May 25th, 2010

Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability

By Fritjof Capra and Michael K. Stone

En su escrito conmovedor, Capra y Stone nos lleva más allá del uso cotidiano de la palabra “sustentabilidad” a una manera operacional para aplicar la palabra en el ambiente educacional.  Ellos describen cuatro principios universales que guíe educación sustentable, cada uno con unas implicaciones profundas en referencia a la manera en que el aprendizaje ocurra.  Después nos indica como los principios se aplican a través de “un currícula que se usa a donde sea que ocurra el aprendizaje” tanto en el almuerzo en la cafetería o el diseño del campus de la escuela.  Su libro Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability expone de los principios y la idea que aprendizaje ocurra a donde sea.

Since its introduction in the early 1980s, the concept of sustainability has often been distorted, co-opted, and even trivialized by being used without the ecological context that gives it its proper meaning. A friend returned a while ago from consulting with a major Midwest food processor to report that, to that company, “sustainability” meant “shelf life.” As Michael Pollan wrote in late 2007, “The word ‘sustainability’ has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it — whatever ‘it’ means.” So it is worthwhile to reflect on what “sustainability” means, and to seek an operational definition to guide us in our endeavors in sustainability education.

Dr. Capra is a cofounder and board president and Dr. Stone serves as senior editor of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based public foundation. Since its founding nearly two decades ago, the Center has had education for sustainable living as its mission. Out of our work with hundreds of K–12 educators, we have developed an approach to sustainability education grounded in ecological principles.

We celebrate sustainability as a far richer concept than simply meeting material needs, continuing to exist, or trying to keep conditions on a degraded planet from getting worse. What is sustained in a sustainable community is not economic growth or competitive advantage, but the entire web of life, natural and social, on which our long-term survival depends. A truly sustainable community is alive — fresh, vital, evolving, diverse, dynamic. It supports the health and quality of life of present and future generations while living within the limits of its social and natural systems. It recognizes the need for justice, as well as for physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual sustenance.

We do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch. We can learn from societies that have sustained themselves for centuries. We can also model human societies after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and organisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable community may be defined as one that is designed so that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies respect, honor, and cooperate with nature‘s inherent ability to sustain life.

In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology, coupled with the values, ability, and fortitude to act on that understanding. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical capacity for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, continuing education, and the training of professionals.

Smart by Nature

Over the last 20 years, the Center for Ecoliteracy has worked with educators from all types of K–12 schools — public and independent; tiny and very large; primary, middle, and secondary; rural, suburban, and urban; well-to-do and struggling to make ends meet. We know that no single blueprint is appropriate for all schools. Increasingly, though, we find ourselves drawn to a set of principles that we have distilled into an approach that we call “Smart by Nature.” We describe this formulation in more detail on our website ( and in our recent book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (2009: Watershed Media/University of California Press). In that book, we profile schools across the United States that are putting Smart by Nature schooling into practice.

Four primary principles guide us:

• Nature is our teacher
• Sustainability is a community practice
• The real world is the optimal learning environment
• Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place

Nature is our teacher.  Ecological literacy fosters a perspective essential to sustainable living: human needs and achievements are both supported and limited by the natural world.

Organizing teaching around core ecological concepts such as nested systems, cycles, interdependence, and diversity, and returning to these concepts in increasingly complex investigations, helps to integrate teaching across disciplines and between grade levels. Some teachers have expressed a fear that teaching about sustainability will add more content to overburdened workloads. In fact, identifying recurring concepts and sustainability-related “essential questions” is proving to be an antidote to fragmentation of subject matter, helping to tie subjects together in ways that make more sense to students.

Accepting nature as our teacher also implies learning to observe and think systemically. Individual “things” in nature (organs, plants, people, watersheds) can’t be fully understood apart from the larger systems in which they exist. So Smart by Nature schooling includes learning to think in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. Emphases shift from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from contents to patterns. “Instead of a unit on living organisms,” one third-grade teacher told us, “you’re looking at a unit on systems and how those systems interact and how you can address other systems in a more global fashion.”

