Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene, Part 3

By Mitchell Thomashow

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Series on New Approaches to Education

The Anthropocene Curriculum

In her remarkably informative and pertinent biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf explains how Humboldt “plaited together the cultural, biological, and physical world, and painted a picture of global patterns.” Over 200 years ago, Humboldt’s effusive, prolific, and ambitious global explorations established the intellectual foundations of environmental change science. His multivolume work Cosmos inspired Darwin, Thoreau, and Emerson, as well as an entire generation of natural philosophers and emerging scientists. Humboldt emphasized the importance of comparative natural history, the integration of imagination with rational thought, the relationship between environmental exploitation and social justice, the necessity of networking and collaboration, and the sheer wonder of scientific and artistic exploration.

The boldness of Humboldt’s pioneering vision serves as an educational foundation and guide for environmental learning in the Anthropocene. I derive both inspiration and reassurance knowing that an ecologically oriented, discovery-based, imagination-fueled approach to learning has a 200-year legacy. Just as Humboldt was an educational innovator so many years ago, we have to be correspondingly bold in our curricular objectives. How can we build on Humboldt’s vision given all the extraordinary conceptual tools available in the 21st century?

I’d like to address this question in two ways. First, I’ll provide a generalized template for the substantive curriculum that should inform environmental learning. Second, and in a subsequent column, I’ll explore some of the “learning pathways” that are emerging as essential conceptualizations in an era of big data, social media, and surplus information. These approaches are complementary. The knowledge base of a curriculum should never be separated from the teaching and learning process. Indeed, they inform each other.

Before I proceed, I’d like to offer some comments from practical experience. As a former college president, and as a sustainability consultant to many colleges and universities, I am acutely aware of how hard it is to promote, design, and implement transformational curricular change. The faculty steward the curriculum. More often than not, they have strong opinions based on their disciplinary bias and research orientation. Administrators often present their own conservative biases, usually informed by multiple stakeholder concerns, donor considerations, financial issues, or political contingencies. Most educational institutions have elaborate protocols and procedures for curricular innovation, and they tend to favor incremental change and the status quo. Since the late 1960s very few institutions have been able to implement systemic curricular change. Of course there are exceptions (Arizona State University comes to mind), but they are always controversial and easily subverted by the risk averse.

Perhaps the pervading turbulence in higher education—from questions of accountability to relevance to cost—will provide a catalyst for systemic curricular change. It seems to me there are three generalized responses to this turbulence. One is to administer financial cutbacks and administrative efficiencies. A second is to try to find additional revenue to support the status quo. A third is to transform the institution with new programs, delivery models, and revenue streams. Some institutions try all three of these approaches. That can be very confusing! In my view, colleges and universities that promote visionary, imaginative, yet practical, and career-oriented programs will best survive these turbulent years.

If you’re reading this, and you work in an environment-related field at a college or university, you have an opportunity. You won’t be able to transform the curriculum unless you make a conscious choice to do so. That choice will require time, perseverance, commitment, vision, and creativity. Whether you’re a student, a faculty member, a dean, or serve in some other function, you will only transform the curriculum if you take the responsibility for helping to implement the change.

Curriculum development is a dynamic, situational, and participatory process. That’s why so many curricular efforts repeat themselves. We often hear about the inefficiencies of “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to curriculum. It is obviously useful to be aware of what others are doing, and to be inspired by great ideas. As stewards of the curriculum, most faculties aspire to incorporate their expertise and values as essential to the teaching and learning process. Hence there are many “home-grown” curricular efforts that are inherently subject to compromise. That is why I am proposing adaptive curricular guidelines that may be relevant in diverse institutional settings, acknowledging, too, the rapidly changing external environment that brings new knowledge and situations to bear on academic preparation.

Wall art by Jake Stevens

I propose five broad categories as a curricular foundation: biosphere studies, urban environments, the ecological imagination, sustainability life skills, and social networking and change management. These are mutually reinforcing and reciprocal categories. For each foundation I’ll briefly present a core learning process, distinguish a personal and public dimension, and then suggest some areas for substantive inquiry and experimentation. Consider these suggestions as a catalog of emerging curricular design potentials, to serve as a basis for dozens of possibilities.

Biosphere Studies emphasizes an understanding of scale, learning how to interpret spatial and temporal variability, linked to the dynamics of biospheric processes and local ecological observations. The challenge is to develop a conceptual sequence that helps students perceive, recognize, classify, detect, and interpret biospheric patterns, what I’ll describe as “pattern-based environmental learning.” The purpose is to better understand and internalize global environmental change. The personal dimension involves the development of natural history observation skills so as to enhance appreciation of home and habitat. The public dimension involves how to contribute those observations and assessments to global networks of biospheric data collection. Examples for study may include bioregional natural history, biogeochemical cycles, atmospheric and oceanic circulations, evolutionary ecology, restoration ecology, the movement of people and species, watersheds and fluvial geomorphology, biogeographical change (species migrations, radiations, and convergences), plate tectonics, and climate change.

Urban Environments integrates the ecological dynamics and footprints of cities with the political economy of globalization, urbanization, and municipal organization. The personal dimension involves understanding cities as networks of community life, multicultural and multigenerational diversity, concentrated dwelling spaces, hubs of innovation and knowledge generation, and centers of regional and international commerce and exchange, while exploring the ecological context for those activities. The public dimension involves understanding the design, organization, governance, and nature of cities, their impact on the biosphere, their metabolic and microbial flows, and how community networks can enhance social justice, economic equity, resilience, and a sustainable material life. Examples for study include ecological urbanism, globalization and the city, cosmopolitan cultures, urban design and sustainability, urban metabolism, resilience studies, innovation and knowledge diffusion, and cities in space and time.

The Ecological Imagination entails the cultivation of an aesthetic voice, personal expression, and improvisational excellence to enhance the arts, music, dance, play, literary narrative, and philosophical inquiry. The personal dimension emphasizes how to use the creative process as a means to explore questions of ethics, meaning, and purpose; how to maximize aesthetic joy; and how to express emotional responses to challenging environmental issues. The public dimension develops the capacity for collective expression in social milieus—how to use public spaces such as buildings, parks, and campuses to promote learning about sustainability and environmental issues. Examples for study include environmental art and music, acoustic ecology and sound design, biophilic design and architecture, environmental interpretation, environmental perception, environmental ethics, ecological identity, the aesthetics and epistemology of patterns, game design, information design, and biomimicry.

Sustainability Life Skills is the application of sustainability principles to the routines, behaviors, and practices of everyday life. The personal dimension involves the individual behaviors of sustenance, shelter, transportation, health, and domestic life. Further, it emphasizes how to incorporate sustainability principles into one’s career and professional choices. The public dimension involves how to support organizational or regional sustainability efforts, including procurement, ecological cost accounting, recycling, health services, and/or other forms of community capacity building for sustainability. Examples for study include organic agriculture, nutrition, homebuilding and engineering, construction, alternative energy, energy and water conservation, alternative transportation, sustainability metrics, habitat restoration, gardening, urban and regional planning, career development, reflective practice, and service learning.

Social Networking and Change Management describes how to enhance, cultivate, and utilize social capital. This includes a personal dimension—providing students with the ability to better understand how they learn and think, how they respond to stress, and how to maximize psychological and physical wellness. The public dimension promotes the ability to interpret collective behavior in organizational settings. The learning process involves how to integrate the personal and social dimension so as to maximize human flourishing in diverse institutional settings. Examples for study include cognitive theory, neuropsychology, organizational process, change management, behavioral economics, ecological economics, social entrepreneurship, decision-making science, adaptive management, and social networking theory.

Wall mural by Jake Stevens

In Northfield, Massachusetts, the independent Northfield Mount Hermon School once had two beautiful sprawling campuses, one on each side of the Connecticut River. Some years ago they decided to move all functions to the Mount Hermon campus. The campus on the Northfield side is essentially mothballed. I’ve often thought about how exciting it would be to use that campus to design a brand new college, one based on the subject matter described above. Students and faculty would turn the campus into an exemplary sustainable facility, using the Anthropocene curriculum as a guide.

Now that I spend much of the year in Seattle, I often walk past the campus of Antioch University. The building was recently sold, as it represents prime downtown real estate. Antioch will move elsewhere, a few blocks away. But I think about what it would mean to repurpose and retrofit the current building and turn it into a new college with an Anthropocene curriculum. How would the Seattle campus and the Northfield campus be both similar and different? Perhaps we need dozens of new schools, colleges, and universities, at all levels of education, designed by the prospective participants, uniquely configured to take on the environmental challenges of the forthcoming century. What can be more important than such an educational project? How can you stimulate this kind of thinking where you live and work? Is there a reasonable scale for attempting this approach?

While you think about these options and possibilities, remember, too, that the Anthropocene demands new learning concepts and pathways as well as substantive knowledge. In the next column I’ll look at these approaches, including scale, patterns, metabolism, networks, perception, design, improvisation, iconography, and imagination. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quote from Steven Johnson’s fine book, Where Good Ideas Come From: “Unusually generative environments display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”

An earlier version of the adaptive curriculum presented above appeared in The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus.



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. Mitch is currently a Fellow at Philanthropy Northwest in Seattle, Washington, working on sustainability, community, and place.
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.