Ecological literacy and biophilia: loving the world

This blog is exploring perspectives on ecological literacy. I purposely have not focussed on a definition, though that may be useful at another time. And the blog has not yet offered many applications of ecoliteracy in action, except for the Tanka poetry lesson.  I have been drawn instead to thinking about how to make the pursuit of this new way of thinking more appealing. The term ecological literacy makes the whole enterprise sound like hard work. We all have enough of that. 

I’ve recently been suggesting that perhaps stirring our feelings about the wonders and mysteries of life is a promising starting point for developing people’s ecological thinking ‘muscle.’ Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson hypothesizes that what is needed in the environmental movement is a re-awakening of our slumbering biophilia—“love of life or living systems.”

Humans and nature: deep connection, re-connection

Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis says that our evolution as humans is enmeshed with the intricacies of other living organisms. “They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted….  To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained…mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit.  Splendor awaits in minute proportions.” (Biophilia, 1984, page 139). WWF’s 60 second video “The world is where we live ” almost feels like evidence for Wilson’s case!

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder  (2008) describes humans’ connection to nature in different but related terms, doesn’t he? Instead of seeing the connection as the deeply rooted origins of our evolutionary past, he makes the simpler, more verifiable case that childrem must be re-connected to nature for healthy human development. His focus is more on play and the deep sensory experience of being immersed in the natural world.

The dilemma of urban schools connecting to ‘nature’
These are big demands for schools and schooling. A prescription such as “To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist” may seem like a very big precondition for experiencing nature and developing ecological literacy in our urban setting. This is something we may try to achieve when we create a school garden, make school grounds part of our teaching and learning in other ways, or visit an outdoor education centre. The problem is, for many raised in the city (and rarely away from it) this may not provide  a steady enough diet of ‘nature.’ Opportunities for contact with nature on school grounds are necessarily contained, and trips to an outdoor education centre very limited. (Even a trip to the Evergreen Brick Works would be a rare and special event.)

Can videos such as Dayna Baumeister’s “Life’s Operating Manual” (or the large body of work by David Suzuki and Richard Attenborough) act as a supplement to help awaken our biophilia? Richard Louv would seem to say no—that what is needed is the direct experience of nature and the stimulation of all the senses that being “in it” can provide. The “dual sensory nature” of TV, videos, and the Internet (and all it has brought us) is, he would say, too limited.

But is this all-or-nothing proposition sensible? Might some students and teachers have their slumbering affection for the natural world (if Wilson’s hypothesis has merit) aroused in part through videos of dramatic nature discoveries? (Or conversely, dramatic discoveries of human impact such as the work of Edward Burtynsky?) Perhaps we can make better use of such visual tools to coax us into “ecological thinking”—to begin to glimpse through the sprouting bean plant the connections to nature’s “big picture”? 

Do any of you regularly rely on videos as a way to stimulate students’ feeling of connection to the environment or to an environmental cause? Not only in science and geography, but in media literacy, reading, speaking, and writing, and the arts? Would you be willing to share successes (challenges too!)? Or simply send an email ( and say, “I’m too busy to write, but I’ll talk on the phone and you can write!”

The Ontario curriculum: loving the world

Almost all teachers love learning. Most love teaching as well, even though (and maybe also because!) it is one of the hardest and most important jobs in our society. Where in the curriculum is that love of learning sparked for each one of us?  Wilson would say the life sciences. But learning about the world through physics, chemistry, and geography can also provide moments of wonder at nature’s and humans’ ingenuity amid all the sheer hard work of remembering facts and connecting the pieces. Mathematics, language, and the arts each give us tools to interpret and communicate our appreciation, our concern, and our critical thinking about the world around us.

The EcoSchools PLC: loving our work

Our department’s professional learning community (PLC) meeting yesterday was probing where the entry points were in the curriculum for building ecological literacy skills. The discussion reached a peak with Erin’s “a-ha” moment as she suddenly threw up her arms and said, “you can start anywhere…everything can eventually touch the environment!”

That may be true—and easier to grasp and to make real for some than for others. After all, we live mostly enmeshed, not in nature, but in a highly technologized world where we think largely in fragments. So no wonder thinking ecologically or relationally does not “come naturally.”

One goal of our PLC is to uncover learning connections that cross grades and subject areas to help us interpret and respond to the world more holistically. At different levels. In different ways. Does that mean an environmental connection needs to be uncovered every time? No. Each of us will make different connections. But as the ecological thinking muscle develops, we will make those connections, and help our students make those connections, with greater ease—or, dare I say, more “naturally.” And love doing it!

Stay tuned.

                                                                           Eleanor Dudar
                                                                           TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

P.S.  For a sampling of these eloquent and charming educators and writers, see below:

E. O. Wilson’s TED talk, “Help Build the Encyclopedia of Life”  [25 minutes] Wilson makes a plea for “his constituents” (insects and other small life forms), numbering 10 to the 18th power!!

Richard Louv: Lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “The Abundant Childhood: Nature, Creativity and Health” [I hour 12 minutes]  (running script below the video allows you to click to where your interest lies)

And if you’re pressed for time: a 2 minute summation of Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle