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Education and Sustainability

The following is an essay written for the first day of my blog, "The Whirlpool of Life," which can be found at:


Embracing Common Ancestry through Deep Time

Today, November 24th, 2009, marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species1—one of the most important and influential books of all time. In this anniversary year (also marking Darwin’s 200th birthday), we have seen much discussion of the profound impact of evolutionary thinking on diverse realms of human inquiry, from genetics, nanotechnology, and paleontology to psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience. Without doubt, Darwin has had a deep and lasting influence on our intellectual understanding of the world. Nevertheless, I would argue that, 150 years after the Origin, the essence of Darwin’s contribution has yet to be broadly realized, or at least internalized. Let me explain.

T Rex Shadow

It’s now well known that anthropogenic effects such as global warming, habitat destruction, species extinctions, and toxic pollution have driven Earth’s living systems to a perilous tipping point. To give just one chilling metric, if the current pace of extinction persists, on the order of one half of all species living today will be wiped out by the end of this century,2 an eco-evolutionary experiment not run since the dinosaurs were extinguished more than 65 million years ago. Even if we do not succeed in driving ourselves to extinction, human suffering will escalate in unspeakable ways if we continue on our present course. The all too rarely asked question is why? Why are we destroying the natural world and threatening our own future? In particular, why does this destruction continue apace despite a mountain of scientific evidence heralding catastrophe? Your answer to this question is important because it will influence what you regard as the best solution.

Most of us (at least those who acknowledge the eco-crisis) fall into one of two camps: those who indentify the prime causes as “out there” in the environment, and those who regard the underlying causes to be internal, a matter of human awareness, perception, and worldview. Let’s refer to the former group as “externalists” and to the latter as “internalists.” The majority of people, from politicians to environmentalists, fall into the externalist camp, pointing to multiple culprits, or “sources”—for example, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic pollutants, and deforestation—with blame usually heaped on multi-national corporations and their “greedy” CEOs. If you’re an externalist, chances are you think the solution is more and better technology—solar and wind power, hybrid vehicles, high performance buildings, compact fluorescent bulbs and the like—perhaps accompanied by a major “greening” of the economy. You may also believe strongly in behavioral changes predicated on a “simpler” life style: shorter showers, less driving, more mass transit, and more local and organic foods, among many others. A portion of this group goes much further, arguing for a total restructuring of industrial society, including governments, corporations, universities, and the legal system.

Conversely, the much smaller but rapidly growing contingent of internalists—among them scientists, artists, indigenous leaders, educators, environmentalists, spiritual leaders, and philosophers—maintain that newer technologies and simpler lifestyles are absolutely necessary, yet entirely insufficient. Even if every adult in the industrialized world drove a hybrid, took three-minute showers, and reduced their garbage nearly to zero; even if we all installed solar panels, rainwater capture systems, and compact fluorescent bulbs; even if we used cloth shopping bags, mass transit, and ate only local and organic, they argue, we’d still be hell-bound. To paraphrase leading environmentalist Gustav Speth,3 all we need to do to ensure a ruined future for our grand children is to keep doing the kinds of things we’re doing right now. Internalists are convinced that exterior transformations toward greener technologies, economies, and lifestyles are critical, but must be accompanied by an interior transformation of worldview.

Girl with flowerI stand with the internalists. New technologies alone simply will not trigger the necessary shift toward a sustainable future. Imagine if tomorrow we somehow realized the dream of 100% “clean energy” (say, for example, wind, water, and solar) regulated by “smart grids.”4 Would we suddenly cease our decimation of nature? Hardly. It seems more likely that the destruction would accelerate, as we channeled all that cheap, clean energy toward fueling the exploitation of “natural resources.” As Albert Einstein famously cautioned, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Einstein’s statement still resonates; the present ecological crisis, including global climate change, is rooted in a dysfunctional relationship between humans and nonhuman nature. It is first and foremost the product of an industrial worldview built on a pair of erroneous imperatives: endless economic growth and human domination over nature. This mechanistic worldview regards nature merely as objects and resources (forests as board feet of lumber, oceans as commercial fisheries), a perspective that leaves each of us isolated from the nonhuman world. Adrift in a sea of objects, we are left without any meaningful home, let alone a desire to protect it. Sustainability, if it is to occur in any meaningful sense, must include a radical realignment of the human-nature relationship.

