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What's Wrong with Environmental Education?

Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.
Tachi Kiuchi's Tokyo newsletter, The Bridge
March 2002

In being asked to address the issue of "Environmental Education for school and/or corporation," I would first like to say that I consider "environmental education" a bad idea. I am opposed to teaching anyone, from school child to corporate CEO, that we live in an "environment."

As I say at length in my book EarthDance, we must begin by changing the way we speak of Earthlife. We must abandon the false concept of life on Earth, rather than the more appropriate concept: life of Earth. The Earth is not a non-living planet with some accidental life upon its surface; it is a living planet of which we are an inseparable part. Its life story begins with its crustal elements recycling from and back to its molten depths, continues as they repackage themselves into bacteria, which in turn reorganize the crust and create a new atmosphere as well as the metabolic chemistries of seas and soils. Earthlife is a single complex geobiological process.

The very concept of an "environment" has separated us out from Nature as though we are the important species and the rest of Nature -- the environment -- is our stage setting, the array of props that supports our play, or, in the more usual terminology, our "natural resources." Therefore, most "environmental education" programs are designed to teach us how to slow down our extraction of raw materials and how to restore or avoid poisoning and otherwise damaging the ecosystems on which we depend -- in other words, how to make these resources for humanity last longer so that we may last longer.

We do not regard our bodies as environments for our kidneys or for our eyes. We see all our organs as equal and cooperative parts of a whole. As a pervasive global species, humans are not separate from the Earth or from any of its ecosystems. We are one organ among the many of Earth, an organ that indeed needs desperately to educate itself about this whole planetary body because at present we are behaving like a metastasizing cancer in an organ as pervasive as the nerves or blood vessels of our bodies.

One of the biggest reasons why we have gotten ourselves into so much trouble ecologically is because of another separation error -- that between our economics and our ecosystems. In the US, this division became known as the "jobs versus spotted owls" controversy, as though we could not preserve species and jobs at the same time.

Note that the words economy and ecology both come from the Greek word Oikos, pronounced eekos and meaning Household. Ecology in Greek literally means the organizational design of the Earth household, and Economy means its rules of operation. How can those be separated? Nature is actually a vastly complex but beautifully self-designed living economy based on simple, elegant principles of operation.

So, I would like to propose that we replace our environmental education programs with education on Living Systems. In fact, if I were the designer of our educational systems, I would make Living Systems the overarching concept for all studies. Just a few of the questions that could be addressed might be:


  • How do Living Systems increase value without decreasing resources?
  • How are resources and products allocated among species in a healthy ecosystem?
  • How do ecosystems manage to recycle all their materials?
  • How do species keep each other alive and healthy?
  • What feedback systems keep down inequities in Living Systems?

Politics and Social Sciences

  • How are decisions made in Living Systems?
  • How are conflicts resolved in mature ecosystems?
  • How do ecosystems deal with species that become too greedy?
  • How do species and ecosystems mature?
  • How does the distributed leadersip of ecosystems work?

Natural Sciences

  • What is the wholistic science of geobiology and how do its metabolic processes work?
  • What are the physics and chemistry of geobiology?
  • How do Living Systems evolve emergent properties?
  • How is ecological succession related to maturation?
  • How does the planetwide DNA system function?


  • How are complex materials produced by Living Systems without excess heat or waste?
  • How has Nature designed creatures that fly, burrow, dive, spin, build, sing, perceive, etc?
  • How can Living Systems maintain stability in the atmosphere, oceans and even in the temperature of the whole planet?
  • What can we learn about the sophisticated designs of the microworld, including nanomotors and materials with amazing structure and color?


  • What mathematics best describe the regularities in Nature?
  • What mathematics can model the creative processes of Nature?
  • What mathematics can lead us to understand evolution?
  • What can fractal math show us about the relationships of microcosmos and macrocosmos?


  • How can we discover the nature of a Living Cosmos?
  • Why is all our experience of the world within our consciousness?
  • What is the relationship between our personal consciousness and Cosmic Consciousness?
  • How are science and spirituality naturally integrated?


  • What are the main design principles of Living Systems?
  • What makes Nature so creative?
  • Why does Nature demonstrate aesthetics?
  • How is our own art inspired by Nature?


  • Which writers have been most inspired by Nature?
  • Can we relate the plots of novels to events and processes in Nature?
  • What dramas lurk in the biological microworld?


  • How are our current conceptions of our Universe and the Earth changing?
  • Can we see the entire Universe as a self-creating Living System?
  • What can Nature teach us about our own evolving maturity as a species?
  • What guidance does Nature offer to the affairs of humanity?

This would be only a beginning. Instead of fragmenting our studies, our educational system could be as wholistic as Nature itself. Some alternative schools are already taking approaches to integrated education not too far from this, and one of my best friends in this life, a long tenured MIT professor, initiated a program at that hub of technological education in which cohorts of incoming students learn their math, chemistry, physics, engineering, etc. within the framework of ecosystems ranging from MIT's local Charles River basin to the entire northeast of North America including Hudson Bay.

In the Social Venture Network (SVN) of progressive businesses, we launched a Pathways to Living Economies initiative this past year that is growing rapidly. See the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies at

Let us have more and more initiatives that teach the lessons of Living Systems for our businesses and for our society as a whole as beautifully as do Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman in their timely new book What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature. Kiuchi and Shireman wisely looked to rainforests, one of the most mature kind of ecosystem of Earth for inspiration and found it in plenty!

Perhaps the single most outstanding characteristic of rainforests -- and the hallmark of their maturity -- is the way their species contribute to their competitors for space and resources rather than fighting and depriving them. When we learn this as a human species, we, too, will reach our mature, cooperative stage and we will all be better off for it. No teacher is greater than Nature Herself. Let us keep that in mind as we redesign our educational programs.

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