Why Garden in School? (Part 4)

GardenCan School Gardening Help Save Civilization?

(An Essay in Four Parts)

by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School

This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.

See previous posts:
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden
Part III: Mesopotamia and the Garden


Part IV: The Future in the Garden

This last essay section, focusing on cosmology, or how we view ourselves in the cosmos, is necessarily more speculative than the preceding three sections, which focused on science and history. I am leaning here now toward pedagogy, poetry, art, gardening, and religion, as this time in history, with its interwoven issues of hunger, global warming, desertification, and biodiversity loss, all cry out for new, less destructive operating instructions for our time on planet Earth. In order to save our species on this planet this century, our cosmology needs to shift in four crucial ways.

The first paradigm shift has to do with how we view human history. We need to begin to view human history as a history of land and water use. The story of any empire and civilization is the story of how it treats its dirt, water, and air. When empires collapse, as Jared Diamond shows in his book by the same name, and as Ponting illustrates in Green History of the World, it is because the people cut down their trees, overgraze their livestock, overplant monocrops, intensify irrigation, overfish their waters, allow erosion to strip the topsoil, and invite salinization. “There have been from ten to thirty civilizations,” E.F. Schumacher (1973) writes, “that have followed this road to ruin” (p. 109). Diamond might put this number higher, but the fact remains that modern environmental historians—historians that read history as the story of human interaction with the land, water, and air—all find that Mesopotamia is the first and most obvious case study for road to ruin, which is another reason why we teach it. Switching our study of history to a greener lens will foreground the environment that supports or slays us.

The second cosmological shift that needs to occur is to move from a human vs. nature cosmology to human as nature cosmology. The way we explain it to our students is that we need to move from the ancient mythologies of Mesopotamia to something akin to the futuristic story of the blue people presented in James Cameron’s movie Avatar (2009). The stories we tell our young are the lenses with which they see, which therefore determine their focus and what they can see. Think of Finding Nemo (2003), Happy Feet (2006), Wall-E (2008), Ferngully (1992), Free Willy (1993), Princess Mononoke (1997), and The Lorax (2012). These movies and more like them are attempting to reset for children the notion that we are not just in nature, but that without nature we will perish, since nature is in us.

On the other hand, J. Donald Hughes and others have commented that the Old Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish (Dalley, 1998), the oral creation story told contemporaneously with Gilgamesh, provides backstory for Gilgamesh and the later narratives of Genesis and Deucalion. These early Mesopotamian tales establish the people vs. nature conflict. J. Donald Hughes writes that “the motif of human struggle against hostile nature is prominent in the mythologies of Mesopotamia, where the first cities arose. . . . In Enuma Elish the world is shown to be the result of a battle between Tiamat, the female monster of chaotic nature, and Marduk, the male champion of the new order of the gods” (2001, p. 34). Marduk slays Tiamat, and, with violent imagery, is said to split her body in two, to create the sky above and the sea on earth below. He then banishes the wild creatures, identifying them as food and enemies of humans. Next he builds Esharra, a city of straight roads and glittering palaces, in the sky, home of the gods. The stories that the Mesopotamians told themselves are instructive for us today, as we have inherited the narrative legacy, perhaps most notably from Genesis and the later Greek myths, all of which borrowed from the earlier stories of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish; more importantly, however, we have inherited a false and harmful cosmology that boasts of one patriarchal male hero after another triumphing over nature, which is an enemy, and, not coincidentally, symbolically figured as female.

We need to move away from a relationship with Earth that advocates patriarchal control of nature—which is seen, dichotomously, on the one hand, as either chaotic and savage, or, on the other, as mechanistic and impersonal—for extraction of resources benefitting humans alone. Regardless of emphasis, both present a false human vs. nature model.

The false paradigm of savage nature to be dominated, Elaine Pagels argues in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), is enshrined for many by the millennia of aforementioned stories in the Middle East, culminating, perhaps, with Genesis 1: 28-29, where God tells Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. . . . I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth; and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Holy Bible, p. 1). This hierarchical paradigm of humans reigning over and above mysterious, tumultuous nature held sway until the Copernican revolution dislodged it in the 1500s and early 1600s, when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo proved that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa. The heliocentric solar system decentered earth from primacy in the cosmos and therefore also called into question the notion from Genesis that humanity was ever given this planet by a god 3000 years earlier, when Genesis was written. If the earth wasn’t fixed in the center of the cosmos and the heavens set for eternity, as centuries of priests and other teachers had taught, then a new narrative was needed, which modern science provided.