To my mind, then, the single most important question of the 21st Century may be this:

How do we rapidly shift Western worldviews so as to establish a mutually enhancing relationship with non-human nature?

We mustn’t kid ourselves. The necessary shift in worldview is profound and unprecedented, arguably the single greatest challenge humanity has encountered. To my knowledge, at no prior time in history has a human culture, let alone the bulk of Homo sapiens, willfully chosen to shift its worldview and undertake a comprehensive program to do so. Since the scale of the needed transformation is vast, minor adjustments simply won’t cut it. Any meaningful solution will be revolutionary, requiring radical transformation.

Transformation, appropriately, brings us back to Charles Darwin. At its core, Darwin’s message is this: all life forms on Earth are unified because they share common ancestry through deep time. To the very best of our scientific knowledge, every organism alive on the planet today is part of a single, sprawling family that has been evolving continuously for almost four billion years. Yet, even for those of us who accept the veracity of evolution, this truth typically carries little to no meaning. Don’t believe me? Look outside at the nearest tree—or bird, or dog. Do you think of that organism as your relative, a member of your family tree worthy of compassion and empathy? If you’re honest answer is yes, you are a member of an exceedingly small minority.

If we truly embraced the notion of common descent through deep time—not just intellectually, but in a deeper, emotional sense—could we put chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, in cages for public display? If we truly embraced Darwin’s message and regarded ourselves as merely one of the latest expressions of this multi-billion year fluorescence of life, would we decimate rainforests, overfish oceans, or foul our native bioregions? Perhaps. After all, humans frequently do not regard other members of their own culture, let alone other cultures, with compassion and empathy. Nevertheless, for those of us living in the industrialized West, the notion of living in community with the natural world is an alien one. For us, nature isn’t relatives, its resources. If the sustainability venture is to succeed, we must embrace the deeper meaning of Darwin’s “dangerous idea” and accept the bounty of species around us as our relatives. To borrow a phrase from the late “geologian” Thomas Berry,5 we must come to regard nature not as “a collection of objects but a communion of subjects.” We need a revised worldview founded on a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and nature. Perhaps surprisingly, then, Charles Darwin’s core idea, common ancestry through deep time, may just have a critical role to play in shifting worldviews and resolving our present sustainability crisis.

But how might we to begin such a daunting and pressing transformation? Returning to Einstein’s claim, if the solution to our significant problems lies in a new way of thinking, yet we remain mired in the old way of thinking, how can we possibly initiate the transition? We might refer to this conundrum as “Einstein’s Paradox.” A reciprocal and mutually enhancing relationship between humans and nature contrasts so fundamentally with our present worldview that the necessary shift is unlikely to occur among adults, at least not in the brief time available to us. Transforming one’s worldview as an adult might be likened to becoming fluent in a new language (or several). While certainly feasible, it’s unlikely to be accomplished by sufficient numbers of people to shift the cultural mainstream within a few generations. Instead, the solution to Einstein’s Paradox will be founded in children and education.

We must educate our children differently, fostering bonds with nature and with place, as well as a desire to live in harmony with those places. Far from passing responsibility on to future generations, however, the present generation must demonstrate the courage, wisdom, and foresight to cultivate a new, sustainable worldview. We must take the difficult steps of envisioning this new mindset, embracing it to the best of our ability, and making the necessary changes in education at all levels. Only then can we help our children venture into new regions of awareness far beyond where we are able to tread. Ultimately, 21st Century education must be about values, responsibility, and service. I propose that this radically transformed education system should be founded on three fundamental elements—metaphor, story, and place—all informed by Darwin’s fundamental message. In the remainder of this essay, my goal is not to provide an answer to the daunting question posed above. Rather I would like to propose a discourse and language with the potential to create the conditions for change, and to lead us toward viable solutions.

Oak tree

Whirlpools in the River of Life
Likely more than any other species on Earth, we humans construct our worldviews, as evidenced by the spectrum cultural examples past and present. A large volume of research demonstrates that this construction effort is mediated by metaphors.6 Inaccurate metaphors can cause us to accept as “real” what is merely an abstract opinion, belief, or concept (hence Alfred North Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”7). Any effort to expand our thinking must be accompanied by new metaphors of increased scope and richness. We must choose our metaphors wisely.

