You are chained inside a cave. You have been held immobile since birth, your gaze locked upon shadows projected on a wall. In such a condition, would you take these shadows for anything but the truth? This provocative question was put to us over two thousand years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato.
Now imagine you are somehow freed. You stand up. You look around at the burning fire and moving figures casting these shadows. For the first time, you recognize your once taken-for-granted "truth" as only one perspective among many.
What does this have to do with environmental education? Trade the cave for the classroom, the shadows for such notions as "natural resources", and the shackles for a science-soaked curriculum. Plato's allegory, then, gives us a powerful framework with which to discuss our practice.1
Within this framework, transformative education needs to be our collective bolt cutter. It needs to have the strength to break the historical chains confining us to a few dominant ways of thinking about Nature. As a starting point, it requires us as educators to go beyond casual treatments of external problems to earnestly contemplate our own internal perspectives. How do we look at the world? Why do we believe what we believe? These are questions with the power to cut chains. Lastly, this educational movement poses a fundamental call for all environmental educators and learners to diversify our ways of thinking about Nature.
O Teacher, please stand up
Several years ago I was teaching an extensive unit on environmental issues in my grade 11 class. We had spent weeks looking at the science behind such global perils as climate change and loss of biodiversity. The message was clear: We as a species are having a devastating impact on our environment on a scale never before seen. We need to change our footprint—and fast.
Following our textbook, we explored the ways in which modern science and technology serve as society's best means to fully comprehend and solve environmental problems. In both the classroom and the field, we explored how we can understand the environment by reducing our planet's complex ecosystems to basic physical mechanisms involving energy and material cycles (nitrogen, carbon, etc.). We discussed how we humans, as the most intelligent and powerful species on the planet, must carefully use measurement and observation to manage all of our resources and wisely conserve raw materials like water for our future use. Finally, we examined the need for all individuals to reduce emissions of CO2 through our daily choices. This we decided was the key to stopping further climate change.
By all accounts I thought I was doing a good job. By the unit's end I was confident students would be sufficiently knowledgeable to take action in their own lives.
On the last day I was approached by a young man, who looked like he had been holding back a troublesome question for some time. "Listen, we know that things are getting really bad in the world," he said. "But what can somebody like me really do?"
Without pausing, I rattled off what I myself had heard many times before. It was a typical list of what simple actions individuals can take to reduce their footprints. "Recycle," I pontificated. "Plant a garden. Change your light bulbs." The words spilled out of my mouth as effortlessly as nursery rhymes.
But as the student turned away, I could see disappointment on his face. He seemed to see right through my words. Did he recognize an educator's hidden fear of delving beyond the superficial, a refusal to look honestly at myself as somehow complicit in the state of the planet? There we were, having studied about the massive historical transformation of the planet's ecosystems, and I, the Teacher, was expecting to satisfy my pupil's desire for true answers by some light scientific inquiry and a paltry list of dos and don'ts.
With the best of intentions, I had belittled this young man. I had taken a moment in which he extended an open hand toward unfettered learning and I had not the wherewithal to offer him more than a lump of educationally-bereft coal. I began to reflect: Why was I so quick to answer in the way I had? Could my sole focus on ideas like resource management be overshadowing something just as important?
As environmental educators, we help young people understand the mechanical processes behind our ecological footprints. We encourage them to adopt bite-sized behaviour changes. But children, in all their authenticity, recognize that our ways of thinking are not lasting ways, and that fixes like recycling are nowhere near what is needed in the face of today's immense challenges. Then how do we as educators go beyond casual treatments of ecological issues to help our youth grapple with solutions in all their daunting immensity?
For both educator and learner, "standing up" to face the shadows of one's beliefs can be a frightening—even embarrassing—experience. The Irish poet William Butler Yates once wrote: "It takes more courage to dig deep into the dark corners of one's own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield." We educators must have the courage to reflect on our own beliefs. If we genuinely long for an education which transforms, we must acknowledge that educational practices based on our present beliefs may be part and parcel of the very ecological crises we encourage young people to overcome. My student's response that day had compelled me to venture beyond how I usually thought about environmental issues. I wondered: What lay past discussions of such things as footprints?
As we know, the ecological footprint is an empirical measure of the physical impact of human activity on the planet, measured in hectares (acres) of various types of land use. It allows us to have a better grasp of the Earth's physical limits with respect to our consumption of resources and production of waste. However, the footprint concept is limited to the external world of behaviour—on physical quantities for which we can account. Although useful, the footprint analysis seldom goes further. This is why the emerging concept of the "ecological thoughtprint" is essential for educators.