Sustainability is a community practice. Our second guiding principle follows from “Nature is our teacher.” Many of the core ecological principles that we emphasize are different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organization: Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist for long in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and plants, animals, and microorganisms together regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

A profound lesson to be learned from nature is that sustainability is not an individual property, but a property of an entire web of relationships. It involves a whole community. We can also extrapolate these lessons from nature to the world of social relations. Qualities that characterize healthy natural ecosystems, such as diversity and interdependence, support healthy human communities as well. The preservation of endangered human cultures is analogous to the maintenance of biodiversity. Social and economic equity and justice are important to sustainable societies in the same way that maintaining a dynamic balance among the members of a natural ecosystem is important to its sustainability.

Many of the most pressing environmental problems facing us require actions by citizens who are willing and able to collaborate effectively in organizations and communities. In schooling that is Smart by Nature, teachers and administrators model, and students learn and practice, the skills required for cooperative decision-making and action.

The real world is the optimal learning environment. Children can more fully understand nature’s basic patterns through immersions in which they encounter nature in the rich, messy ways in which it actually exists. They step back from their fast-paced, media-saturated world and experience the rhythms and timescales at which natural events occur when they sow seeds in a school garden in the spring for harvest in the fall or watch a restored creek side come back to life over months or even years. Children’s sense of wonder at the natural world — the emotional connections that may determine how deeply they will care about the fate of nature — can be awakened by finding the life teeming in a handful of soil or nurturing a seed into a healthy plant.

Whether repairing the habitat of an endangered species, tending a school garden, or designing a neighborhood recycling program, students learn more when their actions matter and have meaning. In Smart by Nature schooling, students connect with the natural world and human communities through project-based learning that inspires them to acquire knowledge needed to accomplish something they care about or that someone in their community wants or needs. They also learn that they can make a difference, laying a foundation for responsible, active citizenship.

Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place. When people get to know a particular place well, they begin to care about what happens to the landscape, creatures, and people in it. When they understand its ecology and diversity, the web of relations it supports, and the rhythm of its cycles, they develop an appreciation for and a sense of kinship with their surroundings. Well-known, well-loved places have the best chance to be protected and preserved so that they may be cherished and cared for by future generations of students.

Students can understand a community better by seeing it through the eyes of people who live and work there and will continue to care about it after the students have graduated and moved away. Civic engagement becomes an important component of sustainability education. Many schools require service learning. Civic engagement as we understand it goes further, attending to community-wide needs and addressing concerns identified and defined by citizens.

Curriculum Is Anywhere Learning Occurs

People inquire about our sustainability curriculum. They often envision a binder of lessons, but we believe that “curriculum” deserves a broader, more holistic definition. A team of educators from the South Pacific atoll of Yap once visited the Center. Recognizing their own insights about education in our work brought tears to their eyes. As a parting gift, they left a poster proclaiming, “Curriculum Is Anywhere Learning Occurs.”

We concur.  Schooling is everything the school does that leads to students’ learning — whether that learning is intended or not (the unintended learning is often the most powerful, especially when it contradicts the designed curriculum). Students learn from what the school serves for lunch, how it uses resources and manages waste, who is included in its decisions, how it relates to the surrounding community.

In Smart by Nature, we explore four domains — food, campus, community, and teaching & learning — that offer multiple avenues for the transformative work of schooling for sustainability.

Food. Some people have expressed surprise that a major portion of a book on schooling for sustainability is devoted to school food. Eating is about as basic as sustainable living gets. How we grow, process, transport, market, prepare, and dispose of food is critical to central sustainability issues, including resource use, energy, pollution, water quality, and soil conservation. Food serves as an ideal entry point for understanding the interrelations of such issues as hunger, trade policy, energy use, and climate change.

We have identified four food-focused learning environments: school gardens, instructional kitchens, lunchrooms, and classrooms.

Gardens create opportunities to experience basic ecological literacy concepts firsthand — the flow of energy from the sun to plants and animals, planetary cycles of water and weather, the web of relations embodied in every bite. They help students learn where the food they eat comes from and what is necessary to get it to them.

An “instructional kitchen” can be as simple as a hot plate in the garden or a portable cart that carries cooking equipment into a classroom. Children will almost always try food they have prepared (particularly if they have grown it in the school garden). Teachers regularly report the amazed reactions of parents, convinced that their sons and daughters are addicted to junk food, when the children come home from school and begin asking for more fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner.