Currently, the dominant cultural metaphor is the Cartesian concept of life-as-machine, a reductionist perspective that helped launch the scientific and industrial revolutions by encouraging scientists to break down complex structures into their component parts. Insights resulting from the reductionist viewpoint—among them the germ theory of disease, splitting of the atom, molecular genetics, and computer technology—are far-reaching, with many undeniable benefits. Yet the machine metaphor, if dominant, results in an extremely limited and misleading worldview. Foremost among these limitations is a narrow focus, a single-minded emphasis on parts with little to no consideration of the bigger picture of interconnected wholes. In recent decades, many researchers have realized that a science of wholes is equally important to one of parts. For example, biologists have become increasingly aware that organismal properties such as behavior and physiology cannot be fully understood through an examination, no matter how detailed, of their constituent “nuts and bolts.”

These days, the alternative metaphor of choice is the web of life.8 The web first emerged within biological circles but rapidly spread across a variety of disciplines. While honoring important contributions from the reductionist perspective, the web approach is founded upon the understanding that organisms cannot be adequately conceived in isolation. Instead, every life form participates in a complex interweaving of organism and environment. Although an understanding of the parts is essential, the only way to truly determine why organisms do what they do is to assess their roles within an ecosystem. The powerful web of life metaphor is applicable to entities at many scales, from cells and organisms to ecosystems and the biosphere. Web-based thinking has fostered a revolution in the way science regards the natural world. Yet it too has severe limitations. The metaphorical web is usually defined in terms of causal connections, with each strand influencing two or more of its neighbors such that the entire system functions as an integrated network. The problem with this conception is that it merely extends the reductionist perspective. Ecosystems, for example, become well-oiled machines in which organisms serve as the cogs and screws that enable the smooth functioning of the entire mechanism. Although highlighting links, this view does little to reveal the deeper nature of the entities under consideration. Ignored are critical concepts such as time, transformation, and interpenetration. We need additional metaphors to accompany the machine and the web, metaphors capable of capturing a richer sense of history and transformation.

One exceptional candidates intimately tied to Darwinism is the tree of life, which vividly captures our deep time relationship with nature. The tree was also Darwin’s favored metaphor for evolution.

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth... As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”1

The tree of life has a strong presence in scientific research,9 but this metaphor is used sparingly in education, and typically only in the general sense of interrelatedness rather than as a tool to communicate the evolutionary epic. Like the web, the tree also suffers from being a relatively static metaphor. Although the idea of a branching arbor beautifully conveys interrelationship, it does a poorer job of capturing the dynamic and transformative aspects of nature. Moreover, whereas the machine addresses the focal level of the individual, and the web and tree place individuals into a larger context, none of these metaphors provides insights into both of these levels.

In an effort to help fill this gap, I here propose a new addition—whirlpools in the river of life. As has often been recognized, the history of life (and indeed of the universe) can be likened to a vast river flowing through time. Whirlpools form as swirling, evanescent concentrations of energy that arise from the background flow, exist momentarily, and then dissipate back into that flow. Organisms (as well as stars, galaxies and many other complex systems in nature), may persist for longer time spans, but they too are temporary energy concentrations that arise from, and dissipate back into, the background flow. Whirlpools cannot exist without a continual influx of energy from the outside world, and the boundary between whirlpool and river is virtually indiscernible. Similarly, the boundaries that define an organism’s individuality are largely illusory. Skin, for example, is a permeable membrane, constantly exchanging matter with the external environment. Particularly at microscopic scales, it’s difficult to determine with any precision where the organism ends and the external world begins. What of the food, water, and air that we take into our bodies to survive? At what point does that last meal you ate, cup of water you drank, or breath you took truly become part of you? And then there are the trillions of microbial cells that overwhelm the number of human cells in your body, making you more of a bipedal colony than an isolated individual.

Most fundamentally, rivers and whirlpools have tremendous metaphorical potential because flow is the very essence of nature. Air, water, atoms, blood, and sap—everything flows. Even apparently dense and unyielding things, like rocks, trees, bones and mountains, turn out to be fluid at atomic levels and/or on geologic timescales, their internal make-up ever-shifting like river currents. As with all life forms, humans resemble whirlpools in being flow-through entities—“dissipative structures,” to use Ilya Prigogine’s term10—maintaining their outward appearance amidst the continual streaming of energy and exchange of matter. Although humans and whirlpools appear to be complete unto themselves, neither can exist outside the stream; internal coherence is utterly dependent on a constant flow of energy. Like its web counterpart, the river-whirlpool metaphor can also be applied at multiple levels—cell, organism, species, ecosystem, and biosphere. In each case, the whirlpool represents the focal level of interest and the river then becomes the next level up in the hierarchy. The river is also apt because it illustrates the passage of time, as well as the flow’s contingency from past to future.

