Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene, Part 1

By Mitchell Thomashow

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Series on New Approaches to Education

Since the days of the Whole Earth Catalog, circa 1969, I’ve been concerned about the ecological fate of the planet. Anyone who was paying attention then could observe the daunting threats: changing oceanic and atmospheric circulations, altered biogeochemical cycles, species extinctions, declining biodiversity, and habitat degradation. All these decades later, many of the environmental concerns and challenges we recognized in that era remain unresolved. The scientific data is much more precise, our ability to monitor earth system changes is increasingly robust, and our understanding of the biosphere is more sophisticated. In 2015, climate change is a household word (if not a household concern), the sustainability movement has made great strides, and the global consequences of environmental change are much better (if still imperfectly) understood.

In 1969 there weren’t any environmental studies programs that were named as such. You could study ecology or forestry, or approach the traditional disciplines with ecological topics in mind. Or you could enroll in a geography program, perhaps the most intriguing interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues. There was an entire generation of baby boomer students who were motivated to change all of that. Indeed, my entire career was oriented around developing, designing, and implementing various approaches to environmental studies. This was a generation-wide effort. The result is profound. We now have an international network of robust environmental studies programs at every conceivable educational level. These programs are further expanded with the emergence of sustainability as a rubric for considering human impact on the environment.

Take a few minutes and think about all the words you can summon with green, eco, environmental, or sustainable in the prefix. Whether it’s ecopsychology, environmental ethics, environmental economics, green business, sustainability science, ecological restoration—or whatever words and concepts you might conjure—few, if any of these subjects, appeared in the lexicon or as fitting educational subjects prior to 1970. The environmental literature is now profuse. We’ve come a long way conceptually and educationally. That’s a very good thing!

Yet environmental concerns are still trumped by seemingly more pertinent issues—economic and social equity, health care, resurgent tribalism, violent conflict, and global poverty, among many others—and the connections between these issues and the ecological fate of the planet are not easily perceived. What is the role of environmental studies in making those connections more clear?

Lately there has been much talk about the meaning of the Anthropocene, a dramatic concept suggesting that human impact on the earth is a significant enough biospheric and ecological dynamic so as to proclaim a new era on the geological time scale. Since atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen proposed this term, we’ve seen an engaging literature discussing the appropriateness, interpretation, and significance of this concept, including numerous books, websites, and even a journal (Anthropocene, published by Elsevier). Whatever the scientific merits of the term, like the equally evocative “Gaia” it is sufficiently controversial to generate interesting discussion and commentary. What I take from the concept is that the terms of how we conceive environmental learning are rapidly changing. Forty-five years have passed since the first publication of the Whole Earth Catalog. How shall we conceive of environmental learning all these years later? And how can we build on some of the important concepts from the first phase of environmental studies—place-based learning, bioregionalism, wilderness conservation, ecological restoration, natural history education, environmental justice, ecological economics, global environmental governance—while we confront the Anthropocene reality?

I’ve been considering six dynamic challenges that must be incorporated, internalized, and activated to expand environmental learning:

  • The urban planet
  • A cosmopolitan culture
  • Ecological equity and social justice
  • The proliferation of information networks
  • Virtual natural history
  • Synthetic biology

These are by no means inclusive categories. There are countless ways to think about environmental learning in the Anthropocene. In my view, environmental studies is necessarily adaptive and the conditions that inform its structure are always in flux. Let’s launch the conversation.

The Anthropocene Has Many Layers
“The Anthropocene Has Many Layers.”
Artwork by Jake Seven.

Page through any contemporary world atlas, or compare maps of the world from 1950 to the present, and you will observe an extraordinary planetary urbanization process. Widen the temporal spread slightly and you encounter a stunning statistic. In 1900, two out of every ten people lived in an urban area. By 2050, it’s projected that seven out of every ten people will be urban dwellers. To cite the title of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything. Environmental studies must include urbanization as a critical informing dynamic. Accordingly, programs in urban ecology, ecological urbanism, and urban sustainability, among other configurations, are emerging. Blogs and websites such as The Nature of Cities, Next City, 100 Resilient Cities, and The Urban Sustainability Directors Network reflect an exciting proliferation of solution-based ideas and projects. Cities are centers of innovation and it is likely that the most groundbreaking ecological solutions will originate in urban systems.

Planetary urbanization contributes to a vibrant cosmopolitan culture. Global cities include people from a great variety of cultural backgrounds. Some arrive there by virtue of choice and opportunity. Others arrive as a consequence of displacement—refugees from war, political upheaval, or environmental change, especially climate. Indeed, the unfortunate resurgence of anti-immigration sentiment is a reactionary, fear-based response to the inevitable planetary diaspora of people and species. Cultural diversity is parallel to biodiversity, and threats to both are equally challenging. How do people from different backgrounds learn, live, and work together? This challenge, too, should be fundamental to environmental learning in the Anthropocene.

Thomas Piketty’s great work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, develops the unassailable case that income inequality is a structural dysfunction of modern economies. The oligarchic concentration of wealth has huge implications for human flourishing, and important ramifications for natural resource distribution and ecological services. The term “ecological equity” brings attention to the connection between wealth inequality and the political economy of global environmental change. The advanced technologies and information networks of the Anthropocene have the potential to exacerbate wealth inequality or provide interesting new solutions for wealth sharing and creation. Are there new approaches to both global environmental governance and local, bioregional politics that facilitate participation and engagement, and in so doing, bring the challenge of ecological equity to the foreground?

