Book Review: Earth in Mind

Jun 21, 2017 · 8 min read

Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect is David Orr’s realization that our education must be place-based and nature-oriented. It is not a recommendation that everyone must be taught the how and the why of being sustainable; it is more than that. People must have an education that allows them to come to the conclusion that they must be sustainable on their own. Presented as a collection of essays separated into four sections, Earth in Mind is both engaging and challenging. It has the potential to be life-changing. This potential lies squarely on the status of the reader. Those in education or environmental studies with moderate recognition of the disparity between the educations we receive regarding nature and our love of the environment will probably be the most likely to pick up this book for enjoyment or their own personal gain.

An S. J. Gould quote that is included at the beginning of chapter five, combined with a statement Orr makes later in another essay encompass the whole argument of the book. Gould says “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well — for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (43). Orr himself states “We learn to love what has become familiar” (137). This collection of essays demonstrates the need for a shift in values. Our world is one of consumerism and material gain. Orr argues for a world of sustained cleverness, not intelligence, and the underlying value of the natural world.

David Orr begins his critique of education in Part One: The Problem of Education. While he is careful to note that it is the problems of education rather than the problems in education that are the root cause of much of our ecological illiteracy, he challenges the notion that “the more of it [education] one has, the better” (5). These essays on education are well-written, thought out, and easy to both read and comprehend. Whether the reader agrees or not is up to them, but certain aspects of this educational analysis may never have occurred to the reader before. This section serves almost as an introductory and preliminary overview of where the rest of the essays are headed.

Part Two: First Principles is an amalgamation of essays that dive deeper and delve further into the shortcomings of education. While part one discusses the challenges in education itself, part two discusses the fundamentals that must be taught and appreciated even before the curriculum and the purpose of education is addressed. “These essays, then, have to do with love, intelligence, wisdom, virtue, responsibility, value, and good sense” writes Orr in the introduction (41).

In Part Three: Rethinking Education, Orr becomes more long-winded, repeating some of what his other essays have touched upon in an effort to analyze how we rank our educational institutions. Universities, and primary and secondary educational institutions, are not being judged on whether their students graduate better stewards of humankind and of the earth. Instead, success in educating is measured in standardized intelligence test scores. Students are not even graduating prepared for the world — only prepared for what they hope their one small corner of it will be. “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 our culture has defined it” (12). While Orr makes this claim in the beginning essays, it resonates with the measures of success discussed in the essays of section three.

The fourth and final part of Earth in Mind is Destinations, a discussion of where we are going based on all of the education that we receive. While those of us already educated may have our futures limited, the destiny of our children’s futures has some wiggle room, according to Orr. If we start now, if we give in to the innate biophilia that E. O. Wilson proposes we have inside of all of us and David Orr discusses in the fourth section of essays, there could be hope for us yet. Destinations is meant to be a hopeful, yet not lighthearted section. These are important concepts. Ones we would do well to heed. Orr exposes doors readers previously may not have seen, and gives them a foothold to start on their way through. The message of the last section is that this education revolution will have far-reaching benefits, but we must have the courage to attempt it.

David Orr has the bravery to bring this issue out into the open. If the topic is never brought to the table, it will never be discussed. If it is never discussed, it will never be attempted. Orr discusses the need for role models and leaders in the fields of conservation and nature. “Colleges and universities educate by what they do as well as by what they say” (66). It would only take a few brave souls like David Orr to call for this type education for a movement to begin. In a climate change panel during Introductory Oceanography at Cornell University in November of 2015, the provost said that divesting from fossil fuels would certainly make a statement, but that the universities resources could be better applied elsewhere. In a room full of natural resource, earth and atmospheric science, and ecology and evolutionary biology professors, as well as several hundred students who had signed a petition asking the school to divest, the provost said that it would have little to no effect. Another member of the panel, Dan Kammen of the University of California, noted that major progress was made toward ending apartheid after universities began divesting from South Africa. Showing the students that the university cares about the environment as much, or more, than it cares about its endowment fund has a similar effect on students to children seeing their parents recycling and composting. Values are inherited from all over, and Orr suggests that many are inherited from education. His education reforms stress the importance of learning from each other, as well as learning from the earth.

