The above image is of an art installation, On Space Time Foam, by Tomás Saraceno. In a panel discussion, environmental theorist Bruno Latour called it an “exploration of habitat.…what is to be in a shapeless environment at the time of the Anthropocene?,” and featured this work of art at the conclusion of his Gifford lecture series, Facing Gaia.
If you read the above or looked at that image and wondered, “What does any of this have to do with ecoliteracy?,” well, I’m not surprised. This brief post aims to suggest how theorists like Latour have taken me far from the classic view of what an ecologically literate person should know. The matter of contemporary ecoliteracy comes at the conclusion of the book I’m writing these days, and I’m not there yet! But perhaps this post will help me hold true to that trajectory.
What is ecoliteracy? Wikipedia defines it succinctly as “the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible.” David Orr, one of ecoliteracy’s principal architects, suggests that ecoliteracy is not just book learning, as it comes from “direct contact with the natural aspects of a place, with soils, landscape, and wildlife” (Orr 1992, 89). Based on essential qualities such as these, it is not surprising that you may see no connection with an art installation featuring large sheets of plastic inside an airplane hangar!
The ecoliteracy I will advocate in my book does not rely too much on Saraceno. It is, however, built on a few key principles that may resonate in some ways:
- Environmental theory in an exploration of how reality, knowledge, ethics, and politics interrelate in the context of environment.
- Big Words—abstractions many people take for granted—pervade these four realms, necessitating both critical reflection and a search for Better Big Words.
- One of the key weaknesses of common Big Words is their binary nature—a feature I call counting to two. The most common antidote to counting to two is counting to one, and it too is highly problematic. What’s needed for Better Big Words is counting beyond two.
Yes, the above is cryptic! But take a look, for instance, at the notion of nature/natural/unnatural (as I did here). It is ecoliteracy’s key Big Word in the context of reality…thus E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth proposal, among many others. In this context, nature (e.g., a natural landscape) is defined as the absence of culture, thus its binary sense. How address this binary? This is where a million books have proclaimed that “people are a part of nature too,” and other such vague ways of counting to one. The Anthropocene is another, perhaps more sophisticated, counting-to-one alternative to nature, but it’s still counting to one.
What’s so bad about counting to two, or counting to one? Hmmm, I’m not sure I can yet quickly critique these two common approaches to Big Words (I started here), though most people are intuitively suspicious of counting to two, and far more naive about the problems of counting to one. Basically, counting to one generally involves all the feel-good notions of integration and holism that pervade environmentalism—as well as all the fuzzy generalities that impede genuine progress.
What, then, would counting beyond two look like? My Better Big Word for nature is place. There’s a paradox here, captured in a technical phrase for counting beyond two I use, relational nominalism. Nominalism is a view that, say, reality consists of many different things, but these things cannot be grouped into two boxes (or, when counting to one, one box!). The relational modifier reminds us (as does Latour; see e.g. 2004) that the etymology of a thing is a gathering, an assembly. So, reality consists of all sorts of related things, and the relations, the connections are what matter—we don’t want to let our nominalism lead us down the slippery slope of nihilism! Place is simply a grounded version of relational nominalism (Proctor 2016), as places gather together a wide range of processes and perspectives.
In the context of reality, places connect all sorts of things. To Latour, On Space Time Foam represented these connections—elusive, fragile, surprising, fascinating, deeply important—as people explored an indoor place made of plastic. There are many more places than this, of course, that matter to environmentalists, at scales running from personal space to Earth. But this sensibility is what ecoliteracy can be, as least in the above context: a more open inquiry into the realities around us.
…and that’s just a start! We didn’t even touch knowledge, ethics, and politics, nor their interconnections. It’s hard putting this new ecoliteracy inside the box of one post! More in time, as my book continues to unfold.
- Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225–248.
- Orr, David W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.
- Proctor, James D. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–752. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.