Some might object to the negative connotations associated with the downward spiral of the whirlpool. Yet this description is quite accurate across a broad spectrum of natural phenomena. For example, just like other animals, we ingest high-quality solar energy (in plant and/or animal form) that spirals downward, helping to maintain our bodies. Much of that energy then dissipates outward into to the external environment in a lower quality form. Relative to the machine and web metaphors, the notion of a river whirlpool fosters very different, yet highly instructive and scientifically accurate, conceptions of birth (emergence, evolution), of life (flow, transience, continual self-making), and of death (dissipation, transformation, recycling). In contrast to the still dominant machine and web metaphors, the whirlpool encourages us to view other life forms not as objects, but as subjects—fellow travelers in the current of this deep time river. On a still more profound level, a vortex perspective enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as “things” at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow. In sum, the concept of whirlpools in the river of life—which effectively combines two metaphors: the river of life and the whirlpool of life—has potential to be at least as striking and potent as the web of life, directing much needed attention toward the flowing, transitory, and transformative aspects of nature and being.

Of course, as proxies of real world phenomena, all metaphors have limitations. My argument, however, is not to replace the web of life; instead, the web, tree, and whirlpool comprise a metaphorical trio with tremendous potential to help alter worldviews. We are not static machines composed of isolated parts in a world of objects. We are strands in a vast web of life. We are fresh green shoots on the topmost branches of the tree of life. And, at the deepest level of all, we are whirlpools, evanescent concentrations of energy that emerge for a moment from the background flow before dissipating back into the stream. Whereas the web of life elucidates the myriad ecological connections shared by all living organisms, and the tree of life offers a profound sense of evolutionary connections that bind all life forms through deep time, envisioning ourselves as whirlpools in the river of life may just help us overcome our sense of separateness. Together, all of these metaphors (and others) can start us down the path of becoming whole again.

T Rex Shadow

The Great Story
Despite its resounding acceptance and acknowledged importance within science, biological evolution remains controversial within the general public, particularly in the United States. As is now well known, about one half of all Americans currently support the statement that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Many scientists, educators, and parents, responding to attempts by Christian fundamentalists to discredit Darwin and re-inspire a dominant role for a Creator throughout the history of life, have been fighting to keep evolution in America’s classrooms. So embittered is this conflict that rarely is much thought given to why evolution education is important. It is often stated that learning the fundamentals of evolution is necessary because this idea is central to biology, or because evolutionary concepts underlie hot button topics like genetics. Such arguments miss a fundamental point. Teaching evolution is critical because the underlying concept of transformation is the very glue that holds together the emerging story of life and cosmos.

Cultural origin stories, or cosmogonic myths, provide explanations for the origin and ordering of the world and cosmos, validating beliefs and organizations while offering a deep sense of meaning.11 Throughout human history, virtually all cultures have been rooted to their native places by such myths—until recently that is. Although present-day indigenous peoples and many followers of major religious traditions have a cosmogonic myth, most of us in Western industrial societies exist largely without one. Our thoughts of time are largely confined to the present day or week, with occasional mental forays outward into months, years, or decades. It seems likely that the lack of both a story and a sense of deep time contributes to the dearth of greater meaning and purpose that many of us experience. One result is the dysfunctional human-nature relationship noted earlier.

Arguably Darwin’s greatest contribution was revealing the Great Story, offering up an astounding, evidence-based origin myth that encompasses not only all human cultures, but all life on Earth. More than 30 years ago, biologist E. O. Wilson12 stated that, “the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.” He went on to add that this same story, “retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.” In the intervening decades, and for the first time, fields like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and archaeology have greatly augmented this myth, generating for the first time a scientific story of the universe, life, humanity, and mind.13 We now recognize the universe as a single, unified event kicked off by the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. Yet the Great Story—variously dubbed the “Epic of Evolution,” the “New Story,” and the “Universe Story,” among others—is virtually absent from all stages of our education system. Consequently, 150 years after Darwin’s Origin, this evolutionary epic still has minimal influence on worldviews (other than through the erroneous notion of inexorable progress). It is ironic that we who have access to the most rigorous and complete story of everything do not use it to inform the overall arc of our lives.

