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).

1 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.