Ecological Literacy – a basic Life Skill

Ecological Literacy is a basic life-skill that every human being on our planet should be supported to develop and is part of our personal development. Ecology as a science is about the relationships between organisms and their natural environment. Over the last two hundred years through the process of industrialization people’s relationship with their natural environment changed drastically. This change process, in large driven by technological advancements, also changed people’s experience of the role and purpose for our natural environment. With new technological advancements people were able to increase agricultural productivity, which resulted in large population growth, and by freeing a significant percentage of the workforce from farming this further helped to drive the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th Century the world population was around 1 billion people. We are currently at 7.2 billion people, with the expectation to reach 9 billion people around 2050. Two hundred years ago the whole issue of living sustainably was not in question. There were plenty of resources and the impacts of human activities were not felt at a large scale. It is only recently that people start to comprehend the impacts of human activity and human development, from the perspective of sustainability.

The manner in which we have changed our planet over this short period of time is unprecedented, and we did so with little understanding or knowledge of the long-term and ‘unwanted consequences. People probably believed that nature is resilient and resources will replenish, and that these resources are freely available and can thus be utilised by anyone. The necessity to develop systems thinking, to learn to see connections over time and place, and to understand the fundamental principles of living systems did not arise. The necessity for this kind of literacy, also called ecological literacy, is evident today. This also puts into perspective that our current ecological crisis can only be resolved by learning to think and act in ways that we never had to do before. This also calls for the development of new models, new policies, new legislation, new forms of organization, and a different kind of education. This new way of thinking also requires that we learn to collaborate and learn to connect our actions for sustainability to reach the critical mass required for changing the directions in which we are currently heading.

An ecologically literate person understands that we are all part of a living system and what key principles, such as interdependence and interconnectedness, really mean. An ecologically literate person translates this understanding into actions that demonstrate conscious efforts to minimize negative impacts on our life-sustaining systems and maximize value contribution to our collective wellbeing, now and for the future generations.

The question if everybody were to live like me, what would happen to our natural world and future wellbeing?” is an essential question to honestly assess whether we truly care about the impact of our choices and actions. In conversations with people from many parts of the world, I have noticed that in general few people are committed to the process of ecological living. Quiten often people make assumptions that to live ecologically would imply too many sacrifices to their comforts and not be realistic. For sure, ecological living will require making changes to our lifestyle and for some people this may indeed imply consuming less. This does, however, not need to lead to deprivation of our basic needs. We can live well and live ecologically. It does require, however, a very different way of thinking and checking assumptions that we are not used to. It will also require for many of us to make the investment to learn more deeply what we buy with our money and what we buy into. For example, checking the supply chain that is involved for making the goods and services that you purchase is essential if you want to know whether your way of living is supporting child labour, killing of rainforests, destruction of natural habitats, adding to the decline of vital eco-system services, and contributing to human related climate change. This ad, click here, by Greenpeace to make people aware of the supply chain involved in the making of Nestle’s Kit Kat is a good example.

A common reaction for people when they start to learn more about ecological living is a sense of overwhelm and apathy; not knowing where to start, what to change and convinced that there is little they can do to make a difference. We have become so lazy and dependent on fossil fuels that it does take a conscious effort to learn how to live well with renewable energy resources. The societies in which we are currently living are the results of hundreds of years of fossil fuel-based energy systems to drive and sustain the socio-economic developments. The assumptions then were that these resources are infinite and can be exploited indefinitely without much consequence to the climate conditions. Economic growth was seen as the main driver for any other form of development, and this justified the exploitation and unconstrained usage of fossil fuels. In these socio-economic development models, natural capital is not accounted for, this video, click here, explains this very well. To learn about the problem with fossil fuel-based energy systems watch this video below:


Ecological or sustainable living is based on a very different set of premises and principles compared to what has become ‘normal’. Society today is fabricated in such a way that information about the true costs and impacts of our choices and actions remain hidden and mostly unaccounted for. Getting feedback and information about our impacts requires a process of active learning and asking questions, which people often find too much trouble. In order to assess the true costs and impacts of our choices and actions we need criteria that make these impacts visible over time and beyond artificial boundaries.

We can get these criteria from stuyding the basic facts of life. Fritjof Capra, co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, describes these facts as follows:

  • Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
  • Most of the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Diversity assures resilience.
  • One species’ waste is another species’ food.
  • Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking. Source: click here.