I wholeheartedly agree with Thomas Berry5 that the Great Story, expanded beyond biology to encompass cosmos and culture, deserves to reside at the very core of the education curriculum. Indigenous peoples had their origin myths, and we must embrace our own 21st Century myth, incomplete yet the most accurate glimpse of our origins we’ve ever had. This astounding story deserves to be told and retold, with appropriate increases in the level of the discussion, from elementary school though high school and on into the postgraduate years. Sustainability will require that people live in relationship with nature, that they feel compassion and empathy for the places they live. Yet meaning, purpose, and belonging have less to do with where we are at any given moment than where we’ve been and where we’re going. As stated by John Haught,14 “Darwin has gifted us with an account of life whose depth, beauty and pathos—when seen in the context of the larger cosmic Epic of Evolution — exposes us afresh to the raw reality of the sacred and to a resoundingly meaningful universe.” But isn’t this story incompatible with the beliefs of major religious traditions? Perhaps not. Although controversial, the potential exists to combine traditional theist views with this new epic.15,16 As argued by evolution advocate Eugenie Scott, “The theologian could rewrite the Epic of Evolution by expanding on the story told by the scientist. . . When God created the world in the beginning, according to this option, God placed a potential into creation which now through evolution is becoming actualized.17 Certainly a perspective informed by science need not be meaningless and could in fact help to “reinvent the sacred.”18 Ultimately, I cannot envision how the necessary shift in worldview can occur in the absence of a dialogue that includes the communities of science, education, and religion.2

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” So said poet Muriel Rukeyser, underlining the power of narrative. Rather than teaching science as a disjointed agglomeration of facts and processes, it should be communicated in stories, and grounded in the Great Story. The key origin events so often discussed and debated—such as those pertaining to the universe, life, humans, and consciousness19—must be stitched together into a unified saga. This epic also needs to spill out into art, history, social studies, and creative writing, providing an engaging framework for understanding the world and our respective places within it. Only when the Great Story is finally expressed in poetry, song, dance, and fine arts will we begin to internalize what it truly means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. Only then will we begin to embrace nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation.

Why does the Great Story merit a central place in education? Because this unified epic represents our best understanding of the evolving universe; because the underlying theme of common ancestry through deep time must be internalized if we are to redefine our relationship with nature; and because wide dissemination of this story may just be a critical element (one of many) necessary for triggering a profound shift in worldviews.

Whirlpool in the ocean

Tangled Banks
Natural environments vary dramatically in their capacity to provide food, shelter, medicines, and energy, to assimilate wastes, to process and store carbon and nutrients, to purify water and regulate runoff, to build and maintain soils, and to house biological diversity. Social systems are also highly diverse, dependent on such factors as religion, ethnicity, and governmental structure. Consequently, present trends toward globalization notwithstanding, sustainability must be locally and regionally based, attuned to place-specific limits, and achievable at larger scales (for example, states, nations, and the biosphere) only on a cumulative basis. Of course, some innovations in both technology and education will be useful in a wide range of settings. But our current sustainability crisis will not succumb to a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather we should anticipate (and foster) thousands of sustainable solutions, with the process unique to every culture and bioregion. Moreover, I sincerely doubt that significant numbers of people are even capable of embracing the notion of global sustainability in meaningful ways (I know I can’t). Throughout most of humanity’s tenure, people have felt connected to local places and this is the likely scale for living sustainably.

Unfortunately, just as most of us live without a meaningful sense of deep time, so too do we exist outside a meaningful sense of place. By this I mean that we lack an affective bond with the places we live—“topophilia” in the parlance of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan.20 As a result, we know little of, and care little for, the places we inhabit. To compound matters, as the number of humans soars toward 7 billion, we are becoming increasingly urban, with little attention paid to setting aside natural areas.21 And children in industrialized societies today spend 90% less time outdoors than they did just a generation ago, with severe consequences for their physical and mental health, as well as for the health of their local environments.22 If sustainability must be a place-based phenomenon attuned to local conditions, constraints, and possibilities, it is imperative that we regain our place-sense. Indeed any long term, sustainable solution will require a homecoming of sorts, one that transforms our present human-centered (anthropocentric) worldview to one that is life-centered (biocentric) and place-centered (topocentric). We need to see ourselves at a temporal cross-roads, grateful to our ancestors (human and nonhuman), and responsible to those that come after us.

