Protopian Education One: Cultivating Ecological Relatedness

“All things share the same breath—the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

—Chief Seattle

Keeping the Gretas in School

As the Greta Thunberg movement of school strikes has put on display, the young generation around the world worries about their future in terms of ecological sustainability and the possible collapse of ecosystems and societies. It is not a farfetched question to ask:

  • What might education and schooling look like if students of life were to feel that going to school (or other corresponding outlets of education), rather than striking, was the best way to activate oneself for a sustainable and ecologically rich future?

Viewed from this perspective, the very emergence and persistence of the Greta Thunberg-inspired movements highlight a weakness in the educational systems: Besides a general alienation felt towards schooling, the strikes suggest that education does not seem to sufficiently and effectively harness concern with climate change and related issues of ecological sustainability.

On the flipside, this is not only a challenge; it is also an opportunity. If ecological concern has been shown to energize and inspire youth to learning, innovation, self-organization, and action—couldn’t this be harnessed as a significant force for learning and engagement in the educational process? Can ecological concern be meaningfully directed into playful creativity and intrinsic motivation to learn and to grow?

Arguably, the most ecologically apt educational systems will have an advantage to motivate the young to learn. It may also equip them with skills and understanding that are increasingly useful in times of increasing ecological strain—as both populations and economic output continue to grow.

Awareness, Knowledge, and Connectedness 

In other words, an awareness of ecological issues has taken hold in significant parts of the young generation, but this awareness, while arguably generated both within and outside of the educational systems, is not being met in a way that creates an experience of being meaningfully engaged to issues of environmental concern.

This offers a major challenge to educational systems and cultures around the world: Can the youth come to feel that education expands and deepens the ecological awareness, equipping them with relevant and useful knowledge on environmental issues, while fostering a real, felt, and embodied connectedness to nature and the biosphere?

  • Ecological awareness here means “having a sense of real risks and implications to the environment of our everyday lives, of our economies, and of human civilization at large—9 and in turn how the biosphere both enables and limits the growth of our societies”. This is not an issue of either-or; awareness can grow in different ways, affecting consumption patterns, values, career choices and perspectives on almost all other issues.
  • Knowledge of environmental issues here means “understanding the nature of ecosystems, the climate, and environmental degradation, as well as knowing and evaluating different ways to effectively, and practically, contribute to a sustainable future”. This includes, of course, how issues of sustainability can be found in and across the subjects studied.
  • Connectedness to nature here means “having a positive, emotional, and embodied sense of being part of nature, being capable of enjoying natural beauty, and feeling belonging and solidarity with the biosphere and biotopes within which diverse human societies thrive”.

These three dimensions—awareness, knowledge, and connectedness—together make up what we here refer to as “ecological relatedness”; i.e. how nature and ecology are related to in our lives and culture. This relationship can be more or less conducive to sustainable behaviors and societies—as well as to human happiness and flourishing. Education can and should thus give rich opportunities for students to cultivate their ecological relatedness.

Ecological relatedness is, in turn, dependent upon how we relate to ourselves, to one another, to society, and reality at large. As we will discuss in other “pathways to a new education paradigm” in this report, this has to do with how we are socialized into our roles in society, and how our personalities, relationships and sense of self are cultivated in and through education.

The Two-Way Street of Environment and Education

Education undoubtedly affects how the ecological sustainability is achieved around the world; populations that are ecologically aware, knowledgeable on environmental issues, and feel intimately connected to the biosphere are, it can be assumed, better equipped to create a sustainable civilization.

But there is growing evidence that a clean and healthy environment also seems to affect the outcomes of learning. Consider the following:

  • Air pollution affects learning outcomes (and health) negatively, not least as children are more vulnerable to its negative effects, a 2011 study from the US found. The same effect has been observed in a 2013 study from Chile. This should, in turn, be linked to the fact that, in California, it has been shown that black and Latino populations on average breathe in 40% more air pollution than white peers.
  • Climate change may affect learning in the tropics negatively, due simply to increased heat, a 2019 study argues.
  • Unstable ecological circumstances can disrupt and disturb education in many ways, not least by extreme weather.

The connections are many: via pollution, the quality of nutrition, the disruptions of a destabilized climate, to the access to clean and beautiful natural environments which facilitate physical and cognitive development as well as offering spaces for outdoor schooling—taken together, there can be little doubt that the environment affects education and its quality.

In other words, cultivating ecological relatedness in education can help the environment, and a clean environment can help education—or, vice versa, an impoverished way of relating to the environment can harm it, and a disturbed environment will inevitably affect education negatively. With this point clearly in view, we may look closer at the dimensions of this relatedness: awareness, knowledge, and connection.

Growing Ecological Awareness

On a very general level, the awareness of the seriousness and priority of environmental issues grows with levels of education—in one study, in 27 out of 29 studied countries, people with higher education were shown to be more concerned about the environment.

More educated populations care more about the environment. (Also, Filipinos really care, regardless of level of education.)

In other words, simply educating the population seems to increase ecological awareness and environmental concern. However, having attitudes of environmental concern does not in and of itself necessarily translate to environmentally friendly lifestyles, leading to e.g. a lower personal carbon footprint.

The content and design of education also affect ecological awareness. Because awareness concerns issues such as attitudes and habits and a general sense and understanding of ecology, this can be made a theme throughout education, starting with the more concrete issues even at kindergarten.

One teacher, representing the organization Echo-Schools, suggests: Teach children about the three R’s: reduce waste, reuse resources, and recycle materials.

  • Organize tree planting days at school and tell children why trees are important to the environment.
  • Encourage children to switch off all appliances and lights when not in use.
  • Ensure taps are closed properly after you have used them and use water sparingly.

Such simple and concrete steps can be expanded upon into wider concerns in pace with the maturing and developing minds of students. The curriculums of countries can strategically be designed to, step by step, make environmental awareness into an integral part of what it means to be educated, including attitudes towards consumption, at-home behaviors, public spaces, and the priority and purpose of addressing environmental issues.

Greta Thunberg and other youths learn most of their environmental science and climate forecasts not from school, but over the Internet and of their own accord. Although this may invoke intrinsic motivation and independent learning, it would make sense to explore how the educational system could cater to, scaffold, and productively expand upon this knowledge.

Ecological literacy may

  • begin with botanical learning and zoology, in earlier years,
  • moving towards learning the science of ecology in middle years (a science that, despite its complex feedback cycles, is surprisingly easy to learn the basics of) and,
  • in later years, introducing a general systems thinking (which exists in many forms), including concepts such as feedback cycles, equilibrium, and emergence—and how such concepts apply across the sciences, from the study of flows in physics, to the dynamics of chemical systems, to biological self-regulation, to social systems and societies, and the interactions between said fields.

Many of the experts I interviewed to research this article series have emphasized the importance of breaking away from underlying assumptions within the educational system that have to do with the worldview associated with mechanics—and towards one based more on complexity science. It is argued, by many if not most of our interviewees in various ways, that this can affect how people intuit reality, nature and even themselves.

Some form of “systems thinking” is also useful in all walks of life; it should thus not only be taught at advanced university seminars on chaos theory. Learning the basics of systems thinking doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be learned in intuitive ways through play, analogy and own experience.

Maybe that would keep Greta in school?

Nurturing Connectedness

Yet, even knowledge and awareness are not enough. Our interviewees—and the scientific literature on sustainable behavior — agree that being intellectually aware of environmental concern and scientifically understanding does not seem to translate to sustainable behavior, or environmental sensitivity and care. Rather, this is an issue of emotional connection, combined with knowledge; and that is gained by direct and embodied experiences of the natural world, “outdoor education” and “nature education”.

Even watching nature documentaries that display the beauty of different biotopes does not change this sense of connectedness (even if it can make you a bit happier). You need your own, direct experience of nature. It would surprise few that “children should be out in nature”; but this may also require the acquisition of skills to appreciate, master and enjoy such experiences, and this may require some training and guidance. Time spent in such environments appears to also support not only mental health (the number one health problem in youths, globally), but also motor and physical development (as more muscle groups are used in uneven surroundings, the exposure to trees can activate the immune system, etc).

To thrive in any environment may require sufficient exposure and a bit of support. Modern society, in its current guise around the world, has numerous advantages over the days of old. But it does disconnect us from nature. Here, indigenous communities around the world have something to offer, something we can all learn from, and which we can invite into our educational systems—this has been a recurring theme that our interviewees have brought up.

This needs to be studied and applied—and connected to issues of how the self grows, and which mythologies we are brought up with, i.e. which meaning-making stories we are told about the world and our place in it. But which countries, NGOs, and networks would take on such a sensitive and difficult task, as to learn from indigenous communities—and translate these ingredients into the socialization and education of children and youth in modern life?

Here is a role for the indigenous communities around the world (such as pioneered by the Amazon Sacred Headwaters initiative); one that, apparently, may be necessary for civilization to thrive and survive—and for people to feel happy and at home in the world. Connectedness to nature, in turn, connects back to the issue of access to fresh natural environments, and it connects to the other pathways: to relate to nature, we must also learn to relate to one another and ourselves—as well as to technology, this strange child of nature to which we turn in the following article.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.