how people and communities organize their lives. The dual promise of the “world wide web” provokes both excitement and ambivalence. Does it promote ubiquitous access to unlimited data or the end of privacy? The internet, computing, and social media create new templates for how people work, how they think, and how they perceive the biosphere. How does this impact environmental learning? Among other challenges, it means that there are entirely new professions that can potentially influence how we think about the environment and how to organize information and learning. Marshall McLuhan was correct. The very use of these “sensory enhancing” technologies radically changes human perception. 

Hence many people now learn about the biosphere through digital means. Such virtual learning is also a dual promise. On the one hand, environmental learning is enhanced by advanced instrumentation, allowing for the global exchange of data, spectacular imagery, and the ability to change perceptual scale through digitization techniques. Yet more screen time often sacrifices visceral apprehension, and interferes with the hands-on, place-based learning that has long been the foundation of environmental learning. Is there a useful blend of these learning venues? What is the role of environmental studies in navigating this boundary? 

Synthetic biology integrates genomic engineering, evolutionary biology and biodesign. Flip through the lavishly illustrated pages of Biodesign by William Myers and you’ll see the following topic headings: algal filter machine, bioencryption, aquadyne living wall, lung-on-a-chip, carnivorous domestic robots, among dozens more. Myers intends to portray the potential of ecologically-based solutions to a wide range of issues, including medical microbiology, materials design, urban planning, and ecological engineering. The various illustrations are alternately inspiring and grotesque, natural and alien, appealing and disconcerting. In Regenesis, George Church and Ed Regis explore how synthetic biology is intrinsic to the history of life on earth, and it opens a new dimension in planetary evolution. By what basis will consumers, producers, and regulators, make sense of these possibilities? And what’s the role of environmental studies in developing such criteria? 

I was nineteen years old in 1969 when I first discovered the Whole Earth Catalog. In many respects, I’ve spent an entire career developing environmental programs that reflected the vision and content of that wonderful book. And I still believe in many of the ideas and possibilities in its’ pages. But what’s in store for today’s nineteen year old, and how will she or he best prepare for the Anthropocene?  What is appropriate environmental learning in 2015? Surely today’s college student requires the “classic” skills of analysis, interpretation, synthesis, and reflective awareness. But what subjects must be studied? And what professions will these students enter? In what ways must the field of environmental studies be revitalized and ttransformed? What educational institutions, research centers, museums, and learning environments will take the necessary bold steps to initiate that transformation? In my next two columns, I’ll address these questions in more detail. 








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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

What is the Ecological Imagination?

The Ecological Imagination: A Portfolio of Possibilities

Mitchell Thomashow, December 2014

“Art and science: a system of checks and balances…. Science asks: what are the laws and patterns? Art answers: we make them up as we go.”  Alison Deming

The Concept: Why Do We Need The Ecological Imagination?

Learning how to perceive global environmental change is the crucial educational challenge of our times. The twenty-first century planetary crisis orbits around three integrated earth system trends—species extinctions and threats to biodiversity, rapidly changing oceanic and atmospheric circulations, and altered biogeochemical cycles. Despite extraordinary scientific advancements in detecting, monitoring, and interpreting these trends, for many people they remain obscure, remote, and removed from every day life. Why is this so? Shockingly few people observe the natural world, hence they are not cognitively prepared and they lack the experience to make these connections.

In 2001, I wrote Bringing the Biosphere Home (The MIT Press). I suggested that through intimate awareness of local natural history you can broaden your understanding of spatial and temporal variation, developing the capacity to interpret global environmental change. This intimate awareness requires the practice of daily observation, providing the tangible data and experience. Yet making the interpretive leap to connect the local and global, the past and future, the organism and the environment, place and the biosphere requires an ability to move through ecological and evolutionary space and time. This is best achieved by blending rigorous empiricism with leaps of imagination, the mutually supportive narratives of art and science, the ability to identify with and internalize biospheric processes, and to finally understand that human reflective awareness is a manifestation of the biosphere.

This is the foundation of a proposed project—The Ecological Imagination. Perceiving, interpreting and internalizing global environmental change requires a vivid imagination—the ability to move seamlessly through space and time, to expand vision, to think creatively, to improvise and adapt, to directly apprehend what is otherwise overlooked, to cultivate empathy and wisdom, to internalize biological and cultural diversity, and then finally to ask the big important questions about meaning and purpose. 

