The Board of Ecology in Classrooms and Outdoors (ECO) created Handprints during a retreat. Top Row (left to right): Bethany Thomas, Co-founder; Adam Hixon, Board Member; Michelle (Matejka) Leifwalker, Board Member. Bottom Row (left to right): Sarah Bercume, Co-founder; Erin Rowland, Board Member.

Environmental Educators Create Handprints


by Jon Biemer

he Handprint is a paradigm whose time has come. The Handprint motivates by focusing on the positive ways to think about sustainability and follow through with appropriate action.

Over the past decade, the Handprint emerged independently in several places. India’s Center for Environmental Education (CEE) adopted a ten-year-old girl’s handprint – her name is Srija – to represent “action towards sustainability.” Gregory Norris, who teaches at Harvard University, shows how an individual or a business can be “Net Positive,” meaning our Handprint can, with intention and effort, be larger than our Footprint. Rocky Rohwedder, Professor Emeritus at California’s Sonoma State University, published an e-book, Ecological Handprints, which highlights inventions and practices that foster human needs as well as reducing environmental impacts, especially in the developing world. I also published, blogged and presented my sense that we need to go beyond the admonition to reduce our Ecological Footprint.

Whatever your emphasis, the world needs more Handprints.

A Handprint has the potential to do good long after the initiator moves on. Consider planting a tree. Choose a tree that will thrive. Plant it with care. From that point on it holds soil in place, provides perches for birds, and removes carbon from the atmosphere.

Environmental educators naturally create Handprints by planting ideas and feelings in the minds and hearts of future generations. According to systems analyst Donella Meadows, influencing how people think is one of the most effective ways to change a system.

Adults can create Handprints with young people in lots of ways.

  • Garden to cultivate a long-term relationship with the soil and the cycles of life.
  • Plant trees. Observe a tree as it grows to increase a sense of kinship.
  • Practice stewardship of our commons. Participate in stream clean-ups and invasive plant removal. Join a beach clean-up sponsored by SOLV.
  • Ride the bus, even when it is not necessary, to foster a planet-friendly lifestyle.
  • Visit an aquarium, zoo or wildlife sanctuary. Explain how they protect endangered species.
  • Talk about environmental heroes like John Muir and Rachel Carson. Invite young people to see themselves as advocates of a healthy world.
  • Tell old Indian stories. They convey a depth of wisdom that can be recalled for a lifetime.

I am especially interested in aligning our Personal Handprints to create Collective Handprints. With initiative and persistence, individual Handprints multiply over time. Many steps were required to pass the landmark Oregon Outdoor School ballot measure in 2016, a Collective Handprint. These included demonstrating the concept (as Portland educators did), initiative signature-gathering, and educating the electorate. Any park requires visionaries and champions to create awareness, planners and politicians to figure out the details, and plenty of visitors and citizens to care.

Anyone can support Collective Handprints – if he or she is aware, prepared and motivated. Therein lies a calling for environmental educators.



A Handprint Workshop

Here is how I help people embrace the Handprint after a conversation about the environment.

On a sheet of 11” by 17” paper, draw the outlines of both hands. Use colored markers if possible. The left hand represents past effort. For each finger, write down something you have already done for the environment. Modest things are okay, like recycling or signing a petition. We usually do not start from scratch.

For each finger on the right hand, write an intention relating to the environment. Start with something simple like reading The Man Who Planted Trees to a child. Can you set up an environmentally-friendly practice, like composting? Perhaps a trip on the bus to the zoo is in order. Adults might think about attending an environmental conference or testifying at a siting hearing.

Share the Handprints in small groups. (If time is limited, just focus on intensions.)

Writing down and voicing our accomplishments and intentions improve the likelihood that we will follow through. Others may not remember what I write. But I do!



Jon Biemer is writing a book titled, Healing Our Planet: How Handprints Create Sustainability. Doing business as Creating Sustainability, he provides Organizational Development consulting. For 23 years, he coordinated energy efficiency research and managed conservation programs with Bonneville Power Administration. He also gathered signatures for the successful 2016 Oregon Outdoor School ballot measure. Jon lives, with his wife Willow, in an eco-retrofit home without owning a car. The author’s website is: