Cultivating Ecological Wisdom through the Arts

By Dr. Kathleen Kesson

Equally important pillars of Neohumanist education are ecological education and the arts. Neohumanist educators understand that only humans who feel a love for nature and a sense of connection with all of the species with whom we share the Earth will be moved to be good stewards of the planet. The philosophy of Neohumanism articulates a clear vision of a future that is grounded in ecological principles and values the well-being of people, plants, animals, and the land itself over profit. Neohumanist educators also understand that the arts and the expansion of the imagination have major roles to play in nurturing the individual and their unique expressive interests, and in fostering communal sensibilities. The imaginative integration of the arts into the curriculum can serve many purposes, including the cultivation of ecological intelligence.

Humans have lived on this small planet for millennia and, while there are certainly recorded instances of local ecological crises due to things like overgrazing, poor soil management, or clear cutting of trees, humans have not managed to threaten all life on Earth until now, a result of fossil fuel extraction, consumerism, rampant pollution, and a seemingly indestructible materialist mindset. So how did humans in the past develop and maintain an ethical relationship with the land and all of its species? How did they learn to care for life and commit to sustaining a healthy environment? Through the arts!

Young people will not learn to care for the Earth on the basis of facts alone, though the study of natural science is a critical component of education for a sustainable future. The study of ecology, and the problems of climate change, species extinction, and other looming threats must be approached imaginatively, and integrate emotion and the full range of the senses. An integrated arts approach provides all of this. Our ancestors wisely encoded moral templates for living in ecologically sustainable relationships with other species by developing the languages of dance, painting, music and narrative, and creating participatory enactments in order to remember this wisdom. The wise use of the arts in education might help us accomplish the transition from a culture nearing (or at) “overshoot” to a culture living in dynamic balance with its biotic community. A set of core beliefs and principles can guide us in this: First, that all living things have intrinsic worth independent of their utility for human purposes; second, that cultural expressions that enhance the prospects for sustainability must be rooted in a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, place; and third, that we need to actively cultivate rich symbolic resources, such as those intrinsic to the arts, to overcome our neurotic attachment to unsustainable levels of consumption.

Ellen Dissanayake, a brilliant interdisciplinary thinker on the nature of aesthetic experience, suggests that human beings have a universal, biologically-based need for art. From her evolutionary perspective, art is something humans do because it helps them to survive. Consider the early connections between art, ritual and ceremony in many societies, as well as contemporary artistic expressions in cultures such as those of the Southwestern Hopi Indian or traditional Balinese, which have not yet lost their traditional bonds to the biotic community. The role of participatory aesthetic ritual in such cultures is multi-faceted: rituals affirm life processes and reinscribe positive social values; confirm the human interdependence with the surrounding natural world; unify the social order; facilitate individual and communal healing; mark transitions (rites of passage); and make common or ordinary experiences “special.” Perhaps most important for understanding the evolutionary purposes of art, aesthetic rituals nourish the capacity to experience transformative or transcendent emotional states and extraordinary states of consciousness (Dissanayake 1988).

Communal aesthetic participation, as in the making of music or song, offers us the opportunity to enter a state that transcends individuality “in which we are not (as is usual) separate and sequential but seem to partake of a timeless unity: tones remove the barriers between persons and things” (Dissanayake 1992, 71). Songs, stories shared, sand paintings, contemporary urban murals, rhythmic processions and sacred circle dances construct vital bridges between separate lives and community experiences.

In much the same way as we are stirred to emotion by the arts, humans derive aesthetic pleasure and emotional enticement from an association with nature. Some researchers are now arguing for the biological basis of such responses, and these ideas are loosely affiliated under the framework of the “biophilia hypothesis,” a term coined by the noted scientist Edward O. Wilson (Kellert & Wilson 1995). Biophilia is “the innate need to relate deeply and intimately with the vast spectrum of life around us” (42). Proponents claim an evolutionary necessity for such capacities: “Human genetic needs for natural pattern, for natural beauty, for natural harmony are all the results of natural selection over the illimitable vistas of evolutionary time” (51). Further, “…studies of the relationship between environment and human response suggest that nature has a more powerful impact on our emotional and physical health than has been appreciated to date” (166).

These two streams of evolutionary theory—of biophilia and aesthetics—come together for me in the idea that the integration of communal aesthetic experiences with environmental education is one important way to facilitate behaviors that are ultimately adaptable, that is, that orient us toward sustainability. Dolores LaChapelle, in speaking of the historic process of such integrative practices, notes the “wisdom of these other cultures who knew that their relationship to the land and to the natural world required the whole of their being. What we call their ‘ritual and ceremony’ was a sophisticated social and spiritual technology, refined through many thousands of years of experience, that maintained their relationship much more successfully than we are” (in Devall & Sessions 1985, 248).

To read the full paper from which these excerpts were taken, to see how one community in Vermont nurtures ecological thinking through the arts in their annual All Species Day event, and to learn more about concrete ways that an integrated arts curriculum can be developed to cultivate ecological wisdom in young people, visit the author’s website ( and see the blog post “For the Love of Frogs” (August 27, 2018).

Devall, Bill & Sessions, George. 1985. Deep ecology: Living as if nature mattered.
Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
Dissanayake, Ellen. 1992. Homoaestheticus. New York: The Free Press.
Dissanayake, Ellen. 1988. What is art for? Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Kellert, Stephen R. & Wilson, Edward O. 1993. The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, D.C: Island Press.

Dr. Kesson is Professor Emerita of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership of the School of Education at LIU-Brooklyn. She currently resides in Barre, Vermont, and is deeply involved in research on personalized learning in the state, advocating for progressive changes in Vermont schools, and tending her permaculture garden! Her most recent book is Unschooling in Paradise (Innerworld Publications, 2018).