These big questions must literally be brought back to earth. The ecological imagination promotes educational practices, pedagogical experiments, and workplace applications that enhance biospheric perception. We need street art that provokes thinking about climate and biodiversity, poetry slams that spin tales of the future of life on earth, soundscape designs that help us listen to the biosphere, sustainability initiatives that are beautiful to behold, riveting essays and stories that interpret the meaning of climate change and how it impacts the future, ethical deliberations made real through everyday life decisions, ecologically-based art galleries and exhibitions, or rites of passage that blend conceptual breakthroughs with personal development. Confronting global environmental change challenges us to contemplate death, extinction, and suffering, too. The ecological imagination offers venues for doing so. Let us broaden the boundaries of expression.  

Voices of The Ecological Imagination 

The ecological imagination is embedded in every woman and man. I am convinced that there are scores of people, concerned citizens who care deeply about the future of the planet, who don’t have the appropriate venues for sharing those concerns. The environmental and sustainability professions, for all of their activism, intention, and accomplishment, have reached a temporary plateau.  We need to attract people in professions that may not be ostensibly environmental, but who have skills and approaches that can enhance the ecological imagination and whose contributions are essential. And there are many environmental and sustainability professionals who wish to expand the breadth, scope, and depth of their outreach. Further, there is a new generation of younger professionals with skills in areas such as social networking, computer programming, marketing and retail, data analysis and interpretation, innovative media, blogs and webinars, graphic design, game design, engineering, community planning and activism, the healing professions, public art and performance. We should be working together and sharing our expertise. 

Venues and Ventures

We start with the simplest venue, a gathering of the curious and interested. Perhaps a university, education center, or museum invites students, staff, faculty, and community members to discuss what the ecological imagination means to them, how they would like to pursue it, whether there are specific projects, installations, festivals, or conferences to move the ideas forward. It might start with a simple invitation—please help us unleash the ecological imagination, let us find where it resides, and where it might be manifest. Can we more precisely explain the concept, or develop resilient and evocative metaphors that will summon creativity and inspiration?

Perhaps the gathering and its offshoots leads to a course, or a sequence of courses, taught by small teams of collaborators, drawn from different fields, but emphasizing the integration of the arts and global change science. Those courses might generate new projects in a variety of venues, including webinars, podcasts, websites, as well as visceral encounters such as field trips, studios, workshops, murals, demonstrations and charettes. All of these projects together might lead to certificates, majors, or graduate programs

Interconnected Fields of Inquiry and Practice: A Preliminary Syllabus for The Ecological Imagination

Acoustic Ecology and Soundscape Design

The field of acoustic ecology involves the design, organization, and interpretation of sound, linking human awareness of sound to the vibrational dynamics of the ecosystem. Soundscape design applies acoustic ecology to habitats, landscapes, and buildings. Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology is published by the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. R. Murray Shafer’s book, The Tuning of the World, inspired several decades of research and practice.

Ecological Design

Ecological design uses the principles of biophilia, environmental perception, and architecture to design buildings that integrate ecological principles with human habitation. It includes the emerging fields of biomimicry, biodesign, biophilic design, synthetic biology, and conservation psychology. These fields are synthesized in Stephen Kellert’s fine book, Buildings for Life. Hundertwasser, the extraordinary Austrian artist, was an exemplar of the artistic incorporation of these concepts. See especially Andreas Hirsch, ed., Hundertwasser, The Art of the Green Path.

Interaction Pattern Design

Peter Kahn, a psychologist at The University of Washington, is developing the study and practice of interaction pattern design. “Interaction patterns can be compared to words, which have definitions, can be isolated, but rarely exist, by themselves. Some examples of interaction patterns include being under the night sky, sitting by a fire, recognizing and being recognized by a nonhuman other, hunting, foraging, walking the edges of nature, moving away from settlement and the return, and interacting with the periodicity of nature (such as the sunrise and sunset of each day, the seasons of the year, or the cycles of a garden).  It’s not enough just to bring elements of nature into the built environment.  Equally important is to create the affordances for people to interact with nature.” This builds on the work of philosopher David Abram, who writes vividly about the phenomenology of environmental perception in Becoming Animal.

