Everyone is Complete: Human Ecology and the Nursing Curriculum
an interview with Dr. Shanti Shrinivas
I’ve done over fifty interviews now in the Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education study and this live field notes blog. All the transcripts are waiting for me in MAXQDA, but I keep extending the study because I keep meeting amazing educators doing transformative teaching in college courses across every single academic discipline. My curiosity is about what makes some faculty embrace the new faculty function of knowledge brokering and translation related to the climate crisis, while others maintain the status quo in their course curriculum. Any one of these faculty will inspire you with their clarity and creativity across subjects like: textile art (“The Embodied Knowing of Unraveling”), math (“Where are We Taking our Students?”, economics (“This is Not ‘just’ a Pandemic, this is Climate Change”), law (“Seeing the World as it Is, Or Becoming a Transparent Eyeball,” policy & planning (“Ikigai for Econo-Planners” writing (“The Way you Treat Others is the Way you Treat the Earth” as well as, of course, biology and ecology folks who have been teaching this stuff for decades (“Dark Ecology & Dr. K”).
All of the interviews I just referred to are with female faculty. I’ve been thinking about the impact of forerunning women in environmental studies and sciences — like Rachel Carson, and Jane Goodall, and the many less well known other women who have made huge contributions in environmental studies and science. While bias, discrimination, harassment, and the persistence of caretaking functions falling to women all definitely still exist in higher education; still, female role models are becoming much more widely known.
Like Eunice Foote, who wrote the paper titled, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays.” In 1856. Eunice Foote basically discovered climate change, not with modeling or data, but with her own intelligence and understanding of the nature of CO2. (Imagine the mansplaining she must have experienced!)
Around the same time, back in those old-timey days, mid-19th century, another woman was noticing something else that we are just catching up to now, over a hundred and fifty years later: the fact that our human bodies are part of our environment. I’m referring to Florence Nightengale’s Environmental Theory. Which brings me to thinking about teaching climate change in the nursing curriculum.
In an early draft of this essay, I was taken with the idea of Florence Nightengale as not only the founder of modern nursing, but a forerunning thinker in environmental health, which she was. I love the idea of female thinking breaking through mental traps. But then I was pointed to analysis of Nightengale’s writings, which reveal her racist participation in British colonialism. She saw something important about health, but she fell into a different trap, that of thinking that some people are expendable, or inferior to others. Another icon to cancel. Another statue to take down. Hospital wings to rename, hagiographies to rewrite. There is even a Florence Nightengale Oath that nurses recite on her birthday — that’s gotta go.
At first, I was shocked and embarrassed — like, what if I had accidentally published an essay glorifying a racist, colonial mentality? But then, I realize that we glorify racist colonial mentalities all the time, even (and especially?) when teaching climate change. Justice and Equity are not add-ons or extracurricular activism — climate justice is central to climate science. Without it there is no climate solution. If we don’t come clean about Nightengale, then nurses can’t really be healers because they will transmit a white supremacist paradigm.
If you need to pause for a minute and take this in, here are a few perspectives on the matter of Florence Nightengale. You might take a moment to read “Florence Nightengale was Racist: white nurses confront the ugly foundation of our profession” by Emily Gibson, here on Medium. Even peer reviewed journals are grappling with this ill legacy: see:
Bates, R. and Greenwood, A. (2022) Could Nightingale get cancelled? The rise, endurance, and possible fall of Florence Nightingale in British historical culture since 1854. Women’s History Review 31(7), 1080–1106.
And also, here is a BIPOC perspective from Natalie Stake-Doucet who introduces us to pioneering indigenous nurses in her essay, “The Racist Lady with the Lamp” . Stake-Doucet writes that:
“We lose nothing by relegating Nightingale to her rightful place in history. We gain critical insight, growth, and a richer understanding of what nursing is.”
It’s shocking and sad for a minute, but actually, this is an opportunity for transformative learning. Remembering other uncomfortable moments in my own learning (like reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, or Columbus and other Cannibals) I returned to a short, powerful book by Donna M. Orange: Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics.
“Unconscious and silent about the U.S. history of settler colonialism, ignorant and mute about our crimes of chattel slavery and racial domination, neither governments nor citizens can seriously tackle climate injustice until we confront this 400-year history.”
Orange says that shame “can hide climate crisis from us almost completely” (21). She talks about mourning, and repentance, and dealing with the unconscious sense of shame. How will hospitals and medical schools and nursing programs deal with these truths? Sweep Florence Nightengale under the rug? Quietly rename that wing of the hospital, gently excise her from the history of nursing?
Can we get brave about it? Can we actually talk about the colonial legacy of nursing (as well as practically all the other academic disciplines)? Get ready, because a major change in nursing curriculum is about to rock your paradigms.
Did you know that, according to a 2006 World Health Organization Report:
“One-fourth of the global burden of disease is attributable to environmental exposures and 23% of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors.”
According to Beverly Malone, President and CEO of the NLN,
“Knowing that climate has so much to do with the health of the nation, and if we’re nurses who say we care about the nation’s health, then how can we not be about making sure that we understand climate, that our students are learning about the effects of climate?”
