Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: Ecological Literacy

Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Edited by Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow; Foreword by David W. Orr; Preface by Fritjof Capra.  Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.  2005.

The museum field is actively exploring how to be better at communicating environmental messages. It’s good, new, hard work and I’m very excited about it. For a recent grant  proposal I wrote for an exhibit with environmental themes we described this change this way:

The project’s effectiveness relies on improving environmental communication. This requires an understanding of the subject matter as well as environmental education principles, the process of developing environmental literacy in learners, and how to use conservation psychology to work with different audiences on this topic. The relationship among these three areas can be best described this way: Environmental Education is what our staff does; Environmental Literacy is what the public will gain; Conservation Psychology is a tool we use to design environmental sustainability communications between educators and the public to improve literacy skills for changed behavior.

As models for change, as educators about the environment, and increasingly as advocates for behavior change, museum staff can benefit from skill-building for sharing environmental messages. Environmental literacy and conservation psychology are part of the backpack of tools we all need with us on our journey toward increased sustainability for our communities and planet. We must be environmentally literate as individuals, and we need to understand the practice of communicating effectively about environmental topics. Since just telling them stuff isn't enough, what is?

I’m reading about environmental literacy, communication, psychology, and about whole systems thinking to help me figure out what is enough to encourage change.  Here’s the second book from my shelf.

Ecological Literacy is a collections of essays. Some are about how sustainability works as a system and how to use the system’s characteristics to improve sustainability practice and communication; many are descriptions of sustainability projects in K-12 and higher education.

Most importantly for museum folk, Fritjof Capra’s “Speaking Nature’s Language” is an excellent foundation for understanding how sustainability works and how to keep it working – this chapter alone is gold, but so are many others. To summarize my favorite part: the ecosystem concept drives effective work in sustainability. Recognizing and valuing the non-linear nature of living systems is the key. Living systems are networks of people, organisms, processes, resources, energy – and more. No one part matters more or can be done without in a balanced system. And balance is what we are striving for. Our traditional and linear approach to life (think timelines in exhibits, sequences of schooling, milestones in our lives) has trained us up to think of forward movement only. That isn't enough any more.
Capra writes “In linear thinking, when something is good, more of the same will always be better.” But because societies, organizations, and environments are networks, not linear constructs, more of something can put it out of balance.  “The point is not to be efficient, but to be sustainable. Quality, not quantity, counts.” The goal is to optimize, not maximize, he teaches us.

For the balance of the book’s sections, each starts with a valuable theoretical orientation followed by on-the-ground examples of bringing healthy food into a school and community system; engaging children in multi-disciplinary projects connecting them to nature and helping them change conditions in their neighborhood environments; or the value of studying and visiting an affected environment to understand long-distance, long-lasting impacts of hidden practices, for example. They have strong undertones of experiential education which - after all - is what museums should be about. If you are looking for encouragement for community-engagement work, or for background on  effective approaches to 
encouraging behavior change, this is a great place to start.

You’ve heard me say it before in a review of The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Teaching sustainability is not as easy as you might think; we have learning to do alongside our visitors.  Please join me on my reading journey – share books for me to review; and/or read along with me and comment. 
If you are looking for related materials and information, explore The Center for Ecological Literacy. Thanks to Adrienne McGraw at JFK University's Museum Studies Program I recently had the marvelous opportunity to learn from Carolie Sly who participated in the preparation of Ecoliterate, my next book to review. 

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