The very good news is that this worldview might not be as alien and far-fetched as it first appears. Indeed our present perspective may well be a recent aberration of modernism set against a long history of people living in relationship with their native places. Certainly not all indigenous peoples have always lived sustainably. Yet, in North America for example, the great bulk of Indian cultures existed sustainably in their native places for many thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, who managed to decimate most of the continent in a few centuries. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we forsake our high-tech industrial societies for a return to tribal living. Nor am I suggesting that we can adopt wholesale the common elements of indigenous worldviews. Nevertheless, indigenous worldviews undoubtedly have much to teach us. Listen, for example, to Okanagan Canadian author, activist, and educator Jeanette Armstrong, or to Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation,23 and you will hear a perspective that, in stark contrast to the mindset of Western societies, is deeply rooted in a relationship to nature and place. If biologist E. O. Wilson is right,24 we all may share an inherited biophilia, or love of nature, that need only be fostered. If so, my appeal is not so much a call for inventing a new worldview as it is for rekindling an ancient one informed by recent insights.

Partially in response to the alarming trends noted above, a rapidly growing movement has emerged with a focus on outdoor, place-based education.25-28 The intellectual emphasis of this movement, which builds on the late 19th Century work of John Dewey29 and others, is ecological literacy, or “ecoliteracy,” and its driving metaphor is the web of life.8 Proponents argue persuasively that activities like school gardens and reclaiming local watersheds foster critical understanding of local ecological webs and a desire to nurture them. A central assumption of this environmental education initiative seems to be that a broad-reaching emphasis on ecoliteracy is the pivotal curricular reform necessary for engendering in children both a love of life (biophilia) and of place (topophilia).

I fully support the ecoliteracy movement, and agree that ecological literacy deserves a special position within the curriculum core. Yet it seems to me that a second, generally ignored element is equally deserving of residence at the core of the curriculum. Ecoliteracy, with its emphasis on ecology and the web metaphor, is concerned almost entirely with the workings of present day ecosystems. Virtually absent are the twinned themes of time and transformation—in short, the Great Story. If your native place is to have deep meaning, you must understand the trajectory of that place through time, including how it may change in the future.5 So the Great Story—the saga of who we are and how we got here—is equal in importance to how we fit into the present day web.5,13 Elsewhere I have referred to the former as evolutionary literacy, or “evoliteracy.”30 Whereas ecoliteracy provides the horizontal dimension through an understanding of present-day ecosystems, evoliteracy adds the equally critical vertical dimension—that is, knowledge of the Great Story and the human role within it. Together, a meaningful understanding of our deep connections with all life forms through space (ecoliteracy) and through time (evoliteracy) would foster true “nature literacy.” Although the details of this transformation process will be specific to every locale, a general approach might be shared across many bioregions. As argued above, science offers plenty of insights that can help us re-envision nature in terms of interconnections (web), interrelationships (tree), and transformation (river/whirlpool). Place-based efforts to foster eco- and evoliteracy will produce reciprocal illumination, with each literacy form bolstering the other. After all, the many actors in the ecoliteracy drama (plants, animals, landforms, watersheds, cultures) are merely the present-day players in this deep time saga.

The best way to communicate the Great Story is through direct and frequent reference to particulars of place. A marvelous example is Chet Raymo’s book, The Path,31 in which he uses an intimately familiar one mile walk in rural Massachusetts to illustrate the workings of the universe and to foster a deep sense of place within it. For Raymo, passing by an abandoned millstone becomes the entry point for telling the story of the Big Bang. Fresh blooms of purple loosestrife become a vibrant segue into Darwinian natural and sexual selection. Wading into a water meadow triggers a discussion of DNA and the stunning complexity characteristic of virtually all natural places. And a subtle shift in terrain launches a fascinating exploration of Ice Age glaciation and its impact on the local countryside. One of the great advantages of grounding the Great Story (and education more generally) in local places is that use of more specific, subjective words encourages a sense of relationship, whereas objective, “scientific” terms typically do not. The key point here is that the Great Story can be told in any place, and its telling can help forge strong bonds with those places. We might even say that every aspect of nature continually tells this story; all we need to do is learn how to hear it.

