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Ecological Thinking and Transformative Learning


The significance of nature and its purposive relationship with humans have been prevalent throughout the history of mankind. Its aspects affect human life in one way or another. For nature means more than just material abundance of the money-worshiping civilization. It represents an inexhaustible fons et origo (the source and the origin) of many cultures. It nourishes and it teaches. It brings a moral force into the utilitarian motives and interests versus gain and greed and grasping selfishness.

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That it can mean more than just political or even social excellence proves a letter addressed to the president of the United States, George Washington, by Chief Seattle. In it, Chief Seattle replies to the President’s offer to buy the Native land and says: “Every part of this land is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.”

Reflecting on the prevailing environmental concerns, scholars have developed theories and principles that attempt to explain the human-nature relationship and how to reduce environmental degradation. One of the areas that such theories have paid substantial attention is on transformative learning and its position in the ecological context. This paper reviews several works completed by transformative learning theorists with the purpose of answering two major questions: How transformative learning would assist in knowledge acquisition under the present and future challenges?

Have transformative global and environmental educators gone far enough to suppress mechanism and reductionism? The primary focus of the paper is on human-Earth relations. In it, I will try to reveal what they are, what they mean to us, how they are developed, nurtured or destroyed, what knowledge counts and its place in “moral” discourse, how those relationships shape the cultural, social, economic, and political aspects of our lives.

Transformative learning and cosmology

Unless we live our lives with at least some Cosmological awareness, we risk collapsing into tiny worlds. For we can be fooled into thinking that our lives are passed in political entities, such as the state of a nation; or that the bottom-line concerns in life have to do with economic realities of consumer lifestyles. In truth we live in the midst of immensities, and we are intricately woven into a great cosmic drama. (Swimme 1996: 60 as cited in O’Sullivan, 1999)

Our elevated understanding of cosmology should be a good direction towards the necessary education vision that would help adults to change their thinking about a better environment. In this understanding, we mean that the universe is indeed the platform in which to build our thinking, justify our efforts and reach contentment with the efforts of transformative education. This view of the universe offers us the opportunity to define our failures and the destruction we have caused to the environment as we strive for betterment through economic and political activities. Indeed, the present environmental situation is a result of our emphasis on insignificant systems which deny us the chance to value the alternative provisions of nature.

The current revelations about the universe demonstrate how human beings have ignored its richness. Our mindsets centered on the Earth as to be a global village deviates the important view of the Earth as a planet. That is a planet that entails more than just human activities in their constant pursuit of profit without meaning. It is the planet that supports other forms of life that we greatly depend on. The constant pursuit of profit has “become the ultimate goal in life, no longer subordinate to the satisfaction of other needs” (Piotr Sztompka, 1994).

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“Ideas as historical forces”, in the sociology of social change (pp. 235-249). Therefore, we can say that the human mind has gone to the extent of prioritizing things that make moral and social life meaningless. Why should men assume that material things can make life better? Why should he endeavor to overexploit the Earth that is so important to him? These and many other questions seem to be the motive and interest behind the transformation ideas described by O’Sullivan (1999). A man should take as much as his real needs are in the variety of provisions that nature appropriates (O’Sullivan, 1999).

Our keen understanding should then be used as a useful tool to change our economic and political interests for the sake of the planet. In fact, the dichotomy between the current situation and our understanding of the universe should be considered as the first step in transformative learning. Humans have realized their destructive actions in pursuit of profit at the expense of the Earth, which can be compared with Mezirow’s first phase of meaning in transformative learning as a “disorienting dilemma”. Our planet Earth is just like a tiny drop in the ocean when compared to the Solar system which then is similarly small when compared with the Universe.

We bear the universe in our being as the universe bears us in its being. The two have a total presence to each other and to that deeper mystery out of which both the universe and ourselves have emerged (Swimme and Berry 1992, cited in O’Sullivan, 1999). We must accept this reality and conform to the laws of the Universe whether it favors our way of thinking and doing things or not. The Earth stereotypes would then be more objective and embrace a broader perspective as the realization grows. Indeed, developing our perceptions on the basis of the planet as a constituent part of the Universe would be more appropriate to our transformed thinking. Literature confirms this fact when it insists that the natural elements that man has ignored such as diverse cultures, climates and geographic traits will also emerge to have a meaning in life. Such a viewpoint is central for the understanding of ecology, of our present and future environmental problems.

Transformative learning and conservation

In the recent past, the area that has demanded a serious transformation is the environment conservation. There are solid pieces of evidence that the environment is threatened by human activities. Many regulatory bodies have come up with measures to halt environmental degradation and save the environment. How far these regulators and other parties have gone is not enough to contain this degradation. It is apparent that conservation efforts have become unsuccessful. The growing concerns are clear indicators of the stubbornness of the issue. Therefore, it can be argued that there are inherent factors that challenge these efforts.

First, negative effects on the environment compel everyone to be responsible due to their universal consequences. Regardless of the principal cause of the problem, the responsibility escalates across all spheres. In terms of economy, as much as we refuse to protect the environment, so much we have to pay for the efforts put in it by others. In mathematic terms, when the deviations from the natural laws escalate, the sum will always be zero because of the negative effects in the sum of deviations. Consider people who destroy forests to expand the land for cultivation. It is clear that the agricultural produce will increase in the meantime, yet the climate will change in the long run. As the direct consequence of a forceful change of the complex biotic community, the change will attract the attention of environmental conservation programs that must be funded continuously.

In such a cyclic system of events, it can be argued that the issue of conservation is far beyond individual emphasis and efforts. It is a collective effort that compels everyone regardless of their desires and interests. The reason we find problems of ecology to be unavoidably political is that “they have to do with who gets what, when and how” (Orr, 2004). In an environment characterized by politics, many other influencing factors also emerge due to diverse politically oriented views. Therefore, conserving the environment will first require the elimination of these deficiencies by rebuilding the political systems to include everyone in the conservation efforts with a positive worldview directed towards a sustainable environment.


An important weakness in the conservation effort has been the segregation and dismissal of women as dormant players. Merchant observes how the environmental and women liberation movements have tried to save the situation under the blind eye of a capitalistic society. Women today could perhaps recapture this earlier age of nature worship through ceremonies, rituals, poetry, and a new language and thereby reinstate the ancient ideal. A revolution in symbol structures could help to transform the patriarchal-technological culture that brought about the separation of people from nature and the lower status of women, in a new age of consciousness, the earth as a symbol of life, beauty, and spiritual fulfillment could regenerate respect for nature and reunify all human beings with other organisms and the planet (Merchant, 1980).

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The word woman is synonymous with Mother Nature. She links human beings to the vital elements of nature such as warmth, freshness, satisfaction and dependence. During our childhood period, when we acquire and cherish first traditional ecological knowledge, who is there for such important times of our lives but the mother? Yet the male-oriented society does not consider the effects of human activities on women.

It has happened that the woman has taken the task of leading the society towards improving the environment through environmental and women liberation movements. Her vigor and knowledge are very evident in these movements and we now know that nuclear technology, radioactivity wastes, chemical wastes, pesticides and herbicides are more important to her than the environmentalists assumed. The proposition that emerges in this new eco-feminism ideal is that rebuilding the political systems for a better environment should heed the voice of the woman.

A darker shade of green: the importance of ecological thinking in global education and school reform

One promising suggestion put forward by Selby and Clover about achieving ecological literacy is to transform schools into collaborative learning communities. A collaboration that reflects a vibrant living system that imitates the values and principles held intrinsically in natural ecosystems (Selby, 2000). Such a call is evident in the recent trends where schools are increasingly incorporating ecological themes and topics in curriculum development.

A positive response or support is an opportunity to build a school philosophy in which environmental awareness and sensitivity are considered a priority. It is an important opportunity to give young learners, and maybe other community members who are stuck in unyielding worldviews, the chance to make the desired change. The key reason is that the collaboration will allow the integration of diverse ideas and consequently acknowledge beliefs and values held by diverse individuals.

David Selby is one of the scholars who support collaborative learning or creating vibrant learning communities in schools (Selby, 2000). At this juncture, a learning community becomes more of a process than a place where academic knowledge is reinterpreted for a passing mark only. Reflecting on Mezirow’s steps of transformative learning, this process will grow systematically from “exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions to planning a course of action, acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans” (Mezirow, 1999).

