1. Introduction: Towards Pedagogies for the Ecozoic
The Ecozoic is a term originating from the work of eco-theologian Thomas Berry [1
] that describes a future era distinguished by mutually enhancing relationships between humans and the global community of life. In this paper, we contrast the Ecozoic to our current era, one that goes by many epithets—Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Civilicene [2
]—but one epithet we single out in particular: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, we purport, is an era distinguished by a human othering of ‘nature’ and of the subsequent domination of this ‘other’. We posit that the global ecological crisis we face in the form of extreme weather events, increasing social inequality, environmental injustice, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and massive species extinctions, are expressions and outcomes of a worldview that fails to see humans as deeply embedded in ‘nature’ and to act accordingly.
In envisioning the Ecozoic, Berry highlighted the critical role of universities, asking “whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in the declining Cenozoic Era or whether they will begin educating students for the emerging Ecozoic” [1
]. Our claim is that universities have yet to rise to this challenge. While there have been some attempts at “greening” curricula, updating courses, and piecemeal integration of sustainability concerns and environmental issues [6
], such steps are, on the whole, inadequate. The challenges besetting the Anthropocene call for radical reorientations of curricula, practices of engagement with communities outside the academy, re-conceptualizations of what knowledge itself is, and a re-thinking of how this knowledge is being produced. Higher education, in short, has a central role in bringing the planet beyond the Anthropocene and into the Ecozoic era, and we believe that it is currently failing in this task.
Therefore, in order to imagine this shift from the western cosmological perspectives of human/other-subject/object relationships to an Ecozoic understanding of a global community of life centered on subject/subject relationships, we focus on the role of academia as a key purveyor of social and intellectual norms. We argue that the academy itself must become a subject of transformation. Building on this critique, we then introduce and develop the concept of ‘becoming Ecozoic’ or ‘Ecozoic-thinking-being (senti-pensar
)’ as a salve to ‘Anthropocentric thinking’. We suggest it as a useful concept for ecological economics and other embedded approaches to knowledge and understanding to draw upon, in order to promote their emancipatory capacities and to more fully move towards a shared imagined future on a planet that is “symbiotically alive to a multiplicity of nonhuman critters and things” [4
Such calls have been made in the past. For example, Brown and Erickson [8
] call for the re-embedding of the normative disciplines: law, political science, finance, ethics and economics, into the biophysical foundations of human society. They also highlight ecological economics as a promising example of a discipline that advocates reforming higher education so as to address the ecologically destructive nature of society, as well as a discipline which has made some headway toward such an end. We feel, however, that the problems besetting ecological economics from fulfilling its greatest ambitions center around the fact that the discipline finds itself embedded within a larger neo-liberal system—a system built upon categories of an ontology of separation, an epistemology of domination, and an axiology of development. Here we make the case for a more ambitious research and teaching agenda for ecological economics, informed by an Ecozoic perspective, and focusing, in particular, on these three categories.
We examine the ontologies, knowledge practices, and axiologies currently limiting our capacity to transcend the Anthropocene, by analyzing undergraduate textbooks. The textbooks are scrutinized as artefacts, tools, and social objects, through which understandings of the world are put forth, and through which students learn the rules and facts as handed down from the path-dependent intellectual legacy of Western Enlightenment thought. In this method, we are also part of a tradition: Foucault saw the 17th and 18th century scientific texts positioned within society almost as epistemology on its own - the textbook was fact, was knowledge itself situated within a conceptual system [9
]. This notion was later reiterated by Paxton [10
], who likewise emphasized how statements become ‘fact’ explicitly because they are found in textbooks.
Next, we describe our vision for what pedagogy, textbooks, and other forms of learning–knowing could look like within a ‘pedagogy for the Ecozoic.’ Here we argue that the Ecozoic requires new approaches and new textbooks to tell a different story that more accurately reflects both new and old understandings of interconnectedness; engages with conceptualizations of the human and of being; reaffirms and celebrates other ways of knowing; and emphasizes our embeddedness in nature while building greater respect for the species alongside which we have co-evolved over the vast space of evolutionary time.
