by Mike Weilbacher
With the new wave of interest in the environment, will we finally give students the tools they need to become environmentally literate citizens?
In just a few weeks, high school seniors all around the United States will walk proudly across stages, hoisting their diplomas as they graduate from formal K–12 education. As their teachers, we’ll look on with some wistfulness, for the world into which they are graduating—one of spiraling financial crises coupled with huge international challenges—is vastly different from the one in which they started their senior year only 10 months ago.
But wait, it gets worse. If you place your finger on the pulse of the planet, this is what you’ll discover: global surface temperatures rising, glaciers melting, oceans warming, sea levels rising, rain forests burning, coral reefs dying, old-growth forests disappearing, deserts spreading, the world’s population increasing, and species vanishing at the highest rates since the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In short, the ecology that underpins our economy is also collapsing. And the solutions to this challenge elude not only most of our graduates, but also us—their teachers, administrators, and parents.
Will our graduates be ready for these new realities? Will they confidently stride into this world as college students, workers, voters, consumers—in short, as competent, caring adults capable of making good decisions on the pressing issues of the day?
Edited by Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (2005; Sierra Club Books)
Review by Jaimie P. Cloud
This spectacular collection of essays by Fritjof Capra, Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, David Orr and Donella Meadows, to name just a few, is woven together with stories of the editors’ own journeys, over time, educating for sustainability. The book is organized into a system of four interdependent parts: Vision, Tradition/Place, Relationship, and Action. The reader can experience the book sequentially or can enter at any point and travel back and forth between the parts and between each essay and story. No matter where you enter, the book hangs together as a unified whole.
The editors have skillfully selected the authors and their essays to convey the essence of each of the four parts of book and have simultaneously used the essays to communicate the learning process in which they themselves have been engaged. Here’s just one of many examples:
“As we immersed ourselves in the life of communities and ecosystems, important strategies began to emerge. Through our collaboration with STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) we became aware of a nationwide phenomenon: family farms on the urban edge were going out of business for want of a market. We also knew that city kids around the San Francisco Bay were going to school hungry. On a map of regional problems, we highlight urban fringe farms at risk, malnutrition, solid waste generated by students throwing away their lunches, underachievement, and vandalism. See these all together on the map, we recognized them not as isolated problems, but parts of one overarching problem of disconnection: of rural communities from urban life, of food from people’s understanding of its origins, of health from the environment — and of problems from the patterns that perpetuate them.”
Both living systems and learning develop over time, and witnessing the congruence between the two is stunning. This book is classic and timeless.
Ecological Literacy is required reading for anyone who wants to understand what we mean when we say, “Education for Sustainability.” The core content and the habits of mind that characterize Education for Sustainability are seamlessly and elegantly communicated by many of our most revered champions in the way that only learner-centered experiential educators can do.
Jaimie P. Cloud (email@example.com) is president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City. This review originally appeared in The Communicator, the newsletter of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).