Selby has joined Mezirow’s steps through what he calls strands. Insofar, the next strand is awakened by the achievement of the previous strand similar to Mezirow’s steps. Here, the process is clearly triggered by the new ethic in which aggressive, plundering human beings have abandoned their destructive ways, recognized their dependence on Planet Earth and attempted to live on more equal traction with the rest of nature (Selby, 2000). The chance to sustain the ecology lies in the fact that, people are presenting a deep and transformative, as in opposition to shallow and reformist ecological worldview within which the principal conjectures underlying the prevailing economic approach are nullified and changes identified.

With the growing perception, it is important to develop collaborative learning with a bio-centric philosophy. The reason is that such a philosophy would embrace the idea of human versus nature in which relationship is characterized by events that are processes rather than the place where academic knowledge is reinterpreted for an economic point only. As such, environmental themes and topics that have been left out for science classes only will be solicited. Moreover, they will be balanced with other themes that leverage ecological understanding such as culture, spiritual, social and political aspects. The inclusion allows for the agreement of the diverse ideas and beliefs noted earlier.

In a collaborative learning environment, the most important is the convergence of ideas and interests. Successful and sustainable school change, Fullan (Fullan,1997 as cited in Selby, 2002) suggests, “requires coherence, integration, diversity, continuous skills development, the creation of collaborative work cultures, … and a broadening of the leadership net to include as many teachers, parents, and students as possible.

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The reason being is that the ecological values held by students are embedded in the subjects they learn and those of parents are described by societal obligations. As it has been suggested by Selby (2002) that most of the educators have resisted changes through learning initiatives that are fragmentally developed and implemented, it is essential to bring the new philosophies to our schools in order to prepare the future society for a sustainable environment. Inasmuch as the present and future environmental threats are to be fought, educators must also be challenged to develop a curriculum and other programs that instill the importance of a better environment for the students.

Transformative learning and traditional ecological knowledge

Perhaps traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has the highest and direct consequence of transformative learning in an ecological context. The case is much evident in all societies, ages, inclinations and levels of learning where traditional knowledge plays a central role. It is apparent that the larger part of transformation an individual perceives is a result of the traditional knowledge acquired. It is also a fact that an adult is aware of many occurrences and knowledge acquired during childhood years which acts as a directive towards future approaches. Transformation is also enriched by what we learn from traditional knowledge acquired by acquaintances through mutual interactions.

Therefore, transformation through traditional knowledge acquisition can as well be seen as a process of transferring and acknowledging what has been considered valuable for years such as the plants or animals that were adapted to living in particular environments. Although the process does not correlate much of Mezirow’s steps of transformative learning, it however acknowledges the elements of a reflective discourse. The similarity suggests that the learning that occurs through traditional knowledge acquisition is through the integration of collective experience, groping alternative perspectives, and arriving at a tentative best judgment (Mezirow, 1999).

In regard to traditional ecological knowledge, a culture emerges as an important factor in determining the kind of learning an individual would acquire. Feinstein (2004) has no doubts about this assumption as he found cultural diversity among his participants to influence knowledge acquisition differently. Therefore, it can be argued that cultural aspects must be embraced when acquiring knowledge in the ecological context through transformative learning. The present and future environmental challenges are consequences of the ignorance we make about cultural diversity.

In fact, while responding to the criticism of Mezirow’s theory that it is restricted by western culture, Merriam and Ntseane (2008) observed how we can promote transformational learning by understanding the cultures that are in many cases ignored such as those in Africa. According to this observation, it can then be concluded that understanding other cultures leads to understanding traditional ecological knowledge within the region inhabited by particular people. By understanding the environmental aspects that are valued traditionally, it is possible to sustain this value which has always been the target of degradation.

The biggest mistake we can make in transformational education is to assume that traditional ecological knowledge is irrelevant in shaping our present and future learning about the environment when environmentalists have identified its importance (Clover, 2002). The reason is that we will lose both the primary focus of conservation (which is to restore the original face of the environment) and the purpose of conservation (to enhance our lifestyles).