Ecozoic Pedagogy is both a practical response to biophysical realities and an ethical response to the dire present. Its process or praxis is of equal importance to its content, and we focus on the mutual transition of both. In this manner, our goals are two-fold: (1) to nourish the growth of healthy, joyful, self-determining, self-regulating, moral human beings, embracing in process and outcome, what Albert Schweitzer’s poetically called “a reverence for life” [11
]; and (2) to inspire a praxis in defense of that life, tending students’ capacities to build coalitions of solidarity powerful enough to effectively dismantle systems and structures of domination and oppression, and, in their stead, to build, maintain, and reproduce equitable systems and thriving multispecies communities. This reorientation of collective social life towards the service of its own maintenance as an ecologically embedded subset of life is fundamentally our goal. We conclude by suggesting that our ‘-ologies of the Ecozoic’—ontology of interconnectedness, epistemology of egalitarian subject to subject relationship, and axiology of plural values and world-making practices—can be used to examine current curricula and lay out what a research agenda for ecological economics and other normative disciplines could look like.
This paper emerged from a university-led collaboration, “Leadership for the Ecozoic”, a graduate student training and research partnership. We write as a group of students, scholars, and activists from seven different nations, of diverse genders, and racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. We share the fact that we are all from elite educational faculties and consider ourselves complicit in the decline of life’s prospects. Acknowledging our positionality as within that system, we argue that if we are presently, in many ways, “learning to plunder”, [12
] it is our hope that we might learn, and learn to teach, both the emergence and the maintenance of Berry’s “mutually enhancing relations” [13
2. Theoretical Framework
In order to transition intentionally, equitably, and, hopefully to the Ecozoic, we must first understand and address the conceptual structures and assumptions that contribute to the aforementioned crises of the Anthropocene. We identify ontology, epistemology, and axiology as dimensions in which normalized and rigidified concepts and assumptions must shift in order to realize the Ecozoic [13
]. While these dimensions are deeply entangled, we address them separately for analytical purposes.
In outlining this tripartite framework, we draw on the work of many scholars, activists, and thinkers whose ideas and actions foster radical and transformative paradigm shifts across various domains of knowledge and practice (e.g., [1
]). These contemporary thinkers themselves draw on others from both within and outside of the Western traditions. Collectively, this diverse group grapples with common assumptions about the nature of reality, power, and knowledge, while imagining creative and grounded visions for “a world where many worlds can fit,” a concept aligned with the Zapatistas’ increasingly well-known dictum of the pluriverse [24
Philosophically, the outstanding predecessor in regard to our ‘ologies’ of the Ecozoic is the British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. His concept of the philosophy of organism, or, as it is more commonly called, process philosophy, reveals clear parallels to our proposed movement beyond separation and domination, and towards a new valuation or axiology beyond development. The philosophy of organism is an attempt to move beyond metaphysical categories such as substance/essence and subject/object into a relational scheme of world-unification whereby the underlying entity of valuation—rather than a substance or essence of sorts as in Aristotelian or Cartesian metaphysics—is itself the recognition of the interconnectedness of all things [26
]. Thus, instead of ‘perceivers’ and ‘things perceived,’ we are to come to recognize the deep interconnectedness of all things as that which gives value to the world.
Other figures who are important in this school of thought are Teilhard de Chardin and John Cobb. Environmental ethicists, likewise, have been engaging with such ideas for decades and we would be remiss to not mention some key figures in this movement who have both contributed to and, again, preceded, our ideas. These include Aldo Leopold and his land ethic [27
]; Arne Naess and the deep ecology movement [28
]; Ramona Cristina Ilea and her work on extending ethical arguments to animal rights and environmental movements [29
]; ecofeminism and its emancipatory potential as expressed by pioneers such as Val Plumwood [30
]; and lastly, Gregory Cajete and his work in bringing issues of indigenous ecology more to the forefront of Western environmental thought [31
In aligning ourselves with radical thinkers who have gone before us, we aim to build upon a well-established critical genealogy of, and alternatives to, Eurocentric narratives of modernity, colonialism, and development [32
]. We use the word “ontology” as a set of claims and practices around what the real is, and how that understanding is enacted across time and space [34
]. Epistemology, as applied within our framework, refers to how humans and nonhuman agents represent the real (or reals) [36
]. Finally, we acknowledge that ‘value’ is what brings the real into being [39
], and employ axiology to assess how value assumptions, and the beliefs and actions they justify, interact with ontology and epistemology to contribute to the crises of the Anthropocene. In building and applying this framework, we hope to identify how shifts across these dimensions can contribute to realizing the Ecozoic.
2.1. Ontology of Separation
Underpinning scholarship, religious traditions, and social institutions in the Anthropocene is an ontological dualism that conceives of humans and nature as separate domains [1
]. This dualism has two deep roots; one found in Ancient Greek philosophy and Plato in particular, and the other in Aristotle’s accounts of the differences between humans and other sentient beings. In several of his dialogues, Plato defines and delineates what he calls the realm of ideas, an eternal and unchanging realm of entities existing beyond the material world [50
]. This metaphysical separation places human beings in a distinct class apart from other beings with Plato purporting that while there exists another ‘world’ of sorts beyond the material, only humans and the human mind can access it. This separation was subsequently seized upon by neo-platonic and Christian philosophers, and was incorporated into Christian philosophy and, by extension, the collective consciousness of the emerging Christian West during the Middle Ages [49
Even more widely and deeply influential is the Judeo-Christian creation story found in the Book of Genesis. There are several features of this narrative which help set the stage for an ontology of separation. Perhaps the most important are the doctrine of special creation, that humans are created in the image of God, and that nature itself is profane and in need of redemption so that we may retake our rightful place in paradise [52
This separation was further developed and instantiated in the modern consciousness with the expansion of modern science during the Enlightenment period [33
]. Thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and John Locke articulated a dualistic metaphysics which separated the living world into distinct categories corresponding to their mechanical philosophy and its doctrine of primary and secondary qualities [53
]. Descartes in particular, widely hailed as the father of modern philosophy, emphasized a distinction between the human mind and the world of matter with his doctrine of res cogitans
and res extensa
]. These dualisms ultimately resulted in a further division of the world into categories of subjects and objects [57
]. Thus, the Anthropocene is largely defined by ‘othering’—humans viewing both non-human nature and each other as ‘other’ [1
]. This ontological division has profound implications, particularly in determining who has rights, and by informing who counts as a who [41
It is with the increasing number of scientists, academics, theologians, indigenous leaders, and activists voicing opposition to such views that we stand and take our position. Scholars such as Thomas Berry, Arturo Escobar, Anna Grear, Donna Haraway, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Bruno Latour, Maria Mies, and Vandana Shiva are prominent among those who have recognized the fallacy of separating humans and the ‘natural world’. We stand with them in our efforts to reimagine homo sapiens
—or ‘homo insapiens’
as Margulis and Sagan argue [16
]—and homo economicus,
to embody the reality that human species are interdependent and inherently embedded within ecosystems [58
]. In aligning ourselves with these thinkers and their ideas, we acknowledge that the full complex world is rendered largely invisible through an ontological lens that reduces the real to discrete entities [41
], independent variables, factors of production, and allopoietic systems [15
2.2. Epistemology of Domination
While an ontology of separation inhibits the acknowledgement and honoring of complexity, we identify similar implications stemming from epistemological norms of the Anthropocene that are prevalent within higher education. We agree with those who identify the epistemic crisis of our age as one of domination. Within our framework, an epistemology of domination refers to the hegemony of narrow and exclusionary definitions of knowledge and the knowable, and the consequent marginalization of other ways of knowing and being [8
]. As both outcome and evidence of this epistemic domination, power resides with the self-appointed people and institutions that determine, epitomize, and rigidify definitions of knowledge—namely, science, many if not most of the professions, and attendant notions of expertise [66
]. Alongside science and experts, rationality and objectivity dominate the epistemic landscape [57
]. An outcome of this domination is the creation and imposition of universals that invalidate and make invisible the alternative and non-Anthropocentric ways of perceiving the world and creating knowledge [68
An epistemology of domination, like the ontology of separation, has roots in Judeo–Christian texts and was further developed and justified in the modern era by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes [56
]. This approach to learning places exclusive emphasis on the human, and more specifically on the male, as the agent of knowledge creation or discovery. According to Bacon, the world was to be conquered and pried into to reveal her ’feminine’ secrets, a belief that is manifested in the scientific and colonial practices of the ’Enlightenment’ period and remains standard in Western approaches to studying and knowing the world of humans and nature [39
]. The standardization of this epistemic approach has profound implications for people, institutions, communities, and beings whose existence defies rational, reductionist, and scientistic constructs of knowledge and being. Opposing narratives are deemed ignorant, worthless, and are often made invisible by a dominant epistemology that refuses to acknowledge other ways of knowing and being [33
Going beyond an epistemology of domination, our vision requires an epistemology of relationality between human and other-than-human beings [46
]. Drawing from Amerindian anthropology, moreover, we claim that humans do not have monopoly over the world of meaning [43
]. Nonhumans are active meaning-making beings in that they represent the world in other-than-symbolic forms. For example, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s work with the Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon offers unique ethnographic evidence on the intrinsic sign-producing capacities of nonhumans such as plants, and animals [43
2.3. Axiology of Development and Progress
In considering problematic and rigidified assumptions that define life in the Anthropocene, we assess how Western ontological and epistemological norms interact with and inform axiological emphases on progress and development; emphases that grow directly and easily out of the idea that nature itself is profane and that the project of progress is to regain our rightful place in paradise. In particular, we identify the growth narrative, propounded by an anthropocentric, Western world system, as a problematic product of the epistemological and ontological assumptions previously explored. We thus employ axiology as an analytical tool for assessing how values are produced and mobilized to advance a singular, hegemonic vision of the real. In particular, we analyze how the values of ‘progress’, ‘growth’ and ‘improvement’ are used to naturalize and justify development-oriented paradigms across the world at the expense of local practices of cultural and economic difference [20
Social institutions produced by or aligned with this hegemonic worldview are predicated upon a narrow definition of progress that directly or indirectly justifies the oppression of certain people and non-human beings [20
]. In particular, colonial and development-oriented notions of universal history and progress reify humans as subjects and all other beings as objects without rights [13
]. They also cast other ways of being as inferior and regressive, potentially even immoral and in need of salvation [75
]. In transitioning out of the Anthropocene, it will be necessary to re-embed social institutions in the relational and complex interdependence of ecosystems and lifeworlds.