I here point out to my students that although the European conception of nature may have shifted historically after the Copernican revolution from nature-as-enigmatic-beast-that-needs-shepherding-by-humans to nature-as-clock, the conception of humans as standing apart from and above nature persisted across that divide nonetheless. Still, it is also important to note, I also tell my students, that the Copernican revolution by in large ushered out the kinship that humans had also experienced for centuries between themselves and the rest of creation. Whereas prior to the 1600s people could align themselves imaginatively with other flora and fauna under the banner of creatures created by a divine Creator, after the 1600s, that trope was seriously called into question by irrefutable scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric heavens that flatly contradicted over a thousand years of inherited cosmology. The church’s authority as intellectually authoritative was challenged, especially after Pope Paul V ordered Galileo in 1616 not to support the most compelling scientific discovery of his day, the heliocentric truth. If the pope as leader of the church could not accept math and science, many felt for the first time, then perhaps it was best to leave his teachings behind.

The truth won out, of course, despite the papal muzzle. That victory was also seen by many as Pyrrhic, though, for the cosmos became, in effect, desecrated, mathematical, and mechanistic, held together mysteriously by forces such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s laws of motion, none of which were mentioned in scripture. The common cosmology, Merchant (1989) notes, “thus reordered the world in terms of a new metaphor, the machine. The cosmos was operated from the outside by God” (209). Science and industry joined ranks during the 1700s in an effort to not only understand the predictable regularity of this earthly machine but to create its own machines to mine from the earth the metals, minerals, textiles, timber, and food that humans needed. The divine receded back behind the clouds, and the scientists, merchants, and inventors became the new interpreters of material reality.

Still, it wasn’t as though science had all the answers, either. Poverty and disease predominated during the build up to the Renaissance. People couldn’t eat mathematical theorems or astronomical theories, and they labored through their relatively short lives with their families, finding, as people do, what happiness, hope, and sense of belonging they could. A vacuum, in any case, had been created during the critical centuries of the 1500s and 1600s, and into it rushed our modern worldview, which unfortunately perpetuated the human vs. nature false contrast.

Theodore Roszak (1969, p. 205-238), Richard Tarnas (1991, p. 395-310; 2006, p. 26-36), and Morris Berman (1984, p. 13-35) all chronicle the development of the second false human vs. nature narrative provided by science—viewing nature and the cosmos as mechanistic and impersonal—by tracing what Roszak calls the myth of objective consciousness, what Tarnas names the modern mind, and what Berman terms modern scientific consciousness. All three are writing about our current cosmology, which has been empirical and scientific for four hundred years, since Bacon and Descartes wrote in the 1600s.

Tarnas borrows Max Weber’s phrase to say that the modern mind sees the cosmos as “disenchanted” (2006, p. 20), or empty of cosmic meaning, because humans assume that there exists a foundational divide between an internal subjective self and an external objective world. Nature, whether one conceives of it as threatening or mechanical, is simply “out there,” the place we go camping, and it is propelled by either chance or savage necessity. Things happen in nature for outrageous reasons, for no reasons at all, or because they had to happen that way. Nature lacks intelligence and interiority in this paradigm; it is also blind and deaf to human perception, desire, and hope because it is unfeeling, unresponsive. It cannot be said to harbor meaning at all, actually; meaning is something human beings attach to nature—indeed, to all of life. This disenchantment leads to an inevitable conclusion for humans that we are alone in an impersonal, purposeless cosmos scrubbed free of the sacred. “The soul of the world has been extinguished,” Tarnas writes. “Ancient trees and forests can then be seen as nothing but potential lumber; mountains nothing but mineral deposits; seashores and deserts are oil reserves; lakes and rivers, engineering tools. Animals are perceived as harvestable commodities, indigenous tribes as obstructing relics” (2006, p. 32).

Roszak (1969) contends that even though we should, “we don’t trust to the way of the world. We have learned. . . from the objective mode of consciousness . . . to think of the earth as a pit of snares and sorrows. Nature is that which must be taken unsentimentally in hand and made livable by feverish effort, ideally by replacing more and more of it with man-made substitutes” (249-250). People in modern times have become progressively more detached from the sources of their food, clothes, water, and shelter. We have also, as a byproduct of urban modernity and settling in cities, lost the sense of magic and wonder that came effortlessly to indigenous peoples living in close proximity to the land. Modern urbanites no longer bless the source of our survival; we teach our children, in fact, to avoid pastures, rivers, and forests and to think of them as dirty and uncultured, and, in an odd sort of illogic, as both unsafe and boring.

Berman also argues that the ecological problems that human have induced in the last 400 years have their roots in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the view of nature that had been commonplace for 99% of human history slowly shifted, over the course of one hundred years, to one that removed humans from nature and turned nature, conceptually, into either a wrist watch or a set of resources to extract. “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging.” The story of modern humanity for the last several hundred years is “one of progressive disenchantment. From the sixteenth century on, mind has been progressively expunged from the phenomenal world. . . . That mode can best be described as disenchanted, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with nature, but rather total separation from it” (1984, p. 2-3). Once people were removed from their ancestral homes, they felt no compunction to protect those homes, and the drilling, mining, and deforestation began on an industrial, international scale.

Writing not about philosophers or scientists, but about children today, Richard Louv (2008) likewise argues that children are alienated from the centers of their own being, in a syndrome he names “nature deficit disorder” (p. 10). Children fifty years ago used to spend much more time outside playing, hiking, riding bikes, climbing tress, playing ball games, skating, swimming, chasing each other. They felt more at home in nature—not as comfortable as children prior to the Scientific Revolution, perhaps, but more comfortable than children today. Because children spend more of their time today sedentary, inside, staring at electronically humming screens, Louv shows that attention disorders, anxiety, obesity, and depression have all risen to all-time highs.

The way out of this soulless, deadened boredom is to not only go outside into nature but to realize that we are nature, inextricably entwined with the whole. Roszak points out that “scientific consciousness depreciates our capacity for wonder by progressively estranging us from the magic of the environment” (1969, p. 252). To take back our inborn wonder, he suggests looking to poets and other visionaries such as Blake, Tolstoy, or Dante (p. 237) who utilize what he calls “magical vision” to see “the beauty of the deeply sensed, sacramental presence” in nature (252-253). The presence that is seen by the adoring eyes of the visionary awes the visionary, as she sees power and grace not only above, below, and around humanity, but permeating the insides of people as well.

This cosmological shift allows one to see that we are manifestations of the natural through which nature expresses itself. We are embodied creatures with the capacities to taste and delight in plucking the summer’s first ripe raspberries, listen in wonder to Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1985), or witness with growing anticipation and then awed gratitude the birth of a child. Nature has given us the senses to invite and embrace the sensual world. There can be no shame in being animal or embodied in this new worldview. Vandana Shiva (2008), in her inimitable way, reminds us that, in any case, there is no post-food society (p. 38); in other words, we cannot, nor can any other animal, transcend our animal-body’s requirements for food, water, and breath, much as we might want to do so. When we look at what we must have in order to survive, we realize we are nature. That we have taught children otherwise since Shakespeare’s time is a great injustice.

I present this new world view, of humans as nature, to my students in many texts, including the poetry of Mary Oliver (2004; 2005), Walt Whitman (2011), and William Wordsworth (1982), who, in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” presented a vision of this re-enchanted world:

“. . . For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man” (p. 92).