In his book A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting explains that the ways in which we have thought about Nature have always been important drivers for our actions. How we rationalize our treatment of Nature helps to steer our behaviour. For instance, many in North America justify large-scale cattle farming and beef consumption with a way of thinking that regards non-human animals as inferior automatons valuable only for their use as food and economic worth (in fact, the term capital may originally derive from heads of cattle). In both complex and subtle ways, how we think about Nature and rationalize our actions affects what we choose to do both as individuals and societies.
This is the basis for the ecological thoughtprint. It is also what sets this concept apart from the popular but inadequate notion of the ecological footprint. The ecological thoughtprint is a description of the specific ways of thinking related to Nature in which societies and individuals attempt to legitimize their activities. Rather than narrowing its focus to behaviour, we may think of the thoughtprint as how the mind decides where and how to plant the foot.
Sample "Modern" and "Alternative" Thoughtprint Structures
A journey of recognition
In order to move us toward transformative education, it is inward to this most thorny concept—the ecological thoughtprint—that we must now take a careful step. Just as an archaeologist would dig up layers of the past for interpretation, I went back over the course of the school year to examine how and what I might have been thinking about ecological issues. What I found, as with Plato's lone cave dweller, were troubling shadows on cave walls.
Not only had I focused solely on external ideas like footprints. Not only had I neglected any discussion of how culture relates to one's actions, but I also discovered a grave contradiction: my own ways of thinking were in conflict with my best intentions—and with the ultimate aims of environmental education.
To better understand this, let us reflect on the passage given earlier in which I describe my unit on environmental issues: "Following our textbook, we explored the ways in which modern science and technology serve as society's best means to fully comprehend and solve environmental problems…"
In the above passage, we find some of the ways of thinking which served as the basis for how and what I was teaching:
- scientism, the faith that modern science is the only authoritative source of knowledge;
- technological utopianism, a belief that advances in technology will solve any societal problem;
- mechanism, that Nature operates like a machine composed of distinct operating parts;
- empiricism, that true knowledge is based solely in observation;
- dualism, that humans are separate from Nature (and separate from "animals");
- anthropocentrism/speciesism, that humans are the most important and advanced living creatures;
- instrumental rationality, that Nature's sole purpose is to be utilized.
These ways of thinking—cultural shadows I had rarely questioned until now—formed a major part of my ecological thoughtprint.2
A broad scan of the past 400 years reveals the importance of our reliance on these same ways of thinking.3 Ways of thinking like dualism have empowered modern industrial societies to assume apparent control over the elements of Nature for their benefit. As a result, portions of the human population have been lifted out of subsistence and away from the sources of disease (albeit inequitably).
Our trust in the brilliant achievements of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism has resulted in dramatic improvements to the welfare of scores of people in industrialized nations.
At the same time, our infatuation with these ways of thinking has resulted in many of the global ecological and social crises we see today. It has legitimized the side-effects of "progress"—deforestation, overfishing, etc. We concede that modern science's conception of the laws of nature, rooted in Judeo-Christian religious thought, has fuelled European expansion and the decimation and devaluation of indigenous peoples worldwide.4 As Gregory Bateson has pointed out, "The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think."
Shining a light
Leonard Cohen sings: There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. By showing students the "cracks" of ecological thought, we can offer them the potential to see the world in entirely different ways. We can explore with students other viable ways of thinking to balance those to which we currently oversubscribe. Of course, there is no need to vilify particular
beliefs among our students. But the thoughtprints which may serve us best in the long run as we seek true sustainability may well be the most varied and complex.
Recently I attended an educational tour of a watershed. The site interpreters were highly skilled in communicating the need for greater appreciation and conservation of such a precious "commodity" as water. However, they failed to challenge the modern cultural perspective on water—that "it" is a mere non-renewable compound for human exploitation, a secular substance without any inherent purpose beyond utility for consumption, process and profit. Participants did gain information, but they left with their thoughtprints—and hearts—untouched.
However, when we experience stories such as Tekahionwake's (E. Pauline Johnson) The Lure in Stanley Park, we begin to open up to possibilities of diverse cognitive relationships with the elements of Nature. In this tale, the author describes a Coast Salish traditional view that what some might simply consider a so-called resource—a tree—is actually the embodiment of pure goodness. Trees, she writes, are "the kindly people, the humane, sympathetic, charitable people" transformed by the Great Spirit.7 Through critical contemplation of the beliefs of various societies, young people can discover that we are not chained to one lone way of thinking about the world or to any single story of truth.
This brings us back to Plato's allegory. To the cave dweller, the shadows on the wall may be all that she or he has ever known, but they are not enough. The shackled cave dweller is not complete; nor are we as educators and students if we do not openly face ourselves.
