So I'm thinking a lot about this ecoliteracy and thinking about our evolved state in the world and what we need to do. My friend Patrick sent this article, "Plastic Ocean: Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic. Are We?" to me a little while back and it is one of the most frightening things I have read in a while. I want to share it with you.
It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.
How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.
Leviathan. I'll say.
Humanity occupies an unprecedented niche in the living world. Our ability to adapt to new environments dwarfs all other “higher” taxa animals on planet earth. Though the humpback and bowhead whales sing elegant arias to one another over dozens of miles in a language of which we can only grasp the rudiments, they have no ability to make tools to change their environments. Last year researchers discovered that female chimpanzees in Africa were making and using spears to hunt; additionally, the females were teaching each other how to make the spears, thus creating a spear meme in their local culture. As fascinating as the unknown grammar and syntax of whale languages and “lower” order primate tool-making are, the human ability to speak, write, and read and use that language instinct to manipulate and adapt to its environment stand as both our greatest asset and our greatest weakness.
And here we see how it has become our greatest weakness. The ability to create plastic has naturally coupled itself with the human middle-world desire for convenience and the result? A massive swath of plastic twice the size of Texas. If I were religious, I'd start praying now. But that's not the point.
This is the kind of thing that requires action at every level - bottom-up and top-down. Our enormous evolved brains have gifted us with the most incredible abilities, including the collective delusion that garbage disappears. Out of sight. Out of mind. Here we are in middle world. Will we soon be walking on and swimming in our own trash?
"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side.' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.'"
- Adolf Hitler
David Orr recognizes in Ecological Literacy (if you're going to buy the book though, get it locally) that in order for children, especially American children we must presume, to become ecologically literate, that a great transformation must occur. Where traditional American education has focused on our developing students’ abilities to recognize and generate semantically meaningful language and become fluent with arithmetic and mathematics so that they might learn and master (at least partially) other scholastic disciplines, Orr believes that we must expand those scholastic disciplines and the application of linguistic and mathematical literacy to develop ecological literacy. “By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, society, and so forth.”
Orr believes that children are the foundation on whom we are to build this brave new world. In order for this to happen, they must be instilled with both a sense of wonder and be given integrative thinking skills.
But some things must first be overcome. First, students need to think broadly about topics. American students are taught in an educational system that presents them with discrete topics where things do not overlap; they are boxed. But good thinking draws connections and presents us with the opportunity to “think at right angles.” Second, we are schooled inside. How are we to realize ourselves as mammals that are a part of the nature of things if we are so constantly shielded from much of the environment? Our schooling places blinders on how our culture shapes the biotic world. Third, and in no small part because we are shielded from nature by our cultural machines and machinations, we do not learn to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of nature. How do we appreciate the beauty of the Great Horned Owl in the knot of the Willow tree if we are cloistered indoors or staring at shopping malls and car lots? We will never see the owl. This is like the world in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie of which was Bladerunner. In its world of technological advancement, animals are all but figments. Yet there is still some vestigial appreciation for their beauty and necessity. So they are engineered. Even worse, given the degree to which American homo sapiens sapiens spends on computers (look where I am now), we could end up in The Matrix or the world of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops wherein human beings are fully integrated into machines that come to own them. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you use. These science fiction stories give us dystopic visions of how our attempt to separate ourselves from nature dooms us not even to forget nature outside of our own creations, but to not even know much of its existence at all.
To avoid this world, we must reeducate ourselves and our children by showing them and ourselves that all education is environmental education. From there, we have to integrate the lion’s share of disciplines and departments into the formal understanding of and dissemination of our gathered information on the environment. This education should take place in patient dialogues wherein we develop respect and understanding whose pace is “governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time.” This pacing should lead us to develop experiential means that become, in some ways, the content and initiate a more conversational pedagogy between student and teacher as facilitator. Experiential environmental learning will also develop good thinking which, in turn, develops the learner’s competence with natural systems.
