Shifting worldviews: Why ecological literacy?

Ecological vs. environmental
Why not “environmental” literacy? we are sometimes asked. The short way to describe our choice is to say that “environmental” is drawn from the language of the mechanistic or ‘mechanical’ worldview. “Environment” is a word that describes what is all around us. It isn’t us. “Ecological” says everything is connected, sooner or later. We are not apart from, but a part of, Nature. (How that statement is interpreted varies. That’s a topic for another time.)

Worldviews: powerful, invisible, all around us
We all have one. No two are exactly alike, but in general they share a lot of the same qualities. In a way, the word itself describes the meaning: it is a view of the world, the overall perspective from which you see and interpret it. My colleague Pam, always good at making things clear, says simply, “it’s a filter.” Ken Funk, in a short, heady article “What is A Worldview?” gives this formal definition:  

A worldview is the set of beliefs about fundamental aspects of Reality that ground and influence all one’s perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing.

He goes on. “In fact few people take the time to thoroughly think out, much less articulate, their worldview; nevertheless your worldview is implicit in and can be at least partially inferred from your behavior. Second, the elements of your worldview are highly interrelated; it is almost impossible to speak of one element independently of the others.”

The dominant worldview
The dominant worldview that has prevailed since the beginning of modern science is described as mechanistic or deterministic, with the machine as the primary metaphor. Newton made big breakthroughs in shifting thinking about the way the world works. Descartes, famous for saying “I think, therefore I am,” gave expression to the belief that mind is separate from body. By extension, humans are separate from Nature. Set aside deep connectedness and Nature becomes an object that we have no intrinsic relationship to. It becomes just ‘the environment’ that surrounds us. This dominant worldview, deeply embedded in our culture and economics, influences our own individual worldviews.

The brilliance of that way of thinking has led to incredible advances on many fronts—human health and the technology to manipulate Nature leap to mind at once. This reductionist way of thinking has also brought us to a dangerous place in our history, where humans are now disrupting major earth processes. What we do as a technological superstar species affects everything. The change in climate is the most dramatic example. So thinking like Newton has been a mixed blessing.

 The emergence of the ecological worldview
Steven Sterling in “Ecological Intelligence” (1) talks about how the meaning of the word “ecological” gradually became used in more and more disciplines. While it always meant “to do with the science of ecology” (in part the simple tool “How Nature Works” can help you to embed this perspective), it also became used increasingly to describe seeing the world interconnectedly. It is a worldview that aspires to see things whole.  (In this worldview, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) It had always been around.

In The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra sums up the difference between the two worldviews this way:

The basic tension is one between the parts and the whole. The emphasis on the parts is called mechanistic, reductionist, or atomistic; the emphasis on the whole [is called] holistic, organistic or ecological.

Some people have always had an ecological worldview. Any time we find ourselves engaged in thinking connectedly in a sustained way, we have dropped into that worldview. And it goes by many names. Teachers may speak of it as “thinking holistically” – which also describes seeing things whole.  The shift from teaching phonics to whole language teaching is another example of the shift to seeing more connectedly.

Our language is often stuck in the mechanistic. It is an efficient way to think. Descriptions can be short. Each part is seen on its own. (The whole is equal to the sum of the parts.) The messy webbing of parts takes too long to describe, is too multi-faceted, even sometimes still unknowable.

What’s the benefit of the ecological worldview for teaching and learning?
What does it add up to? No easy-to-define boundaries when you think ecologically. And less well-known terrain. Not easily wrapped up in brilliant short slogans like “Coke is it.”

Can the ecological worldview’s relative unfamiliarity perhaps make ecological thinking newly engaging for teachers and students?  It’s a hunt, an endless search for connections. It’s what teachers are doing when they integrate different subject areas into their lesson planning. Just add nature as the source of all life when the lesson calls for it, and you are developing the ecological literacy of your students. (See the questions for Role in GRASP: a tool for developing ecological literacy through rich performance tasks, page 20. Entire resource downloadable at Print copies available from

It’s a more complete way to understand the world and our place in it. Nature becomes a teacher. The people working in biomimicry studies find incredible models of sustainability there. More and more people would say thinking ecologically is essential to asking the right questions in the search for a less disruptive way to live on the planet.

Solar biomimicry

Do we have to choose one worldview?
No. We need both ways of thinking. And most of us move in and out of both ways of thinking. The problem is that the mechanistic worldview still dominates. Thinking ecologically is still an underdeveloped habit of mind. Thinking connectedly gives us a truer picture of how all that brilliant reductionist thinking influences what we do to Nature. Thinking ecologically can feel like swimming upstream. It’s not the default position; it takes effort.

Looking to make a breakthrough!
Over the years our guides and the EcoSchools Certification Toolkit have supplied definitions of ecological literacy, each one (we hoped) clearer than the last. But definitions aren’t enough.

We tried fattening the questions about ecological literacy in the EcoSchools Section 4 Ecoreview with examples, thinking that would help teachers connect the concept to classroom learning tasks. We discuss how to communicate about it better in our Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. We will keep trying new tactics.

You can help. I am seeking TDSB classrooms where I can observe different practices of integrating subject matter and see what making connections looks like in your teaching and learning. I am also very interested in just talking about what you do, if that’s simpler. So many variations out there. All of them of value. We want to learn from you!

Invite me to visit. Or let me know when we can talk. I promise I won’t even mention worldviews!

Eleanor Dudar
EcoSchools Specialist

(1) The Handbook of Ecological Literacy, ed. Arran Stibbe, Green Books:U.K., 2009, pp. 77-83.