Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene, Part 4

By Mitchell Thomashow

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A Series on New Approaches to Education

The Purple Crayon and the Fog Man

As a way to introduce my thinking about environmental learning, I’d like to share some of my most vivid childhood experiences. When I was five years old, my parents took me to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I was thrilled, daunted, overwhelmed, and inspired by the virtual trip into outer space. For a souvenir I asked if I could bring home Herbert Zim’s Golden Guide to the Stars. I spent hours flipping through that book. It taught me about scale, space, time, and all the possibilities on my horizon. It instilled a sense of wonder. It helped me locate the Earth. I realized that I lived on a planet!

Golden Guide to the StarsI had another favorite book as well. I loved Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. As Harold wandered off to sleep he floated wherever his imagination would take him. His magic crayon enabled him to draw his reality. When he got lost and overwhelmed by the prospects of his imagination, he could find his way home by drawing the moon outside his bedroom window. His home place gave him the courage to explore the farther reaches of his imagination. I learned about the boundaries of home, and how I could use my imagination to travel through space and time.

Both books taught me a great deal (even as a five year old) about scale and the imagination. They also provided a glimpse into the wonderful world of books. To this day, I can endlessly wander through stacks of books, browsing their contents, synthesizing their meaning, exploring the various paths to insight and understanding. Over 60 years later I get immense pleasure from browsing my own library, an intellectual archive of my dreams, hopes, and aspirations. I savor the extraordinary variety of ideas sitting on those shelves. I get similar pleasure from browsing through other people’s libraries, glimpsing aspects of their intellectual lives.

At a young age, I learned to love the newspaper. I started with the sports page. It connected me to baseball games played in distant cities. I then migrated to the international news. As I got older I explored all of the other features of the paper. I learned how to scan the paper for stories of interest, and how to read between the lines. I began to understand that what wasn’t reported was also of importance. The daily newspaper taught me how to browse, surf, synthesize and interpret information.

Harold and the Purple CrayonSixty years later, I still wander through the morning news, but now I do so by visiting various websites or discussion forums. The speed and access of my approach is greatly accelerated, but the basic principles of browsing, synthesizing, and curating is strikingly similar to the habits I learned reading the daily newspaper as a child.

There’s another great way to start the day and that is to observe the natural world. Many years later (the 1990s), I discovered a lovely essay, “Readings for Morning” by Joseph W. Meeker, the opening piece in his delightful book, Minding the Earth. Meeker suggests that “[i]t is too much to say that you are what you read in the morning, but it is a sure bet that you aren’t what you don’t. . . . It is worthwhile to pause for a moment and reflect upon the character of the Morning Reading pursued by each of us. . . . A good day in the life of a living system begins with recognition and affirmation of life.” Meeker reiterated the necessity of observational ecology as an educational practice.  

I have a darker memory, too. It started as a frolic but ended as a headache. In the 1950s, our suburban community regularly sprayed DDT in the neighborhood. A man would come in a small jeep and dispense a cloud of chemicals, resembling a misty fog. We called him “the fog man.” I remember running through “the fog,” delighted that I had access to the same clouds I observed in the sky. I soon realized that these fog adventures would typically result in a headache, and from then on I stayed away. In my adult years, as a 39-year-old and then more recently, I’ve had cancerous but encapsulated tumors removed from my body. I often wonder whether “the fog man” seeded these mutations. This experience taught me about cognitive dissonance.


In retrospect, some of my environmental learning came from listening to the stories of my parents and grandparents. My mother was born on a farm in Cyprus, a Jewish family that fled pogroms in Russia, only to be initially denied access to America. The family emigrated again when she was nine years old, arriving at a cold water flat in Brooklyn. My mother spoke three languages, but not English. She and my grandfather would tell stories of how much they enjoyed the farm, and how difficult it was to emigrate, even though they knew it would bring more opportunities for the family. I learned about migration, diaspora, and the importance of intergenerational experience. It’s a long way from a farm in Cyprus to the Hayden Planetarium and the Fog Man, but these memories help me understand how I came to learn about the natural world. They influenced my career as an environmental educator. I’ve used them as templates for dozens of teaching activities.

I’ll conclude this brief snapshot of vivid learning moments for now, although I would also like to stress that I could cite dozens of additional incidents and memories, and they would reveal many other forms of participation and engagement. And I know that you can, too! It’s instructive to trace how you learn through a lifetime, to see what’s changed, and to observe that the essence of how you learn is both perennial and adaptive. Harold and the Purple Crayon is just as meaningful today as it was in 1955. Yet I’m aware, too, that in these times, Harold is as likely to take his journey with an iPad app or a YouTube video.  

There is a perennial quality to these anecdotes. You can also travel through space and time, or learn about scale and perception by reading Rumi’s poetry. Artists, visionaries, mystics, and scientists use the imagination to explore scale. Harold just happened to use a purple crayon. And the dark shadow of the Fog Man lies close to so many communities. Consider London’s famous polluting fogs and all of the health damage they caused. For countless generations, families have told origin stories that help them understand where they come from and where they are going. There are extraordinary environmental narratives layered in those stories.

The Great Smog of 1952.
Nelson’s Column in London during the Great Smog of 1952.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0.

What I wish to convey is that how we engage in learning has a perennial substrate, both through the ages and over the course of a lifetime. Yet it’s essential to pay attention to the adaptive qualities of an active mind. The context and milieu of environmental learning is always changing. For example, shiny new technologies easily take over our lives, and in so doing they alter how we observe and what we perceive. Can we be mindful of how these technologies influence how we learn, and then how we interpret what we observe? I believe there is a somatic and evolutionary substrate that informs sensory perception, structures our imaginative capacities, and enables us to form concepts and ideas. How is that substrate enhanced or diminished in different learning environments? This is my overriding concern as I consider learning pathways intrinsic to the Anthropocene. How do we navigate the shifting templates of dynamic change and what are the conceptual pathways that best inform environmental learning?

Sherry Turkle’s most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, explores how social media is dramatically changing the very essence of how people engage in conversations. For example, when texting is ubiquitous, protocols emerge as to when it’s appropriate to make eye contact, how you divide your attention between virtual and visceral conversations, and how social bonding is both enhanced and diminished. This is just one example of countless studies that document how social media and other communication technologies significantly change how we think and learn. These technologies and their applications change so quickly that it’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the rapidly evolving protocols, let alone the changing conceptual dimensions of their use. In my view, the field is moving so quickly that we still don’t understand the long-term implications of social media, and I’m wary of trendy prognostications and catchy metaphors. Moreover, much of the research is culturally specific and based on relatively affluent users.

Truck fogging using DDT in Florida.
Hillsborough County, Florida, Health Department Mosquito Control project fogging using DDT.
Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

However, just as the Anthropocene reflects accelerating environmental change, the same technological capacities that enable those changes are accompanied by accelerating conceptual changes. The challenge for environmental learning is how to understand the implications of both dynamic processes—environmental change has conceptual implications, and thus informs how we learn about the biosphere. I have written about this parallel process in Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change (The MIT Press, 2001). For example, I consider how the technologies of speed (both the Internet and the Interstate) dramatically alter how we perceive environmental change—pace is intrinsic to perception.

What’s the relationship between Harold’s purple crayon, the Fog Man, my mother’s emigration, and the accelerating technological changes of the Anthropocene? I think the best way to formulate an educational strategy is to carefully reflect on your own experience as a learner. There are many paths to environmental learning, depending on your age, your culture, your background, and your values. This includes varieties of developmental sequences, cognitive abilities, and multiple intelligences. Your path is an educational narrative, one strand in a collective narrative that yields more generalized insights. The very best educational approaches and curriculum find ways to weave between individual and collective experience, while also paying attention to what’s perennial and adaptive.

In the next section, I’ll propose a conceptual sequence for environmental learning in the Anthropocene. Similar to the adaptive curriculum I proposed in a previous column, this sequence is meant to be evocative, unfolding, and versatile, reflecting the fast-paced changes of our contemporary milieu. My hope is that this sequence will serve as a template for new approaches to educational delivery and assessment.



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.