One of the most oft-cited metaphors in Darwin’s Origin is the tangled bank.1

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

The tangled bank wonderfully captures the juxtaposition of moment-to-moment ecological connections and deep time evolutionary connections. My strong hunch is that regaining a sense of place will require that many more of us spend slow time in the tangled banks of our native regions. More than ever before, we need to contemplate the metaphorical webs, trees, and whirlpools of these regions in order to foster both greater understanding and a deep sense of connection founded on emotional responses such as awe, wonder, and reverence.

Summary and Synthesis
Thanks in large part to the four-century long dominance of reductionism and the life-as-machine metaphor, the worldviews of industrialized societies are presently unsustainable. Any sort of meaningful sustainability will depend not only on individual and collective action to reduce our impact on the biosphere, but also on re-envisioning our relationship with nature and, in doing so, reinventing our worldview. Since worldviews are built upon a lifetime of experience, it is highly doubtful that the necessary transformation will occur solely among adults. Rather we must rethink, indeed reinvent, education, placing less emphasis on upward mobility and more on living well; less on generating consumers and more on serving communities, including communities of nature. Charles Darwin’s legacy can help in this gargantuan effort. Darwin triggered an intellectual revolution, with effects that have cascaded through science and society. Yet, one hundred and fifty years later, a portion of Darwin’s legacy, the foundational concept of common descent through deep time, remains virtually untapped outside academia. In particular, this concept has not been communicated in such a way as to shift our relationship with nature. Reflecting after reading the final chapter of the Origin, a 17 year-old student of one of my colleagues got it right, declaring that “Darwin’s gift to humanity was giving us our biological identity.”

Schooling for sustainability should be rooted in three intertwined elements, each of which informs the other two: 1) new metaphors—including the web, the tree, and the river/whirlpool—that enable us to perceive reality in new and instructive ways; 2) the Great Story, which provides a universal origin myth and anchors us in the deep time evolution of life on Earth; and 3) a strong emphasis on place, necessary for fostering both biophilia and topophilia, as well as a desire to protect and nurture our home communities. Together, this trio of elements—metaphor, story, and place—have the power to transform education, challenge the hegemony of the dominant worldview, and serve as springboard to a sustainable future. Imagine if most of us regarded the many lifeforms around our homes and workplaces not as resources but relatives. Imagine if we saw ourselves not as isolated, skin-encapsulated beings drowning in objects, but as players in the multi-billion year Great Story, each of us with an important role in the story’s continuation. Let me be clear. I am not proposing that all science education be restricted to ecology and evolution, or that other topics such as mathematics, history, and social studies are of lesser importance. The point is that we need to root all of these topics in the local, intimate context of place (connections, ecoliteracy) and the larger, encompassing context of the Great Story (transformation, evoliteracy).

Science education has a long history of objectification, regarding the world as a vast collection of objects to be studied. But I see no reason why the teaching of science couldn’t also “subjectify” nature. Yes, I understand that science is founded upon “objectivity.” But why couldn’t we learn to view nature as both object and subject? After all, we seem to be able to manage this juggling act reasonably well with the study of humans (most of the time anyway). To subjectify is to interiorize, such that our exterior and interior worlds interpenetrate. That’s why we share meaningful relationships with subjects but not objects. The subjectification of nature, then, may just turn out to be an essential ingredient in a sustainable future.

If the general thesis of this argument is correct, we are faced with a fascinating double irony of scale. On the one hand, “global sustainability” may depend upon the citizenry of industrial societies achieving a meaningful sense of local place (i.e., bioregion). On the other, a deep sense of local place may depend on inserting oneself into the universe as a whole through an origin myth. We are unsustainable in part because we’re placeless; and we’re placeless in part because we lack a story. Robust scientific indicators underline the fact that we do not have another 150 years to communicate the deeper meaning of Darwin’s contributions— that number may be more like 50 years. So now must be the time to summon the courage and wisdom to undertake a radical re-envisioning of education, embracing new metaphorical lenses and a new story anchored in the concept of place. As Darwin noted in closing the Origin, “there is grandeur in this view of life.” Fathoming and celebrating this grandeur will generate much of the fortitude necessary to reinvent what it means to be human.


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9. For example, the Tree of Life Project (

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19. See, for example, the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University (

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23. Nelson, M. K. (ed.). 2008. Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Company, Rochester.

24. Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.

25. Orr, D. W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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27. Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature. University of California Press, Berkeley.

28. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley.

29. Dewey, J. 1990 (1899). School and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

30. Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.

31. Raymo, C. 2004. The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe. Walker and Co., New York.