The Importance of Improving Ecological Literacy

Educators are cultivating emotional intelligence for improved ecoliteracy and a path to protecting the natural world.
By Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow
January 2013
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Through stories ranging from the Arctic to Appalachia and New Mexico to New Orleans, the authors of “Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence” reveal how education that engages in some of the most pressing ecological issues of the day advances academic achievement, fosters resilience, and helps school communities play a vital role in protecting the natural world.
Cover Courtesy Jossey-Bass


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Hopeful and bold, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, 2012) tells stories of educators, activists, and students who embody a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. Building on the success of bestselling author Daniel Goleman's emotional and social learning paradigm, this book from the Center for Ecoliteracy shows how educators are extending the cultivation of these essential dimensions of human intelligence to include knowledge of and empathy for all living systems. In this excerpt, the authors introduce the mission of ecoliteracy advocates—to educate for the benefit of the planet.  

Students in a first-grade class at Park Day School in Oakland, California, spent several months transforming their classroom into an ocean habitat, ripe with coral, jellyfish, leopard sharks, octopi, and deep-sea divers (or, at least, paper facsimiles of them). The most in-depth project of their young academic careers, it culminated in one special night when, suited with goggles and homemade air tanks, the boys and girls shared what they learned with their parents. It was such a successful end to their project that several children had to be gently dragged away as bedtime approached.

By the next morning, however, something unexpected had occurred: When the students arrived at their classroom at 8:55 a.m., they found yellow caution tape blocking the entrance. Looking inside, they saw the shades drawn, the lights out, and some kind of black substance covering the birds and otters. Meeting them outside the door, their teacher, Joan Wright-Albertini, explained: “There’s been an oil spill.”

“Oh, it’s just plastic bags,” challenged a few kids, who realized that the “oil” was actually stretched-out black lawn bags. But most of the students were transfixed for several long minutes. Then, deciding that they were unsure if it was safe to enter, they went into another classroom, where Wright-Albertini read from a picture book about oil spills.

The children already knew a little bit about oil spills because of the 2010 accident in the Gulf of Mexico—but having one impact “their ocean” made it suddenly personal. They leaned forward, a few with mouths open, listening to every word. When she finished, several students asked how they could clean up their habitat. Wright-Albertini, who had anticipated the question, showed them footage of an actual cleanup—and, suddenly, they were propelled into action. Wearing gardening gloves, at one boy’s suggestion, they worked to clean up the habitat they had worked so hard to create.

Later, they joined their teacher in a circle to discuss what they learned: why it was important to take care of nature, what they could do to help, and how the experience made them feel. “It broke my heart in two,” said one girl. Wright-Albertini felt the same way. “I could have cried,” she said later. “But it was so rich a life lesson, so deeply felt.” Indeed, through the mock disaster, Wright-Albertini said she saw her students progress from loving the ocean creatures they had created to loving the ocean itself. She also observed them understand a little bit about their connection to nature and gain the knowledge that, even as six- and seven-year-olds, they could make a difference.

It was a tender, and exquisitely planned, teachable moment that reflected what a growing number of educators have begun to identify as a deeply felt imperative: To foster learning that genuinely prepares young people for the ecological challenges presented by this entirely unprecedented time in human history. We are, after all, living at the dawn of an age that has recently been called the “Anthropocene,” or “Age of Man.” Unlike all the periods that came before, this age is characterized primarily by the ways in which humans are changing nature’s systems. And since all life depends on those systems for basic needs, including food, water, and a hospitable climate, there is clearly much at stake. There are also abundant opportunities to practice truly relevant schooling.

This book aims to support and inspire you in your efforts to foster the kind of learning that meets the critical needs of the twenty-first century—and it offers an antidote to the fear, anger, and hopelessness that can result from inaction. It moves, again and again, from breakdown to breakthrough, revealing how the very act of engaging in some of today’s great ecological challenges—on whatever scale is possible or appropriate—develops strength, hope, and resiliency in young people. And it presents a model of education for doing so that is founded on a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence.

“Ecoliterate” is our shorthand for the end goal, while “socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy” is the process that we have identified for getting there. We believe the new integration of intelligences it represents offers important benefits both to education and to our societal and ecological well-being. It builds on the successes—from reduced behavioral problems to increased academic achievement—resulting from the movement in education to foster social and emotional learning that has emerged during the past few decades. And it cultivates the knowledge, empathy, and action required for practicing sustainable living.

