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Fractals of Identity: An Ecological Pedagogy

marian.bechtel's picture

We are living in a time of global crisis – drastic climate change is already visible around the world, overpopulation of humans is becoming ever worse, fresh water sources are becoming scarce, and the world’s sixth mass extinction is currently underway. As these issues are pertinent to the future of humans and all of Earth’s species today, a vital aspect of environmental activism is teaching young people how to both think and live ecologically. Of course, people and programs all over have tried many ways of teaching the world’s youth about environmentalism, and yet not much has changed. That’s not surprising, given that it seems hard for a young person to get truly invested in these issues and how they are affected by them when they can’t physically see the damage; it’s one thing to explore a patch of wilderness and “feel connected to it” or “appreciate the beauty,” and a completely different thing to be open to changing one’s ways in order to protect it. It is especially difficult to get young people invested in ecological thinking and living when their experiences with the environment vary so widely based on many factors, including race, class, and gender. So what new approach can be taken to attempt to get young people invested in the issues that are hazardously affecting theirs and our world?

I propose looking at the environment through a more familiar lens: the lens of identity. In general, people (especially young people who are at the age where they are “finding themselves”) like to talk about and explore their own identities. However, when “environmentalism” or “ecology” is mentioned, people tend to zone out, because even those who see its importance find it hard to get truly invested in something when they can’t see how it directly affects them as individuals. Thus, I believe it could make a great difference in ecological education to draw this connection between the environment and the individual. Gessner pointedly says in his article “Sick of Nature”: “There’s lots of wilderness, sure, but one of the things that is lost is the element of quest – of personal wildness…” (Gessner). This quest for personal wildness is exactly what I want to explore as a route for teaching ecological thinking and living. I will discuss below my ideas for an ecological pedagogy geared towards a high school identity club that begins with the approach of expanding our sense of identity (race, class, gender, etc.) to include thinking about our identity in the environment. The hopeful outcome of this approach would be to help young people (high school students) understand the environment as part of our individual identities, to be invested in the issues that affect our environments, and to see ourselves as part of many greater social and ecological systems that are all connected – much like fractals in nature.

Fractals in nature make a lovely metaphor for talking about teaching ecological thinking through the lens of identity. For instance, the fractal-like nature of the veins in a leaf could represent the different, interconnected, and complex aspects of an individual’s identity (race, gender, class, religion, etc.). If you then back up a level, however, you begin to see how that individual leaf, with its complex fractal behavior is connected to an even larger fractal pattern of branches on a tree. As you keep backing up, you can see how this little, seemingly insignificant leaf is connected to the local and global ecosystem. This image is analogous to finding your own identity’s connections to the larger social and ecological systems of the world. It speaks to the interconnectedness of identity and ecological thinking, as well as the natural need for diversity, the beauty in individuals and complexity, nature’s acceptance of mistakes and differences, and adaptation to social and ecological change. I also like this metaphor because it evokes a sense of lively creation and growth. I believe that it is important for those fighting for social and ecological justice to take an approach of “presenting facts that invite participation rather than fear-based apathy” (Anthony 160). In other words, I would argue for teaching from the perspective of acknowledging the many ways that the human race has damaged the global ecosystem and environment, yet recognizing that there is time to act and that change can be made through creation.

I have come up with several ideas for creative and constructive ways to help the students in this high school identity club begin to expand their sense of personal identity to include their identity in the environment and global ecosystem, and to begin thinking ecologically.

The first of these approaches is through spoken word poetry. Students would be invited to write “I am from” poems, where they have the chance to discuss different aspects of “what they are from” – this could include physically/environmentally where they are from, what cultural backgrounds they are from, what social/family groups they are from, and other aspects of their identity or life experiences that they see as important factors in shaping their current identity. I have participated in an activity like this before, and I think this would be a great starting point for students to begin to draw connections between their identities and their personal environments. Without even prompting the students to think specifically about the environment, it could be very interesting to just see how environment and identity are represented in their poems. This would spark great discussion about what constitutes an environment, different types of environments that we live in and experience (including both rural and city environments, as well as social environments), where our homes are and where we are comfortable, and how our differing identities affect how we experience various types of environments.

It could also be fun and beneficial to do several iterations of this “I am from” poem exercise. Students could be asked to do it again, writing from their perspective as a young child to explore how they may have viewed their identities and interacted with nature/environments in similar or different ways back then. Campbell eloquently says, “…as children we are in perfect harmony with nature, but then lose that harmony as we develop the barrier of a self” (135). Perhaps through this poetry, the students can begin to deconstruct this “barrier of a self” and see how their ever-evolving identities have influenced their connections (or lack of connections) to nature. Another iteration they could do is writing an “I am from” poem from the perspective of a non-human being in nature (an animal, plant, etc.). This exercise could help the students begin to see non-human beings as having identities within local and global ecosystems, and could again help with expanding the students’ views of what individual identity means in the context of the environment.