If that troubled young man came back now to ask, "What can I do?" I would still tell him to change his proverbial light bulbs. After all, behaviour change is a certain part of any lasting ecological relationship. But I would also welcome and accompany him on a transformative educational journey to boldly confront our ecological thoughtprints.
Ecological Thoughtprint Activities
Goal: Students use personal reflection to recognize their own and others' thoughtprints.
Participants: Pairs/groups, grades 8-12 (For grades 5-9, omit the academic names for ways of thinking and simplify the statements).
Further study: Groups research the history of their assigned way of thinking and how, at key points in time, it may have helped to legitimize changes in human behaviour toward the planet.
- Establish guidelines for respectful dialogue.
- Present each group with a challenging statement which represents a certain way of thinking. Simplified statements and their underlying ways of thinking, may include:
- Humans are separate from Nature (dualism).
- Nature is like a factory which manufactures various products and materials (mechanism).
- Scientific knowledge is the best form of knowledge about Nature (scientism).
- Humans are superior to other living beings (speciesism).
- Society in the present is better than in the past, and society in the future will be better than in the present (progressivism).
- Each group discusses their statement, guided by the following questions:
- What does this mean?
- Do you agree? If so, are you sure? What makes you so sure?
- Where do you think you adopted this belief?
- If you do not agree with this statement, what gives you doubt?
- Do your daily actions match your belief about this statement? Why or why not? What would it mean to truly act out this belief?
- Are there people in different places or times in history who might disagree with this statement? Why do you think they would disagree?
- Groups summarize their discussion and present to the class.
Where do our words come from?
Goal: Students examine common Nature-related words to gain insight on problematic thoughtprints, and to become more curious about the origin of their own words and thoughts.
Participants: Pairs, grades 11-12.
Further study: Students critically examine other Nature-related words they find in media, such as their textbooks, newspapers (etc.) to identify underlying ways of thinking.
- Introduce Chet Bowers' quotation "Every word has a history." Every word (and the concept it encodes) comes from a specific time, place and culture. Through language, we inherit and pass along historical ways of thinking about the world, often without realizing.
- Give each pair a word commonly used to talk about ecology, such as: environment, resource, species, organism, park, pollution, agriculture, garbage, livestock, progress, virgin forest, landfill/dump, game (wild animal), recycling, evolution, ecosystem, deforestation, climate, farm, zoo, property, civilization, science, etc.
- Students use the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/) to investigate their original meanings/roots and from where and when these words came into everyday use. Have students share their results with the class.
- Ask each pair to discuss:
- How did the initial use of these new words change how people thought about Nature?
- What sorts of beliefs are hidden behind these words? (e.g. The term "environment" is based on the idea that Nature is what surrounds but does not include us.)
- If we didn't have these words, how might we talk about Nature?
- Why is it important to know the place, time and culture from which we got Nature-related words?
Goal: Students understand that the modern way of thinking about natural resources is only one of many possible cultural perspectives.
Participants: Small groups, grades 5-12 (To adapt for younger learners, ask them to draw their perception of the resource).
Further study: Using cue cards, make two piles, one of resources and the other of different cultures from around the world. Each student randomly chooses one resource and one culture (including a modern culture) from each pile. She or he must make a research poster showing what significance this resource has in this particular culture.
- Each group chooses an image (or, when possible, a sample) of a "natural resource": water, air, fish, trees, rocks, soil, the Sun, etc.
- Students silently spend a few minutes reflecting on what their "resource" personally means to them.
- Group members discuss:
- What did you think about? What was the first thing that came to mind?
- Why do you think this came to mind? Where did you get this idea?
- In what way is this resource most significant (or important) to you? Why?
- Does this resource have significance beyond its modern uses (for human consumption/exploitation)?
- How might humans act toward this resource if they accept only the modern perspective?
- How might different cultures or peoples in history regard this resource? How might they then act toward it?
1. Plato, Republic ("The Simile of the Cave"), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974, pp. 240-48.
2. C. Ponting, A Green History of the World, Sinclair-Stevenson Limited, 1991.
3. S. Goobie,
Yes We Can: Sustaining a Language for the Land in Education (M.Ed. capstone paper), 2009.
4. S. Harding, "Is Science Multicultural? Challenges, Resources, Opportunities, Uncertainties", in D. T. Goldberg (Ed.), Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.
5. E. P. Johnson, Legends of Vancouver, Canada: McClelland & Steward, 1961.
About the Author: Stephen K. Goobie is Vice Principal and teacher at Bodwell High School, an international school in North Vancouver, British Columbia which promotes cross-cultural understanding. He is also a director of Cool North Shore, a regional climate change advocacy group, and is currently developing the "Ecological Thoughtprint Analysis Tool" for use by educators. Stephen may be contacted at email@example.com.