CONNECTING WITH FRITJOF CAPRA
Part Three of a three-part series
Page 1 of 2
INTERVIEW, PART III:
In a somewhat prophetic interview conducted in December, 2002, the world-famous author and systems thinker holds forth on education, hydrogen fuel and the fate of the planet.
ECOTECTURE: There's a lot of ways —aside from the work that you already do, writing your books and so on —that you could try to get your message out to the world. I see that you've focused a lot of your energy on the Center for Ecoliteracy. Can you tell me why you created and focused on that? The focus there is obviously on younger children and people -
CAPRA: Well, you know, I've been in this now for many years and I've been a writer ever since my first book was published in '75 so that's over 25 years ago. For 10 years, from '84 to '94, I directed what we called an ecological think tank called the Elmwood Institute. We had a number of projects to change people's views, to discuss things. We had a whole network of thinkers and activists and we had conferences and public dialogues, not only in this country but also in Europe and Japan and various countries.
We thought strategically how, with relatively little funding, we could have the maximum influence. When you think about it, there are several areas that come to mind.
We thought strategically
Politics is one, obviously. Business is another and education is another one. These are three really important areas that are very broad. So I tried to get into them, and I didn't like politics very much. I was active a little bit in the Green movement. I wrote a book with a colleague of mine called Green Politics, and I was in close contact with the German Greens in the early 1980s when the Green Party was founded. I dabbled in politics a little, but wasn't very satisfied even within the Green movement. I didn't like the political . . . just the flavor of politics. So I thought, business and education are the other two fields, and that's where I'm working. I do corporate seminars. Then the Elmwood Institute transformed itself, or rather we transformed it, into the Center for Ecoliteracy. It morphed into the Center for Ecoliteracy in '95.
We started the Center for Ecoliteracy and concentrated only on education in the public schools. We bring ecology and systems thinking into the public school system. We turned into a foundation because we teamed up with a wealthy person who funded us and who still is on our board and is our main funder. We are a foundation giving small grants to schools to have them engage in ecological work by having school gardens, doing creek restorations . . . food is a big item, organically grown food, and using the garden and the kitchen and the creek as a classroom to learn about ecology. So now we have a whole network of schools in northern California and we have a Web site with a lot of stories and information about what we're doing (http://www.ecoliteracy.org/).
ECOTECTURE: When you do creek restoration, for example, do you work with other organizations?
CAPRA: Yes, the Bay Institute, for instance, is one and we have many coalitions with other organizations.
ECOTECTURE: They're already working on a creek and you bring the kids in and do some of the work as well?
So we have a lot of stories
ECOTECTURE: That's excellent. So you've been at it — you've had the Ecoliteracy program for seven or eight or nine years now?
CAPRA: Yes. We've been funded for almost 10 years now. Actually next year will be our 10-year anniversary.
ECOTECTURE: Do you have any information or feedback from any of the kids who were exposed to the initial ideas or the initial programs?
CAPRA: Well, we have a lot of anecdotal feedback. We have a lot of stories of kids. For instance, one of our flagship projects is the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, which was actually started by (internationally famous cook and restuaranteur) Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse (restaurant in Berkeley, California.)
ECOTECTURE: That's at Martin Luther King Junior High School (in Berkeley).
CAPRA: Yes. They turned a parking lot into a garden, into a vegetable and flower garden they call the Edible Schoolyard. (The children grow and harvest organic vegetables and learn to cook them in a related cooking class -Ed.) We became one of the main supporters of the project. We also linked it to the curriculum and developed links with the teachers and trained teachers to teach ecology and systems thinking and integrate the work in the garden into the school curriculum.
So we have a lot of stories of kids, for instance, who were problem kids with even criminal tendencies or criminal records, who did not do well in school at all but did very well in the garden because they loved the gardening, and then they got the respect of the other kids because they were good in the garden, and then that increased their self-respect. When they started to learn about ecology they also got interested in other things because the ecology curriculum is integrated into the general curriculum. Those kids often ended up being very, very good students through the medium of the garden. Many of them — King, of course, is a middle school and so they have grades 6, 7 and 8 — many of them are coming back from high school—this program has been running for several years—and when they're high school students they come back to see how the garden is doing. They bring their friends and they're really proud of the garden because it's their garden, they helped grow it. We have lots of stories like this. We're now also engaged in a more formal evaluation of what we call ecological intelligence, not only ecological literacy but ecological intelligence. And —
ECOTECTURE: What's the difference between the two?
CAPRA: Well, to test kids about their ecological knowledge. There is not too much difference. We just use intelligence tests. We had a scholar from Harvard talk to (Center Member) Michael Murphy, who has developed a program of testing these skills and this knowledge in the school children. This testing program is now about halfway through so we don't have final results yet, but it looks very promising.
. . .our approach to
ECOTECTURE: When you say halfway through, you mean the tests have been given and they're still trying —
CAPRA: Some have been given. You have to have control groups, you have to set up the whole framework. It's a complicated process. You want to do it long-term over a couple of years to get reliable results. And that's an ongoing program — which we started recently.
ECOTECTURE: I see. So what you're trying to find out is whether the children who are having the opportunity to be exposed to the Ecoliteracy programs have a higher level of ecoliteracy than children who just ____
CAPRA: There's more to it. They should have a higher level of ecological literacy and that's pretty obvious. If they learn things in the garden, if they learn how plants grow—the functions of the seeds and of the climate and of the energy and so on—they would know more about ecology than other kids. That's a no-brainer.
But we claim and what we hope to achieve is because our approach to ecology is not just environmental education but it's to teach them to think systemically. Thinking systemically, the ability to think systemically, should give them a better education — whether it's environmental or otherwise. Moreover, because they're interested in their education, they become passionate about the knowledge that they learn in the garden and about other kinds of knowledge, because they're really involved in their own education, they should learn better. When you're really interested in something and learn it in order to achieve success in a project or in something that you want to do, you will learn better. Our Ecoliteracy kids should be better learners, and that's what we're testing now.
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