Becoming Our Best Selves: Reconnecting to Ecosocial Literacy

Chris Zorn
January 11, 2024
If education systems were designed from the ground up to develop self-awareness and reflection; wisdom and discernment; kindness, empathy and compassion; ecological and ecosystems awareness, mastery and responsibility; gratitude, social integration and harmony; co-creative agency, joyful participation and commitment; and our very best selves, what might those systems look like?

This piece was originally published on the Progressive Philosophy and Pedagogy Blog

We might imagine our very best self to be “the full flowering of our human potential” or, perhaps we might imagine offering our unique gifts to the world and accomplishing “all that we’re capable of as human beings.” Empirically, we’re fully capable of living peacefully among one another. We’re capable of living intimately and reverently with our non-human kin and integrating harmoniously with the vast tapestry of the cosmos. We’re capable of co-creative adaptation, imagination and transformation. Throughout our 300,000 year (or so) lineage as homo sapiens, we’ve already accomplished these things, evidenced by our existence here today. We could say that a dynamic, evidence-based and practical ecosocial literacy has been handed down to us through the myriad languages and human cultures around the planet, developed and tested through thousands of human generations. This is self-evident since we are the sole remaining species in the hominin lineage. None of the others who shared our hominin line survived the crucible of extinction.[1] Despite the shortcomings of our more recent history, the much longer fossil record indicates we have everything we need to make the profound transformation now required of us in the 21st century.

Educating for Ecosocial Literacy Diagram

Ecosocial literacy is the body of wisdom that has been entrusted to us from our ancestors in the form of cultural practices, ceremonies, languages and stories. In its simplest terms, it might be thought of as the awareness, understanding and skills necessary to gracefully live in harmony and balance with one another and our non-human neighbors and kin, in perpetuity. Part of that wisdom includes a dynamic social awareness. How do we get along well with one another and joyfully enrich one another’s lives? Part of that wisdom is a deep, abiding ecological perspective. How do we fit harmoniously into the intricate web of life from which we evolved and contribute to the continued flourishing and beauty of all life? The two are inextricably connected.

However, as the first quarter of the 21st century comes to a close, it’s more and more clear that the systems and structures of our modern global society have neglected the lineages of ecosocial literacy that helped us get to this point. Globally, there are multiple wars and armed conflicts,[2] our societies are becoming more and more polarized and aggressively divisive, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find meaningful discussions about the many problems our global economic systems continue to create. Ecosystems all around the planet are in decline as species go extinct at increasing rates. Toxic chemicals and materials have permeated the entire water cycle of the planet and compromised soil integrity and health. Socially, the rates of suicide, depression, targeted violence and similar signs of dis-harmony continue to climb. Never before in the long lineage of human history have we faced such challenges as these. Life on Earth has survived and continued to flourish through multiple mass extinction events, but humanity may be staring into the abyss of our first.[3] As rainforest activist John Seed said, “threat of extinction is the potter's hand that molds all the forms of life. The human species is one of millions threatened by imminent extinction through nuclear war and other environmental changes.”

From the viewpoint of sustainability and ecological and social justice, all the dominant global systems we have in place right now are impractical, even futile or pathological, from economic and political systems to education, agricultural and health care systems. While more and more people are becoming aware of the urgent circumstances we face, no government or international body is responding to the myriad crises in a way that even comes close to what needs to happen to avoid increased suffering for all of life.

“If we are to address the wholesale despoliation of the planet, and our growing helplessness in the face of vast computational power, then we must find ways to reconcile our technological prowess and sense of human uniqueness with an earthy sensibility and an attentiveness to the interconnectiveness of all things. We must learn to live with the world, rather than seek to dominate it. In short, we must discover an ecology of technology.” — James Bridle, from his book Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (2022).

Ecosocial literacy as an encompassing metaphor gives us a useful reference to imagine ways we might begin to transform our own mindsets, practices and structures and those of our education and other systems of enculturation to help respond skillfully to the challenges we’re now facing and our children are inheriting. While ecosocial literacy encompasses a broad range of mindsets and activities, it rests on a foundation of an enriched view of children (and humans). In Silence of the Stars, a poem by David Wagoner, he describes the disbelief of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, when they learned that Laurens van der Post was unable to hear the stars singing. When they realized he was serious, at first they tried to help him by leading him away from the warmth and conversation of the fire into the quiet stillness of the night. Upon realizing he was still deaf to their melodies, they expressed their deep sadness for his profound loss of hearing. Wade Davis describes how the Siona Sequoia living in the Amazon are able to consistently differentiate plant species that are indistinguishable to our modern taxonomy by the way they sing on the night of a full moon. Unfortunately, our mainstream society continues to consider all of this unimportant, even nonsense, but that’s only because it lies outside the paradigm and habits of thinking in which we’ve been enculturated. Yet, just as Polynesian seafarers cross the vast Pacific using only their intimacy with the sea, stars and environment, these human capacities are an integral part of their ecosocial literacy, handed down through the generations and still alive and functioning today.

Diagram reflecting inner and outer awareness

When we reflect on the simplified view of the integral child, we can more quickly grasp how there is so much more to us than what we typically address in K-21 education. We can also recognize that, like the iceberg model, much of who we are is below the surface, hidden as inner potentials, qualities and capabilities. When we think deeply about what is required to bring our modern societies and cultures into balance with each other and with our non-human kin, we can recognize that we possess the needed capacities, but they are rarely given the chance to blossom and flourish. They’re not given priority in modern education systems due to the continued emphasis on the cognitive, measurable, assessable and easily metric’ed subjects we currently believe are required for matriculation into the global economic system of money. Ecological intimacy, a sense of place, our sense of interconnection, empathy and heart connection with all of life — none of these are quantifiable. Like gratitude, kindness and love, they must be felt experientially. Yet, these are just a few of the non-cognitive ways of knowing and understanding that sustained our hominin lineage for many tens of thousands of years.

Even when we acknowledge that “all children are different” and have their own “unique gifts,” we still clump them together in schools and urge them to progress at the same rate through age and grade level cohorts, and assess them in the exact same subjects against implicit or explicit standards. Perhaps more importantly, we end up describing and seeing their unique gifts primarily through the lens of their outer selves. We might notice that a child is gifted in sports, gifted in art or math or technology. In other words, we tend to look at the external, outer gifts because this is what our schools and societies emphasize. But when we imagine what is now required to return our modern societies to ecological balance and social equity, other gifts come to mind as more critical, yet they are rarely recognized in school environments (much less emphasized and nurtured over time). Right now, we’re raising, teaching and mentoring children who may be gifted in their intuition; imagination; deep listening; empathy; compassion; humor; contemplation; self-awareness; storytelling; contextualization; peacemaking; community building; tending, deepening and mediating relationships; their ability to embrace and work skillfully with the unknown; spirituality, speaking, co-creative cooperation among/within different groups; memory (especially of stories); humility, sense of belonging, the dance, movement and songs of place, culture and connection. The list goes on. Yet, where in schools are these gifts noticed, nurtured and developed in the same daily way as math, science or language arts? These important gifts may lie dormant for years or for a lifetime.

Scanning this quick list reveals the potential of the inner child that is currently missing from our mainstream decision making, systems design and enculturation. Some have referred to these qualities as subtle or “intuitive technologies”.[4] We might also imagine that we’re reawakening the intelligence of the heart, as did this 16-year old student:

“However, as a high school junior, I made another realization: beach cleanups and other project solutions are important and very necessary to help mitigate the damaging effects of recent human civilization, but they aren’t enough. Without an underlying shift in human awareness and perspective, these superficial solutions will not lead us to a just, sustainable society. As a global collective, we need to remember our hearts. We’ve long since given priority to our thinking minds, rather than balancing those thoughts with our feeling hearts and the human qualities of nobility, love, kindness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. We urgently need these heart qualities to come to the forefront of our decision-making.”[5] — Salena Ohta, age 16

Of the many inner, non-cognitive gifts and ways of knowing we might reprioritize in our education environments, there are two that may have the most far-reaching consequences: deep listening and gratitude. Like all of our inner potentials and qualities, they begin with simple forms but have threads leading to the profound.

We might define deep or unconditional listening as listening without judgment; without trying to give advice or fix anything; without thinking about what we’re going to say in response and without taking personally anything the speaker is saying, no matter what it is. Listening in this way is an open, receptive, curious and deeply appreciative form of listening. It reflects a state of mind that’s willing to learn and discover and that recognizes that everything within Earth has its own story, intrinsic gifts and impeccable reasons for how it is. Our indigenous ancestors routinely developed this capacity in their children, not only listening deeply to one another, but also to our non-human kin.[6] To listen deeply requires some measure of humility — the understanding that we’re dependent on others, that we share a fundamental equality, that we all have wisdom and stories to share and that two heads are almost always better than one. It is a key factor in developing positive relationships and for generating and creating an atmosphere of transformation in classrooms, schools and communities. Unconditional listening is a fundamental unit of intact, sustainable and equitable culture and one of the secrets of leadership. It is also a fundamental characteristic of co-creative dialogue and the two reinforce one another. While we may intellectually understand the idea of deep listening it doesn’t follow that we are skillful practitioners. Yet every time we have the occasion to dialogue, whether in dyads, triads, other small groups or in our full groups, it’s an opportunity to practice relearning dialogue as a technology of connection and co-creation rather than separation and divisiveness. Empathy, compassion and interconnection are deepened in these spaces of unconditional listening and reverent dialogue. When we extend the same listening to ourselves, we more easily discover the gifts we have to offer, a sense of our right path for developing those gifts, and contributing in service to others. We can also learn to listen “from the field” as Otto Scharmer describes the fourth and final level of listening.[7] Here, we’re learning to listen from the future that is wanting to be born and initiating a co-creative, cooperative method of systems transformation.

One of the most universal and ubiquitous aspects of a vibrant ecosocial literacy is the heartfelt recognition and understanding of the gift of life and the gratitude that results from this awareness. All cultures and all people understand and exhibit thankfulness, appreciation and gratefulness. Like all the non-conceptual heart qualities, gratitude can’t be precisely measured or assessed, yet is utterly real and palpable to anyone who offers it or who receives it. As such, it can serve as an important gateway into the nature of non-cognitive knowing and understanding. Gratitude strengthens our relationships with the world around us and, over time, helps us appreciate the vast interconnectedness and interdependence we share with all of life. As we expand our awareness, gratitude connects us to ever widening circles of care and concern, from our core human families and communities to all things on Earth and, indeed, in the universe. Gratitude can connect us forward and backward in time; for example, to our ancestors (without whom we wouldn’t exist), as well as our descendants who will follow after us (for instance, the seventh unborn generation). With nature, our connective vision might extend for the thousands-of-years lifespan of a sequoia or bristlecone pine tree. When you wish for your descendants, many generations hence, to be able to live freely and admire and interact with the same things you have, you are, on some level, connecting yourself with that future. Gratitude is not dependent upon external circumstances. It does not require us to like our current circumstances or situation. Gratitude is a choice that can be made in any circumstance. In fact, it can help uplift us when we’re facing difficulties and in times of turmoil and danger, gratitude helps to steady and ground us.

Connecting our gratitude with deep listening opens the domain of listening to Earth herself and all of life, which can reveal the ecosocial literacy that has been handed down to us. The technology of intimacy with Earth can once again blossom forth which leads to the seemingly magical abilities necessary to hear the stars and plants sing or navigate the vast oceans.

As we begin to reprioritize the many inner qualities of our human inheritance, we also need to expand our perception of the metaphor of critical thinking, often considered one of the cornerstones of progressive philosophy and education. Following the development of our self-reflective capacities, we turn our awareness inward and reflect critically on the biases, filters and lenses through which we view the world. We can become curious about the origin and the possible consequences of our worldview. Rather than the ability to develop meaningful arguments or argue both sides of a debate, or evaluate sources of information outside of ourselves, we expand our view of critical thinking to initially prioritize deepening self-awareness through critical reflection and inner investigation. We wish to unearth our personal barriers to working skillfully across differences, especially polarized debate. In other words, we shift our critical thinking from the “us vs. them, win/lose” mindsets of separation towards the mindsets of reverence, connection and working together.

“Self-awareness is a skill that I've developed and will continue to foster. It continues to teach me the importance of both listening and self-reflecting with a willingness to change - to let go of thinking I'm right and to challenge what I think I already know.”[8]— Salena Ohta, age 16

Student learners need to understand how to find, and together engage, deeper, more meaningful questions surrounding any of the polarized issues they regularly confront. Once again, we’re reimagining dialogue as a technology of connection, rather than one of separation.

Critical thinking must also include the identification of and investigation into the underlying metaphors[9] of our unsustainable and unjust societal systems. For example, what do we currently mean by the metaphor of success?[10] Progress? Ownership? Knowledge? Individualism? Technology? Money? Education? Nearly all of the underlying root metaphors of our society are routinely taken for granted and unexamined. As a result, we continue to pass them on unquestioned from generation to generation in the form of our language and stories (especially media); educational structures, subjects and pedagogy; holidays and other rituals, and all the other forms of enculturation that implicitly and explicitly teach children in modern societies how they should be. Student learners (and educators) need to understand how to critically investigate these metaphors, have a sense of how they came about and, most importantly, how they directly and indirectly contribute to the challenges we’re currently facing. Until we investigate these fundamental metaphors that shape our patterns of thinking, it will be very difficult to dialogue effectively and co-create helpful solutions that actually bring about the cultural transformation we wish for and now require.

Ultimately, the outer transformation of our systems and societies begins with our own personal metamorphosis — the doorway of change must be opened from the inside. Trying to force another to change their heart is simply one more form of aggression. It may change the exterior, but never the interior.[11] This journey of inner transformation is yet another intuitive technology that begins with our own self-reflection.

How we enculturate and educate our children is a reflection of how we answer the question posed at the outset. How might education contribute to the development of our best selves? Progressive education seeks to imagine the future and educate for the skills that will be needed. Helping student learners (and educators) become ecosocially literate will be one of the keys to our society’s transformation to sustainability and ecological and social justice. The profound gift of our human imagination has taken a brief turn as a destructive force, but it will also be our greatest strength as we rebalance ourselves. Engaging questions similar to these and reinvigorating the ecosocial literacy with which we’ve been entrusted by life and our human lineages, we can reimagine and transform the human systems that are currently disruptive and detrimental into systems that contribute to the flourishing and beauty of all life.

As a global species, we’re now tasked with transforming ourselves from the inside out — reimagining what it means to be an interconnected human family with diversity as one of our greatest strengths and, where equity, social and ecological justice are priorities, not marketing or campaign slogans. The next step in our evolution isn’t AI; rather, it is to take the very best of who we are as humans, re-evaluate our place in the global family of things and together re-envision what it means to be human and alive. By including our formidable inner qualities, reestablishing self-reflection, gratitude, deep listening and dialogue as technologies of connection, perhaps one day in the not so distant future, our children will go to school to discover their gifts of peacemaking and to hear the stars and plants singing.

Image of the Milky Way galaxy from Earth


[1] Other fossil hominins include the now extinct Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis, among others. Most of them were around for much longer than we have been here so far, yet for reasons we don’t know, they weren’t able to survive. In biomimicry, there is a saying, “fossils are failures”.

[2] Aside from the wholesale destruction of biological life involved in human wars and the intensification of the unsustainable structures and supports of our modern industrial society, there now exists the very real possibility of poisoning the planet beyond our ability to survive, which has already begun with the generation of energy using nuclear power.

[3] In an interview with Jem Bender, he states, “So we’re going to need to be much more public about that there’s difficulty ahead. The message has to become, “millions of people are suffering right now. It’s worse than we were told. We are now in danger. We must do all that we can to try and slow the problem down, but we must now also do all that we can to help each other through this.” Bender is the author of "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy", Institute of Leadership and Sustainability, 2018. (This paper is one of the most downloaded academic papers of all time.)

[4] Adapted slightly from “Conversation: The Future of Intelligence and The AI That Awaits Us” a trialogue between Tam Hunt, Charles Eisenstein and Freely, published in Kosmos: Journal for Global Transformation. Freely states, “Yet civilization has developed the intellect at the expense of intuition…and the subtle technologies, such as myth, ceremony, meditation, and much of what we call “shamanism”. They [intuitive technologies] cultivate our sensitivity for right action — when, where, and how to apply our direct technologies.

