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Environmental literacy deals with how we think our interconnected environment works, although you may not have thought of it as such. The basic foundation of environmental literacy is understanding that change is a never-ending story captured in the continual flow of cause-and-effect relationships that precisely fit into one other at differing scales of space and time.
When dealing with scale, scientists have traditionally analyzed large, interactive systems in the same way that they have studied small, orderly systems, mainly because their methods of study have proven so successful. The prevailing wisdom has been that the behavior of a large, complicated system could be predicted by studying its elements separately and by analyzing its microscopic mechanisms individually—the traditional-linear-reductionist-mechanical thinking of Western society, which views the world and all it contains through a lens of intellectual isolation. During the last few decades, however, it has become increasingly clear that many complicated systems do not yield to such traditional analysis.
Instead, large, complicated, interactive systems seem to evolve naturally to a critical state in which even a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system and can lead to a systemic collapse. Although such systems produce more minor events than catastrophic ones, chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of the dynamics of a system. According to the theory that all systems are continually organizing themselves from one critical state to another, the mechanism that leads to minor events is the same mechanism that leads to major events. Further, systems never reach a state of equilibrium, but rather evolve from one semi-stable state to another, which is precisely why sustainability is a moving target, not a fixed end point.
Not understanding this, however, analysts have typically blamed some rare set of circumstances—some exception to the rule—or some powerful combination of mechanisms when catastrophe strikes, again often viewed as an exception to the rule. Thus, when a tremendous earthquake shook San Francisco, geologists traced the cataclysm to an immense instability along the San Andreas fault. When the fossil record revealed the demise of the dinosaurs, paleontologists attributed their extinction to the impact of a meteorite or the eruption of a volcano.
Although these theories may well be correct, such large, complicated, and dynamic systems as the Earth's crust or an ecosystem can break down under the force of a mighty blow as well as at the drop of a pin. To illustrate, consider the power of a single grain of sand in Zion National Park:
Grains of sand were once driven bouncing across the desert by the wind, only to be caught within the steep face of a dune, where they became buried. Over time, with the aid of water and pressure, a cement of lime tied grain to grain and created a stone of sand.
Another way of viewing this is to ask a question: If change is a universal constant in which nothing is static, what is a "natural" (="normal") state? In answering this question, it becomes apparent that the balance of Nature in the classical sense (disturb Nature and Nature will return to its former state after the disturbance is removed) does not hold. For example, although the pattern of vegetation on the Earth's surface is usually perceived to be stable, particularly over the short interval of a lifetime, in reality, the landscape and its vegetation exist in a perpetual state of dynamic balance—disequilibrium—with the forces that sculpted them. When these forces create novel events that are sufficiently rapid and large in scale, we perceive them as disturbances.
Perhaps the most outstanding evidence that an ecosystem is subject to constant change and disruption rather than in a static balance comes from studies of naturally occurring external factors that dislocate ecosystems. Climate appears to be foremost among these factors. By studying the record laid down in the sediments of oceans and lakes, growth rings in trees, and trapped air in polar ice, scientists know that climate has fluctuated greatly over the last two million years—and the dynamics of ecosystems with it. The fluctuations take place not only from eon to eon, but also from year to year and at every scale in between. Since the entire universe is an interactive system, there is no such thing as a "constant value" or an "independent variable," nor can there be. These fluctuations mean the configuration of ecosystems is always changing, always creating different landscapes in a particular area at varying intervals throughout contemporary, historical, and geological time.
Clearly, all of us can sense change, and some of us can see and remember longer-term events than others can. It is an unusual person, however, who can sense, with any degree of precision, the changes that occur over the decades of his or her life. At this scale of time, we tend to think of the world as static and typically underestimate the degree to which change has occurred because we are unable to directly sense slow changes, and we are even more limited in our abilities to interpret their relationships of cause and effect. The subtle processes that act quietly and unobtrusively over decades are therefore hidden and reside in the moment, in the "invisible present."
The invisible present is that scale of time within which our responsibilities for our planet are most evident. Within this time scale, ecosystems change during our lifetimes and those of the next generation.
I say this because some archives of history, without pedigree or voice, are valued primarily as a commodity, like the old piñion pine forest in the vicinity of Taos, New Mexico, which the indigenous Pueblo Indians had long used for both food (its seeds) and firewood. When the Spanish invaded the area in the 1500s, they also began using the old pine for firewood. With time, it became tradition, as it long had been for the Pueblos.
At length, the Anglos invaded, and the overall population grew. Since old piñion pine was the best firewood, everyone wanted an equal share. In recent years, however, there has been a great influx of retired Anglos from Texas and Southern California, most wanting their "fair share" of the firewood.
The result of this continual and growing onslaught on the slow-growing, centuries-old piñion forest is the potential for its imminent demise, because there is relatively little of it left. Along with the biological decline of the old forest surrounding Taos is the rapidly growing problem of air pollution from the continual increase in wood smoke.
The people of Taos, by ignoring the reciprocal nature of their participation with their surrounding landscape, are seeing the cultural ambiance of the town's setting fading into history through a bourgeoning human population, increased cutting of the old piñion forest for firewood, increasing air pollution from burning the firewood, and the loss of its ancient forest by clinging to the tradition of cutting it down for winter's fuel.
In this case, its seems the old piñion forest is an abstraction to most people of today, with the possible exception of a few Pueblo elders who collected piñion nuts from certain trees throughout most of their lives and so became acquainted with the trees as personalities, much as the Japanese have with their cryptomeria trees. Yet, these piñion pines, unlike the cryptomeria trees, had no written history, only memories held in the minds and hearts of a few Pueblo elders seeking a link with their past and a sense of continuity in the present through objects of cultural remembrance, especially things they deem beautiful, such as their "personal" piñion trees.
But trees secreted in the memories of people, such as the piñions that sustained the Pueblo elders through the decades of their lives, are not protected because memories are seldom deemed of sufficient merit in our economically driven culture to warrant honoring and protecting for their historic and/or sacred value, despite the fact that doing so would be a wise, long-term, aesthetic and spiritual decision for future generations.
Yet it must be noted here that, while it's possible to envision serious misjudgments on the part of humans, the potential destruction of the planet with respect to human life will be subtle. It will occur slowly and silently, through the pollution of our air, our soil, and our water—in the secrecy of the invisible present. Such an unpleasant end can be forestalled or even eliminated, however, if we humans learn to honor the aesthetic-spiritual aspects of environmental literacy and apply them toward sustainable community development.
How might environmental literacy be applied to sustainable community development? To answer this question requires another question, namely: How can local communities clean themselves up, which they must do to be sustainable, and in so doing clean up their shared environment, thereby giving everyone cleaner air, water, and soil? Such local action can have positive, global consequences for the present generation and increasingly those of the future.
There are many novel ideas waiting to be discovered by imaginative people working to make their communities sustainable. And there are many ingenious ideas already available, such as composting vegetative materials from the family kitchen and the garden for recycling as organic material in the soil. Then there is recycling in general. With some forethought, human sewage can be disposed of by designing a system of reedbeds and wetlands, which can be operated on any scale from a household to a municipality. Nature's sewage disposal, compared to a conventional sewage treatment plant, uses little energy, requires no chemicals, looks beautifully natural, and can serve as habitat for wildlife. And then there is conscious simplicity and the contentment of knowing when you have enough, which means having what you really want, and really wanting what you have. In the end, we are limited only by our imagination and our willingness to risk trying something new, which brings us to economic literacy. literacy
One cannot have true economic literacy without having and applying a good working knowledge of environmental, democratic, and sustainable community literacy as well. Here, it is pertinent to repeat what John Dewey said in 1927: "A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all." Dewey's statement brings to mind eight important points with respect to economic literacy:
First, what drives today's social-environmental crises? In a word—"economics," poor economics, I might add. I say poor economics, because both "ecology" (which represents Nature) and "economy" (which represents humanity) have the same Greek root oikos, a house. Ecology is the knowledge or understanding of the house. Economy is the management of the house. And it's the same house, a house we humans have divided at our peril. At issue here is whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. In reality, they are one and the same—two sides of the same dynamic. So, the question is: How do we reunite the house of ecology and economy? Resolving this issue is the purpose of economic literacy.
Second, economics must account for both the intrinsic value and long-term economic value of the functional integrity and sustainability of an ecosystem as a whole, not just the conversion potential of the pieces into products for immediate monetary gain.
Third, when calculating present net worth of ecosystem services in terms of future net worth, the functional integrity of an ecosystem must be understood and accepted as value added. Discounting future net worth is stealing progressively from every succeeding generation.
Fourth, it is necessary in economic decisions to understand, accept, evaluate, and account for the role of cause-and-effect beyond the marketplace. For example, an apparently good, short-term economic decision with respect to capturing the monetary value of a renewable natural resource may prove over time to have been a bad long-term ecological decision, which, therefore, was also a bad long-term economic decision. It is thus imperative that the linkages between economics, the sustainability of the environment, and human culture not only be understood, accepted, and evaluated but also accounted for, to the very best of our ability, prior to committing a decision to action.
Here, a system of Genuine Progress Indicators would serve not only as a baseline for all deliberations concerning the social-environmental sustainability of a community's growth but also as a means of measuring the effectiveness of the criteria used in land-use decisions and subsequent actions based on those criteria. Another function of the Genuine Progress Indicator would be to add value to those resources and activities that lack value in terms of the Gross Domestic Product, such as taking real care of the community's children and elders. Further, a system of Genuine Progress Indicators is an important tool because most, if not all, activities in a community (from the long-term health of the environment to the real welfare of the citizens) are omitted from valuation within the context of traditional economic measures. This omission becomes readily apparent when a local government deliberates over the economic strength of its community's tax base in terms of traditional economics and the immediate legacy to the present generation—as opposed to the present generation and those of the future.
Fifth, social-environmental sustainability demands that we reinvest biological capital "up-front" in the health of the ecosystems on which we rely for our survival, even as we reinvest economic capital (after the fact) in the maintenance of buildings and equipment to keep our industries functional so that they can continue turning a profit. Put a little differently, we must balance our reinvestments against our withdrawals so that we spend the biological interest of an ecosystem—not its biological capital. Having said this, it's imperative to elaborate on some of Nature's services, which are omitted from traditional economic valuation. These services equate in large measure to the long-term health of every community's environment, and thus the community itself.
The inherent services performed by Nature constitute the invisible foundation that is not only the wealth of every human community and its society but also the supporting basis of our economies. In this sense, Nature's services are the wealth of every human being. For example, we rely on oceans to supply fish; forests to supply water, wood, and new medicines; rivers to transport the water from its source to a point where we can access it; soil to grow food, forests, grasslands, and so on. Although we base our livelihoods on the expectation that Nature will provide these services indefinitely (despite our abuse of the environment), the economic system to which we commit our unquestioning loyalty either undervalues, discounts, or ignores these services when computing the Gross Domestic Product and the real outcomes of eco-efficiency. This is but saying that Nature's services, on which we rely for everything concerning the quality of our lives, are measured poorly or not at all.
Today's reality is that we can no longer assume the services Nature inherently performs are always going to be there because the consequences of our frequently unconscious actions affect Nature in many unforeseen and unpredictable ways. What we can be sure of, however, is that the loss of individual species and their habitats through the degradation and simplification of ecosystems can and will impair the ability of Nature to provide the services we need to survive with any semblance of human dignity and well-being. Losses are just that—irreversible and irreplaceable.
Sixth, a requirement of community sustainability is the achievement of the greatest possible economic independence within a well-defined bioregion through the cooperation and coordination of all communities in the bioregion. Such economic self-sufficiency requires the conscious formation of a self-reinforcing feedback loop of local production and consumption that focuses more on reciprocity than on competition. This feedback loop keeps local money within the local economy for as long as possible before cycling it into the bioregional economy, where it must be kept for as long as possible before letting it go into the larger world.
Seventh, if a community is to be sustainable, all economic decisions must reconcile the necessary balance between biological capital and monetary capital within the framework of a free, democratic government.