Humans are nature and nature is human for Wordsworth, and we too need to accept this second cosmological shift in order to cease the plundering of the planet.
This human-as-nature pronouncement is not some naïve noble savage daydream, but science, actually. Our sixth graders study for a time the eukaryotes, or cells with nuclei, and their myriad organelles—mitochondria, Golgi apparatus, and the like. They note that these eukaryotes have assembled themselves over billions of years into an unfathomable array of life expressions on this planet—foxglove, foxes, pollywogs, and humans—all seemingly distinct, yet all, science shows us, incredibly similar at a cellular level. We’ve heard Jane Goodall (2010 a; 2010 b) telling us about the similarity between primates and humans for decades, but most of us simply enjoy the new Disney movie Chimpanzee (Fothergill, 2012) without cosmological shift. Until we recognize the other flora and fauna of the world as siblings, the possibility of planetary ransacking will continue. The science of the 21st century will help us, though, for “to distinguish between human cells and those of newts, seals, or coyotes, one has to descend to the molecular level of the cell to find the odd dissimilarity” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171). This essential, foundational fact alters the hierarchical relationship established by the Enuma Elish and Genesis (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #1), or by Francis Bacon’s Essays (1986) and William Harvey’s On Motion and Blood in Animals (1993) (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #2). Humans are not separate from some external nature out there; rather, “we are nature, a realization that stopped Emerson dead in his tracks in Paris, and may it stop us in ours. We live in community, not alone, and any sense of separateness that we harbor is illusion. Humans are animals, albeit extraordinary ones, and have not special immunity conferred upon them” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171), ancient religious narratives notwithstanding.

The third cosmological shift is a move to rescue from the past our rootedness to Earth, the health of our own bodies, and our interconnection to one another. Berman says, in a memorable turn of phrase, that we have to “go backward in order to go forward . . . to recover our future” (p. 282). The shift, Tarnas says, is through an embrace of what he calls the “primal world view” (2006, p. 16-17), which has survived from Gobekli Tepe to present day in indigenous cultures, intelligent biodiverse farming communities, animism, paganism, art, pantheism, poetry, and mystical branches of the major faith traditions. The primal mind sees nature as being infused with the divine, as the sacred immanent in this creation rather than distantly hovering above it. The words of poets, saints, and visionaries are presented frequently toward the end of this unit in order to orient the students to this third cosmological shift; the work of the Romantic poets, the Transcendentalists, Rumi (Barks, 1997), and, perhaps the paradigmatic primal poet, Mary Oliver, all are featured. We focus, in particular, on three of Oliver’s poems, giving them all close readings: “Peonies” (2004, p. 21-22), “Mindful” (2005, p. 90-91), and “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” (2005, p. 104-105). All three poems urge the readers to search for eternity in this hour right now and to look for the infinite in the grains of sand before us.

In this way, we try to rediscover that spirits and messages are seen all throughout creation, in the flow of the holy Ganges river, to the sacred Mt. Saint Helens’ volcanic eruption, in the epic travels of humpback whales and great soaring speeds of the peregrine falcon, to the desperate attacks of polar bears whose homes and food are being lost to polar ice cap melt. “The primal world is ensouled,” Tarnas explains (2006, p. 16). Not only does the world, as viewed with the primal mindset, send us messages (think New Orleans flooding), it also permeates our unconscious world as expressed in our dreams, poetry, painting, music, and prayers.
We experience this Great Spirit flowing through all things on a daily basis, I tell my students; we just have to be quiet and listen to the whisper within. There is a river of words, I tell them as we sit down to write poetry, flowing always through our minds, originating at the start of the creation of the universe, fed by tributaries of ancestral memories from cultures around the world. I share with my students the William Carlos Williams (1963) lines from Paterson:
“The past above, the future below
and the present pouring down: the roar,
the roar of the present, a speech—
is, of necessity, my sole concern.
. . . I cannot stay here
to spend my life looking into the past:
the future’s no answer. I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself
comb out the language—or succumb” (p. 144-145).

Our job as poets and unique expressions of the cosmos, as Williams says, is to decipher and articulate how the universe wants to express Itself through us. This is obviously tricky terrain to navigate with eleven and twelve year-olds, as it plunges pretty quickly into the tangled thickets of mystical religious concepts, Jungian depth psychology, neo-Kantian philosophy, Romantic poetry, guided visualization exercises, and meditation activities—not your easily articulated average daily sixth grade curriculum. It simply feels a little too groovy for about half of them. We therefore try to ground the concepts of interconnection and primal mind in the garden and in images of nature.

To warm them up, my history teacher partner shows them the stunningly beautiful online TED talk on Gratitude by time-lapse photographer Louis Schwartzberg (2011). His beautiful images of flowers, butterflies, old growth forests and the rest are accompanied by voice-over sage insights that illuminate our connection to the world and to each other. It is clear to Schwarzberg that we all—young and old humans, butterflies, sunsets, flowers—live, move, and have our being in the same anima mundi. The soul of the world, he shows, is in us, around us, and binding us together.

