22 January 2011

Earth Smarts - Essential Ecoliteracy

Sourced from
Earth Smarts, January 2011

'Earth smarts, or essential ecoliteracy, is like street smarts writ large - it helps individuals and communities to survive and thrive in the world. Essential ecoliteracy is an education construct that is:
  • theoretically sound
  • apolitical
  • flexible enough to be useful across different cultures and ecosystems
  • flexible enough to encourage teacher localization and creativity
  • focused enough to be practical in modern, standards-based classrooms

Essential ecoliteracy answers the question: What set of qualities do we need to justly maintain, or improve, our quality of life beyond the short term?

This is important for a couple big reasons. For starters, many societies live in unsustainable ways, which threatens their wellbeing, as well as that of other people and species. Over the course of human history, many such societies have collapsed, often disastrously. But earth smarts is also important because we are realizing that the world changes, sometimes quite rapidly, and we need to be able to adapt to those changes to maintain our quality of life.

So it doesn't really matter if you are conservative (I want to keep what I have),progressive (I want to change things for the better) or something in between - achieving essential ecoliteracy, having "earth smarts", will help you and your community keep or improve your quality of life in a fair and just way.

But what does a modern individual or community need to know? What skills do we need in an increasingly crowded, urban and technological world? Essential ecoliteracy emerged from an extensive, transdisciplinary literature analysis, with a focus on educational goals that are achievable.

1. Concepts (Knowledge, Content)

Basic Thermodynamics

Especially an understanding of the second law (entropy).

Ecological Principles

A holistic understanding of some of the key concepts of ecological science, including energy flow, biogeochemical cycling, population dynamics and food webs.

Historical Ecology

A general understanding of the complex interactions between people and their environment, including a sense of historical time and human history that examines some of the successes and failures of societies to adapt to their environments. Also includes concepts such as ecojustice, pollution and health, and the precautionary principal, as well as ecological economics, focusing on environmental services, resource management and use of the commons. An important theme is understanding that human/environment interaction works in both directions; we don't just react and adapt to the environment, we can actively change it (deliberately or not, for better and worse).

Essential Biology

Including a sense of time over evolutionary scales, an understanding of evolutionary processes, and an appreciation for both the unity and diversity of life.

Essential Earth Science

A sense of geological time, as well as a general understanding of key earth processes including plate tectonics, oceans, the water cycle and climate, weather, and the atmosphere.

2. Competencies (Skills, Abilities)


Perhaps the most important competency, this gathers a number of learning skills and attitudes. Change is inevitable, and adapting to change is necessary to maintaining quality of life. From an educational perspective, self-regulation can be considered as lifelong learning.

Community Skills

To meet the considerable challenges we face, we need to work well together. Community skills include democratic participation, argumentation, collaboration and collective intelligence, practical ethics, communication, conflict resolution and the ability to consider multiple perspectives and stakeholders. The specifics of these skills will vary considerably across cultures.

Scientific Reasoning

When done right, science is very effective at identifying problems and finding solutions. Not everyone needs to be a scientist, but we all benefit from some science-based skills and attitudes. They include an understanding of the nature of science, as a process and a way of thinking, as well as critical thinking skills, a realistic sense of scientific uncertainty, open-minded skepticism, creativity and investigation skills.

Systems Thinking

Linear and static thinking continue to lead us into trouble. Our societies and environments are complex systems, and to better understand them we need to nurture systems thinking, including connections & interactions, risk, consequences & implications, complexity and change.

3. Values (Ethics)

Moral Development

Sustaining your quality of life without needlessly diminishing that of others requires moral development. We need to move from the preconventional dualism of children to higher stages that incorporate commitment with uncertainty.

Respect for "Other..."

Justice and wellbeing for all requires us to respect others. What's more, we have learned from engineers and ecologists that diverse systems are more resilient, so biological and cultural diversity is important.


Earth smarts is based upon justice as fairness. As the world's most intelligent and influential species, we need to balance the tension between the rights of individuals and our responsibilities to our communities. This is a complex moral issue - there isn't a "right" way to do it, and societies can and do approach it differently.


There is no "right" way to live - enabling a diversity of cultures allows us to learn from the social structures and experiences of others, and makes us more resilient to change. Note this is not relativism - some societies are decidedly more sustainable, and have higher wellbeing, than others.


Biodiversity is a storehouse of information with both intrinsic and extrinsic value - we need to stop shortsightedly diminishing it.


Simply preserving genetic information isn't enough - species are constantly adapting to their environments, and we need to nurture both.


We need to respect the wisdom of previous generations and the potential of future ones - our wellbeing must not needlessly jeopardize that of our grandchildren.

4. Sense of Place (Awareness, Affect, Emotions)

Awareness of Local Community incl Issues

In our mobile, technological societies, people can be amazingly ignorant of their local environment; such ignorance is not bliss, and often contributes to needlessly unsustainable lifestyles.

Awareness of Global Community incl Issues

Even the best local knowledge is no longer adequate in the face of global environmental change and threats.

Emotional Bond/Biophilia/Sensitivity

Whatever you call it, an attachment to the land is important - we need to care about our homes and surroundings. This connection may be some combination of spiritual, religious and aesthetic factors, and culture obviously plays a huge role. Many modern education systems do not address this well at all, sealing children in "safe", sterile classrooms for their entire development.


Fatalism can be detrimental to our wellbeing - people need to understand they can, and do, have an effect on their environments. Knowing that, we can work to minimize our negative effects, and encourage positive ones.'

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