Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Michael Pollan says our book "makes a critical contribution to rethinking how we teach our children about their place in nature. The best book of its kind."

Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Reviews of Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, edited by Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (2005; Sierra Club Books)

Frances Moore Lappé

"The best book of its kind"
Michael Pollan

"A remarkable gift to environmental educators"
Bora Simmons

"Inspired, substantive, and visionary"

"Seamlessly and elegantly communicated"
NAAEE Communicator

"Fine, timely, and needed"
The San Francisco Chronicle

"Connects all the dots"
David Sobel

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From Frances Moore Lappé, author of Democracy’s Edge and Hope’s Edge (with Anna Lappé)
"The Center for Ecoliteracy is at the forefront of a movement teaching us to find connections in seemingly disjointed problems, perceive patterns instead of pieces, and design communities based on the interrelatedness of all life. This important book synthesizes sophisticated theory and inspiring stories of successful ecological education from elementary through college levels."

From Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire
"The ecological crisis is in part a crisis of education. This highly original volume makes a critical contribution to rethinking how we teach our children about their place in nature. The best book of its kind."

From Bora Simmons, past president, North American Association for Environmental Education
"This is a marvelous book. Zenobia Barlow and Michael Stone present a beautiful array of essays that embrace theory, philosophy and practice with spirit and substance. Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World is a remarkable gift to environmental educators everywhere."

From Booklist, the journal of the American Library Association
Sustainability is increasingly becoming a buzzword, popping up in advertising campaigns and political promises. This welcome volume, collected by the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, offers authoritative definitions of what sustainable living means and progressive theories for achieving it, beginning with the education of the young. The diverse selections, organized into loose thematic sections such as "Vision," are contributed by well-known leaders on the subject. Chef Alice Waters, who began a successful school-garden program, outlines the differences between fast-food and slow-food values, while educator Maurice Holt calls for a return to "the slow school," in which students are encouraged to think, feel, and understand concepts, not just memorize them. Pamela Michael, founder of River of Words, a unique nonprofit that encourages the integration of art and science in the classroom, contributes a stirring piece entitled "Helping Children Fall in Love with the Earth." Inspired, substantive, and visionary, these selections will help concerned readers focus their own discussions about sustainability and suggest new ways to implement its values in their own communities. Gillian Engberg. Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved.

From NAAEE Communicator, the journal of the North American Association for Environmental Education
This spectacular collection of essays by Fritjof Capra, Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, David Orr and Donella Meadows, to name just a few, is woven together with stories of the editors’ own journeys, over time, educating for sustainability. The book is organized into a system of four interdependent parts: Vision, Tradition/Place, Relationship, and Action. The reader can experience the book sequentially or can enter at any point and travel back and forth between the parts and between each essay and story. No matter where you enter, the book hangs together as a unified whole.

The editors have skillfully selected the authors and their essays to convey the essence of each of the four parts of book and have simultaneously used the essays to communicate the learning process in which they themselves have been engaged. Here’s just one of many examples:

"As we immersed ourselves in the life of communities and ecosystems, important strategies began to emerge. Through our collaboration with STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) we became aware of a nationwide phenomenon: family farms on the urban edge were going out of business for want of a market. We also knew that city kids around the San Francisco Bay were going to school hungry. On a map of regional problems, we highlight urban fringe farms at risk, malnutrition, solid waste generated by students throwing away their lunches, underachievement, and vandalism. See these all together on the map, we recognized them not as isolated problems, but parts of one overarching problem of disconnection: of rural communities from urban life, of food from people’s understanding of its origins, of health from the environment — and of problems from the patterns that perpetuate them."

Both living systems and learning develop over time, and witnessing the congruence between the two is stunning. This book is classic and timeless.

Ecological Literacy is required reading for anyone who wants to understand what we mean when we say, "Education for Sustainability." The core content and the habits of mind that characterize Education for Sustainability are seamlessly and elegantly communicated by many of our most revered champions in the way that only learner-centered experiential educators can do.

Jaimie P. Cloud is president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City.

From the San Francisco Chronicle
Over the entrance to Hilgard Hall at UC Berkeley is written the motto, "To rescue for human society the native values of rural life." The hall was built in 1915, but its motto might as well be an epigraph to the engaging and important Ecological Literacy. A collection of meditations, exempla and exhortations for a new pedagogy, it brings together voices both young and venerable to propose and enact the alternative to what Maurice Holt calls the "curriculum straitjacket" of educational systems modeled on the same fast-food outlets that serve their lunchrooms. The book is published by Sierra Club Books as part of its Bioneers series. The editors, both of whom are affiliated with Berkeley's Center for Ecoliteracy, not surprisingly find models for a renewed educational emphasis on the study of human interaction with natural systems.

"All education is environmental education," writes Oberlin environmental sciences professor David Orr in his foreword. "The ecological crisis is in every way a crisis of education." Calling on a tradition that stretches from Plato to John Dewey, Orr insists on defining good education not simply as mastery of subject matter but also as cultivation of values. "Education," he writes, "[has] to do with the timeless question of how we are to live."

Orr and writer-farmer Wendell Berry are two keynote thinkers for the volume, both represented by essays that they wrote during the 1970s and early 1980s, Berry's "Solving for Pattern" and Orr's "Place and Pedagogy." The essays unsentimentally call for the kind of learning experienced by farmers and craftspeople, where head, heart and hand all contribute to solutions. "Problems must be solved in work and in place," Berry writes, "with particular knowledge, fidelity and care, by people who will suffer the consequences for their mistakes."

A strength of this volume is that it matches such exhortation with fine, contemporary examples of teaching and learning, in place and in action. "Real pleasure comes from doing," writes restaurateur Alice Waters in her reflection on The Edible Schoolyard program she initiated in Berkeley in 1995. Growing your own food and serving it in the lunchroom is not an easy idea to put into practice, and it is good that her essay is matched with a fine interview with Neil Smith, the principal whose savvy and persistence made the idea a popular reality at his urban middle school.

The book contains half a dozen good examples of place-based, values-driven ecological education. Some you can use as models, others you can simply join. Poet Robert Hass' River of Words project began by asking students the question, "What is your ecological address?" and has now gathered thousands of answers in the form of poems written about the waters in students' home places. The program, which trains teachers and sponsors a contest, now has participants nationwide.

To my mind, the best example of all is STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), whose story is lovingly and exactly told by co-editor Michael K. Stone. In that project, students of a local Marin County school selected and brought to fruition a project that would reintroduce a tiny freshwater shrimp to a creek from which it had disappeared. The effort required them to learn everything from botany to political science, as they not only learned how to do what they proposed but also got the cooperation and trust of the (sympathetic) rancher through whose land the stream passes. The results are astonishing and ought indeed to be a model for curricula that attract many of the "disciplines" to a single project, the doing of which motivates the students to learn.

Ecological Literacy will certainly be of great use to teachers and other educators, but it is equally important for parents to read it. It is about time that this pedagogy got into our schools. As Orr has pointed out repeatedly in recent speeches, the ability to live more sustainably on the earth is no longer technically beyond us. It can be done. It takes the will and persistence to do it. And schools are a proper place to begin.

The book will not please those who believe that "standards" are the benchmark issue for education. Indeed, the book's authors draw a line in the sand. It should be remembered that Orr's hero, John Dewey, was recently listed by a conservative magazine as author of one of the "ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries." (Marx and Hitler also made the list.) Against the standards, the writers of Ecological Literacy call for a values revolution that may in fact be more conservative of American ideals than what the so-called conservatives propose.

The essays are not all of equal quality, and there is the occasional gaffe. One otherwise interesting report of an urban project, for instance, suggests that the U.S. Navy "secretly" ran a nuclear research lab at Hunters Point. If so, it was an ill-kept secret, since my Boy Scout troop proudly visited the lab during the early 1960s. Then, too, there is the occasional effort to cloak straightforward ideas in as many long Latinate phrases as possible. It would be a shame if "ecoliteracy" were reduced to another face of technocracy.

Overall, however, it is a fine, timely and needed book. As Waters writes in her contribution, "The public school system is our last best hope for teaching real democratic values that can withstand the insidious voices of those who would have us believe that life is all about personal fulfillment and personal consumption."

William Bryant Logan is the author of Oak: The Frame of Civilization (Norton).

From David Sobel, Director of Teacher Certification Programs, Antioch New England Graduate School and author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities.
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It’s a wise book about education. And wise education books are few and far between. Education books fall into two categories. Theoretical treatises for university types / policy wonks and curriculum guides for classroom teachers. But Ecological Literacy goes from soup to nuts, from a deep understanding of ecological and school systems to the practicality of making classrooms into living laboratories of democracy and healthy living.

2. I like that patience that the book conveys about educational change. In the introduction to one of the essays, one of the editors says, "One reason that changing institutions can take as long as it does is the necessity of building relationships, though that time is often not accounted for or may be regarding as wheel-spinning by those eager to see fast results." Just like the Slow Food Movement, this book advocates for Slow, Lasting, Sustainable Change. The Center for Ecoliteracy isn’t in the business of school improvement because it’s the fashionable notion of the moment; they're in it for the long haul.

3. I love the range of voices that rise in chorus in this book. From inner city youth to back to the land organic farmers, from Native Americans to Laotian immigrants, from school superintendents to cattle ranchers, the educational dialogue is expanded way beyond the conventional teachers, kids, parents, administrators mind-set. The school community isn’t just classrooms and schoolyards; it’s restored riparian corridors and the state legislature; it’s Superfund sites and the deep, blue sea.

4. I love the sense of empowerment that I get from the student voices in this book. Schools should be in the business of helping students develop a sense of agency and this comes through loud and clear when a fourth grader in the STRAW project recollects, "I think this project changed everything we thought we could do. I always thought kids meant nothing.... I feel that it did show me that kids can make a difference in the world, and we are not just little dots." This book connects all the dots and shows how teachers can link arms with community members to weave a strong social fabric of equity and ecological sustainability.

5. In Janet Brown’s "Meditation on an Apple," she evokes the long history of apple cultivation, the labor of pioneers and farmers in crafting sweet fruit, the sweat of pickers and truck drivers in getting the fruit from tree to our hands. Her refrain, "Without them, you would not be holding this treasure in your hands," works equally well for this book. Without the kids, teachers, principals, farmers, chefs, ranchers, activists, kitchen staff, philanthropists who still believe that schools can help create a healthy community and environment, you would not be holding this treasure of a book in your hands.

6. This book provides a thoughtful alternative vision in contrast to the current mindlessness of Every Child Left Behind. Instead of denatured test scores as the goal of schools, Ecological Sustainability identifies the health of the child, the community and the environment as the appropriate Holy Grail that schools should be searching for.