In the pages that follow, you will see socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy in action through stories about innovative educators, artists, activists, scholars, and students who have cultivated these capacities within themselves and are using them effectively to educate others about some of the most critical issues of our time, including food, water, and the two most widely used forms of energy—oil and coal. We recognize that we could have included many other issues, and we could have made many more connections among those we choose. But our goal is simply to illustrate, through these four issues, how socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy leads to deeply meaningful, inspiring, and effective education.

Through stories of community leaders putting engaged ecoliteracy into practice, you will meet indigenous Alaskan Sarah James, who is working to protect caribou and native communities from the effects of oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness; Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography who brings a deep spiritual sensibility to his work in helping nations resolve water conflicts; Teri Blanton, a coal miner’s daughter who is attracting nationwide attention to the impact of mountaintop mining in Appalachia; and three young leaders, Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, and Aaron Sharratt, who are inspiring people to grow and cook their own food in southern New Mexico.

You will meet teachers and students—from New Orleans, Louisiana; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Oakland, California, and elsewhere—who are demonstrating the capacity to understand and care about the interrelationship between human actions and natural systems, and who are moved to act upon their knowledge, values, and understanding in both small ways and ways as large as saving a mountain. You will learn about five core processes of socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy, and some strategies for using this book as a guide for professional development in formal and informal study.

The basic idea is this: At times of instability in a system—be it a school, a nation, or the biosphere—there is always the possibility of breakthrough to new forms and ways of thinking and acting.1 In these times of instability—in our schools, our nation, and our biosphere—this book reflects our core belief that educators are ideally situated to lead a breakthrough to a new and enlivening ecological sensibility for the twenty-first century.

Why We Need a New Ecological Sensibility

We humans, of course, have always affected the natural world on which we depend. But with 7 billion of us—up from about 1.6 billion in 1900—now tapping the Earth’s resources, we are having an impact like never before.

Consider the growing scarcity of fresh drinking water, the decline of healthy soil in which to grow our food, and global climate change. With the world’s population projected to increase to 9 billion by the middle of this century, we have to ask, Is there a breaking point?

In 2009, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, set out to answer that question with the help of more than two dozen of the world’s leading scientists, including Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and NASA climate scientist James Hansen. They identified nine life-support systems essential for human survival, including biochemical cycles such as carbon and water, and physical circulation systems such as our climate and oceans.

For each of these life-support systems—later dubbed “Earth’s Nine Lives”—the scientists described a safe zone within which human development can securely operate. Somewhere beyond these boundaries—but no one knows exactly how far—we risk triggering “abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be deleterious or even catastrophic for human well-being.”

So how are we doing? For seven of Earth’s nine “lives,” the evidence is clear: We have far exceeded the safe boundary levels of two of these life-support systems (biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle). We recently surpassed the boundary on a third (climate change). And we are projected to hit the boundary on three more (ocean acidification, freshwater cycles, and land use) by mid-century. (Rockström and his colleagues were unable to determine boundary levels for chemical pollution and aerosol loading.)

Thankfully, none of this means that the sky is falling—yet. On the condition that we have not transgressed these boundaries for too long, the authors suggest, humanity appears to have some room to maneuver. But there is considerable uncertainty as to how long or far we can go beyond the boundaries and still be able to return to safe levels. Consequently, we need to urgently put the brakes on before we reach the tipping points where systems spin out of control and crash.

The good news is there is reason to be hopeful. After all, humans have shown that when they grasp that their actions are threatening one of life’s support systems—and do so on a deep level that taps both the cognitive and the feeling ways of knowing—they can take effective action. (The response to the hole in the ozone layer is a case-in-point. “The ozone hole that formed in the stratosphere over Antarctica in the 1970s was a classic example of an environmental tipping point,” Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist magazine. Nobody had seen it coming. But once people realized the severity of the problem, they acted quickly to ban most ozone-destroying chemicals, and we began moving back into the safe zone on this essential life-support system.) Developing emotional, social, and ecological intelligence can help us now effectively address the remaining threats to our Earth’s life support systems.

