In the spirit of the New Year to come and the incredible need for change in the world as I see it, I have decided to blog about feelings. I know I know… not very objective here, but wanting to provoke a bit of thinking about the role of informal education in a world in crisis.

Earth is feverish fighting human disturbance. The education landscape is a force to help change such condition. Many authors in the environmental movement talk about cultural, economical, political and social forces as conditional modes to influence patterns of natural resource use and development. With that in mind, it is my opinion that our environmental education programs need to go beyond teaching about the natural systems to incorporate teaching about these other forces as well. It is time to venture a bit out of the objective fence of empiricism, to pay a little attention to the socio-cultural-economical parameters that influence our land use.

The cosmopolitan bioregionalism really spoke to me as a possible way to move in this direction by being a framework for governance representing a “profound cultural vision, addressing moral, aesthetic and spiritual concerns” in an attempt to change the contemporary political economy. In many different ways, we all are knowledgeable, moral, aesthetic and spiritual beings, and the dynamics of our cultural and ecological diasporas have much to say about our sense of place. If we want to give others the tools to develop a sense of place, we have to give the first steps towards a new culture of education, with multiple voices and interpretations, where the end goal is not just reaching desirable learning outcomes based on a preset of standards, but do more than that and more than entertain. Building a sense of place needs more than instruction, it needs provocation.

Is our education system ready for this? Are science museums ready to embrace a shift this big? One can think it would be impossible to do for many political and economical reasons, but if there is anything I learned in my academic endeavors as I learn more and more about environmental sciences and social movements, is that change is possible, it may take a long time, but it happens. I think that a new culture of nature is on the making now in many forms of empathy and manifest. We are in transitory times, fighting controversial views, when environmental movements and initiatives abound. It is the worse of times given the catastrophic environmental problems we may be facing, but it can also be the best of times if marked by the beginning of a new cultural and ecological era. Can the museum really act as a cultural broker in this sense?

In the first day of class, my philosophy professor asked us to think about and report if we were in agreement, or not, with the notion of a largely increasing environmental crisis. There was a diverse array of responses, ranging from an absolute yes to a negation of it in the support of a view that nature will fix itself and technology will provide solutions for everything. My first reaction was one of disappointment, how can people still deny the huge humanly produced chaos we live in right now? But as we move further in the term I am diving in deep philosophical thoughts about how history, economical modes, culture and religion contribute to this interrelated chains between various worldviews and perceptions about the relationship between humans and non-human nature.

As radical ecology poses, getting to the root of the problem is not about negating one view or another, dwelling on what is true or false, or on what is scientifically valid or not, but about learning from diversity and filling in the blanks toward an environmental ethic that is respectful and concerned with both the human and non-human life, with social and environmental justice. The multicultural/partnership worldview is an emergent view in a world long dominated by egocentric and homocentric ethics, which are focused on a mechanistic view of nature that creates an “otherness” in regard to who we are and how we fit within the web of life on earth.

We discuss mainstream environmentalism, the group of ten, the greens, deep ecology, spiritual ecology and social/socialist ecology, ecofemism, etc., all within the historical and current social, cultural, political and economic contexts. We talked about influential people from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to contemporary philosophers and ecofeminists as Carolyn Marchant and Kathleen Dean Moore (former OSU Philosophy professor). We debate the concept of wilderness, the dichotomy between man and nature, the notions of spectacular nature and spectacular violence as opposed to the slow environmental violence going invisible to most. We discuss activism in the first and third world. We talk about fear, hopelessness but also about empowerment and success. This all to me touch on education in many different dimensions of people’s life. Then the Talmud saying speaks to me… “You are not required to finish the job, but you are not at liberty to quit”.

