Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene, Part 2

By Mitchell Thomashow

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A Series on New Approaches to Education

The Whole Earth Catalog was inspiring for many reasons. It made me aware of a huge talent pool of people who could be mobilized to live a more creative, wholesome, and responsible life. So many decades ago, the sections of the original book—understanding whole systems, shelter and land use, industry and craft, communications, community, nomadics, and learning—served as both a curriculum and a vision for a parallel catalog of new professions. Whether it was software engineering, community activism, sustainable design, or management consulting, a close look at the Whole Earth Catalog reveals dozens of ideas for new professional identities and categories. The classic Whole Earth back cover aphorism was “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” But you could also interpret that as: “Use your talent wisely and well. It’s needed. Be imaginative. Improvise and take risks.”

I have a hunch. I believe there is a vast talent pool of people, many of whom are between 25 and 40 years old, who are engaged in the equivalent “new professions” of 2015. These are creative, motivated, independent, and flexible people who care deeply about “the fate of the planet” but don’t have the venue for expressing their concerns or lending their voice to problem-solving solutions. Here’s a preliminary list of these emergent 2015 professional identities and categories: social entrepreneurs, media innovators, information analysts, infographic consultants, game designers, computer networkers, curators, graphic facilitators, planners, healing professionals, green retailers and marketers, street artists and performers, digital artists and photographers, and bloggers.

I am curious about people who are not intrinsically drawn to the environmental and sustainability fields but nevertheless are concerned about those issues. I am not describing the sustainability professional or environmental activist. They have already made their professional choices. We need to attract people in professions that may not be ostensibly environmental, but who can lend their expertise and imagination to how we perceive global environmental challenges, and who can design clever, resilient, and unlikely solutions.

On Super Bowl Sunday, if you take the time to watch the game, beyond all of the hoopla and hype, there is another show, too—all of the new, flashy, sparkly, speedy commercials. Forget for a moment the values they promote, the products they sell, and the lifestyle they espouse, however attracted or repulsed you might be. Consider instead the thousands of hours of creativity and craft that go into the production of those commercials. Talented and imaginative women and men are working on these ads.

For much of the year I live in a boutique “green apartment” building in “hip” Belltown, a few blocks north of downtown Seattle. Most of the apartment residents are in that 25- to 40-year-old age group. They work for Amazon or Microsoft, or they work independently as graphic designers, website builders, computer programmers, or any of the professions I list above. Some of them take long “recreational” trips in between professional opportunities. One fellow works at a local bank so he can support his aspiration as a writer. A woman I know is pursuing joint degrees in health infomatics and business. Another young man works at ZipCar. A younger friend teaches band at a local middle school so he can support his main professional aspiration of becoming a game designer. My next-door neighbor is a fashion blogger. And it’s not just these well-educated people. Spend some time in Seattle’s lower-income Central District and speak to people who work in the schools, NGOs, and community centers. Speak to street artists and musicians. You’ll be blown away by the extraordinary talent and vision.

I’m a chatty guy and I like to talk to these folks. What matters to them? Why do they do what they do? What are their aspirations? Just a few minutes of conversation with them and it’s clear that they are talented, motivated, and interesting people. I am convinced that almost all of the people I speak with genuinely care about the same environmental issues that concern me, but they are unlikely to become engaged with those issues because they lack venues for doing so. For the most part, they aren’t going to join a march, or get politically engaged. Maybe they will try to live more sustainable lives, but it’s not necessarily a priority, like it is for the environmentally converted.

I’ve spent over four decades in the environmental field. I’ve worked with hundreds of mission-driven, sincere, hard-working professionals. Like all mission-driven projects, there’s an implicit assumption that we have to recruit more people to our cause. If they know what we know, they will be as concerned as we are. Let’s grow awareness so as to promote more effective action. It’s an obvious logic model for environmental activism. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked. Why? Broadening awareness of global environmental change takes time. It requires reflection, imagination, deliberation, and experience. It’s not a conversion experience, although some will explain it that way. It’s not an awareness that emerges from a single exposure, or an outrageous transgression, although it can happen that way. It’s a slower, cumulative, cultural process.

Red-eyed tree frog

I don’t want to recruit a brilliant advertising person to develop the environmental ad of the decade. Or convince a brilliant marketing analyst to prepare a marketing campaign for broadening awareness of endangered species. Such projects may have short-term effectiveness. You might be able to sell a car that way, or a pair of sneakers, or even a president. But you won’t influence deeper values. And you certainly won’t build awareness of a challenge as complicated as the biosphere and global environmental change.

Rather, I’m hoping to organize a riveting, reciprocal, informative learning process. I would like to mobilize the vast talent pool of innovative, creative professionals. More importantly I want to know what they’re thinking. I want to understand their motivations, aspirations, and concerns. I’d like to better understand the kind of world they want to live in today, tomorrow, and 25 years in the future. I want to know how they intend to get there. I want to ask them questions that they aren’t often asked—questions about meaning, purpose, and right livelihood. Who are you? What matters to you? Where is your path taking you? How can we work together? I envision a multigenerational, multicultural, multidisciplinary group of learning professionals who want to shape the world by cultivating their ecological awareness, as linked to the other priorities of their lives and times.

Just as the environmental profession invented itself over the last four decades, it must adapt to a dramatically new workplace environment. Glance through this infographic compiled by Ross Dawson:

The Future of Work, graphic by Ross Dawson

Do our environmental studies programs help students understand this shifting workplace? Or for that matter are these dynamics covered as crucial curricular foundations for liberal arts programs? Typically not. Yet today’s students probably won’t maximize their success unless they understand where they fit in this matrix. The successful professionals I refer to above mainly figure this out independently. They find ways to see themselves outside of the traditional workplace. They reinvent their professional identities accordingly.

So what does all of this have to do with environmental learning in the Anthropocene? I’d like to stress three ideas for further conversation:

First, environmental learning must involve a wide range of professional pathways engaging the future of work, multiple stakeholders, and convergent interests. I envision global change scientists working with information graphics experts, game designers, or street artists. Consider conservation biologists working with social entrepreneurs, media innovators, and digital artists. Mix and match as you choose. But these combinations must be supported actively at all levels of schooling—from elementary education to graduate programs.

Second, environmental learning must incorporate new cognitive orientations. All of the “new professions” are learning a great deal about multiple psychological dynamics—from decision-making behavior to attention and perception. This data, perhaps intended for proprietary purposes, such as consumer choice, also penetrates the realm of values and meaning. Sophisticated game designers, for example, have a profound understanding of how to engage people using all of their senses, developing strategic and improvisational thinking, collaboration and competition, visual and iconic aids, and immersive experiences.

Third, environmental learning must conceive of innovative learning spaces. Educational institutions will always have a prominent role to play, but only the most innovative systems will be flexible enough to overhaul the curricular foundations of environmental programs. Where else can and should environmental learning occur, especially given the future of work diagram? We might prefer that no child is left inside, but for many children, outside is a city street. How can we mobilize zoos, aquariums, and museums to expand how they think about environmental learning? Are there workplace venues, media and virtual spaces, public festivals and gatherings, markets or sporting events where such learning might occur?

And how do all three of these possibilities mutually reinforce each other—new professional pathways, cognitive and perceptual understanding, and innovative learning spaces? There are strategic “learning spaces” that may emerge beyond the boundaries of institutional education—places like museums, community centers, corporate forums, small business gatherings, civic meetings, street festivals. Perhaps the philanthropic community can seed public learning spaces that encourage creative collaborations in service of community, place, and ecological awareness.

I’m excited to see that some of these collaborations are beginning to occur. They often happen for serendipitous reasons—spatial proximity, freewheeling hubs, recreational associations, community gatherings, or virtual convergences. But how much more effective would these collaborations be if we seeded them in colleges and universities? What if schools of communication, for example, developed curricular and career approaches with business programs and schools of the environment? And what if you bring art colleges into the mix? There are dozens of interesting, topically rich, career-relevant combinations.

Perhaps it’s time that we consider a grand overhaul of environmental programs as well. In the next installment, I’ll make some suggestions for what an ideal Anthropocene environmental learning curriculum might entail.



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 and other murals by Jake Seven. Photo of Mitchell Thomashow courtesy Mitchell Thomashow.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.