And eighth, these relationships depend on an equitable form of governance if they are to be sustainable for the benefit of all generations. literacy
If we really believe in the inherent value of democracy and the freedoms it brings, we must invest in a well-rounded education of excellent quality for all of the people, which assumes we believe in the intrinsic value of each and every person. But some say we already spend enough money on education, whereas others want to cut its budget and fund wars instead.
In both cases, people have become preoccupied with relatively minor details because they fail to proceed from a basic frame of reference: A society is only as free as the quality of its education. Without such a basic frame of reference, it's impossible to focus on a fundamental issue without getting hopelessly lost amidst a plethora of confusing and isolating details.
A society held in ignorance is powerless to govern itself. If we do not have a well-educated public, military power can easily replace civil liberty. All you have to do is look around the world—beginning at home—to see the threat is real.
These two alternatives—a free democracy or a dictatorship, be it in the form of a person or a "political cult "—are important distinctions to understand because the gap between the current quality of our educational system and the necessities of a free democracy is enormous. We need to begin a revolution on behalf of our national education so that once again the real power of the people can come to the fore: power to combat the coercive greed of the corporate elite, the power to restore real democracy in community, and the power to reclaim those inner values that make human life worth living.
Understanding the fundamental processes of a free democracy is critical if people are to see the value of their participation in making the democracy work, because the principles of democracy only function when democratic processes are actually available and practiced as a verb, rather than being enshrined as a noun. The basis of these processes both allows and encourages people to earn those concepts or principles whose ethical values they hold dear and to understand more fully those with which they disagree.
Consider, for example, that all we have to give future generations are choices to be made and some things of value from which to choose. Both the future's choices and things from which to choose are held within the environment as a biological living trust, of which we, the adults, are the legal caretakers or trustees. Although the concept of a trustee or a trusteeship seems fairly simple, the concept of a trust is more complex because it embodies more than one connotation.
A living trust, for instance, is a present transfer of property, including legal title, into trust, whether real property or personal property, such as livestock or interest in a business. The person who creates the trust can watch it in operation, determine whether it fully satisfies his or her expectations, and, if not, revoke or amend it.
A living trust also allows for delegating administrative authority of the trust to a professional trustee, which is desirable for those who wish to divest themselves of managerial responsibilities. The person or persons who ultimately benefit from the trust are the beneficiaries.
The environment is a "living trust" for all generations. A living trust, whether in the sense of a legal document or a living entity entrusted to the present for the present and the future, represents a dynamic process. Human beings inherited the original living trust—the environment—before legal documents were even invented. The Earth as a living organism is the living trust of which we, the adults, are the trustees, whereas the children or all generations are the beneficiaries. As trustees, we are all responsible for the wellbeing of Planet Earth, a responsibility from which we cannot withdraw.
Throughout history, administration of our responsibility for the Earth as a living trust has been progressively delegated to professional trustees in the form of elected officials. In so doing, we empower them with our trust (another connotation of the word), which means we have firm reliance, belief, or faith in the integrity, ability, and character of the elected official who is being empowered.
Such empowerment carries with it certain ethical mandates, which, in and of them themselves, are the seeds of the trust in all of its senses, legal, living, and personal:
How might this work if we are both beneficiaries of the past and trustees of the future? The inheritance entrusted to the present generation for all those of the future is to pass forward as many of the existing options as possible, each representing the biological capital of the trust.
These options would be forwarded to the next generation (in which each individual is a beneficiary who becomes a trustee) to protect and pass forward in turn to yet the next generation (the beneficiaries who become the trustees) and so on. In this way, the maximum array of biological and cultural options could be passed forward in perpetuity—the essence of sustainability.
If, however, the elected officials and professionals do not fulfill their obligations as trustees to our satisfaction, their behavior could be critiqued through the electoral process and/or the judicial system, assuming the latter is both functional and responsible. Our decisions as trustees of today—embodied as they are in the invisible present—could then create a brighter, more sustainable vision for the generations to come, who are the beneficiaries of the future when they stand in their today.
In order for this to happen, however, we must actively participate in the democratic governance of our communities so they become as sustainable as possible in partnership with their surrounding environments within a bioregion. We must understand and accept that a sustainable community is, in a sense, the institution in which the living trust is housed and protected.
