- - Wednesday, October 3, 2012


By Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow
Jossey-Bass, $24.95, 192 pages

Many years ago, I participated in an outdoor environmental program aimed at providing young students with hands-on experience. At the event, one of the instructors was wearing a T-shirt with a large sketch of a majestic lion with the description, “We are all one spirit.” Being a rather humorous sort, I thought of teasing the teacher with, “Why don’t you have a picture of a cockroach on your shirt, instead?”

What does such a bold T-shirt have to do with “Ecoliterate: How Educators are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow? Besides providing a wealth of educational perspective and techniques, “Ecoliterate” also promotes the current academically acceptable spiritual position — that is, we are all one in the eco-spirit.

“Ecoliterate” touches on various ways student learning can be significantly improved through engaging students in meaningful projects such as cleaning up a local watershed, tending a school garden, taking a field trip to a power station to see where their energy is generated, witnessing ecological destruction firsthand, and investigating the nutritional value of their own school lunches.

It contains some helpful information and lists, such as the connection between good nutrition and learning, and productive professional development strategies. Particularly interesting are views from Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University, a water-conflicts mediator, whose perspective from his extensive international experience is given at some length. Notably, based on his careful research, he concludes, “There was never a war over water in all human history.”

The book revolves around the “five practices of socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy”: “developing empathy for all forms of life,” “embracing sustainability as a community practice,” “making the invisible visible,” “anticipating unintended consequences” and “understanding how nature sustains life.” Unfortunately, there is very little objective information given in “Ecoliterate” on the final point about understanding nature. My sense from real-world examples and recommendations given in the text is that this is not as important as getting students to be inspired by and act on their emotions.

Unfortunately, such action does not square with the intellectual order that emotions should follow cognition, not the other way around. In the world of environmental science and engineering, practitioners work to discover, as best as possible, the true ecological conditions through examining systems with measurements and sophisticated models. Once objective information is collected, examined and carefully considered, rational plans of action are developed. This helps to avoid the alternative — rash actions implemented from emotions founded upon limited, biased and pre-conceived conclusions.

Such actions can lead to the unintended consequences the authors caution about. For instance, the restriction of reasonable use of DDT in Third World countries to control malaria has contributed to the demise of about 1 million people each year for decades. The diversion of U.S. corn for the production of ethanol raised world corn prices that led to riots across the globe in spring 2008.

As an aside, books that provide stark alternative views to “Ecoliterate,” and in many cases, more objective data on the environment from which young students would benefit, include “Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth — By People, For People” by prolific science writer and physicist James Trefil, and “Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death” by Paul Driessen, a senior policy adviser for the Congress of Racial Equality.

“Ecoliterate” gives the continuous impression that if only teachers would seriously implement the eco-literate program recommended by the authors, a vast improvement would be seen in student educational outcomes. However, perhaps the biggest obstacle to student learning is unstable or non-existent family life. That component was given very little attention. I suspect that in the long run, a collection of good teachers implementing a communal educational program based on healthy food, engaged emotions and social and ecological connectedness just isn’t going to transform a failing school system. Without reigniting a respect for the family (and here, as a conservative, I am thinking of the traditional family), you will be hard pressed to see widespread respect for learning and safer communities in which to accomplish that learning.

Yet, I recommend this book for those who wish to understand one of the ways the proselytizing of environmentalism is being implemented in our public schools. Still, there is an upside to this indoctrination: Based on the educational success stories relayed in “Ecoliterate,” the book unintentionally makes the case for increased tolerance of spirituality in public schools — the kind of spirituality that is far superior to that which embraces the lowly cockroach or even the lofty lion.

Anthony J. Sadar is a meteorologist, science educator and author of “In Global Warming We Trust: A Heretic’s Guide to Climate Science” (Telescope Books, 2012).

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