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Understanding and experiencing ecology

By Fritjof Capra

In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly, writes Fritjof Capra. Teaching this ecological knowledge, which is also ancient wisdom, will be the most important role of education in the 21st century

Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I at the Center for Ecoliteracy have developed a special pedagogy, called 'Education for Sustainable Patterns of Living', which offers an experiential, participatory and multidisciplinary approach to teaching ecoliteracy. We are sometimes asked: 'Why all these complexities? Why don't you just teach ecology?' This article shows that the complexities and subtleties of our approach are inherent in any true understanding of ecology and sustainability.

The concept of ecological sustainability was introduced more than 20 years ago by Lester Brown, who defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. This classical definition of sustainability is an important moral exhortation, but it does not tell us anything about how to actually build a sustainable society. This is why the whole concept of sustainability is still confusing to many.

What we need is an operational definition of ecological sustainability. The key to such a definition is the realisation that we do not need to invent sustainable human communities from zero but can model them after nature's ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its ways of life, businesses, economy,
physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

This definition of sustainability implies that, in our endeavour to build sustainable communities, we must understand the principles of organisation that ecosystems have developed to sustain the web of life. This understanding is what we call 'ecological literacy'. In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.

We need to teach our children -- and our political and corporate leaders! -- the fundamental facts of life: for example, that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that one species' waste is another species' food; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking. Teaching this ecological knowledge, which is also ancient wisdom, will be the most important role of education in the 21st century.

The complete understanding of the principles of ecology requires a new way of seeing the world and a new way of thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. Ecology is first and foremost a science of relationships among the members of ecosystem communities. To fully understand the principles of ecology, therefore, we need to think in terms of relationships and context. Such 'contextual' or 'systemic' thinking involves several shifts of perception that go against the grain of traditional Western science and education.

This new way of thinking is also emerging at the forefront of science, where a new systemic conception of life is being developed. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.

The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell, as living, cognitive systems. This view no longer sees evolution as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.

Consequently, teaching ecology requires a conceptual framework that is quite different from that of conventional academic disciplines. Teachers notice this at all levels of teaching, from very small children to university students. Moreover, ecology is inherently multidisciplinary, because ecosystems connect the living and non-living worlds.

Ecology, therefore, is grounded not only in biology, but also in geology, atmospheric chemistry, thermodynamics, and other branches of science. And when it comes to human ecology we have to add a whole range of other fields, including agriculture, economics, industrial design, and politics. Education for sustainability means teaching ecology in this systemic and multidisciplinary way.

When we study the basic principles of ecology in depth, we find that they are all closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organisation that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years. In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities.

No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals and micro-organisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life. Sustainability, therefore, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community.

This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. When we teach this in our schools, it is important to us that the children not only understand ecology, but also experience it in nature - in a school garden, on a beach, or in a river-bed - and that they also experience community while they become ecologically literate. Otherwise, they could leave school and be first-rate theoretical ecologists but care very little about nature, about the Earth. In our ecoliteracy schools, we want to create experiences that lead to an emotional relationship with the natural world.

Experiencing and understanding the principles of ecology in a school garden or a creek restoration project are examples of what educators nowadays call 'project-based learning'. It consists in facilitating learning experiences that engage students in complex real-world projects, reminiscent of the age-old tradition of apprenticeship. Project-based learning not only provides students with important experiences - cooperation, mentorship, integration of various intelligences - but also makes for better learning.

There have been some very interesting studies on how much we retain when we are taught something. Researchers have found that after two weeks we remember only 10% of what we read, but 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we discuss, and 90% of what we experience. To us, this is one of the most persuasive arguments for experiential, project-based learning.

Community is essential for understanding sustainability, and it is also essential for teaching ecology in the multidisciplinary way it requires. In schools, various disciplines need to be integrated to create an ecologically oriented curriculum. Obviously this is only
possible if teachers from the different disciplines collaborate, and if the school administration makes such collaboration possible. In other words, the conceptual relationships among the various disciplines can be made explicit only if there are corresponding human relationships among the teachers and administrators.

Ten years of work has convinced us that education for sustainable living can be practised best if the whole school is transformed into a learning community. In such a learning community, teachers, students, administrators and parents are all interlinked in a network of relationships, working together to facilitate learning. The teaching does not flow from the top down, but there is a cyclical exchange of knowledge. The focus is on learning, and everyone in the system is both a teacher and a learner.

In the conventional view of education, students are seen as passive learners, and the curriculum is a set of predetermined, decontextualised information. Our pedagogy of education for sustainable living breaks completely with this convention. We engage students in the learning process with the help of real-life projects. This generates a strong motivation and engages the students emotionally. Instead of presenting predetermined, decontextualised information, we encourage critical thinking, questioning,
and experimentation, recognising that learning involves the construction of meaning according to the student's personal history and cultural background.

Education for sustainable living is an enterprise that transcends all our differences of race, culture, or class. The Earth is our common home, and creating a sustainable world for our children and for future generations is our common task.

Third World Network Features, October 2004

(Fritjof Capra, PhD, physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education. This article first appeared in Resurgence magazine (No 226, September/October 2004, 'Landscapes of Learning').