Ecoliteracy: Our Key to a Sustainable Future
By Samuel Wines
In an era defined by environmental challenges, fostering living systems thinking and ecoliteracy has become a pressing need. Ecoliteracy goes beyond traditional education, as it encompasses a deep understanding of ecological systems and the interconnectedness of human actions with the environment. By cultivating ecoliteracy, individuals can make informed decisions, contribute to sustainability efforts, and work towards a more viable future. This article delves head-first into the significance of ecoliteracy, explores its core components, and highlights the role of education and society in creating nurturing conditions to allow this vital skill set to emerge.
What is Ecoliteracy?
Ecoliteracy, often termed ecological literacy, refers to the ability to comprehend and analyse complex ecological systems and the interdependencies between living organisms and their environment123. It involves understanding the fundamental principles of ecology, including concepts such as biodiversity, energy flow, nutrient cycles, and ecosystem dynamics. Ecoliterate individuals possess the knowledge and skills to recognise the impacts of human activities on the environment and are equipped to make informed decisions for sustainable living.
Core Components of Ecoliteracy
Ecoliteracy encompasses various interconnected components contributing to a comprehensive understanding of ecological systems and sustainability. These core components include:
1. Living Systems Thinking
Ecoliterate individuals can identify and analyse the intricate relationships within and amongst ecosystems, recognising the cascading effects of human actions on the environment and understanding how everything fits together from a systems perspective across the biological, cognitive, social and ecological dimensions of life12, how energy, money, technology and the environment all interrelate3 is a daunting yet rewarding field of exploration to help you make sense of the metacrisis. See Nate Hagens’ Reality 101 series, his podcast and book or FritjofCapra’s work, namely his textbook The Systems View of Life and Jeremy Lent’s work The Web of Meaning.
2. Environmental Knowledge
A solid grasp of ecological principles, environmental science, and current environmental issues helps individuals comprehend the challenges facing our planet and develop solutions to address them. The emerging field of Systems Ecology is a transdisciplinary field of Earth Systems Science that takes a holistic approach to the study of biological and ecological systems, as well as humanities social and economic systems.
For example, if economists, politicians, and lawyers understood concepts like interdependence, biodiversity, energy flow, nutrient cycling, ecological succession, carrying capacity, ecological resilience and ecosystem services, perhaps we wouldn’t be pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet! Actually, maybe we still would be, given the embedded growth obligation in our debt-based economy.
3. Sustainability Ethics
Ecoliteracy includes a solid ethical foundation that emphasises the intrinsic value of nature, ecological justice, and responsibility towards future generations. A wonderful example of this emerging environmental ethic is the ecofeminism movement, deep ecology, and Permaculture ethics. It is worth mentioning that this sustainability ethic is not a new concept. Of course, traditional and indigenous societies that have been deeply rooted in place have a strong sense of ecological ethics, many of which see humanity as the custodial species in relation to the lands and waters on which we live our lives.4
What did you do once you knew?
4. Ecological Citizenship
Once people become ecoliterate and aware of the current state of the world, individuals tend to actively engage in environmental stewardship, taking personal and collective action to protect and restore ecosystems. For example, CoLabs is helping Yarra Riverkeeper Association design and create a manta ray-inspired biomimetic filtration device to remove microplastics from the Birrarung (Yarra River).
The Role of Education in Nurturing Ecoliteracy
Education plays a pivotal role in nurturing ecoliteracy. By integrating environmental education into curricula at all levels, educational institutions can empower students to become environmentally conscious citizens. This can be achieved through:
Incorporating environmental topics across subjects helps students understand the relevance of ecological concepts in various contexts and disciplines. For example, see the Centre for Ecoliteracy in California, The Monvisio Institute in Italy with its DRRS MOOC and Schumacher College in the UK with its undergraduate and postgraduate courses are great examples of what is possible across primary and tertiary education. As is Gaia Education’s Design for Sustainability and Regenesis Institute’s Regenerative Practitioner Courses for professional development. Oh, also the Masters in Biomimicry at ASU.
Providing hands-on experiences, such as field trips, nature observations, and environmental projects, enhance students’ understanding and appreciation of the natural world. For example, the work of Claire Dunn, author of Rewilding the Urban Soul and creator of Nature’s Apprentice. A group that regularly hosts events and workshops to help deepen your connection with the natural world. Permaculture is another wonderful practical form of ecological design and applied living systems thinking.
Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
Encouraging learners to analyse environmental issues (from a living systems perspective), evaluate evidence, and propose innovative solutions fosters their ability to address complex sustainability challenges, giving them hope that the challenges we face aren’t just some intractable problem set that warrant sliding into nihilism or hedonism to pass the time until the inevitable self-termination of civilisation.
Partnerships and Community Engagement
Ahh, good old SDG 17… They were definitely onto something with this one. Getting students to Collaborate with local organisations, community groups, and environmental experts exposes them to real-world environmental issues and encourages active participation in conservation efforts.
Cultivating Ecoliteracy in Society
Beyond formal education, society as a whole plays a crucial role in cultivating ecoliteracy. Governments, businesses, and communities can contribute by promoting sustainable practices, raising awareness, and providing accessible information. Through documentaries and educational programs, media can educate and inspire individuals to embrace ecoliteracy, i.e., BobBrown’ss The Giants Film or the Regenerate Australia documentary, or the video below. Additionally, fostering a culture that values environmental stewardship and sustainable choices empowers individuals to make conscious decisions that minimise their ecological footprint. In essence, the entire civilisational stack from the top down and bottom up needs to undergo a phase shift in our collective worldview.
Ecoliteracy provides an absolutely essential set of mental models for our pursuit of a more regenerative future. By developing ecoliteracy, individuals become equipped to understand, address, and mitigate environmental challenges and begin to develop an understanding of the root causes behind the emerging metacrisis. Transformative education, combined with societal efforts, can pave the way for a more ecoliterate society that values the natural world and strives to live within planetary boundaries.
The Foundations of Ecoliteracy
Fritjof Capra and Daniel Wahl are respected systems theorists who champion eco-literacy development. Both coming from the Schumacher College Holistic Science lineage, they’ve put forward principles intended to foster a more profound understanding of our ecosystems and guide individuals towards more sustainable choices. Below is a summary of these principles, drawn from each of their respective books12
Everything in the natural world is interconnected. A change in one part of an ecosystem can lead to changes elsewhere. This idea also extends to socio-economic systems, demonstrating how human actions and decisions are linked to environmental outcomes.
2. Cyclical Nature of Ecosystems
Ecosystems function in cycles, be it the water, carbon, or life-death cycles. This understanding includes recognising that resources are finite, and waste from one part of a system can become food in another, highlighting the need for closed-loop systems in human design.
3. Cooperative Relationships
Despite the competition in nature, ecosystems largely depend on cooperative, symbiotic relationships. We can encourage more collaborative and sustainable societies by learning from these partnerships.
4. Ecosystem Resilience
The resilience of an ecosystem, or its ability to withstand shocks and disturbances, is fostered by diversity and flexibility. These principles can also be applied to the design of resilient human systems.
The long-term survival of any species hinges on its ability to sustain its resources. Understanding the principle of sustainability pushes us to live within our means, in harmony with nature, rather than exhausting resources.
6. Adaptive Capacity
Ecosystems are capable of self-organisation and adaptation. They’re always learning and evolving based on feedback mechanisms. Human societies must understand and implement this ability to learn from errors, adapt, and evolve.
These principles encapsulate the essence of eco-literacy and are similar to the principles of Living Systems Thinking. Individuals, communities, and societies can make more informed and sustainable decisions by understanding and adopting these principles. These principles also advocate for a shift in education, emphasising the importance of teaching younger generations about the interconnectedness and fragility of the natural world. They propose a new kind of literacy that combines traditional knowledge with an understanding of our intricate dependence on the health of our ecosystems.
- Systems Ecology Wiki
- Deep Ecology
- Embodied Energy
- Stephan Harding on Deep Ecology and Gaia Theory
- Arne Næss Documentary on Deep Ecology
- The Centre for Ecoliteracy
- Schumacher College
- Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
- Wahl, D. C. Designing Regenerative Cultures. (Triarchy Press, 2016).
- Hagens, N. & White, D. J. Reality Blind. (2021).
- Yunkaporta, T. Sand Talk How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. (2019).