Do you ever wonder if the way we're thinking and communicating about the social, economic, and environmental challenges we're facing at this historical moment is "off" somehow...but you're not sure what's wrong, or how to get under the surface of your intution? If so, you are not alone.  As 2020 approaches, people worldwide are beginning to recognize and acknowlege that, as a species, we are falling short of our responsibility to care for the places we consider home here on Earth.  This is a welcome development, in my view.

However, much of the conversation regarding this reality-- which the media is happy to lump into the catchall category "sustainable living"-- is focused on technical responses to human habitability, such as increasing use of renewable fuels, reducing waste, or changing our transportation behavior.  At the same time, little to no emphasis is placed on the vitally important, but much less visible issue of ecological literacy...which involves how people think and communicate, and how our relationship patterns and mental models influence and shape our behavior and therefore, the world we live in. 

Sustainable living has become a glittering, 21st century buzzword ...but what exactly does it mean to "live sustainably"?  How do we set and measure "sustainable" goals, and who is included in defining and establishing these goals? Is sustainable transportation merely about technical issues, such as whether to drive a new Prius instead of an old pick-up truck (or the other way around), or do we need to ask deeper questions about the function and structure of our transportation systems? When thinking about the food we eat, is it enough to buy a tomato labled "organic"...or is there more to healthy agriculture than the final product?  And when we talk about green power, is the issue only renewables v. fossil fuels, or are their deeper and more complex energy equations involved? 

Technical fixes--such as insulating our homes more efficiently, composting and recycling our waste, supporting environmentally responsive agriculture, or finding ways to reduce traffic congestion & pollution -- are the "what" of sustainable living and making them is important. But there's a broader and more subtle set of adaptive competencies which are equally important and generally overlooked...competencies which involve how we do things...and how we think. These adaptive competencies concern the quality of our relationships...with ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and in contrast to technical fixes--which can be straigthforward to identify and implement--they are acquired slowly, over time. Becoming ecologically literate involves thinking, and acting systemically...noticing patterns, appreciating complexity, attempting to account for the impacts of our actions at varying levels of scale. It involves embodying design principles and practices as an artful method of problem solving. And it involves listening, and responding in new ways to the chronic, daily problems that plague us--such as human conflict--which don't have obvious technical fixes.  At this level, our challenge often involves slowing down and developing our capacity to appreciate nuance and different ways of knowing.

Developing and practicing the competencies of ecological literacy is neither more nor less important than making technical changes in our day to day habits: ideally, we need to change both how we think and how we behave. But the timescale for ecological literacy is different, its outcomes are more subtle, and its focus is internal, not external. At heart, practicing ecological literacy involves a willingness to change ourselves.  It involves humility and the willingness to learn how to use our senses more fully...to learn how to think in oblique and unexpected ways...to learn about ourselves not as atomized individuals, but as members of an interconnected, interdependent, community capable of co-creating a more hopeful planetary future--a community which includes people whose perspectives may be fundamentally in opposition to the espoused ideas regarding what is, and is not "green" or "sustainble."

Developing one's ecological literacy can be challenging: learning to notice the deeper levels of our thinking, and to adopt different attitudes and approaches--including genuine respect for diversity of thought--is challenging, and takes time to develop. But that's OK: we didn't arrive overnight at our current historical moment of simplistic framing of complex problems, political fragmentation, and open contempt toward differing points of view. Problems long in development take at least the same amount of time to change them.  So let yourself off the hook regarding quick fixes, and learn to enjoy and appreciate the process of change...which always starts with each of us as an individual, not with telling other people what they "should" do. 

It can feel demoralizing to acknowledge that our social, economic and environmental problems--issues we currently define using a variety of outmoded 20th century "isms" followed by equally outmoded "solutions"--are in fact, incredibly complex problems with many contributors, and cannot be changed by electing a new leader, by enlarging government programs, or by imposing one-size-fits-all, politically narrow solutions on a wide swath of people.  In truth, our problems are a part of the human condition, and will always be with us one way or another, no matter what we do. This doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and admit defeat...but it does suggest that humility is an essential aptitude for engaging successfully in the complex, unending task of making the world a better place--and it strongly suggests that an ecologically intelligent approach to complex human problems starts by making genuine changes in one's personal behavior-- such as taking the time to look up from the daily grind and getting to know your neighbors--all of them, from the butterflies and earthworms to the people next door-- and by recognizing that this type of change is just as crucial as installing solar panels, eschewing meat, or driving a hybrid car.

Ecological literacy involves the cultivation of keen observation and communication skills. Doing so is useful in many ways: in problem solving, in working with others, and in coming to know ourselves and our communities more fully.  The opportunity cost is low, and the benefits are high.  So go ahead and install photovoltaics, if that's in your budget.  Or build a backyard chicken coop.  Replace your lawn with meadow, and your concrete driveway with a pervious courtyard.  And while you do those things, please give yourself permission to slow down, to look, and to listen--because even with all the problems we face in contemporary society, it is still a beautiful world.