Ecological Identity

How does one discover the ecological self? “Ecological identity,” according to Mitchell Thomashow, is more than knowledge about the environment. It involves how humans relate to the world around them and to each other. Ecological identity stems from formative childhood memories of significant, disturbed, and wild natural places. Thomashow’s innovative environmental education program begins with sense-of-place meditation, which helps his students get in touch with their memories and feelings about the environment. He uses Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson as models of ecological identity in tracing the growth of environmental awareness and in exploring the conflicts between preservation and conservation.

ECOLOGICAL IDENTITY: BECOMING A REFLECTIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST is oriented toward praxis and personal experience rather than knowledge about the environment. Thomashow’s progressive approach aims at personal transformation of habits of consumption, attitudes toward place, a sense of connectedness, and environmental responsibility. It involves collaborative group exercises to build an environmentally conscious learning community. His goal is to integrate reflective, ethical practices into environmental education, using “a self-conscious approach that highlights the importance of the learner’s experience.” Thomashow incorporates many personal anecdotes about his and his students’ difficulties in incorporating environmental values into their lives. His philosophy is that ecological identity cannot be partial or fragmentary: It must be incorporated into every part of everyday human behavior.

Some of Thomashow’s most interesting exercises involve the use of student experiences to reflect on attitudes toward personal property, a sense of community, political identity, and consensus building. Rather than abstract knowledge of the environment, his emphasis is on relational skills, without which, he believes, individuals cannot be effective in changing community values. ECOLOGICAL IDENTITY presents a thoughtful guide for progressive environmental education in the 1990’s.