Game Design

The extraordinary popularity of gaming of all kinds, from the computer to the board to the field, has spawned more than just a profitable industry, but academic programs organized around game design as a dynamic and versatile professional orientation. Games promote improvisation and imagination as well as the ability to explore and experiment with complex subject matter. The principles of game design lend themselves to ecological, evolutionary, and earth system concepts, allowing for scenario development, variable scalar dynamics, emergent properties, and interactive relationships. See the kind of ongoing work in places like New York University’s Game Center, as well as their new academic programs in Game Design.

Information Design and Infographics

Infographics is rapidly becoming a profound way to communicate complex information in a visually compelling way. Isabel Meirelles, in her book Design for Information elaborates on six approaches: hierarchical structures (trees), relational structures (networks), temporal structure (timelines and flows), spatial structures (maps), spatio-temporal structures, and textual structures. This is also an ideal conceptual approach for communicating concepts of global environmental change.

Public Art and Performance

A survey of public art, especially graffiti, murals, and sculptures, reveals an extraordinarily rich expressive content, filled with originality and spontaneity. You can easily develop a robust catalog of environmentally and socially related themes. Linda Weintraub, in To Life: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet provides a comprehensive guide to much of this work. Similarly compelling is the grassroots work of countless global artists, whose work demonstrates an indigenous, place-oriented approach to global environmental change. See Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents.

Narratives and Memoirs

Personal stories, illustrated journals, memoirs and biographies, non-fiction writing, poetry and fiction—all of these genres allow people to address their concerns, desires, hopes and dreams regarding their place in the world and the fate of the planet. With the multi-media possibilities now at hand, including on-line journals, graphic novels, field notebooks, and even “apps” there are cross-genre forms of expression of great interest and enormous influence. From Terrain to Ecotone to Yale Environment 360 to Orion, from digital publications to hand-written field notes, there are superb venues for personal and collective expression of the ecological imagination.

Barefoot Global Change Science

I describe my vision for barefoot global change science in Bringing the Biosphere Home:

“Cadres of citizens, schoolchildren, elders—people from all walks of life—meet in schools, libraries, parks, and on the Internet, to share stories and data. They pool their observations and expertise so they can track environmental change in their neighborhood. Via electronic communication, they compare data with folks from other places. Professional environmental scientists work regularly with citizen groups and school children to provide training and guidance. They jointly establish local research projects. Artists draw biospheric murals on the sides of buildings. A special television channel shows global change satellite maps twenty-four hours a day. Every computer is sold with built-in geographic information software.”

 Some of this work is already happening. It requires curation, organization, and intention. For an ecologist’s view on a similar approach, see Rafe Sagarin, Observational Ecology.

Exploratory Cartography

There is no better way to learn about your community than to draw a map of the place where you live, and to do so in the most expansive way possible. Consider a “map” in the broadest possible way—as a visual representation of the patterns of home, community, place and biosphere. Katherine Harmon has superbly curated such maps in her books You are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination and The Map as Art.

Projects for The Ecological Imagination

Many possibilities unfold. Let’s consider just a few topics that require our best attention and awareness. These might be courses in their own right, or the learning objectives for an entire program, or perhaps just special events and projects that are hosted where they are most relevant. I’ve listed just a few possibilities. Fill these in and invent new categories.

  • Biodiversity Hotspots and Cultural Diversity (The relationship between ecological and cultural diversity, cosmopolitan culture and urban ecology, the meaning of wilderness in the anthropocene).
  • Migration and Diaspora (the movement of peoples and species, environmental security and world peace, climate refugees, dislocation and anomie, homelessness, indigenous knowledge)
  • The Future of the City (urban ecology and sustainable systems, the urban rural divide, ecological architecture and city planning, participatory democracy, public health and social justice)
  • Biogeochemical Cycles, the Biosphere, and Microbial Ecology (earth system science and global change, interpreting global environmental change, biospheric perception, earth metabolisms, biogeography)
  • Seminal Moments During the History of Life on Earth (the great evolutionary transitions, the geological time scale, the origins of life, adaptation)
  • The Ecology of Improvisation (the biosphere as an improvisational process, how music, play, and art emulate biospheric processes, improvisation and learning, improvisation and leaderships)
  • The Next 100,000 Years (how to think about the distant future, intergenerational ethics, the future of life on earth)
  • This Place in Time (deep time and the present moment, cultural and historical origins of human habitation, family history, the natural history of home)
  • Earthly Cosmologies (earth-based knowledge systems in different cultural and historical settings, I Ching as biospheric knowledge system, the universe story, myth and narrative).

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.