Mural by Jake Sevens.

Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene, Part 5

By Mitchell Thomashow

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Series on New Approaches to Education

The Five Qualities

Andrea Wulf concludes her magnificent biography of Alexander von Humboldt by emphasizing his singular contribution to environmental learning: “we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination.” For Humboldt, “the imagination soothed the deep wounds that reason created.” Humboldt’s active imagination was stimulated by his extraordinary observational powers, his ability to synthesize information, his interpretive originality, his dynamic expressive approaches, and their manifestation as exemplified by both his scientific work and his outspoken critiques of colonialism and slavery. What is the 21st century version of this sequence—observation, information, interpretation, expression, manifestation?

In a previous essay, The Anthropocene Curriculum, I explore how Humboldt’s vision and his emphasis on the imagination provides inspiration for a 21st century approach to environmental learning. I outline a template for curricular design potentials covering Biosphere Studies, Urban Environments, The Ecological Imagination, Social Networking and Change Management, and Sustainability Life Skills. I’d like to propose a parallel template, but this time emphasizing the conceptual learning pathways, or qualities, that contribute to environmental learning.

I describe these learning pathways as qualities because they represent distinctive attributes. Each quality entails intrinsic learning processes. All of the qualities and learning processes are simultaneously enfolding and unfolding. They encompass each other while they reveal deepening insights. These qualities are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

This is not an empirical theory, but rather an informal template, based on four decades of teaching and thinking about environmental learning. I offer this approach in the spirit of educational experimentation and improvisation. There are multiple ways to arrange these qualities. Nevertheless, I present them with some predispositions.

First, I’m intrigued by the dialectic between perennial qualities and adaptive considerations. A perennial quality represents an educational virtue that is consistent across cultural place and time. Environmental insights emerge in similar ways in a variety of cultural settings. Yet the context of learning is never the same. People, cultures, and organisms respond to changing circumstances. Hence learning is also adaptive. In the first decades of the 21st century, dynamic environmental change and the acceleration of information technologies are the context for adaptive learning.

Second, I don’t think educators spend sufficient time considering how people learn, especially in higher education. Most curricular controversies are substantive. How you learn is as important as what you learn. The skills of lifelong learning are typically internalized when you learn how to learn, and these skills receive insufficient reflective attention.

Third, ecological thinking embodies a paradigmatic shift in how we think about learning. That shift transcends interdisciplinarity per se. It assumes innovative approaches to how we engage as learning organisms in complex environments, how we see ourselves in the biosphere, and how we expand our concepts of place and time.

Fourth, I conceive organizational schemes as mandala sand paintings. You create a temporary order of symmetry, coherence, pattern, and meaning, and then you let it all dissipate and recreate it as necessary. Learning is a reflective blend of structure and improvisation, pattern and chaos, coherence and dissonance.

Fifth, the best way to think about any organizational scheme is to personalize it, using it as a way to explore how you learn, how you observe the way others learn, and by considering how learning is a reciprocal relationship between the self, culture, and the environment.

I encourage you to experiment with these qualities and rearrange them to suit your own purposes.

Mural by Jake Seven.

And now for the five qualities:


Observation emphasizes a broadened understanding of biosphere patterns, including the ability to design learning activities and research approaches that enhance perception of global environmental change, an understanding of the relationship between local and global, and the ability to move between spatial and temporal scales. Observation entails perception, identification, and pattern recognition. Perception is the development of sensory awareness, so as to apprehend movement, metabolism, pace and behavior. Identification allows an individual to enter the lifeworld (umwelt) of other organisms. Pattern Recognition is the ability to assimilate perception and identification by using scale to detect symmetry, cycles, waves, thresholds, interstices, flows, and species interactions. For a comprehensive discussion of these issues, and for specific examples from the field of ecology, please see Rafe Sagarin and Anibel Pauchard, Observation and Ecology.


Information describes the ability to gather data from a variety of sources, organize that data, assess its relevance and application, and understand how to use it effectively. Information entails sourcing, browsing, and networking. Sourcing involves understanding the origins of information, its dissemination, its transformation, and how it is manipulated or translated based on opinion and perspective. Browsing involves the survey of information, including scanning (seeing the breadth of the field), scaling (understanding its context), focus (knowing how to look more deeply), and granularity (finding its constituent pieces). Networking entails mapping information, tracing its routes and paths, determining its speed of transmission (mobility), and understanding who has access to it. An interesting way to conceive of information, and an approach that is facilitated by computer graphics, is the emerging field of information design and visualization. Information design uses the above concepts and develops visualization processes to enhance our understanding of them.


Interpretation is the challenge of generating meaning from observation and information. This includes constructing narrative, amplifying and articulating personal voice, and developing themes and approaches for communicating complex environmental issues. Interpretation entails synthesis, dissonance, and narrative. Synthesis is the ability to find coherent relationships within diverse fields of information while finding the essence of ideas and explanations. Dissonance reflects the tensions inherent in synthesis, the recognition of nonlinearity, different perspectives, and contrasting possibilities. Narrative is the ability to create arcs of unfolding meaning, embodying both synthesis and dissonance through the use of allegory, metaphor, and story. In the 21st century, electronic communications make new forms of narrative available and novel forms of expression possible, including the use of diverse media, and reliance on iconography, design, and virtual/visceral matrices, demanding innovative approaches to interpretation.


Expression is the ability to effectively communicate interpretive approaches by cultivating creative possibilities in venues such as storytelling and eloquence, writing and personal reflection, information design and display, artistic mapping, public art, soundscape design, animation and video, music and dance performance, game design, and other forms of iconography and representation. Expression entails imagination, improvisation, and activation. Imagination is a unique blend of creativity, visualization, and reflection, allowing the mind to form uninhibited images and possibilities by exploring the unconscious, and melding psyche with the biosphere. Improvisation is the ability to spontaneously respond to dynamic changes in the environment by adapting structures of knowledge to new contingencies, or playing with forms and ideas as they emerge. Activation is the application of imagination and improvisation through experimentation, innovation, and implementation. Electronic communications enable a spontaneity of response that can have wide (but not necessarily deep) impact in a short period of time. How can expression be simultaneously deep and wide, perennial and adaptive, structured and improvisational, active and reflective?


Manifestation refers to the generosity of interpretation and expression, applying narrative forms to enhance human flourishing in the biosphere. This includes an understanding of social and emotional intelligence, interspecies empathy, the ability to form collaborative connections and challenging learning communities in multiple cultural settings, the ability to engage in creative conflict, and the awareness to improvise in and adapt to diverse learning venues. Manifestation entails generosity, posterity, and flourishing. Generosity is the ability to demonstrate kindness, compassion, and respect in service to cultural community and ecosystem integrity. It encourages empathy, dialogue, connectedness, and love. Posterity requires awareness of past and future generations, the ability to act with respect for legacy and outcome, and to do so with an expansive time scale. If we combine posterity and empathy, we consider our actions in all of these contexts—intergenerational, multicultural, inter-species, urban/rural, local/global, and cosmopolitan. Flourishing is the ultimate goal of environmental learning, to create settings that allow for optimal human thriving in the dynamic biosphere. Flourishing promotes pleasure, virtue, equity, opportunity, collaboration, community, restoration, and reciprocation.

I realize this is a hefty list. Any of these qualities require elaboration and specification. They are most useful when placed in a substantive context. For example, these qualities can be neatly juxtaposed with the five curricular design potentials listed above. I’ll do so now:

Curricular Design Potentials: Biosphere Studies, Urban Environments, The Ecological Imagination, Social Networking and Change Management, Sustainability Life Skills.

The Five Qualities: Observation (Perception, Identification, Pattern Recognition), Information (Sourcing, Browsing, Networking), Interpretation (Synthesis, Dissonance, Narrative), Expression (Imagination, Improvisation, Activation), Manifestation (Generosity, Posterity, Flourishing).

It’s also helpful to juxtapose the curricular design potentials and the five qualities with the “new professions” I previously described—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.

How do all of these possibilities help us conceive a new generation of environmental learning venues? What is the role of colleges and universities in taking bold educational initiatives? What support do we provide students, faculty, and administrators? How can trustees and other stakeholders be included in these initiatives? And how do we work with communities to better understand the dynamic environmental and conceptual changes of the Anthropocene?

In my next columns, I’ll move away from these abstract formulations, and provide some examples of on-the-ground projects, both in the classroom and in the community, that combine vision and practice and offer hope and solutions.



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

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

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