Making Sustainability Accessible and Achievable


Developing Ecological Consciousness: Path to a Sustainable World . Uhl, C . 2003 . Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group , Lanham , MD . 375 pp . ( 349 + xxiv ). $75.00 (paperback) . ISBN 0-7425-3291-7 .

Christopher Uhl, professor of biology at the Pennsylvania State University, has written an intriguing book that tackles perhaps the most fundamental issue of our times: how to achieve sustainable societies that integrate, as opposed to alienate, the ecological world upon which we depend. Developing Ecological Consciousness is an invitation to the reader to participate actively in healing the earth, and perhaps our own souls. The book is difficult to label, being somewhere between science and self-help. What it is not is an exhaustive listing of the world's ills or a doom-and-gloom invective against society's mishandling of the environment. Uhl instead aims to educate the reader about current environmental problems and possible solutions and inspire her or him to take action in shaping societies that are ecologically sensible.

The material in this book is morally challenging. The author invites the reader to openly and unabashedly consider many sensitive topics, from our own bodily functions to the role our personal and societal choices play in creating the world in which we live, but he does this with a sense of wonder, not judgment. The spiritual aspects of the ecological consciousness that Uhl describes in examples from his own experiences with students likely will make many scientists uncomfortable. Uhl, whose own scientific credentials have been established through decades of fundamental research in tropical ecology, appears to reject the notion that the conduct or teaching of science should be dispassionate. Instead he encourages us as teachers and students to recapture the joy of learning that we experienced when we were astounded by discoveries in the past.

The book is divided into 10 chapters distributed among three main sections. The sections, “Earth Our Home,”“Assessing the Health of the Earth,” and “Healing Ourselves, Healing Earth,” essentially correspond to understanding, respectively, how ecological systems work and our place in the universe, diagnosis of current ecological problems, and prescriptions for addressing these problems through personal action. The individual chapters are an engaging collection of both fundamental issues and personal anecdotes that help ground the concepts in understandable and real terms. Throughout, the chapters have multiple titled subsections that make the book easy to navigate. Key points are further emphasized in separate boxes that highlight issues or ideas. The most unique aspect of the book's structure, however, is the use of “Questions for Reflection” and “Practice” sections that invite the reader to actively participate in the learning process. These elements are apparently designed to encourage self-discoveries that will help cement the development of ecological consciousness in the reader, which is the main point of the book. The structure is not conducive to rapid reading but instead leads to digestion of the various concepts in small pieces. The numerous examples and exercises for enriching personal and teaching experiences seem designed to “shock and awe” the reader. They will undoubtedly prove useful for those who are teaching deep ecology, sustainability science, and environmental activism.

In the four chapters that comprise the first section, “Earth Our Home,” the reader is presented with a whirlwind, but lucid, 14-billion-year history of the universe and our place within it. The first chapter brings the reader up to date with the formation and wonders of the physical universe, complete with exercises to illustrate the great spatial and temporal scales involved. The second chapter provides a clear layperson's discussion of how life affects the planet and its biogeochemical cycles, and the third chapter illustrates the ecology behind the web of life and how our species fits within it. The last chapter of the section takes us on a tour of our own bodies, exploring our senses and challenging us to explore intimacy with the world around us on many levels.

The second section examines the ecological health of the earth. The section's first chapter details discovery processes and research findings related to several ongoing environmental issues and how they are affecting life on Earth. The few examples are designed to illustrate how numerous factors combine to produce ecological results, be they weather patterns, atmospheric pollution and tree health, tropical land use, or forest fragmentation and the decline of migratory birds in the United States. The second chapter demonstrates how our individual actions and choices influence environmental and social problems. This chapter links population growth, differing societal consumption patterns, and the concept of “ecological footprints” as a measure of the carrying capacity of the earth and the sustainability of current human actions. The section's final chapter explores the real-world effects of extinction and reduced biodiversity, ongoing climate change, and the reproductive and healthimplications of the rapid worldwide bioaccumulation of numerous chemicals.

The third section of the book deals extensively with sustainability, addressing directly how we as individuals can make a difference in raising our collective level of ecological consciousness. The beginning chapter explores our conception of ourselves through “life stories” and discusses how these stories that stem largely from religion, society, and culture actually create the problems we face. The author explores the ways in which we can change these underlying internal stories with the aim of nothing less than remaking our vision of how we relate to the world in the guise of the five “sustainability principles”: respecting life and natural processes, living within limits, valuing the local, accounting for full costs, and sharing power. The next chapter details how to design sustainable societies and describes how progress in achieving such societies can be measured in material, economic, and political terms through appropriate indicators. This analysis is also laid out in personal terms so that readers can define their present metrics and clearly see how they can live more in concert with the world instead of in opposition to the ecological tenants presented in the book. The final chapter explores social and personal transformation in both theoretical and concrete terms. The roles of vision, power structures, and activism are brought to bear in achieving empowerment and transformative change, the key message being that we will not achieve sustainable societies unless we can first achieve greater understanding of ourselves and our connections to the world we inhabit.

This book it is designed to be subversive. It does not directly attack social mores or personal convictions but, through its nonthreatening style of questioning and exploration, is effective at engaging the reader's intellect without quickly raising defenses. The goal is nothing less than the overthrow of the current world view of human dominance of nature. If ecological consciousness is to be achieved, the author's perspective is that we must first attain a holistic sense of our connections with the world around us, wherein individuals see themselves as part of nature and not somehow outside of it. Only time will tell if this book is capable of its intent, but anyone who does read it will be left thinking about it and in someway changed by the experience. Whether or not the reader agrees with Uhl's individual points is immaterial. It is the connections drawn throughout the book which, like ecology, make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.