We must also make our judicial system just and responsible to all generations, something we have not yet chosen to do. Yet it's only a choice, which, after all, is the very foundation of democracy. Democracy, in turn, sets up and maintains the information/political feedback loops through which human values, intuition, information, and cultural innovations are funneled into the melting pot of civic literacy. literacy
It is in a freely democratic community that the cultural gold is separated from the dross. The gold is a community's potential to behave like an intelligent, moral, innovative, just, and freely democratic organization while on the road to sustainability and beyond. The first step along the way is for a community to identify itself as a community, or as John Dewey said in 1927—"Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find and identify itself."
Who are we now, today? This is a difficult but necessary question for people to deal with if they want to create a vision for the future. The vision they create will be determined first by how they identify themselves as a culture and second by how they identify themselves as a civic organization, which in turn is defined by its governance. The concept of citizen government means that citizens must possess the skills and dispositions to act as leaders, know when this obligation is required, and know how to share leadership. In other words, citizens must know when the good of the community, present and future, is at stake and be able to act accordingly.
Therefore, the self-held concept of who a people are culturally and how well their community governance represents them is critical to the sustainability of their future. Their self-image is crucial because it will determine what their community will become socially, which in turn will determine what their children will become socially.
A major problem facing communities today is that people are no longer thought of as people but rather as a group of "publics," which is an amorphous aggregate of individuals and their preferences. In this sense, "public" means whatever aggregate of individuals is being measured at the moment, such as the public as market player, as skier, logger, cattle rancher, consumer, scientist, and so on. But in none of these perspectives is the public thought of as a group of whole persons whose humanity supercedes whatever else they might be.
Thus, how well a community's core values are encompassed in a collective vision toward which to build depends first on how well the people understand themselves as a culture, second on how well that understanding is reflected in their self-governance, and third on how clearly it is committed to paper. Only after people have dealt with who they are today, can they determine what legacy they wanted to leave for their children and create a shared vision through which to accomplish it—because only then do they know.
Visions will vary greatly, depending on how a community is defined. A rural community, for example, will include its immediate landscape and perhaps even its relationship to neighboring communities and the bioregion. Within the "inner city," however, a community may be one square city block and its relationship to the four neighboring blocks facing it. Regardless of how people define their particular community, their success in self-governance depends on their sense of citizenship, which is currently entangled with the term "public."
The many schizophrenic splits in the concept of "public" are the result of what's missing, not what's present. The classical approach to citizenship is conceptualized around and stresses a shared constitution that embodies both rules and a founding myth, which in turn is build on a collective sense of moral history in the form of a common-law tradition, and some notion of a good way of life. The principle of public integration is factored into citizenship through civility, a concept designed to transcend commercial utilitarianism and military domination. Within this concept of "public," policies are designed to further the common wellbeing, in particular, a community's moral development. In other words, public policies are initiated and evaluated in light of an ideal toward which to strive.
Citizenship, therefore, is not some abstract quality or an isolated, individual action. Rather, it's the cumulative effect of a continual, well-choreographed sequence of actions that acquire meaning from their relations to other events in the sequence, where the purpose and meaning arises from the practice of just, civil, interpersonal relationships.
Outside of this choreographed sequence, the meaning of individual elements becomes cloudy. Consider, for example, that the meaning of each day of the week comes from its sequential relationship to all the other days, but only as long as they are in the correct sequence. Mix them up and they lose their meaning. For citizenship to work, therefore, it must be soundly based on mutual civility because it is the quality of human relationships that either allow and foster the sustainability of a community—or kill it. Yet, as important as civility and citizenship are, sustainable community development is possible only to the extent that people keep learning.
One innovative way of learning in a democratic setting is study circles. A study circle is a small-group-discussion format to seek understanding and a common ground when people face difficult issues and hard choices. Study circles reflect a growing conviction that collective wisdom resides in groups, that education and understanding go hand in hand, and that learning can be truly available for all.
The circular shape of the study groups is important and has its roots in antiquity. In medieval literature, brave knights came from across the land to be considered for membership at the Round Table. King Arthur designed its circular shape to democratically arrange the knights and give each an equal position. When a knight was granted membership at the Round Table, he was guaranteed equal stature with everyone else at the table and a right to be heard with equal voice.