The proliferation of information networks continues unabated, bringing profound changes to how people and communities organize their lives. The dual promise of the “world wide web” provokes both excitement and ambivalence. Does it promote ubiquitous access to unlimited data or the end of privacy? The internet, computing, and social media create new templates for how people work, how they think, and how they perceive the biosphere. How does this impact environmental learning? Among other challenges, it means that there are entirely new professions that can potentially influence how we think about the environment and how to organize information and learning. Marshall McLuhan was correct. The very use of these “sensory enhancing” technologies radically changes human perception.

Hence many people now learn about the biosphere through digital means. Such virtual learning is also a dual promise. On the one hand, environmental learning is enhanced by advanced instrumentation, allowing for the global exchange of data, spectacular imagery, and the ability to change perceptual scale through digitization techniques. Yet more screen time often sacrifices visceral apprehension, and interferes with the hands-on, place-based learning that has long been the foundation of environmental learning. Is there a useful blend of these learning venues? What is the role of environmental studies in navigating this boundary?

Synthetic biology integrates genomic engineering, evolutionary biology, and biodesign. Flip through the lavishly illustrated pages of Biodesign by William Myers and you’ll see the following topic headings: algal filter machine, bioencryption, aquadyne living wall, lung-on-a-chip, and carnivorous domestic robots, among dozens more. Myers intends to portray the potential of ecologically based solutions to a wide range of issues, including medical microbiology, materials design, urban planning, and ecological engineering. The various illustrations are alternately inspiring and grotesque, natural and alien, appealing and disconcerting. In Regenesis, George Church and Ed Regis explore how synthetic biology is intrinsic to the history of life on earth, and it opens a new dimension in planetary evolution. By what basis will consumers, producers, and regulators make sense of these possibilities? And what’s the role of environmental studies in developing such criteria?

Dynamic Environmental Change
“Dynamic Environmental Change”
Artwork by Jake Seven.

I was 19 years old in 1969 when I first discovered the Whole Earth Catalog. In many respects, I’ve spent an entire career developing environmental programs that reflected the vision and content of that wonderful book. And I still believe in many of the ideas and possibilities in its pages. But what’s in store for today’s 19 year old, and how will she or he best prepare for the Anthropocene? What is appropriate environmental learning in 2015? Surely today’s college student requires the “classic” skills of analysis, interpretation, synthesis, and reflective awareness. But what subjects must be studied? And what professions will these students enter? In what ways must the field of environmental studies be revitalized and transformed? What educational institutions, research centers, museums, and learning environments will take the necessary bold steps to initiate that transformation? In my next two columns, I’ll address these questions in more detail.



Mitchell ThomashowMitchell Thomashow is the author of Ecological Identity, Bringing the Biosphere Home, and The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. He is the President Emeritus of Unity College. His current work includes projects on the ecological imagination, community and place, and global environmental change.
Read “The Ecological Imagination: A Conversation on Art + Environment with Mitchell Thomashow and Ben Champion” appearing in Terrain.org.

Header image, “Where is the Wild in the Anthropocene?” by Jake Seven. Photo of Mitchell Thomashow courtesy Mitchell Thomashow.

  1. This is a really important piece because it touches on five critical aspects of evolution: the age of homo sapiens, urbanization; economic inequality, the world wide web and synthetic biology. I want to touch on four of these (one of these, synthetic biology, I know nothing about). First, the age of homo sapiens: There is a Jewish word for this–chutzpah–it means “some nerve”. To already call the arrival and evolution of homo sapiens a specific age–the “Anthropocene” when we are looking at a blip on the radar compared to prior ages such as the Pleistocene or the Mesozoic that lasted for millions of years is chutzpah. Only time will tell how well we fare on the evolutionary scale and whether we are “sustainable” as a species or just here and gone. Second, urbanization: where we are–the fact that 7 out of 10 of us live in an urban environment is overshadowed by–what we are–and McLuhan’s “global village” is much more significant as a result of another important critical aspect of evolution, the worldwide web. We are at once immediately integrated and dreadfully fragmented. 19th century conceptions of alienation and anomie are side by side with texting, tweeting, blogging, email, etc. The closer we are by virtue of 24/7connectedness the less emotionally connected we become. This leads to the fragmentation of income and income inequality. Surprise, Karl Marx was right and so were Barron and Sweezy–capitalism has a tendency to accrue wealth into fewer and fewer hands and this has significant consequences–capital can’t be recirculated quickly enough to keep the economy going and to meet the ideological precondition–democracy. We have moved in the western world from social capital to investment capital where the benefits of upward mobility and satisfaction of needs are difficult to meet. It was Thomas Jefferson who struggled with the language of the Declaration of Independence realizing that there were two Americas–North and South and that his original wording “…the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of property….” became “…life liberty and the pursuit of happiness….” This was a way to move away from the divisive issue of slavery–were slaves property or not? “The pursuit of happiness” meant free labor–that each person owed the rights to the fruits of their labor and that happiness was created with owning the right to yourself. This is being challenges by the fragmented labor of the worldwide web where piece work and part-time replaces full-time and a living wage. Wages are depressed and real wages have not moved noticeably upward since 1974. So how do we evaluate the Anthropocene and is it a significant moment on the evolutionary and planetary stage? I’ll let you know 75 million years from now.

    This is why I believe that Mitchell’s synthesis is so important–to paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard: we can think about thoughts that thought cannot think. Thank you Mitchell


Comments are closed.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.