While this collection of essays may seem far-fetched for those who have not, prior to reading, reached similar conclusions on their own, it is a book for all audiences. Educators and parents are especially encouraged to read with an open mind, if only for the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of our current education system. Environmentalists are encouraged to read thoroughly, because of the themes and the possible alteration of some of their views. But the most change will come about if college students read this. And not any college students. Those in an environmental field, those with some semblance of a notion that they want to have a brighter future than the one that is currently in store. These students are close enough to the end of their education days that the real world is looming in front of them. Whether they are prepared or not is a question they are already asking themselves. They are not so far removed, however, from the beginnings of their education that they are not able to look back on all of their years of schooling objectively. They will be able to tell if David Orr’s analysis of the education children are receiving is in accordance with their own feelings on education. They will be able to remember why they are studying the environment and its many multi-faceted systems and the coupling of social, economic, governmental, and ecological structures.

Earth in Mind will have the biggest impact on those committed to making change happen, and who believe, at least in part, that the way to achieve success is through education. Without any prior consideration for Orr’s position, it would be easy to dismiss him as dogmatic. He might seem all too eager to discount technology and oil to the reader who is not inclined to agree with him. While Orr does point out the downfalls of using oil, seemingly without offering up any benefits, the main point is not that oil should have been left in the ground. It is that if everyone were educated through nature, we would care about our impact and either devise a new process to use oil safely, in terms of the environmental impact, or choose to leave it in the ground.

In a world that David Orr adamantly describes as an endless sea of televisions, MTV, Nintendo, and shopping malls, how is one supposed to become familiar with nature? There are some concrete examples of education reform presented in the novel, but many readers will find Orr’s goals of complete restructuring lofty. A full-scale education revolution is not in the cards now any more than it was twenty years ago when this book was first published. However, some institutions seem to have reformed in small ways in agreement with David Orr’s suggestions. While most universities are still segregating majors and disciplines, many do claim to focus on interdisciplinary pursuits. At Cornell University, the Environmental and Sustainability Sciences major mandates that students be well-versed in the environmental aspects of many fields. Environmental Economics, Environmental Physics, Chemistry, Ecology, Environmental Ethics, Mathematics, Evolution, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences are all required, though at most one course is required from each. In addition, a field experience course, a large component of David Orr’s education curriculum, is obligatory for the potential graduate.

This place-based element, wherein students are engaged in learning from the world around them and not from textbooks written by people who read textbooks, is vital for the growth of society. We must grow out of the consumerism phase we are in, we must think of it as a fad and grow up, putting an emphasis on the things that should be important — the land and the life around us.

This is not a book about climate change. This is not a book about conservation. This is not a book about green energy, organic crops, or sustainable products. This is a book about the need for opportunities.

While the main suggestion is that these opportunities are afforded to everyone through education, they can be attained in any form. David Orr argues in Earth in Mind that the strongest support for the environment will come from those who value it the most. The best way to instill values is by letting people discover their appreciation for nature on their own, perhaps as part of an educational curriculum, perhaps not. The more opportunities to interact with and explore the natural world are available, the more people will care for the natural world. It is hard to change attitudes and values, as many have noted. You can convince people to support a cause through the distribution of knowledge when they are older, but in order to get them to believe in those things in the first place, you have to instill them with values. The object of a comprehensive and interdisciplinary education plan is not to get everyone to be an environmental scientist. It is to get the scientists to study climate change. It is to get the engineers to want to build sustainable products and the architects to build sustainable buildings. It is to get the economists to promote environmentally sustainable companies and the agriculturalists to produce ecologically beneficial crops. The goal of this education plan is for everyone to keep the Earth in mind.

Eternally Curious

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. -Carl Sagan

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