It is apparent that the knowledge bears the fundamental elements of conservation: the original environmental aspects and the relationship between human beings and nature. The latter element is much reflected in the cultural context. For instance, a culture where hunting and gathering are the central occupations relates people to vegetation while a culture of fishing will relate people to water bodies. The importance of these relationships is reflected in the following discussion.

People must understand and value the people-nature relationship in order to enable transformative learning in an ecological context. There is no justification enough to dismiss a particular relationship valued in a specific culture as inferior. No wonder critics such as Bowers (2005) explain the biggest mistake transformative theorists such as Freire and Dewey have made when developing their theories was to ignore a variety of cultures. The ignorance eliminated the many benefits people would perceive as to stem from the theory even in relation to the ecology-the the core purpose of transformation learning. Therefore, traditional ecological knowledge should be embraced as the keeper of knowledge acquisition required to face present and future challenges.

Many-voiced landscapes

We are aware of the deteriorating environment especially due to the climatic changes we observe and the inability of the earth to satisfy our basic needs and this is the reason many environmental agencies and educators identified by Lange (2010) have raised their voices regarding environmental protection. It is obvious that further deterioration of the environment may even put human existence at risk considering the intimate relationship we have with nature. While many people have voiced their concerns openly, the spiritual sense and conscience of many people are lamenting on the weakening of the environment as the backbone of life. It seems that the spirit is at will, but our efforts are inhibited by intrinsic factors which could be correlated to our lack of the desired knowledge. As I have put it, we need to make learning about the environment more accommodating and replace the response obstructions with new information linkages.

Adult education is the most important area to consider when enhancing the transformative learning desired to appropriate proactive measures regarding the escalating environmental problems. Why should the emphasis be put on teaching only K-12 classes about the environment when the very sources of destruction – adults and their economic activities are presumed? To K-12 classes, knowledge acquisition is a routine and not a learning transformation. Therefore, the urgency we yearn for in regard to environment responses will never be achieved through such learning. As much as adults are responsible for the poor environment, the higher responsibility in reviving it lies with them. Adults with their life experience are even in a better position to understand the deep ecology that environmental reformists suggest being imperative.

Transformative and environmental educators have gone the highest level ever in history in responding to mechanism and reductionism. At this level, transformative learning especially for adults has taken the center stage. They suggest learning that integrates the many components identified to be relevant such as ecopsychology, ecospirituality, ecofeminism and ecosociology.

The dilemma that emerges from the educator’s discourse reflects a similar situation that led Mezirow to develop the transformative learning theory. That is, people are living under uncertain circumstances that need a systematic turning around to have the necessary focus of reality (Mezirow, 1999). In actual sense, many efforts have been put in place to reform the environment, yet it is little or no progress observed especially due to lack of the necessary transformation.

One of the areas that have taken the center of environmental discourse is sustainable education. Environmentalists have regarded sustainable development as the way forward towards a better environment (Lange, 2010). This opinion is echoed by Räthzel& Uzzell (2009) when they coined that the vagueness of the sustainability dialogue has resulted in the elevation of the concept to various levels such as moderate and strong sustainability. In the developing discourses, strong sustainability assumes the role of solving the existing environmental problems as well as the ones perceived in the future. Only discussions have not reached a universal agreement on how to go about bringing strong sustainability. Should the efforts start at an individual level or should it be initiated simultaneously are questions that are yet to be solved if the kind of sustainability suggested is ever to be achieved?

Nonetheless, as Lange (2010) notes, neither have the sustainability discourse or efforts taken the right track towards solving the environmental problems. The reality is that the so-called sustainable environment reflects an environment that will sustain the same purposes that led to environmental degradation. The observation is confirmed by the fact that sustainable development as discussed is a situation where the environment goes green whether it is through organic agriculture or extensive tree planting. It is clear that the idea of bringing the environment to sustainability is not yet strong as it lacks the necessary integration. The proponents of sustainability have failed to understand that the heart of the environmental problems is not about going green but reclaiming the vigor that once existed in our environment.