One of my jobs as a teacher is to enliven that connection with nature within and without the child so that we ache to preserve it and therefore our chance at survival. I try to show that balanced relationships pervade, indeed define, naturally occurring ecosystems and gardens that are intelligently designed with permaculture principles. We try to dispel centuries of fear of dirt and insect. No topsoil, no life, we tell students, and No honeybees, very boring food. We teach that “not only are bugs, birds, mammals, and microbes essential partners in every kind of garden, but with clever design, they can work with us to minimize our labor and maximize the beauty, health, and productivity of our landscapes” (Hemenway, 2009, p. 9). We teach them about life cycles, collecting seeds, planting and transplanting from the greenhouse, companion planting, pollination, mulching, rain gardens, bioswales, native plant diversity, harvesting, cooking, eating, flower bouquet arrangement, good table manners, composting back into the garden, and the symbiotic relationships that pervade the cosmos. I am trying to reveal that “primal experience takes place, as it were, within a world soul, an anima mundi, a living matrix of embodied meaning” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17). Reconnecting to the first civilization in ancient Iraq, with their reading, writing, gardening, food preparation, and eating, our students embody the oldest desires of civilized humans striving for community. The world soul speaks to us out of the past, from the primal, as we harvest, thresh, winnow, and grind wheat in our garden, then enjoy the baked pita from our cob oven during our Mesopotamian Feast Day. On days like this outside, “human beings perceive themselves as directly—emotionally, mystically, consequentially—participating in and communicating with the life of the natural world and cosmos” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17).

Roszak, Tarnas, and Berman are all careful, though, to point out that we cannot, given our postmodern urbanity and the advanced ecological destruction of our planet, totally embrace the primal of the distant past. It is too late for that. “Here, then, is the crux of the modern dilemma,” Berman writes. “We cannot go back to alchemy or animism. . . ; but the alternative is the grim, scientistic (sic), totally controlled world of nuclear reactors, microprocessors, and genetic engineering. . . . Some type of holistic, or participating, consciousness and a corresponding sociopolitical formation have to emerge if we are to survive as a species” (p. 10). Roszak agrees that native, indigenous cultures may serve as models for us moderns, but we cannot copy them and hope to arrive at functional, sustainable worldviews dredged from museums or holy books. Instead, we need to cultivate—with one eye on social justice and one eye on environmental conservation—a new capacity to communion with the sacramental presence of the cosmos, which is just as present today as It was on any day of existence (264-268).

As a sixth grade teacher, I believe that the way forward that allows space for participating consciousness to co-evolve with new sociopolitical formations is already occurring, as Hawken points out in Blessed Unrest—and indeed, this dynamism has been a subtext to humanity’s evolution all along; we have never been without it, actually. Still, to expand that dynamism to a worldwide stage requires the fourth and final cosmological shift.

The last cosmological shift is a move to embrace all peoples, the world over, as part of the same human family in what Jeremy Rifkin calls a global “empathic civilization” or what Berman calls a “planetary culture” (p. 277). At first blush, after accepting our kinship with whales and fungi in the second and third cosmological shifts, this would seem an easier row to hoe. Still, I ask my students, do we really have that much in common with Neolithic people or people on the other side of the planet today?
Answering this question in the affirmative, I first show my students that our brains are connected to the brains of every other person on the planet. We are softwired for empathy, to feel instinctually what others feel. I show my students a NOVA (2005) video on mirror neurons, extrapolating that our inbred ability to involuntarily, unconsciously know and respond to the feelings of others is nature connecting to Itself through us. When I see joy or misery on the face of another, I instinctually feel the same way myself. Nature has programmed us this way so that our species might survive communally. Testing this notion, I then ask my students, Isn’t evolution about competition rather than cooperation?