Exactly! I recall a conversation circa 2009 with my college’s then-Dean of Nursing, who participated in an administrator’s focus group that I conducted for my dissertation. I remember her saying that a “wellness paradigm” such as the CDC’s One Health was a nice idea, but the medical profession would always be trapped in response-mode: fixing and mending. She said the nursing curriculum was already so hard, and so full, and so competitive, there just wasn’t room for information about climate change and sustainability.
But things are changing.! I was fortunate to meet Dr. Shanti Shrinivas at the Higher Ed networking session of the North American Association for Environmental Educators (NAAEE). Quietly and with great humility, Shanti blew my mind with her vision that nurses are environmental educators.
Shanti has degrees in psychology, sociology, and English literature (in India, you gain proficiency in three areas as an undergraduate, like a triple major). She has a master’s in sociology and a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership. Her original passion was to become a medical doctor, but she didn’t end up on that path, and I think that’s why her perspective is so fresh, because she can bring interdisciplinary concepts from sociology into the nursing curriculum. The course that she designed is based on her own lifelong interests and life passion for the field of human ecology.
She told a story of being inspired by one of the professors in her Master’s degree program, in India:
“Even at that time (thirty years ago) he was teaching human ecology, and as part of a couple of class periods, he took us to his home. The entire class! He had very limited space, but he had three floors, just like how you would have townhouses here. But those were very rare back in India at that time. He created a rainwater harvesting system and used the water to irrigate his rooftop vegetable garden. Since India has a tropical climate, they can grow vegetables and flowers year-round without having to go to the market often. He had solar panels installed and was not paying an electricity bill. All his research, time, and energy were spent around sustainability and human ecology.”
“I don’t know why, but I just picked up that interest, and from then on, it became my passion.”
I asked her to explain human ecology to me. She said there are minor differences between environmental science and human ecology, explaining: “I see human ecology more on the theoretical side. It tries to understand the little relationships between human beings and the environment and together how they build an ecosystem. I see it as a structural-functional model. Environmental science is broader and more dynamic, in a sense, that it studies the impact of humanity on the natural environment.”
All of Shanti’s interests and studies came together when she became an administrator at a U.S.-based “single purpose nursing college” — meaning they don’t offer any other degrees. The courses are standardized across multiple states and taught at 15 campuses. (The college plans to open 10 more campuses in the next two years to meet demand.)
“We have to keep the student learning experience the same, irrespective of who the faculty is, or which campus the student attends. A standardized curriculum helps. Every change has to go through many levels of approval. So there are not a lot of changes that I can make to the course on a quarterly basis.”
“The course is for the RN BSN program. These are nurses who are already registered nurses seeking a baccalaureate degree in nursing. I have been teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion, and sociology at this college for many years. When a committee was put forward to create a new course in that program, I pitched the idea of human ecology as I’m always looking for ways to introduce it. The leaders liked my concept, which led me to create the course, Human Ecology and Environmentalism.
“Nursing students are so proud of their profession because nursing is regarded as the most respectable and trusted profession. My students know they make great contributions to society… they’re very proud of themselves.”
“Human Ecology is being taught at many universities. However, if I had introduced it as an environmental science course in a nursing-only college, I don’t think it would have attracted as much attention. So, making it relatable by designing it with information on NLN’s September 2022 vision statement on Climate Change and Health helps add to their sense of purpose as nurse professionals. I also introduce them to the work that nursing professional organizations, such as the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) and American Nurses Association (ANA) have been doing over the years to promote healthy environments and healthy people.”
“Climate concerns require policy-level changes, but as an educator bringing a paradigm shift in my students’ perspectives is equally important to me.”
“Students may think they need money, time, or energy to think about climate change. I tell them it doesn’t work that way. In my own life, I have molded my daily routines around self-care and environmental consciousness. So I tell them that if environmental awareness becomes a part of their life, it won’t be a burden.”
There are ways that we can integrate practices and environmental consciousness into our entire lifestyle. We don’t need extra time. What we need is a change in our philosophy; how we perceive things, our outlook on life, and how we respect ourselves, nature, and others. So, I combine DEI concepts of equity and inclusivity with climate change. I teach my nursing students the importance of expanding their empathy and care for climate justice.”
I asked Shanti if she ever finds herself using a particular metaphor to describe what it’s like to do the work that she does. She said:
“In my role as a department leader, specifically as an environmentalism educator, the only thing that comes to my mind, may seem silly, but I would like to see myself… as The Universe.”
“If I consider myself as the entire environment, I will do my best to keep it healthy. If I know we will disappear as a human race if we don’t make amends, even though those may be speculations, I would like to focus on what I can do at this moment and with all the knowledge I have. If I were the universe/environment, would I exploit it? Would I destroy it? The answer is a definite NO.
I truly consider myself an integral part of the universe! Therefore, that’s the only metaphor that keeps coming to mind when I think of the environment we all share.”
“We have a great saying or mantra — Aham Brahmasmi — I AM the Universal Energy. Aham (I) Brahma (Universal/Whole Energy), Asmi (am). It is not intended to boost one’s ego but to realize the synchronicity between our outer (natural) and inner world… Both are one!
And we often end prayers with this saying: “Everyone is complete!.”
Everyone is a universe, and every one is complete!
I really enjoyed meeting Dr. Shanti Shrinivas, and I hope you did as well. You can reach Shanti at email@example.com.