Educating for an integral ecology

Educating for an integral ecology

Michael Schuck

How do we educate ourselves in the integral ecology so valued by Pope Francis? University educators recently gathered at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to address this question. The conference, Transitioning to Integral Ecology: Transdisciplinary Approaches for the Grounding and Implementation of a Holistic Worldview, attracted environmental scholars and organization leaders from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Philippines, and the United States (US).

Water, Roots, Life “AP” by Buffalo Gouge, 2017

One suggestion begins by viewing Native American artist Buffalo Gouge’s 2017 painting Water, Roots, Life ‘AP’. The AP in Gouge’s title refers to advanced placement courses that US high school students can take, stepping closer to university-level education. For Gouge, an AP course in environmental science would begin with a deep awareness of water and the roots it nourishes, roots interweaving trees and humans, drawing on the hot energy of the sun. Elders with this awareness would be the teachers, themselves drawing from the yearning of young students for the fullness of life.

The image tells us that the earth, ourselves, all living creatures, and the Spirit in all things are already “transdisciplinary.” Yes, finding a transdisciplinary method for teaching integral ecology is challenging for university educators. But the first step in meeting the challenge must be the attentive gaze of our eyes and hearts, a deep sight and feeling of the transdisciplinary nature surrounding us and who we are.

Speaking of the “gaze of Jesus” in Laudato Si’ 97, Pope Francis says, “The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder.”

Bernard Lonergan SJ, one of the most important Roman Catholic philosophers and theologians of the 20th century, considered “paying attention to experience” the first and foremost imperative of human consciousness as our minds innately reach for reliable understanding, trustworthy judgment, and effective action. University teaching and research in environmental sustainability excels in understanding and judgment, the middle stages of Lonergan’s “transcendentals” of knowing.

Yet with all this, we still despair over how slight our advances are against the environmental crisis. Might our circle of scholarly certitudes of understanding and judgment blind us to revelations offered in both the natural world and the aspirations of our students? Are we the elder in Gouge’s painting, but without roots and an eye on youth?

Robin Wall Kimmerer fears as much. Distinguished Professor of environmental and forest biology and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at State University of New York, Kimmerer is the author of the much-acclaimed Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013).

In what may be the best current example of a transdisciplinary text in integral ecology, Kimmerer brings the lenses of science, ethics, spirituality, and action together to show that the wakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires our seeing what the natural world reveals to us.

As she notes, “(i)n the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top–the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation–and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn–we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on earth far longer than we have been and have had time to figure things out.” (p. 9)

The ecological crisis is, says Pope Francis, “a summons to profound interior conversion,” an “ecological conversion.” (Laudato Si’ 217) To experience the grace of this ecological conversion, we must set our conceptual certainties, data charts, and scholarly egos aside for a time. Then, as Robin Kimmerer and Pope Francis suggest, we must pay attention to the earth itself, our relationship to it, the Spirit of God within it, and to our young people whose future relies upon it.

Like the young person in Gouge’s painting, our students want what we truly know, desire opportunities for self-expression, and crave pathways to action. They hunger to be integral on the earth, to be the transdisciplinarity they are. Yet, as educators, we will not meet these legitimate longings unless we too are paying new, humble attention to nature and society with our students.

Concretely, this calls for more earth and community-engaged learning, more student exposure to global peers willing to share what place spirituality has in their lives, and more disclosure of our own life experience than professorial mores typically allow. In the spirit of Laudato Si’, this is the pathway to any environmental theology we might hope our students could embrace as “sentinels for a force unseen.”

When Uqualla spoke those memorable words at the #NODAPL (a social media campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline) pipeline protest on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2016, he also echoed a common teaching by Native elders to the non-Native allies at the protest camps: “We are not here to protect water. We are water protecting itself.”

This wisdom parallels what Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’ 2: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” Earth-aware insights such as these open students to the existential importance of perennial philosophical questions, such as “what does it mean to be a human in the world?”

More and more students worldwide are engaging in protest actions for environmental and social justice. We can help them prepare for these sometimes volatile encounters with training in non-violent direct action, persuasive speech skills, and the art of conflict resolution. But are we willing to add these to our toolbox of abstract concepts? And are we ready to join our students in the street? By reflecting on concrete experiences such as these, the principles, virtues, and goals of a faith-based environmental ethic can become genuinely meaningful for our students.1

Student hunger strike for climate justice, Washington DC, USA, 2021

So, how do we educate ourselves and our students in integral ecology?

We may begin by setting aside our conceptual armor for a time and humbly observing the intricacies of life lived on “our sister, Mother Earth.” (Laudato Si’ 1) In so doing, we ask God for an ecological conversion, an opening of our imaginations to deeper, richer understandings of the natural and social world.2

Second, the urgency of the environmental crisis and the needs of our students call on us to share not only our wisdom, but also our humble unknowing and vulnerability. Young people are already living a future we older educators do not know. We must listen.

To young volunteers preparing for the 2023 World Youth Day, Pope Francis recently remarked: “Dear young people, do not allow the spark of youth to be extinguished in the darkness of a closed room in which the only window to the outside world is a computer. Open wide the doors of your life! May your time and space be filled with meaningful relationships, real people, with whom you share your authentic and concrete experiences of life.”3

Somewhat uncommon to the scholarly pose of university educators, we must strive to be real people and real listeners in the company of our students.

Third, we must do everything we can to create environmentally and socially community-engaged learning experiences for our students. An integral ecology is less a learned method than a formative reflection on an embracing experience. Engaged learning is a condition for the possibility of transdisciplinary education.4 The environmental crisis calls upon our courage to do so.

We can also help our students’ computers open doors rather than close them. To take on the logistics of connecting students in real-time with young people experiencing the aftermath of a cyclone in India, the challenge of traditional forest management in Mindanao, Philippines, or the ravages of flooding in Germany pays back dividends in the souls of our students for every minute of our lost attachment to convenience and habit.5

Finally, like Gouge’s elder, we must remember that all these strategies are directed toward one goal: helping our students and ourselves transform more of our unconscious earth-harming behaviors into actions that heal the earth and the poor.

Pope Francis said it best in his oft-quoted statement in Laudato Si’ 139; “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Michael Schuck is a Professor in the Department of Theology and the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago and gave the introductory keynote for the third session on Integral Ecology: Ethical-Philosophical and Theological Dimensions during the conference Transitioning to Integral Ecology: Transdisciplinary Approaches for the Grounding and Implementation of a Holistic Worldview. If you would like to comment on this article or share your own experiences of integral ecology education, he can be reached at


  1. An excellent handbook for faith-based non-violent direct action is Nonviolent Lives: People and Movements Changing the World Through the Power of Active Nonviolence by Ken Butigan (Corvallis, OR: Pace e Bene Press, 2016).
  2. There are many guides to the practice of caring observation. David George Haskell engagingly recounts his approach in The Forest Unseen, A Year’s Watch in Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).
  3. Nicholais, MM, Pope Francis. Young People, Important Responsibility Inside the Church. June 2022.
  4. A useful guide to engaged learning and service learning is Learning Through Serving by Christine Cress et al, (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2nd edition, 2013).
  5. The Planbook blogpost Tips and Tools for Facilitating Meaningful Global Collaboration in The Classroom has several tips and resources for connecting students across countries and time zones.

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