“Both are necessary — yin and yang. When the two are in harmony, our actions are so effective that very little needs to be done. Our ancestors developed this balance over countless generations of cultivating living, fruitful forests. A forest clearly grows itself without instructions, and if we align with the pattern of its self-organization we can influence it to fulfill our needs with just the slightest touch.”

[5] From the “Introduction” to Summoning Our Future - A Collection from Transformative Leadership, p. 11

Student quotes are taken from writing they did during their year in the Transformative Leadership elective course at the University Laboratory School. A student capstone project, a collaborative book entitled, Summoning Our Future - A Collection from Transformative Leadership is a broad collection of student writing related to ecosocial literacy.

[6] In modern society, most people who have pets understand this idea of empathic connection with our non-human kin. Most of them are able to understand their pets without language, using this same intuitive, empathic connection. Not only that, even if you try to point out how ludicrous it is, they will absolutely stand by this connection. Our indigenous ancestors cultivated this same capacity, but with a much broader spectrum of the non-human world (plants, animals, trees, rocks, clouds, weather and so forth). Empathy at this level is routinely ignored in education, despite the enormous consequences to our world view.

[7] Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, in his work with Theory U has identified Four Levels of Listening, which includes the fourth level: “Listening from the Source” which requires connecting to an Emerging Future and a shift in identity and self. This form of listening can result in co-creative transformation of self and systems.

[8] From “The Journey Towards Self-Awareness and Climate Justice” a student essay in Summoning Our Future - A Collection from Transformative Leadership, p. 59

[9] Probably no other educator wrote more prolifically on the subject of cultural metaphors, how language encodes and transmits them and how, when left unexamined, they impact education, ecosocial literacy and social and ecological justice, than Chet Bowers. Here are a couple of relevant examples:

“The challenge for educational reformers is to recognize how their guiding metaphors of individualism, progress, and critical thinking are based on Western assumptions that undermine other cultural ways of knowing—including the wisdom traditions of many indigenous cultures.” (p. 54)

“Educators need to be able to explain to students how these interpretative frameworks, or root metaphors, frame their taken-for-granted patterns of thinking. These root metaphors include a human-centered world, individualism, mechanism, progress, patriarchy, economism, evolution, and now ecology. Students can learn about how these root metaphors influence how they think by identifying their supporting vocabularies as well as the vocabularies and the alternative ways of thinking that are excluded. For example, what are the different ways the root metaphor of mechanism now influences how we think about agriculture, medical practices, education, organic processes, the brain?” (p. 59)

Both excerpts are from “An Ecojustice Approach to Educational Reform in Adult Education”, by Chet A. Bowers in New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 153, Spring 2017, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

[10] Investigating underlying root metaphors can expose their history and fluid nature over time and the recognition that they are simply a set of agreements and stories that societies have tacitly agreed upon (and continue to transmit through the generations). It also helps expose the fact that not all cultures and human groups view these metaphors in the same way as we might. Finally, it helps us reevaluate how these metaphors may have shaped our own world view and the potential consequences of that world view, thereby giving us more agency in choosing to accept them or re-envision them.

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” — David Orr from the essay, What is Education For? in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

[11] “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” — Mahatma Gandhi

This is most often summarized as “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Chris Zorn
Chris Zorn is an artist, musician and educator, mentored in the practices and mindsets of contemplative and deep ecological education. For the past three decades, he has applied the principles and practices of ecosocial literacy to deepen the learning experience for students of all ages from kindergarteners to seniors. In response to the multiple growing crises of planetary and human health and well-being, he developed a year-long transdisciplinary leadership course, Transforming Ecosocial Leadership, which offers older students (grades 10 and up) the opportunity to immerse themselves in the mindsets and daily practices of ecosocial literacy. He applies the same underlying principles and practices in his work with younger students. He holds a Masters Degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and has taught at CU Boulder, Naropa University, a number of community colleges, private and public schools, the Honolulu Museum of Art School and many other locations. For the past 20 years he has taught music, art, social and emotional learning, and leadership at the University Laboratory School to students of every grade level.
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