J. Baird Callicott wrote in his book “Earth’s insight”: “We are in fact the dominant species on the planet; we do in fact hold the fate of the earth in our hands; and we are indeed moral beings in a largely amoral world. Without taking the Bible literally, one may feel, further, that somehow there is more to haven and earth than science can know and tell and that humanity is somehow a uniquely privileged but uniquely responsible creature among creatures

This passage comes to mind when I remember my days doing research at an isolated little island in the Atlantic Ocean, standing upon terrain where Darwin once stood, as we drove through the Rocky Mountains this summer, as I took students through the many sunsets and sunrises at the Amazon forest, as I flew through the Sierra Nevada yesterday, every time I dive, and multiple other times when spectacular nature is presented to me. But I also think of it when I see my daughter play with bugs in the backyard, collect rocks on a neighborhood walk, and when I go to conferences and get inspired by people “who do not have the liberty to quit”.

This past week was about sharing, learning and networking.  A few of us in the Free-Choice Learning Program participated in the North American Association for Environmental Education  (NAAEE) Conference in the so-called “Charm City” of Baltimore.  Many presentations, keynote speakers, round-tables, social networking and casual conversations later, I (at least) came back home with refreshed energy and feeling empowered to really do better.

The kick-off keynote speaker was a major realization about the outstanding environmental education (EE) work that really happens out there and how ideas do materialize and are successful in changing lives and reconnecting people to nature.  One of the most engaging and provocative speakers I have ever heard, Stephen Ritz is a South Bronx teacher who received the U.S. EPA award (among many others) for transforming landscapes and mindsets in New York City. His classroom contains an indoor edible wall that feeds students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His speech was engaging, super electric, and very passionate, as he tells the story of how he moves generations of Bronx students into a better life and academic success while rebuilding the Bronx neighborhood. As he said, “it is easy to raise a healthy kid than to fix a broken man”, we are “AmeriCANs (

There were many other outstanding speakers I could be talking about as well, including the founder and president of Spitfire Strategies, a public relation firm that works with non-profit organizations to create positive social change. Shawn would love her thought provoking, hilarious and yet very effective presentation on communicating messages. I will leave the details of that for a lab meeting, after all, it was not just about the speakers and sessions, but about self-discovery and fitting my work with the work of others, discovering great programs, realizing some bad ones, learning from lessons learned and critically applying academic knowledge.

When environmental educators get together it is about celebrating the true power of environmental messages. What we do matters and it is indeed transformative. Seeing such wonderful examples of powerful dedicated work towards a more environmentally literate society is energizing and reassuring, so that we don’t catch ourselves looking at the “glass half empty”, but fill that glass with hope and empowerment.

I have spent 4½ days listening and learning from other environmental educators.  I am at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference in Oakland, CA with two colleagues, Dan Calvert and Jen Wyld.  We have definitely taken the “divide and conquer” idea at this conference so we could experience and share as much as possible.

A few things from this week have really stood out.  While there is not a large informal education presence, this conference has offered a lot of talks that I (and hopefully some of you) have an interest in and I think a lot of them apply to informal learning.

During the Research Symposium, the presenters had us divide into groups and go out into an urban green space.  They challenged us to answer questions that were originally posed by Aldo Leopold to his students: What is happening here?  What has happened here? What should happen here?  We used these questions to think about the more-than-human world.

The actual conference opened Wednesday night with an amazing keynote by Annie Leonard, who talked about “The Story of Stuff” (  Annie was an enthusiastic presenter with so many zingers that I can’t possibly type them all out here!

On Thursday morning, Jen & I (and about 40 other conference attendees) went on an urban hike with Oakland Native American youth.  We learned about their program and the importance of outdoor experiences to their identity and sense of place.


Hector (…and if you are reading this Hector and I misspelled your name, leave a comment or email me for a correction!) was our guide and has been involved with the program for 8 years.  He took us up to Inspiration Point in Joaquin Miller Park.  We spent some time taking in the view of Oakland and then Hector shared that he comes up to this point when he feels stressed, even if it’s at midnight.  He also shared, so eloquently, that “We have to remind ourselves that we all started somewhere.  We all came from the woods.”

On Thursday we heard about how environmental education can integrate equity, inclusion, and diversity.  We also heard from three inspirational women about effective social media (maybe a discussion for another day).

Today is my last day here.  This morning I went to a panel about eating local food and partnering with farmers for education.  This was nicely followed by a visit to the Oakland Farmer’s Market!