In study circles, participants learn to listen to one another's ideas as different experiences of reality, rather than points of debate. Although they may not agree, they learn to accept that, just like blind people feeling the different parts of an elephant, each person is limited by her of his own perspective, which is derived from his or her own experiences in life.
By managing the process themselves, participants engage in the practice of democracy. In a study circle, there is equality, respect for others, and excitement about exchanging ideas. This environment is ideal for people to practice the most fundamental aspects of democracy by reaching conclusions or making decisions through talking, listening, and understanding—through sharing the common experiences of life that give us a sense of existence, meaning, and value as human beings.
Sharing is the central connection in study circles—and the very essence of citizenship, community, and democracy, wherein participants are encouraged to act as whole people. By this I mean, they are not required to separate feelings, values, and/or intuition from intellectual thoughts concerning any topic. They are not only allowed to think systemically but also encouraged to do so, as opposed to being placed in a straitjacket of intellectual isolation.
Moreover, sharing as whole individuals allows each person to assume the role of teacher, student, leader, and follower at different times, which is critical to the viability of both the democratic process and sustainable community. Because no one person possesses, with equal skill, all of the talents necessary for the practice of either democracy or sustainable community, it's vital that individuals learn to accept and share the many facets of their personalities to the best of their ability, while valuing the shared talents and skills of others.
People seldom partake of study circles just to learn the so-called objective facts. Rather, a study circle deals with real problems in the daily lives of the participants and so constitutes education in and for life. It is thus imperative that what participants learn in a study circle is grounded in their own experiences and in the real problems and issues they daily face.
Study circles—like the town hall meetings of old—bring people together to talk and to listen, to act and feel as if they are part of a community. As such, study circle are a place to practice equality, acceptance of ideas, points of view, and human diversity—all of which are embraced within the concept of democracy, the embodiment of connectedness through mutual sharing. If an increasing number of people became involved in study circles, it might become clear that the apparent apathy Americans exhibit toward education and participation in politics is really a disguise for a deep hunger to learn within the safety and nurturance of community.
I say this because, as Myles Horton expressed it: "The fact is that people have within themselves the seeds of greatness, if they're developed. It's not a matter of trying to fill up people, but to fulfill people."
I believe this with every fiber of my being! That's all good and well, you might say, but how can we fulfill people? I think the answer lies in helping communities create a shared vision of social-environmental sustainability toward which to build as an unconditional gift in the present for the children of today and all the tomorrows to come—a community in which children are happy.
I have a closing caveat, however, one dealing with our American society's split personality, as it pertains to the issue of centralized power. This split personality is born of the assumption underpinning most of our government bureaucracies and private institutions, namely that internal centralization of power leads to efficiency, whereas freedom of choice—favored by a majority of citizens—creates and maintains inefficiency.
While this assumption is true, our democratic system of government, as well as every other democratic government, is found on "effectiveness" not "efficiency." Yet, because individual rights, and the freedoms they protect, invite inefficiency, power is centralized under the guise of efficiency to omit the "inefficient" human dimension whenever possible—and with it, the democratic process, the hallmark of every dictatorship and military regime.
The question thus becomes: How do we, as a society, build democracy back into our communities? We do so first by accepting that democracy, by its very nature, is an inefficient practice of interpersonal relationships based on our strengths, knowledge, foresight, dreams, and wisdom as human beings, as well as our weaknesses, ignorance, shortsightedness, fears, and ineptitude. For this reason, democracy is a practice of tough love because you have to want it badly to make it work. Sir Winston Churchill once opined: "Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Having lived under other forms of government, efficient ones wherein freedom of choice was nowhere to be found, I will choose the inefficiency of personal choice every time. That said, for sustainable community development to be anything more than a pipe dream, our entire educational system—from kindergarten through university training—must be grounded, first and foremost, on effectiveness and only secondarily on efficiency, but just to the extent that it does not in any way hinder the ability of teachers to help students become integrated, right- and left-brained, whole-person citizens.
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