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Reverence and Science: Teaching About Our Living Home

By Jeannie Russell

Given our central mission of better articulating the bonds between human and non-human animals, humane education is necessarily deeply tied to science education; it can and should play a vital role in any comprehensive science curriculum. This is especially true with respect to our lessons and activities in the area of environmental ethics, where we help students examine the relationship between our human communities and human actions as well as the natural communities that other living beings create. Humane educators see human communities as a part of, not apart from, their natural world and offer a critical lens through which scientific practice and science education can be re-imagined to meet the needs of our new, ‘Anthropocene’ era.1

The scientific method is a tool – it’s a way of organizing, exploring, and explaining phenomena so that we can take action: create a drug, make a machine, predict a storm, or explore beyond the boundaries of our given senses. Like any tool, it is shaped by its use. Historically, it turned out to be a great tool for use within an extractive economy: one where the goal is to more effectively extract resources from people (labor), animals (labor, food, clothes, etc.), and natural spaces (soil, carbon-based fuels, minerals, water, etc.) so they can be accumulated and turned into market value.

Our modern world is so structured by the use of science to extract resources, that we tend to think that technological advance and the scientific method itself just means more and more efficient exploitation of our surroundings, and that the process of better understanding our world is, of necessity, linked to its domination. This perspective appears to put ‘humanists’, and even more the humane contingent of that group that prioritizes compassion, at odds with the supposedly ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ scientific method.

Of course this is not so. Scientists – scholars and researchers in many different disciplines (from physics2 to neuroscience3 to biology4 to forestry5) – have long been building a consensus view that, far from being a collection of individuals fighting each other for selective advantage, the natural world of which we are a part is fundamentally collaborative. They are finding that the complex web of information exchanges (communication) among and between species within natural communities supports the health of the whole by promoting the diversity and interdependence of life forms, not through zero sum competition between species or individuals.

Here’s where humane educators have an important role. As teachers, we frame the questions and the possible future paths of science research for a whole new generation through the structure of our lessons and the empowering strategies of our classroom process. We can participate with our specialist science education colleagues in shaping the tools that will be forged from this emerging scientific paradigm into ones that enhance the vitality of natural communities, rather than degrade them. We can insist that the deep, empathically experienced connection between self and other – so central to human communication and community – be embedded into our scientific models and practice, so that our tools of exploration in the natural world recognize the non-human other as a neighbor whose needs we respect and whose homes we share.

1. Many climate researchers have begun to refer to our modern era as the Anthropocene, to highlight the impact of human activity on environmental conditions. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-anthropocene-and-are-we-in-it-164801414/
2. http://releases.jhu.edu/2011/11/03/it-takes-two-brains-come-wired-for-cooperation-jhu-neuroscientist-asserts/
3. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biophilia_hypothesis
4. http://inhabitat.com/mother-trees-recognize-kin-and-send-them-messages-of-wisdom/
5. http://inhabitat.com/mother-trees-recognize-kin-and-send-them-messages-of-wisdom/

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