The signature of the whole

In order to understand the loss that human beings and their activities have caused on the environment, we just need to reflect on how the environment looked like several years back. The once valued aspects or qualities of the environment such as vast vegetation areas, serene atmosphere and consistent seasons have been completely lost as a result of man’s activities in the name of development and efficiency (Selby, 2002). The viewpoint that we have adopted only makes us acknowledge the existence of the observable elements of the environment such as plants, water bodies, and animals, but does not allow us to consider the most important question: as to why these things exist or of what value are they to human beside the commodity value?

To consider the question, there must be a transformation in human understanding; a transformation that is purposely designed for the environment. Selby (2002) proposes global and environmental education as the most appropriate response to the mechanistic mindset. The reason is that transformative educators have adopted a metaphor that overlooks the important elements of reality or presence that is deeply important to an ecological worldview.

In this line, the transformation that is required should not pursue to eliminate the metaphor completely but to fill the gaps and unfold the being and becoming of the whole reality. The effort will be primarily involved in bringing to light the natural things that have been ignored by reductionists such as rocks, cultures, and animals, and digging their interconnectedness with human beings. In this manner, people will ‘see’ the value of such things and the importance of preserving them as elements of the environment.

Such a concept of radical interconnectedness will lead to the creation of the disorienting dilemma that marks the beginning of transformative learning suggested by Mezirow (1999). People will realize that the initial purpose of living in harmony with nature has been distorted in the modern world. The world will then be at one level of presence where everything relates to everything else reflecting the progressive nature of Mezirow’s transformation steps. In the end, the world will reach a deep level where everything is embedded in everything else at which the persistent worldviews will come to a halt. At this final stage, environment protection will never be a discourse dilemma, but a priority and inherent obligation to all people-real transformation.

However, Selby (2002) presents the implications associated with radical interconnectedness. We have to admit that the ongoing discourse regarding environmental crisis per se cannot satisfy the deficiencies that are associated with the global environmental worldviews. The dilemma calls for more proactive measures such as helping our learning communities to understand and experience the interconnectedness of nature and human beings.

Despite most of the educators not engaging in multicultural education by recognizing the interchange of various cultural perspectives around understanding environmental issues, the environment education they are to preach must at least combine with anti-discriminatory education to some extent. Through this, even the cultural weaknesses observed by Merriam and Ntseane (2008) regarding Mexirow’s theory might be resolved.

Ecological perspectives for adult education

Ecological perspectives for adult education have been reflected in the environmental discourse as a kaleidoscope of notions that are ultimately centered on the relationship between human beings and nature. The clear analysis of these perceptions reveals a focus on human-earth relations: a myriad of questions regarding the meaning, development, nurturing and understanding of these relations. Clover (2002) identifies these perceptions as to include ecological knowledge and cultural identity; consumptions, production, and cultural homogenization; environmental racism and classism; ecofeminism standpoints; the intrinsic value of nature; and sustainability. Notably, these perceptions place concerns for the planet at the forefront and promote transformative learning by widening our knowledge and understanding.

Ecological knowledge acquisition is a process that can be a transformative learning process described by Mezirow. First, adults must fight the forces that push them away from acknowledging the intimate relationship between humans and nature in order to attain a starting point for learning and knowledge creation. Human beings have lost the real touch of nature that is relevant to understanding the relationship. Feinstein (2004) would presume that people lack the traditional ecological knowledge which regards nature as the most valuable part of human life. It is through this knowledge that human-nature relation is nurtured through the land and its provisions such as vegetation, animals, rivers, hills and so on. A nurturing where nature influences the lifestyle instead of our lifestyles determining how nature will look like-the referencing point in life rather than the referenced point.

As Clover (2002) thinks, when adults are made to revive the lost ecological knowledge, the kaleidoscopic perceptions will become clearer. Instead of unending discussions about the protection of the environment, adults will start eliminating the obstacles that stand on the way towards a better environment. In eliminating obstacles that are against progressive ideas such as echo-feminism standpoints, Merchant (1980) suggests that the role of women in environmental issues should be identified.

In regard to women and ecology, Merchant (1980) observes how feminists have believed that women today could perhaps recapture the earlier age of nature worship through ceremonies, rituals, poetry, and new language and thereby reinstate the ancient ideal. Indeed, women have been closest to nature especially because of their role of reproduction. They must also bring up children in a way that they respect and adore nature for the sake of the future. The places where women work are as well the places where men will reside in after the male chores and require special attention that will keep the places safe, conducive and peaceful. Therefore the women-nature relationship is particularly special because it entails the present and future considerations in terms of nature.