Making the Connections

However important ecological sensibility is today, the fact is that most of us do not truly grasp how our everyday actions—our engagement in the systems of energy, agriculture, industry, commerce, and transportation on which we rely—can threaten the health and well-being of the Earth. For example, ask your students (maybe even your colleagues): Where does your electricity come from?

What is the connection between your container of apple juice and the lives of baby sea birds thousands of miles away? How many environmental impacts result from the production of the steel used to make your “eco-friendly” water bottle? (Hint: It is a four-digit answer.)

Very few people know the answers to these or thousands of similar questions for one fairly straightforward reason: The complexity of the web of connections that characterize our global society has created a vast collective blind spot about the effects of human behavior on natural systems. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you, your students, and their families lived in a small, isolated community—say, in the Arctic, the Sahara Desert, or the mountains of Tibet—where you relied on each other alone for all your basic needs. Say food, for example, was not flown in from half a world away but grown and shared right where you live. If your community decided to farm in ways that were expedient one year but failed to leave the soil healthy for the next, experience would soon teach you about the interconnections between human behavior and the health of natural systems. And you would be much more likely to be aware that the resilience of future generations ultimately depends on the wise use of natural resources and adaptation to our ecological niche.

Today, however, the vast majority of us do not live in small, isolated communities but in cities and suburbs, where we depend on people and processes from around the world to meet most of our basic (and not so basic) needs. Our use of resources and the ensuing ecological impacts are dispersed across the entire planet—often seeming invisible or too far away for us to fully recognize.

Moreover, even when a young person’s knowledge and empathy have been awakened, it can be a magnificent challenge to help him or her understand how to make a positive difference in the world today. Yet it is a magnificent challenge that we believe can be met through the cultivation of socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy.

From Emotional to Ecological Intelligence

Nearly thirty years ago, Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, effectively moved a generation of educators beyond the narrow notion of “IQ” that had dominated much of the twentieth century. Schools, he argued, must not educate to one narrow notion of intelligence but to seven (later eight) forms of intelligence: bodilykinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, musical, and, most recently, naturalistic.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman explored another significant dimension of intelligence in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Drawing on brain and behavioral research, he examined the factors at work when people of high IQ flounder and those of modest IQ do surprisingly well.

Those factors included five critical aspects of emotional intelligence that could be nurtured in schools: the abilities to know one’s emotions, manage those emotions, motivate oneself, recognize emotions in others, and develop successful relationships.

In his next book, Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, Goleman advanced a second model of intelligence that comes into play in our relationships with others. He reported on research demonstrating that our brains make us “wired to connect,” and showed how this, too, is a key ingredient for success in life—and a “neural key to learning.”

These two books helped inspire the rapid growth of a movement for social and emotional learning (SEL), which emphasizes the development of knowledge, attitudes, and skills around these intelligences. To date, tens of thousands of schools have adopted social and emotional learning programs. The state of Illinois currently has comprehensive, free-standing learning goals and benchmarks for social and emotional learning. And four other states—Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, and Kansas—are considering or adopting similar policies. One reason that educators have been drawn to SEL is that research has shown that nurturing these understandings, values, and abilities contributes to significant improvements in academic achievement.

Building on this work, Goleman introduced a third and related kind of intelligence in the 2009 book, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy. While social and emotional intelligence extend students’ abilities to see from another’s perspective, empathize, and show concern, ecological intelligence applies these capacities to an understanding of natural systems and melds cognitive skills with empathy for all of life.

The findings of these studies of emotional, social, and ecological intelligences paralleled the practical experience of the Center for Ecoliteracy. For the past twenty years, the Center for Ecoliteracy has applied theories of leadership and systems thinking to its mission of advancing education for sustainable living in primary and secondary schools, through a pedagogy steeped in the process of social and emotional learning. Cofounded by systems thinker Fritjof Capra, executive director Zenobia Barlow, and environmental philanthropist Peter Buckley, the Center has launched pioneering initiatives involving creation of school gardens, school lunch reform, habitat restoration and preservation, and integration of sustainability into teaching and learning. Throughout its work with educators in thousands of communities across the globe, the Center has recognized emotional, social, and ecological intelligence as essential perspectives that develop empathy, mindfulness, and new modes of cooperation to help communities live sustainably.