I then share some of Martin Nowak’s (2012) research, which shows that “cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning” (p. 38). Nowak, as director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, utilizes mathematics and game theory to better understand the unconscious driving forces of evolutionary biology. He has found that the traditional pseudo-Darwinian understanding of human evolution—that nature is in constant bloody struggle with only the strongest surviving and propagating—is simply incorrect. Instead, he identifies and details five mechanisms that allow cooperative communities to flourish and survive over time. Perhaps the most surprising of his discoveries is that humans decide to help strangers based upon that stranger’s reputation as someone who has helped another person. We scratch the backs of those who have scratched those of others. Driving this unconscious human impulse, Nowak speculates, is the feeling that if we help a stranger in a time of need, others will see and will help us when we fall into need ourselves. Certainly we see this type of group bonding in other groups of mammals, but what makes humans the most helpful species to each other is our language, which allows us to extend our stories of empathy and compassion and thus our social networks around the world. We do, in fact, relate to Neolithic people and to our contemporaries in Bhutan, for example. This ability to see ourselves in others and reach out to help them is not only vital to the survival of individual cultures, civilizations, and empires; our storytelling and providing goodwill to strangers is also “central to our adaptability as a species. As the human population and the climate changes, we will need to harness that adaptability and figure out ways to work together to save the planet and its inhabitants” (38-39).

This fourth shift is not simply mental, therefore, but one enacted with a change in daily material living conditions. We speculate with our students that in order to survive the interwoven ecological challenges of this century, human beings may have to create a matrix of semi-autonomous nearly self-sufficient communities of around 500 people each that are socially, economically, and environmentally just—that, indeed, as Hawken reminds us, these three nodes of justice all fail if one fails. What will these communities look like?

Berman’s future “planetary culture” would have extended family living together, the young, middle aged, and elderly in the same houses, on the same land, emphasizing community rather than individuality and competition (p. 277). An irony here, of course, is that, recognizing the empty promises of globalization to achieve global justice, Berman advocates the local and autonomous as a global solution, echoing the bumper sticker Live Simply So That Other May Simply Live. Jan Martin Bang (2005) has written and taken photographs of twenty such “ecovillages” in his book by the same title. Such deliberately small-scale living arrangements, Bang reveals, have always existed, since Mesopotamia, and they are making a comeback, given how fossil fuel dependent globalization has imperiled life on Earth. A growing number of people are hungry to live self-sufficient lives in groups on organically farmed land, where the community shares chores, property, birth, death, childcare, birthdays, and bounty.

Thom Hartmann (2004) calls these communities “intentional communities,” and he argues that the most successful communities are the ones “with a shared vision that is put into action” (p. 316). He is not talking about the failed religious experiments of millennialism, the back-to-the-land communes of most people in the 1960s, or the armed, politically extreme militias movements. Hartmann clarifies that the “primary key to successful, long-term community is that the group of people are interdependent for their survival or livelihood” (319). The communities with the most successfully employed fourth cosmological shift are the ones that meet “vital social and spiritual needs as well as providing for the life-support needs (food, shelter, and sometimes employment) of their members” (320). Sometimes the community works together, sometimes lives together, and sometimes lives and works apart; however, in all cases, the community works to provide goods, services, emotional support, and friendship to each other.

On a larger, societal level, Berman would have an embrace of diversity, whether this applies to biodiversity and protection of endangered species, or to marginalized cultures and dying human languages. The larger societal cosmology would “be preoccupied with fitting into nature rather than attempting to master it” (Berman, 1984, p. 278). The goals would include clean air, water, and soil. Politically, we would decentralize and move to smaller institutions of regional, autonomous, and local control. Community hospitals, food cooperatives, neighborhood associations, community centers, strong neighborhood schools, and community gardens and farms would proliferate. The paradigm shift in cosmology would be marked by intense study of and adherence to the manifold principles advocated by feminism, ecology, cultural diversity, and spiritual renewal.

Rifkin’s model for a future global civilization starts somewhere in Berman’s neighborhood, then quickly expands to promote the adoption of what he calls “biosphere consciousness” (p. 475) via Internet connections. People used to empathize with their family members and nomadic tribes before the founding of Mesopotamia. With the founding of cities, however, in Sumeria, and the specialization of labor, followed by the influx of new ideas brought in by trade, people’s empathy expanded to include others in their own cities, as they began to think of themselves of citizens of Uruk, for example. The pains and pleasures of their fellow citizens became the province of each individual in the first cities, as she could easily imagine herself in the place of another in like social caste. Later, after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, which catapulted European literacy and allowed people to take in the news from other worlds that started being spread by the great seafaring colonizing countries of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England, people’s empathy were enlarged once again to include the stories of peoples in foreign lands. Later, during the Industrial Revolution and the advent of nation-states following the convulsions of revolutions against monarchies, Europeans began thinking of themselves as Spaniards, Poles, and the like.