Given the problematic evolution and implications of an axiology of development, we align ourselves with the likes of Charles Darwin, Lynn Margulis, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and others who have proposed axiologies of relationality and reciprocity. Darwin, of course, disrupted ontological and epistemological Biblical anthropocentrism by connecting humans to all living beings on the planet [76
]. Margulis extended and deepened this realization with her conceptualization of symbiosis, extending the web of life down to the microscopic, and thus further challenging the separational and hierarchical ontologies and epistemologies that emphasize human exceptionalism [77
]. To state it in terms of Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Umeek E. R. Atleo, the principle of interdependence—“(l)iving in balance and harmony with diverse life forms”—should be applied to every dimension of existence [46
]. This relational approach thus seeks to de-center the human in socio-ecological and normative systems, while attending to the knowledge-making capacities of other-than-human beings. In this tradition, current academics such as Kai Chan, Rachelle Gould, and Alder Keleman Saxena are developing and expressing relational values in the axiological realm as an alternative to the purely anthropocentric instrumental and intrinsic value distinction [78
Furthering the work of the aforementioned thinkers and practitioners, we believe that a paradigm shift in education [19
], particularly in the field of ecological economics [8
], is a necessary and collective endeavor [20
]. We therefore propose a framework to support shifts away from a paradigm characterized by: an ontology of separation between humans and the larger community of life; an epistemology of expert knowledge and domination that either invalidates non-modern systems, or renders local beliefs invisible or non-scientific; an axiology of progress perpetuating a universal view of history and culture; and finally, a development and growth-oriented pedagogy that displaces alternative local and place-based social, cultural, and economic practices.
6. Concluding Remarks and Next Steps
Ecozoic pedagogy is both a practical response to biophysical realities and an ethical response to the dire present. Its process or praxis is of equal importance to its content, and we focus on the mutual transition of both. In this manner, and to reiterate from above, our goals are two-fold: (1) to nourish the growth of healthy, joyful, self-determining, self-regulating, moral human beings, embracing in process and outcome, what Albert Schweitzer’s poetically called “a reverence for life” [11
]; and (2) to inspire a praxis in defense of that life, tending students’ capacities to build coalitions of solidarity powerful enough to effectively dismantle systems and structures of domination and oppression, and, in their stead, to build, maintain, and reproduce equitable systems and thriving multispecies communities. This reorientation of collective social life towards the service of its own maintenance as an ecologically embedded subset of life is fundamentally our goal.
With our textbook analysis, we have highlighted the pervasiveness of an ontology of separation, an epistemology of domination, and an axiology of development across a wide range of subjects in higher education. We have then explored how re-orienting toward an ontology of interconnectedness, an epistemology of egalitarian subject to subject relationship, and an axiology that includes plural values and world-making practices, is fundamental to both content and pedagogical requirements for transforming higher education to “become Ecozoic”, and away from the modes of “efficient plunder” of the Anthropocene. Table 2
summarizes a proposal that the ontology, epistemology, and axiology of the Ecozoic form a critical framework for both analysis and world building.