Putting the Pieces Together

The model of education we present in this book takes the cultivation of emotional and social intelligence as its foundation and expands this foundation to integrate ecological intelligence. But rather than conceive of these as three separate types of intelligences, we posit emotional, social, and ecological intelligence as essential dimensions of our universal human intelligence that simply expand outward in their focus: from self, to others, to all living systems. We also conceive of these intelligences in a dynamic relationship with each other: Cultivate one, and you help cultivate the others.

The practice of socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy, as the stories in this book illustrate, can take many forms. Nevertheless, we identify two core dimensions as through-lines. One is affective, or related to emotions: namely, empathy for all forms of life. By “empathy,” the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, we do not intend to imply that plants, for instance, have feelings. Rather, our intent is to encourage a sense of caring that is not restricted to other human beings but extends to all forms of life.

The other through-line is cognitive, or related to how we think: that is, understanding how nature sustains life. Since life began, Earth’s ecosystems have developed ways of supporting the great web of human and nonhuman life through certain patterns and processes, such as cycles, networks, and nested systems—all of which reflect the fundamental fact, as Center for Ecoliteracy cofounder Fritjof Capra put it, that “nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities.” To understand how nature sustains life, then, requires the capacity for systems thinking, or the ability to perceive how the different aspects of a living system exist, both in relationship to one another and relative to the whole that is greater than its parts.

But how, it would be reasonable to ask, can anyone truly develop the capacity to understand all the ways in which human systems interact with natural systems and act upon that knowledge? The answer is simple: We can’t. Not alone. Rather than residing within a single individual, ecological intelligence is inherently collective. Socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy, therefore, encourages us to gather and share information collectively, and to collectively take action to foster sustainable living. This makes school communities—which, like ecosystems, come to life through networks of relationships—ideal places to nurture this new and essential ecological sensibility.

Beyond Our Collective Blind Spot

The past decade has seen an explosion of new information and resources that teachers can use to help students visualize the interrelationships between human actions and living systems. These tools include the Ecological Footprint and Google Earth. New Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools can help you operationalize systems thinking by revealing all of the many points of interaction and processes involved in, for example, the production and consumption patterns of something as prevalent as a cell phone.

One example of an LCA tool is GoodGuide, developed by University of California, Berkeley, Professor Dara O’Rourke. GoodGuide evaluates most mainstream consumer products available in the United States, based on their impacts on health, the environment, and society (including such factors as employee working conditions). The assessment is a complex process, involving teams of scientists sometimes analyzing up to hundreds of factors; but the tool simplifies the process by serving up a simple rating for each item analyzed.

In the chapters that follow, we will present tools and strategies that illuminate what lies beyond our collective blind spot about the interrelationships between human actions and living systems, presenting educators with opportunities to teach about these connections in ways that are vivid, concrete, and deeply relevant to today’s young people.

Benefitting Academic Achievement and Ecological Well-Being

Social and emotional learning was embraced by many schools on the promise that helping children develop the capacities for self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management would increase their likelihood of success in school and in life. Now, extensive research shows that these programs do lead to important student gains and reduced risks for failure. For example, a 2011 meta-analysis by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning of 213 social and emotional learning programs concluded that these programs improve students’ achievement test scores by 11 percentile points—and lead to even greater gains in improved attitudes and positive classroom behaviors, as well as reductions in conduct problems and disciplinary actions. Research studies examining the influence of an environment-based context have revealed similar encouraging findings with respect to academic performance. In the two decades that the Center for Ecoliteracy has worked with schools to support education for sustainable living, it has found that socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy advances both teacher and student involvement and achievement through hands-on, experiential, contextual learning in the natural world and community.

With this as our foundation, we are confident that school communities are the ideal places—and educators the ideal leaders—to guide a breakthrough to a new, enlivening, and much needed ecological sensibility. In the pages that follow, we will show how you can cultivate teaching and learning that help young people develop the capacity to perceive, understand, and care about the interrelationship between the natural world and human actions—and then apply that understanding to guide individual and collective human action toward the wiser use of natural resources and adaptation to our true ecological niche, which is, of course, nothing less than our interconnected world. As author and farmer Wendell Berry has said, “Ultimately, what we have to be talking about is not what we are against but what we are for, and that is life not lived against the possibility of life.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence by Daneil Goleman, Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow and published by Jossey-Bass, 2012. 


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