The new ecoliteracy

16 05 2013

This blog is supposed to be “textile specific”, meaning we try to keep the topics restricted to those things that apply to the growing of fibers, or the manufacture of synthetic fibers, and the processing of those fibers into cloth.

But society seems to have tunnel vision about many things, such as chemical use. Bisphenol A (BPA) is supposed to be bad for us, so it has been prohibited in baby bottles by legislation. And manufacturers of water bottles advertise that their bottles are “BPA free”. But BPA is used in many other products, from dental sealants to paper cash register receipts – and in textiles, its used in printing ink emulsions.

I had been bothered by the banning of a certain chemical in certain products, and not others (as if BPA in a cash register receipt is not as bad as in a water bottle) when I found this quote by John Muir:

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And then I found Fritjof Capra.

Fritjof Capra, a physicist and systems theorist, is a co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which supports and advances education for sustainable living. Dr. Capra says that we are all part of an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy – the “web of life”. Everything is interrelated. He suggests that a full understanding of the critical issues of our time requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.

So, in order to understand why world hunger is rising again after a long and steady decline, or what food prices have to do with the price of oil, or why is it so important to grow food locally and organically, we need this new systemic thinking. Fritjof Capra wrote an essay about how to do this, based on a speech he gave at Columbia University in 2008, some of which is excerpted here:

To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.”

…In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships.

It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

The fact that ecological sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly, in order to become ecologically literate, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns, context. In science, this type of thinking is known as systemic thinking or “systems thinking.” It is crucial for understanding ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek word oikos (“household”) – is the science of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household.

…systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

What exactly does this mean? In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system’s components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships.

Once we become ecologically literate, once we understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life, we will also understand the many ways in which our human civilization, especially since the Industrial Revolution, has ignored these ecological patterns and processes and has interfered with them. And we will realize that these interferences are the fundamental causes of many of our current world problems.

It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which mean that they are all interconnected and interdependent. One of the most detailed and masterful documentations of the fundamental interconnectedness of world problems is the new book by Lester Brown, Plan B (Norton, 2008). Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, demonstrates in this book with impeccable clarity how the vicious circle of demographic pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources – falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on – and how this resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, produces failing states whose governments can no longer provide security for their citizens, some of whom in sheer desperation turn to terrorism.

When you read this book, you will understand how virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security – falling water tables; increasing conversion of cropland to non-farm uses; more extreme climate events, such as heat waves, droughts, and floods; and, most recently, increasing diversion of grains to biofuel.

A critical factor in all this is the fact that world oil production is reaching its peak. This means that, from now on, oil production will begin to decrease worldwide, extraction of the remaining oil will be more and more costly, and hence the price of oil will continue to rise. Most affected will be the oil-intensive segments of the global economy, in particular the automobile, food, and airline industries.

The search for alternative energy sources has recently led to increased production of ethanol and other biofuels, especially in the United States, Brazil, and China. And since the fuel-value of grain is higher on the markets than its food-value, more and more grain is diverted from food to producing fuels. At the same time, the price of grain is moving up toward the oil-equivalent value. This is one of the main reasons for the recent sharp rise of food prices. Another reason, of course, is that a petrochemical, mechanized, and centralized system of agriculture is highly dependent on oil and will produce more expensive food as the price of oil increases. Indeed, industrial farming uses 10 times more energy than sustainable, organic farming.

The fact that the price of grain is now keyed to the price of oil is only possible because our global economic system has no ethical dimension. In such a system, the question, “Shall we use grain to fuel cars or to feed people?” has a clear answer. The market says, “Let’s fuel the cars.”

This is even more perverse in view of the fact that 20 percent of our grain harvest will supply less than 4 percent of automotive fuel. Indeed, the entire ethanol production in this country could easily be replaced by raising average fuel efficiency by 20 percent (i.e. from 21 mpg to 25 mpg), which is nothing, given the technologies available today.

The recent sharp increase in grain prices has wreaked havoc in the world’s grain markets, and world hunger is now on the rise again after a long steady decline. In addition, increased fuel consumption accelerates global warming, which results in crop losses in heat waves that make crops wither, and from the loss of glaciers that feed rivers essential to irrigation. When we think systemically and understand how all these processes are interrelated, we realize that the vehicles we drive, and other consumer choices we make, have a major impact on the food supply to large populations in Asia and Africa.

All these problems, ultimately, must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.

The main message of Lester Brown’s Plan B, is that there are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values. And, indeed, we are now at the beginning of such a fundamental change of worldview, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key elements of the new paradigm, and very helpful for understanding the interconnections between food, health, and the environment, but also for understanding the profound transformation that is needed globally for humanity to survive.

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6 responses

16 05 2013
Chris Putnam

Well LeighAnne, Mr. Capra pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t he? Lester Brown’s Plan B is the best “systems” explanation of our sustainability tangle that I’ve read but now I’m going to follow Capra as well. I wish I could push a new curriculum for the new paradigm as it seems we’re teaching all the wrong subjects. The big thing now is STEM, right? Science, Technology, Engineering and Math…I’d like to add Ecoliteracy and Ethics plus Civics and Communications.

17 05 2013
Harry Hill

Ecoliteracy and Ethics plus Civics and Communications are ok on their own, but they REALLY need to be taught as an integral part of STEM. After all, all the STEM subjects have consequences when students go out into the real world and start using what they have learned. These consequences impact profoundly with Ecoliteracy and Ethical issues. Getting the status quo to recognise this however is a hurdle that, sadly, may just be too high to jump at the present time.

Thanks for a Great article O Ecotextiles, it gives a lot of food for deep thought
and contemplation. As do many of your emails. Your hard work is appreciated.

17 05 2013
Peggy Gilges

I enjoy your posts very much, and thank you for writing about Lester Brown’s Plan B. When I read his book, I felt that our problems are all fixable, if we were to reorient our priorities, refocus our energies and expenditures on restoring what we’ve damaged.

19 05 2013
Laurie Lemmlie-Leung

I really appreciate all the research and work you put into your blog. It has become one of my ‘go to’ resources. Thank you!

21 05 2013
Harmony

I second Laurie’s comment!

21 05 2013
Harmony

Coincidentally, I just finished reading The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra!

I highly recommend that everyone watch NOVA: Earth from Space: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/earth-from-space.html it is 2 hours, streamable and worth every precious second. It is a perfect visual for your message in this post.

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