By playing the wider role of reproduction and child-rearing as well as being exposed to the threats of capitalistic societies, women have become the most vulnerable victims to destructive activities. Radioactive wastes and potential hazards have penetrated the places where women work. Women have been victims of technological advancement as it has been applied to disadvantage their safe living by facilitating activities like abortions. Chemical wastes, pesticides and herbicides are everywhere a woman is working or living.

According to Merchant (1980), the feminism movements have resulted from these concerns about women and their safe living. The movements have called for gender equality as a way of giving women the power to ensure that nature is protected. They have called for women inclusion in our education system in order to facilitate them with the necessary knowledge that would enhance their participation in environmental protection. Feminism movements have sort to ensure the use of appropriate technology that might reinforce the traditional sex roles and save the women.

In as much as adult education will integrate environmental education, echo-feminism standpoint must be taken into consideration. Adults will certainly assume roles that are focused on taking the environment back to where it was. Therefore, the adults’ ecological knowledge will be transformed in a manner that they talk about their relationship with nature in ways that are not purely about meeting their physical needs.

Reflective epilogue

The course on education theories has significantly changed or transformed my understanding of education in general. Education is not just about knowledge acquisition but is about developing our thinking and identifying our unique roles in shaping a positive living. It is an endless process that can sometimes be broken prematurely if one fails to grow his/her focus accordingly. The focus is on the reflective dialogue of the existing ideas with a sole emphasis on where and how they apply in the present and future world. Therefore, education as well includes an individual contribution to the growing discourse.

As I progressed through this course, I made some realizations that changed my way of thinking completely. As human beings, we are interested in petty things that make us selfish and unruly to our life such as economic satisfaction. As a matter of fact, we attempt to justify actions that our conscious mind has a negative opinion about. What I have realized is that there are more important things explained in theories and if our focus could be on them, the other things that we strive for will automatically come. As such, education becomes the source and opportunity to acquire the necessary knowledge for the desired change.

Transformation and education are two intertwined concepts and one can stand for the other sometimes. There will never be a transformation without education, or true education without traces of transformation. When we acquire new knowledge, we are transformed in that we take a new direction of thinking or acting. Similarly, when we are transformed, we desire to learn more and justify the transformation. In so doing, we move education to a new level of enlightenment which eventually becomes the basis for all other levels that follow close behind.

Reference List

Bowers, C. A. (2005). Is transformative learning the Trojan horse of western globalization? Journal of Transformative Education, 3(2), 116-125.

Clover, D. E. (2002). Toward transformative learning: Ecological perspective for adult education. In E. O’Sullivan, A. Morrell, & M. A. O’Connor (Eds.), Expanding the boundaries of transformative learning (pp. 159-172). New York, NY: Palgrave.

Feinstein, B. C. (2004). Learning and transformation in the context of Hawaiian traditional ecological knowledge. Adult Education Quarterly, 54(2), 105-120.

Lange, E. A. (2010).Environmental adult education: A many-voiced landscape. In E. C. Kasworm, A. D. Rose & J. M. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp.306-316). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Merchant, C. (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Merriam, S. & Ntseane, G. (2008).Transformational learning in Botswana: how culture shapes the process. Adult Education Quarterly, 58(3), 183-197.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Orr, D. W. (2004). Conservation in Context. Conservation Biology, 18(6), 1457-1460.

O’Sullivan, E. (1999). Transformative learning: Educational vision for the 21″ century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Räthzel, N. & Uzzell, D. (2009).Transformative environmental education: a collective rehearsal for reality. Environmental Education Research, 15(3), 263–277.

Selby, D. (2000). A darker shade of green: the importance of ecological thinking in global education and school reform. Theory into Practice, 39(2), 88-96.

Selby, D. (2002). The signature of the whole: Radical interconnectedness and its implications for global and environmental education. In E. O’Sullivan, A. Morrell, & M.A. O’Connor (Eds.), Expanding the boundaries of transformative learning (pp. 77-93). New York, NY: Palgrave.

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