When students learn about the environment, it’s almost always bad news. We teach our students how humans have contaminated our waterways, carved up rainforests, greedily extracted mineral resources, and introduced foreign insects that kill off native trees. Sadly, all of this and more is true.
But scientists at Cornell University’s Civic Ecology Lab are offering a counter perspective to viewing humans solely as destroyers of the environment. We are examining how humans in cities and elsewhere are caring for—restoring and stewarding—local nature. We study how people come together to create community gardens, reintroduce oysters to the New York City estuary, and clean up local parks and cemeteries. Sometimes these efforts are part of the recovery process following a sudden disturbance. After Hurricane Katrina, people in New Orleans re-planted and cared for damaged live oak trees in what Cornell University anthropologist Keith Tidball described as an expression of resilience, resistance, love of life, and love of New Orleans as a place. Other times the practices are in spaces that have been degraded over time. In India, thousands of volunteers are coming out for “spotfixes”—cleaning up trash, installing urinals, and placing potted plants along walkways that have become garbage dumps and informal watering holes.
A before photo of a “spotfix” in India.
Regardless of where they occur, these civic ecology practices reflect local history and environments—they draw on “social-ecological memories.” The New York City harbor once abounded with oysters; today volunteer oyster gardeners are “remembering” and bringing back the oyster—not immediately as a food source but as a filter that removes contaminants and will help restore the waterway to what it once was. Community gardeners are often immigrants or rural migrants to cities who bring with them seeds and cultural practices around food; whether they be Hmong refugees from Laos or African-Americans from the southern US, their urban gardens are a display of these “memories” of plants and planting practices. Keith Tidball showed how tree planting after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was not just about planting trees, but about the significance of live oaks as a symbol of the city. And the “spotfixers” in Indian cities—who believe that when people see how much difference cleaning up a sidewalk makes, they will be spurred to further spotfixing actions—use as their motto: “See the change you want to be,” riffing off a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”
Civic ecology practices are not just about caring for nature. They are also about caring for neighborhoods and community. For this reason, they can be viewed through a social-ecological systems lens. Social-ecological systems research recognizes that it’s impossible to separate humans from nature. Thus, scholarship in this area examines social and ecological processes simultaneously, as part of one intertwined system. A prominent body of work focuses on social-ecological resilience , which looks at how cities, farmlands, and other social-ecological systems adapt to small scale-changes, and transform in light of disasters such as hurricanes or ethnic conflict.
Youth at Rocking the Boat monitoring oyster populations in artificial reefs placed in the Bronx River.
Such integrated social-ecological systems thinking is at the cutting edge of scholarship in the environmental sciences and sustainability.
What might STEM educators do to incorporate this integrated social-ecological systems thinking into their classrooms and after-school programs?
Bring in the Positive Role of Humans
Even when talking about the environment, bring in the positive role of humans, not just how we have wreaked havoc on nature. You can find examples of positive actions in the publications on our civic ecology website or challenge your students to find examples in their own neighborhoods. Ask the students to describe the social (e.g., volunteerism, creating bonds among neighbors) as well as the ecological elements of these practices (e.g., restoring native habitat, producing food). Showing humans engaged in positive activities is important because research shows that constant negative messaging about the environment creates feelings of depression and hopelessness. Further, scholarship synthesized by my Cornell colleague Janis Dickinson suggests that negative messaging about the environment does not necessarily spur people to environmental action and, in fact, may lead to environmentally destructive behaviors.
Use Student Driven Contexts
Introduce concepts like ecosystem services in the context of students’ own neighborhoods. Are there rainwater gardens or artificial wetlands that regulate run-off from paved surfaces? Are people planting trees to help absorb carbon and provide shade? And are there cultural or educational events that use parks and other open space in the students’ neighborhoods?
One possibility is to have students diagram the feedbacks between the social and ecological processes in a particular practice. Here is one such diagram that shows how through planting artificial wetlands, people create social bonds and trust (social capital) and provide ecosystem services. Because feeling connected and trusting one other is one factor present when people work for the collective good, the social capital created through the practices can also spur people to further stewardship action. This is referred to as a virtuous positive feedback cycle. It contrasts with vicious cycles of disinvestment, environmental degradation, lack of green space, poverty, and crime, leading to further unwillingness of business and government to invest in a neighborhood.
Get Involved in Service Learning Projects
Students and educators may want to get engaged in a civic ecology practice as part of a service learning project. Participants in our Reclaiming Broken Places: Introduction to Civic Ecology Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will be volunteering with civic ecology practices in their neighborhood. They also will create a multi-media blog about their practices focusing on the 10 civic ecology principles. Here’s a link to an example story about one civic ecology group— Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery . (Note that the MOOC and site for uploading stories of civic ecology practices will remain open for anyone interested in the lectures, readings, and activities after the course is offered this spring.)
No one can deny that humans have destroyed much of the environment that sustains life on Earth. But focusing exclusively on this fact may be counterproductive to fostering whole human beings who work to restore and steward nature and community. Taking a social-ecological systems perspective—and learning about and becoming part of small groups of people who care for nature and community—both reflects cutting-edge scientific thinking and helps young people to feel as if they can make a difference.