In the lunchroom, the school directly affects student health and, ultimately, public health and long-term community sustainability. Meanwhile, the potential of redirecting the billions of dollars spent annually on school food toward support of local farming and sustainable agriculture is increasingly being recognized as an important public policy opportunity.

Any classroom subject can be integrated through food. The Center for Ecoliteracy has made food the focus of two of our most recent books.   Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment (2008: Learning in the Real World) uses food as the entry point for teaching key concepts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy. The Center’s discussion guide to the provocative documentary Food, Inc. (available for download on our website) helps high school students participate in meaningful dialogue about issues explored in the film, including health, sustainability, animal welfare, and workers’ rights.

Campus. In their institutional practices, schools make the natural and social environments in which they are embedded either more or less sustainable. By the materials they use; the suppliers and other organizations they support; and the pollution, waste, and greenhouse emissions they generate or eliminate; schools directly affect environmental sustainability. They require resources and energy to heat, cool, and light buildings and to transport students and staff to and from the campus; they occupy open space; they make demands on community infrastructure.

Campus practices allow a school to demonstrate whether it means what it says about sustainable living. Schools teach about sustainability by making their practices more transparent and including students in discussions and decisions about them.

One of the most dramatic actions a school or district can take, of course, is to build or renovate buildings to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) standards. Some schools leave conduits, ducts, and other structural elements exposed so that students can understand how sustainable buildings work. Some offer real-time measurements of energy, water, or resource use, accessed through centrally located monitors or from students’ computers.

Even schools not engaged in major construction buy office and school supplies, cleaners, pesticides, fertilizers, food, playground equipment, and vehicles. They can practice environmentally preferable purchasing. Their collective purchasing power can help create markets for products that benefit the environment, create jobs, and raise the quality of life of communities.

A sustainability audit by students and staff can be a powerful tool for planning, goal setting, and measuring progress, as well as a valuable teaching opportunity. It’s a way to discover how sustainability issues arise in day-to-day decisions. Audits can cover almost anything: energy and water use, “food miles” in the cafeteria, chemicals in science labs and art studios, the school’s contribution to its community’s waste stream, how well sustainability is incorporated throughout the curriculum.

Community. Schools are far more than buildings, classrooms, and lesson plans. They are also relationship networks in which students spend much of their time. Within these networks, students develop the values and attitudes they will carry into adulthood.

Communities support sustainable living when they offer meaning and value that does not depend on material acquisitions or the expenditure of natural resources. They foster sustainability by helping their members realize their full physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential.

“To create better health in a living system,” writes systems theorist Margaret Wheatley, “connect it to more of itself.” When educators, parents, trustees, and students make decisions or act collaboratively, they demonstrate sustainability as a community practice. By example and design, students learn through shared experience about cooperation, tolerance, empathy, caretaking, and support for others.

Teaching & Learning. There is no one right teaching style for sustainability education. The Center for Ecoliteracy promotes a variety of strategies for developing the knowledge, skills, and values essential to sustainable living. We believe that students learn best when teaching strategies are varied to include hands-on activities, time for reflection and thoughtful discussion, a mix of indoor and outdoor environments, and opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary projects.

Educators define “environmental project-based learning” in different ways. In our experience, the best examples include learning structured around acquiring the knowledge and skills to complete a “real-world” project, often in service to the local social or environmental community. When it’s working well, the process involves a high degree of student initiative, leadership, and participation in selecting projects; results are not predetermined or fully predictable; teachers serve as resources or fellow learners rather than as primarily dispensers of knowledge; and attention is paid to skills such as setting goals and priorities, managing time, and working with others.

The more of these diverse practices schools adopt, the more they become “apprentice communities” for learning the arts of living in an interdependent world.

Pollan (2007).  Our Decrepit Food Factories, New York Times Magazine (December 16, 2007).

Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, “Bringing Life to Organizational Change,” Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement (April/May, 1998),

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Comments (1)

  1. Jorge Lopez Mora(AMIR) says:

    Muy buen articulo, los seres humanos somos sistemas complejos, en la medida que nos conectemos a los ecosistemas que nos rodean, nos integremos, empezaremos a pensar con la gran inteligencia de la naturaleza, nuestro trabajo como educadores es integrar la mente individual a la mente de la madre tierra,¿como podemos replicar el modelo en Mexico? gracias por el trabajo que realizan Atte. Jorge Lopez Mora