Morton says of ecological thought that it “is the thinking of interconnectedness” (7). So, a possible exercise to help students begin to think about ecological networks and global interconnectedness both amongst people and the natural environment could be using the idea of “contact points.” Students could start by choosing one of the ways they express their identities – fashion, art, music, etc. – and be asked to briefly research things like where the materials (clothing, paint, instruments, etc.) were made, who might these materials connect you to around the world, and further, what natural things the materials are made of and where those natural substances might have come from. It would be an interesting way to show how expression such as art “is ecological insofar as it is made from materials and exists in the world” (Morton 11). This exercise could make the students begin to think about how even these simple tools of expression connect them to the vast social and ecological networks around the world.

To further this exploration of ecological interconnectedness and human identities in these networks, I have designed another exercise that would help demonstrate how human actions actively affect the lives of non-human beings. Students would be given a diagram of a local ecosystem that showed a selection of species including humans, animals, plants, and microbial beings, and short descriptions of the basic relationships between the different groups. The students would be assigned a non-human identity in this ecosystem, and then be told that something in the ecosystem has changed because of a human action – trees were cut down, a particular species was killed off or eliminated, or something of the like. The students would then work together to figure out the chain of events and trace the results of that one action to see how it affects their non-human “identity,” and how it affects the whole ecosystem. Though not focused so much on individual human identity, the activity would serve to demonstrate the interconnectedness of ecosystems, how our human actions affect the lives of beings around us, and why diversity in all senses (including biodiversity) is important. It would also be a chance for the students to step into the shoes of another being and see how incredibly valuable non-human lives are. As Anthony & Soule say, “Everybody’s story is vital to the integrity of the whole, including one’s own” (160). I would argue that this is true both of human individuals and of non-human beings – ALL stories are vital to the integrity of the global ecosystem.

This idea of valuing stories is actually a wonderful way to wrap back around to the “I am from” poems with which the students started. As would hopefully be seen with the individual “I am from” poems AND the non-human poems, every being – from each unique human down to each deep ocean jellyfish – has a story that is important and valuable in the world’s ecological networks. Perhaps these stories are the pathway to expanding our sense of identity to include the environment. Though I would not expect these students to take this ecological education experience and immediately go become radical social/environmental activists, I do hope that as young, impressionable students who are exploring their own identities, they might begin to recognize their environment(s) and their places in local and global ecosystems as larger fractals of their identity quests, and perhaps this will inspire them to think and act ecologically in their own ways. If enough young people were able to expand their sense of identity in this way, to see the fractal-like, interconnected nature of personal identity and global ecology, it could potentially make a huge difference in the fight for social and environmental justice around the world. To steal another line from Anthony & Soule, “…inclusivity is the key to ecopsychology, where a healthy multicultural, multibiotic, multiregional, and multifaceted psyche merges and blends gracefully with Earth’s ecology” (160). We may be in a time of global ecological crisis, but by looking at environmental pedagogies through the lens of identity, perhaps we can begin to work upwards from where we stand now and merge once more with Earth’s ecology, as unique, individual members of a vast global network that is as diverse, complex, and beautiful as fractals in nature.




Anthony, Carl and Renée Soule, "The Multicultural Approach to Ecopsychology." The Ecopsychology Institute, 1997.

Campbell, SueEllen. "The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. pp. 124-136.

Gessner, David. "Sick of Nature." The Boston Globe. August 1, 2004.

Morton, Timothy. "Introduction: Critical Thinking." The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 1-19.



Anne Dalke's picture

you got my attention, straight off, with your circling images of ever-larger fractal patterns. I agree that these give you—as you say--not only a lovely metaphor for exploring the role environment plays in identity construction, but also a concrete means of working out such connections: moving from environments that shaped your students, from which they arose, to their “contact points” (largely via consumerism) to ever-larger networks of association…

As alternative or addition to the nice “I am from” poems, how about a few Fibonocci ones? The Fibonocci sequence has some of the deep pleasures of fractals—an evocative ‘natural’ pattern w/ a profound cultural resonance (am just playing w/ what Haraway would call the natureculture connections here) … For some examples, see Emerson Fibs, a May Day Addendum, and (for more identity work based in the environment) a McBride Addendum.

I know that you found evocative the “messianic time” that Elizabeth Callaway evoked in her presentation on  A Space for Justice (which re-figured the hockey stick graph as a stand of trees on the bank of a lake…); I see the same hope throughout your web-event, that there is still “time to act.”

I do also see your keynote here that young people find it “hard to get truly invested in something when they can’t see how it directly affects them as individuals”; that if one “can’t physically see the damage, one will not “be open to changing one’s ways in order to protect it.” And I think your plan to re-think the “barrier of a self,” by beginning with the self, and then expanding the students’ views of what identity means and where it comes from, is a way both to start with where they are and stretch them into new places. I especially like the final project you imagine, of assigning each of them a non-human identity in their own eco-system…

I co-taught an ESem this fall which plays with many of these ideas; see Changing Our Story as a possible resource, including Cameron, Healy, and Gibson-Graham’s Chapter 4: "Take Back the Market: Encountering Others." Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide to Transforming our Communities . What we were also working in that course is the notion of identities as not fixed, but fluid, and alterable--something you might also consider (as BMC has just decided to do!)

The Unknown & Marian -- you should check out one another’s projects on identity and env’l studies.