Any research agenda based on our findings should be situated within the existing struggles attempting to reshape the current structure of academia. Our hope is that our framework can be used to perform a rigorous review of movements and experimental reforms from both within and outside the walls of academia. Higher education institutions that have attempted alternative models of pedagogy, such as Hampshire College, Evergreen State College, Antioch College, Goddard College, The New School, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, EARTH University in Costa Rica, and Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, to name just a few, can be analyzed through the lens of this framework. Likewise, programs around the world which promote mutually enhancing relationships between humans and Earth, but are situated in traditional academic structures, can also be assessed with the framework in order to learn from the specific challenges and transformations that they face/are part of.
Following the co-production of learning our approach to pedagogy, we propose that students across diverse disciplines design and run their own peer-to-peer seminars examining how their education can become Ecozoic. Our framework can help to reflect on fundamental questions of “what are we trying to learn to do in academia?”, “what is our knowledge for?”, and “what world are we creating?” University reform then becomes a broad co-created world-making process as student-led seminars use our framework as a tool, a lens, an organizing concept, a vision, and/or a pathway. Importantly, what becomes of this process is undefined as of yet, and will look different in different institutions, communities, and countries.
As the standard teaching tool within institutions, some alternative textbooks, or core texts, that have motioned towards ontological plurality can also be reviewed using the ‘ologies of the Ecozoic’. For example, the Curriculum Open Access Resources in Economics (CORE) textbook and accompanying online portal was launched in 2013, and by 2018 had already transformed introductory economics curriculums in more than 100 universities worldwide due to its innovative, accessible style [127
]. CORE represents a movement away from the strict delineation of neoclassical economics towards economic pluralism, and while it may not reflect the full framework presented in Table 2
, the success of this text in transforming curriculum should be examined more closely.
The framework could also be used to assess the many pedagogies considered ‘alternative’ today, from Freire [105
], Gruenewald [109
], and Pradanos [110
] discussed earlier, to the primary school pedagogies such as Waldorf, Ivan Illich’s un/de-schooling, and forest schooling. A systematic review of the literature on the practices and impacts of these alternative pedagogies could help elicit lessons from alternative primary schooling around the world, revealing existing barriers to transformation and potential new pathways to investigate.
This broad process can be a way to identify places, people, and movements already engaged in this work; and thus, the stories of challenges, successes, and novel insights into world-building and transforming higher education can contribute to setting a clearer research agenda. Ecological economics provides one compelling example of an alternative approach to economics that has waxed and waned between a radical departure from the mainstream and serving a master discipline. At its inception, clear ontological foundations were purposefully avoided in order to establish a shared conceptual space for people from many fields [128
]. Spash [129
] and others [131
] have called for an ontological foundation to be established, with healthy debates over deep and shallow ecological economics. We agree with assertions that the field must be more firmly based on the understanding of the biophysical [133
] and social [136
] embeddedness of human economic activity.
Looking back at the ethical and scientific principles on which ecological economics was founded should serve as a starting point to clarify its goals and refocus its research agenda for the Ecozoic [138
]. Ecological economics uses basic concepts of sustainable scale, just distribution, and efficient allocation or entropic thrift, that is, achieving a satisfactory quality of life with the minimal ecological cost, as the means to achieve the stated goals of well-being, justice, and sustainability [112
]. However, clarifying the ontological, epistemological, and axiological groundings of these stated goals could potentially enable ecological economics to fulfill its paradigm shift vision. Through this lens, ecological economics can also clarify the methodological pluralism [140
] that serves as the foundation to its epistemologies. This is not to say that methodological pluralism is not a valuable approach, but the vague ideological construction lacks boundaries, resulting in an often-superficial transdisciplinary rhetoric [129
To summarize, we propose using our framework to carry out:
Case studies of alternative and alternatives to textbooks, and their potential impact on curriculum and program development in higher education;
A systematic review of primary school pedagogies and their impact on world-building/co-creation of knowledge/becoming Ecozoic;
Case studies of programs that promote mutually enhancing relationships between humans and Earth within traditional academic institutions;
Case studies of alternative universities as a systems approach to pedagogy; and
Student-led seminars across disciplines to explore how we may all participate in the restructuring of education to become Ecozoic.
In conclusion, through a close examination of a sample of textbooks used for disseminating the foundational knowledge of disciplines, we find that anthropocentric ontology, epistemology, and axiology are upheld and perpetuated in universities in North America and throughout the world. Ecological economics is an example of one attempt to reorient a field around an Ecozoic narrative reflecting the biophysical and social embeddedness of the economy. Beyond ecological economics, we further challenge all disciplines and transdisciplines to question their unexamined assumptions using the ‘ologies of the Ecozoic’ framework offered in this paper, and in so doing, collectively begin to transform higher education and, ultimately, co-create the Ecozoic era.