Today, Rifkin says, we stand at the gate of global consciousness, made possible by social networking technologies such as Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Videos such as Kony 2012 (Vandivort, 2012), for example, can go viral, and, as in the case of that particular film made in March of 2012, over 100 million people can be drawn to a social justice cause in less than a month. Rifkin embraces the promise of these electronic technologies as a means to help us learn about our fellow humans on earth and thereby deepen our empathy and connection to people whom at first glance might appear unlike ourselves. Nowak’s research, remember, supports Rifkin’s contentions, as human communities evolve biologically most successfully when they have information about other communities, their group’s reputation is shared in a social network, and they are able to assist other communities in need in a public, open forum with other communities observing (38-39).

We are coming full circle here, back to our first enduring understanding which stated that people at bottom have always had, in all times and places, similar desires: the desire for food, water, and safe lodging for their children. Rifkin adds to this the fact that our technological connectivity today enables a new, global ecological conviction, biosphere consciousness. This new cosmological paradigm, which is “the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race” (p. 593) gathers together people of all nations, ironically, under the banner of fighting for survival due to the complex threats posed by global warming, hunger, water scarcity, and the other predicaments detailed in sections one and two of this essay.

Rifkin wonders, though, along with the sixth grade teachers at Catlin Gabel—given the fact that climate change seems to be progressing just as quickly as technological innovations that allow the worldwide spread of this biosphere consciousness—if the technology will raise consciousness quickly enough to avoid the most heinous of global warming’s possible impacts.

Initial returns bring Rifkin qualified hope. He traces the explosion of biosphere consciousness to 1979, the year James Lovelock’s book Gaia was published. Earth, Lovelock proposed, was a self-regulating, evolving living organism that enables countless symbiotic relationships between species and geochemical processes to proceed within networks of interconnected ecosystems. When the organism’s biochemical balance and ecosystem stability is threatened by an activity, such as uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels by humans, the very lives of the species within the interconnected ecosystems within the larger organism are threatened. This new view of our planet provided one of the most significant cosmological shifts since the Scientific Revolution. Readers were brought to understand that nature did not reside in objects, but in relationships, that concerned scientists should not remain distantly objective, but should involve themselves to participate within nature toward its conservation. Lovelock’s vision of science, says Rifkin, “takes us from a colonial vision of nature as an enemy to pillage and enslave, to a new vision of nature as a community to nurture” (p. 600).

Rifkin identifies not only the Internet as an agent of positive change to spread the word about the community of nature; he also points to the American classroom as a place where the most synergistic alliances are being forged between biosphere awareness and empathic development. “Children are becoming aware that everything they do—the very way they live—affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we cohabit” (Rifkin, 2009, p. 601). In the 6th grade, to this end, we ask the students to do energy, food, and water audits of their lives for one week, then we discuss solutions for not only reducing waste and carbon footprints, but we also explore solutions, as a group, for making sure other people on the planet and our fellow creatures get the food and water and habitat security that they need as well. We also take weeks reading nonfiction excerpts related to gardening and walking through the nine reasons why we garden using the problem-solution pattern explained in section two of this essay. Students finish the unit feeling that their daily choices, especially around food and water, really do change the world, both within their own bodies and in their communities.

The final cosmological shift wends its way here, then, to this final convergence: my sixth grade colleagues and I teach garden in school so that our students can create a new narrative to pass along to their great grandchildren about a day long in the past when school became a place for the following: to identify empathically with all living people, in order to ensure that the basic needs of all, regardless of age, sex, ethnic background, or geographical location, are being met; to affirm the deep interdependence between the land, water, climate, and living creatures of this world in order to halt further ecological devastation; to create carbon-neutral communities that are environmentally, socially, and economically just around the world; and, finally, to work collaboratively in a biodynamic, organic, zero-waste garden without topsoil or water loss to produce healthy, abundant food so that we might save ourselves and this world that we so love.


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