Orr hopes that our new educational culture will create people who realize that they are integrated in the world, part of the great chain of being. Orr, in a marvelous assault, contrasts his philosophy of education with Allan Bloom whose Great Books philosophy was set in stone in his 1987 tract, Closing of the American Mind, a book of such self-congratulatory narcissism that one feels trapped in a hall of mirrors that reflect only Bloom’s face.
However, Bloom does set down a vision of the liberal education, but one that ensconces a philosophy that sets man apart from nature. Bloom writes in his chapter, “Culture” that “[t]his Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher that nature is found in man (emphasis mine).” Bloom believes that the American student has lost his (he is thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal) way by losing his connection to the Enlightenment. In many ways, Bloom is right. Some of our best codifications of rational thought come from the Enlightenment and Locke, Kant, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, D’Holbach, Paine, and their intellectual ancestors like John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Bertrand Russell give us great tools for thought. But they are not the end.
In steps Orr, who hopes to reconstruct the liberal arts education “to develop balanced, whole persons who have connected minds and feelings.” He cites Alfred North Whitehead a fair bit. To go beyond Orr’s citations, we read in the preface of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” To use this in Orr’s terms, we should consider that Bloom’s Great Books ideal and the modern world’s scientism (which could now be renamed technologism) has been temporally provincial and myopic and must now shift to a new Kuhnsian paradigm of ecologically realistic science and humanities that would help learners become whole – integrated into their communities, including their campuses.
The quotation with which I opened this essay serves us as a reminder. I don’t just mean to be an alarmist or suggest that Orr and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. It is pure caution on my part so that we approach the endeavor skeptically and compassionately. Children’s biobehavioral clay is molded by their cultural environments and we, the cultural occupants, shape that culture. We shape it for our own ends and by our own means and we form kinds of learners who become kinds of actors. Anyone who watches Triumph of the Will sees the young German learner believing in the realism of the Reich wherein Aryan science and Aryan humanities were developed. Consider the millions sent to the Gulag because they had violated the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Children are raised to believe in the moral efficacy of misogyny, filicide, patricide, homicide, and genocide by the world’s dominant religions. What we believe and how we believe it profoundly affect our behavior.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that a man with a gun in hand can kill one, five, or even twenty people. But a man armed with an ideology can kill millions. Ideas have consequences. While I agree with Orr that we need, desperately need, to realize ourselves as part of the biosphere, we must always guard ourselves against the tyrant within us who believes s/he knows what is best for others and will dominate others to see it through.
First, do no harm. Second, love others.
As a graduate student in education right now, I am faced with an interesting barrage of science. I am taking anthropology which, depending on the branch, is pretty hefty falsifiable Popper-approved science, educational psych which can be so qualitative as to be armchair, and down to economics and political science. Nonetheless, I have to deal with postmodernists who want to relativize and gut lots of science because it doesn't serve their ideological goals.
So we've been reading Ecological Literacy by David Orr who wants us all to believe that we can launch ourselves into a postmodern world wherein we can recapture those good-old days as hunter-gatherers and reattain that Arcadian past. He tells us that he doesn't want a new Eden, but I find it hard to believe. He believes that humans aren't patriarchal. In rare exceptions are they not. We weren't always violent. That's a sham and any tribal society left to its own devices will show you that as will our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. He also thinks that human evolution took a "wrong turn" because our big brains and our culture have imbued us with a will to dominate nature.
Since when are we supposed to take value judgments from the non-intentional selections of our ancestors' mutations? This, I think is a profound misreading of evolution on par with the the eugenics professors of the late-19th and early 20th centuries who attempted to manipulate populations to create Nietzschean supermen.
Let me explain why, in no small part because I have used evolution as a justification for or realization of the roots of morality. I'd hate to be a hypocrite.
Evolution doesn't take wrong turns in and of itself. Local environmental pressures, which are moment to moment (even if they tend to be fairly consistent over time) select from the gene pool of organizations at any time. That's it. A set of selective pressures can not select a "wrong turn" so to speak. They can only select from what is available. Mutations are non-moral entities. They are random, insofar as DNA can generate "random" material with its limited resources. So to say that something in evolution is a wrong turn is to place a moral value judgment on something that was not moral in the first place, was not intentional, and therefore has no place as something to be castigated as such. It is creationist level nonsense and misreading.
But why am I calling this eco-realism? If you take some time to look at the books, as I hope to do here over the next couple of days, you will see that we are dealing with someone so blinded by ideology that he hopes to make science serve his political and ideological agenda.
This is where some of you might accuse me of being a hypocrite because I see science as serving the atheist. Note, however, that science is not made to serve the atheist agenda. I infer from the findings of science and induce based on the preponderance of the lack of evidence that verifies the god hypothesis (much less the God or Jesus or Allah hypothesis) that god(s) do not exist. But never do I, or does a reasonable scientist, remind themselves before testing and observation that all of this must disprove god's existence. Why bother? It's not what we are interested in as observers of the natural world. Sure, we are methodological naturalists, but we are not all philosophical naturalists. [I am, but I am not a majority.] We needn't put the cart of atheism before the horse of science because we don't have anything to prove. A positive assertion like "God exists" will show itself with evidence. Or...it won't. I needn't worry about it.
Science serves the atheist so far as it shows that natural explanations account for natural phenomena. It doesn't prove in the logical or mathematical sense that we can write a proof for "NO GOD" or make a water-tight deduction like "God doesn't exist." But we can induce from the available lack of data and make a statistical prediction that says, "Given the overwhelming absence of evidence and the very good natural explanations that we gave that god(s) are very very improbable. Why believe in them. Let them present their evidence for themselves instead of using apparently feeble human proxies."
To get back to Orr though, I am wary of his proposed doctrines. He wants to reconstitute the fabric of society. Lots of people have wanted to do this and I am naturally leery of them: Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Napoleon, Bismarck, FDR, MLK, Gandhi, and more. Some of these worked very well. Some not. But you better have really good reasons to make over our society and they better contain a proposal that includes some hefty feasibility and not just wish-thinking and Arcadian revisionism (that's for another time I hope) to send us into a brave new world. Thich Nhat Hahn said something like, a man with a gun in hand can kill one, two, ten, or twenty people; but a man with an ideology he believes to the the truth can kill millions. As much as I sympathize with Orr's position, his eco-literacy could create a new straitjacket that limits free thought and inquiry.
Last week I was coming off of campus after my Educational Psychology class and lo and behold, at the gates of the University Park campus stood two students holding a poster that something like, "Atheists and Un-believers unite!" Well, as you can imagine, I sped over to them on my bike and said, "Alright!" and introduced myself.
Nat and Dave and I chatted, I signed a petition to reform the old Penn State Atheist and Agnostics Organization...or something like that. How cool!
The next day I came by and they were there again and some idiot theist (I assume he was a Christian) was up on Nat's face threatening him. One of the coolest things about it, though, was that there were two Christian missionaries there trying to talk Captain Tough-guy down. We were all saying, "Dude. He [Nat] has the right to be here."
"It's an embarrassment!" He must have repeated this several times. It was the PSU vs. Notre Dame football weekend and this guy thought that a couple of atheists trying to organize was a problem. Talk about exactly the kind of guy that I worry really exists! Man.
So after a minute of wrangling and saying that Nat has the right under the First Amendment to gather and speak (the Christian missionaries and I both made this point...thanks guys), Capt. Tough-guy yells, "Not if I kick his ass he doesn't!"
At this point, I said, "Go ahead and do it. Do the Christian thing. Love your neighbor. Turn that other cheek buddy."
After some fluster, he left, clearly very frustrated. And there aren't people blinded by their faiths?
Let's hope that he was just having a bad day though.