By understanding these basic facts of life we can then assess how to live our life in harmony with these principles. For example, if we know that matter cycles continually through the web of life and we introduce plastic in the environment, we can expect that plastic will also enter the food cycle of many different organisms with the big problem that plastic does not break down, it remains even when in very small pieces. Have a look at this video to understand better the magnitude of this problem.

If we take the principle of ‘one species waste is another species food’, here too we can see that the way we live is contrary to this principle. Most of our waste gets dumped, and rather than it serving as a food source it is intoxicating our natural environment. If we look at the principle ‘most of the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun’, then here too we can see how unsustainably we are living. About 90% of the energy that people use in the world today comes from burning fossil fuels. Burning any carbon based fuel converts carbon to carbon dioxide. Unless it is captured and stored, this carbon dioxide is usually released to the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that was removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago by animal and plant life. This leads to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is one of the key causes for climate change and global warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of a number of gases that are transparent to the visible light falling on the Earth from the Sun, but absorb the infra-red radiation (heat) emitted by the warm surface of the Earth, preventing its loss into space. This increase of atmospheric CO2 and other gasses are changing the global climate systems, which is expected to have severe impacts, amongst which increase in “extreme” weather events, rise in sea level, coral bleaching, and extinction of plant and animal species, and more. Click here to see a video that explains these consequences well.

When we assess human activity with these basic facts of life we start to understand why current human activities are simply not sustainable. What is not yet mentioned here is that apart from fossil fuel consumptions and waste generation, we are also destroying in that same vicious cycle the habitats of so many species and eco-systems. It is said that we have now created the largest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report states that: ”..over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth. In addition, approximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services it examined are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.”

The dimensions of sustainability are multiple and complex. Sustainable development, therefore, includes three dimensions – environmental, economic and social. Ecological living, which gives us the larger understanding of how things connect and are interdependent, starts by addressing the root causes for our negative impacts on the environment. Unless we understand first why our actions may cause negative impacts on our natural environment, it will be difficult to know how to create positive impacts instead. Ecological living, and thus ecological literacy, provides people with the tools, knowledge and wisdom for taking concrete actions on their deeper desire to contribute to a better world and future. Intention alone and heartfelt desires for everybody’s happiness and wellbeing are not enough – there are specific actions and changes that are needed, some of which includes stopping the wrong kind of actions. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In summary, Ecological living means to live in a way that:

  1. Respects and replenishes the carrying capacity of our planet;
  2. Honours our interrelatedness with all expressions of Life;
  3. Enhances the qualitative aspects of our relationships, and;
  4. Brings forth the best of our human capacities for the co-creation of an ecologically sustainable and caring world.

Ecological living thus begins with environmental literacy; e.g. taking care of our environment, minimizing waste, reducing pollution, using renewable energy sources, etc, yet does not stop there. As mentioned earlier, the environmental, social and economic dimensions are interwoven. Ecological living is thus the result of a vast awareness that our life is a living system that is nested within larger systems that we are part of, formed by, depend on, impacted by and impact on. Each of these systems that are human made have elements in them that interact with natural eco-systems. We cannot make any system, not even technologically, that does not somehow use resources or space that is provided by through our natural world. This radical understanding of interdependence is necessary if we want to learn how to live more ecological.

Ecological living and sustainable development as a change process calls for systems thinking, development of care and courage, learning how to become a change maker with the ability to connect and collaborate with other people for sustainability.


People generally acknowledge on a superficial level that they share the planet with countless beings who are all part of the Web of Life. The deeper value for this Web of Life, or network of relations, connections and dependencies often remains unacknowledged. This Web of Life provides a lot more than resources for us to live; it also provides incredible opportunities for co-evolution through co-learning and co-creation. Ecological living is thus also a statement and acknowledgement that all beings and life forms have intrinsic meaning for their place within the Web of Life, which is a very different perspective from the dominant exploitive view that humanity has been and is currently pursuing. More often than not, society values what is derived through what others can gain, which is different from intrinsic value. The field that acknowledges this deep interrelatedness with the Web of life and intrinsic value of all beings is called ‘Deep Ecology’. Whereas superficial environmental agency would instruct not to cut down too many trees because it causes disruptions in the vital eco-systems services that trees deliver, a deep ecologist would say don’t cut those trees because of their intrinsic value from their place within the Web of Life. Watch the following videos to get a better understanding of Deep Ecology:



Our current path as humanity is sadly incredibly destructive; impacting vital eco-systems, planetary resources, natural habitats, traditional / indigenous cultures, healthy climate conditions, our unique biosphere, and the foundations for the sustainability of our societies. It was not designed or intended to lead to these outcomes; it was probably designed with many good intentions to advance our living conditions through economic growth and development and the use of technology to make our life easier. Unfortunately, many of these kinds of intentions were not developed through integrated thinking that is necessary to estimate, measure, evaluate, and understand impacts of human activities across space and time by looking at society from a dynamical system’s perspective. As a word of caution, I don’t believe that all of these path-makers had noble intentions at heart. Some of the high-level designers for our societies did and do have access to more information to better understand the impacts, and have no moral problem with exploiting and / or killing people and our natural environment to remain in power. These people have done their utmost to protect their own self-interests and create confusion around sustainability issues and outcomes.

The golden question then becomes? How do we change the path that we are currently on? How do we change direction? What critical mass is required for this change? In all the talking about sustainability, sustainable development and climate change, and despite all the growing awareness, there is a still a huge gap between what we collectively consume and waste in terms of our planetary resources and what is needed for ecological sustainability. And this gap is further kept in place by those who maintain, at any cost, their deeply invested self-interests in keeping humanity’s dependencies on fossil-fuel based energy-systems.

There is much talk that renewable energy resources can replace our dependencies on fossil fuels. It is true that renewable energy resources play a key role if want to gear society towards sustainability. It is, however, not sufficient to use this as a mere substitute for fossil fuels; more drastic changes are required in the way that we use resources, generate waste, design building, and create energy demands. The message nobody likes to hear or share is that many of us simply use too much and waste too much. Click here to learn more about the Story of Stuff. Purchasing and wasting less does not need to deprive you of anything you need; it can actually become a fun creative journey that may even help you to rediscover some of your parents or grandparents old repurposing strategies for creating new products with old or previously used materials. On a more fundamental design level we need to apply very different sets of design principles by learning from nature in order to create vehicles, buildings, and cities that can come closer to living in harmony with the basic facts of life that were mentioned earlier. This process of learning from Nature’s design principles is called biomimicry. Click here to learn more.


Here are some practical suggestions for how you can support the change for sustainability via ecological living. In order to sustain outer actions for ecological living it is helpful to remember and draw inspiration from the inner, or personal development dimensions, of ecological living.

Inner ecology

  • Become a Catalyst for the changes that are needed to help co-create a better world and future.
  • You are part of the Web of Life – widen your circle of care and relatedness with non-human beings and spend time in Nature to become NATUREwise.
  • Make the most of our sustainability crisis, which is forcing us to learn, dream, think, design, act and relate in new ways. Every challenge offers opportunities for further and deeper growth; when we reach the end of what we can do with a set way of thinking.
  • Join others around the world as Catalysts and Change Agents for Sustainability.
  • Nurture Nature inside yourself – take care of your body and become aware of your natural body rhythms.
  • Become more energy efficient from the inside-out: worry less, stress less, reduce anxiety and procrastination and learn to recycle your own energy. How? By cleansing transforming and transmuting your inner belief and processing systems that hold into place old patterns of thought, emotion, memory and belief. Don’t waste this precious creative energy –learn to compost your own waste! No need to dump or project this onto others.
  • Become aware of rights, needs and wellbeing of future generations and explore how you can support this in your actions.

Outer ecology

  • Educate yourself about the resources that you, your family and / or organisation utilise to fulfil and sustain your needs. How can you reduce your ecological footprint?
  • Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle!
  • Be aware of the real price for goods and services that you use. Cheap products often have hidden costs (e.g. the cost of child-labour, animal cruelty, or degradation of ecosystems). Find out about any child-labour practices or natural resources that were sacrificed in the process of producing these products and services.
  • Recycle your grey-water.
  • Collect and use your rainwater.
  • Create an organic vegetable garden.
  • Compost your organic waste and use the compost in your garden.
  • Create a garden (with a balance of endemic/indigenous plants) to support local wildlife (animals, insects, trees and plants).
  • Create a roof garden (green roof) as a natural air-conditioning alternative and to increase your garden space.
  • Buy organic and local produces as much as possible.
  • Support local businesses and organisations that care for our planet.

Be the Change for what is needed in this world…

Author: Anneloes Smitsman – CEO & Founder of EARTHwise Centre

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