(An abridged version of a brilliant essay published in the September/October 2004 edition of Resurgence , submitted by Jenny Lawrence of Global Resources Energy Exchange Network, with acknowledgement and thanks to both the author and the magazine.)

The most important discovery of the past two centuries is that we are joined in one fragile experiment, vulnerable to bad judgement, shortsightedness, greed and malice. Though divided by nation, tribe, religion, ethnicity, language, culture and politics, we are co-members of one enterprise stretching back through time beyond memory, but forward no further than our ability to recognise that we are, as Aldo Leopold once put it, plain members and citizens of the biotic community.

This awareness carries both an imperative and a possibility. The imperative is simply that we ought to pay full and close attention to the ecological conditions and prerequisites that sustain all life.  Because we seldom know how human actions affect ecosystems or the biosphere, we have every reason to act with informed precaution. Due to the scale and momentum of the human presence on Earth, it is utter foolishness to assert otherwise.

An ecologically literate person would have at least a basic comprehension of ecology, human ecology and the concepts of sustainability, as well as the wherewithall to solve problems. Taken to its logical conclusion, the goal of making all of our students ecologically literate would restore the idea that education is first and foremost a large conversation with technical aspects, not merely a technical subject. Whatever the state of our pedagogical research, the life of the mind is and will remain a mysterious and serendipitous process only somewhat influenced by formal  instruction (sometimes to no good effect). As a large conversation, we would restore to the subject of education the importance that every great philosopher from Plato, through Rousseau, to Dewey and Whitehead, assigned to it. Education, as they knew it, had to do with the timeless question of how we are to live. And in our time the great question is; how will we live in light of the ecological fact that we are bound together in the community of life, one and indivisible, now threatened by human numbers and carelessness?

The challenge to us as educators is to equip our students with the practical skills, analytical abilities, philosophical depth and moral wherewithal to remake the human presence in the world. In short order, as history measures these things, they must replace the extractive economy with one that functions on current sunlight, eliminates the concept of waste, uses energy and materials with greater efficiency, and distributes wealth fairly within and between generations. We will have to recast the systems by which we provision ourselves with food, energy, water, materials and livelihood, and by which we handle our wastes.  These, in turn, imply the need to design organisations that are capable of ecological design. The particular skills of ecological design necessary to a future that is sustainable and spiritually sustaining are in turn means to a still larger end of fostering hope in a world of growing despair and anger, and its offspring terrorism, whether by individuals, organisations, or governments.

The headline in the Science section  of The New York Times dated 16th March 2004 read "Side by Side, Palestinians and Israelis Repair a Ruined River."  Imagine that! To comprehend the ecology of a river and the human systems that impact it requires ecological intelligence emerging across the conventional boundaries of disciplines. For Israelis and Palestinians to join together in an endeavour to heal across the chasm rent by hatred, fear and violence is a still larger design challenge, having to do with the connnections between human ecology, natural systems, and the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption. Ecological design aims toward this kind of healing in the awareness that health, healing, wholeness and holy are one and indivisible.

David W. Orr



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