Eco-capacities for reconnection

5 min readJan 27, 2021


What are eco-capacities, and why are they so important? What do they have to do with separation and reconnection?

I recently wrote this piece about Future-facing Vocations, concluding that the existential threat to young people and future generations should drive all decision-making, and so therefore young people should be involved in genuine ways and empowered to contribute to system change to sustain life on the planet. This means, at root, helping them to develop the capacities to be adaptive system changers, and giving them agency to reject the status quo.

Now this piece offers a framework for how we might think about those capacities, and other foundational capacities for a deep reset of our relationships with other humans, other species and the planet. In this framework, I’m not just thinking about young people, but people of all ages. If adults are educators, employers, parents or carers for younger people, they could also be developing (or rediscovering) eco-capacities for their own sake and to support their development in others.

Strictly, the definition of ecological capacities is about the abilities of an ecosystem to be productive and regenerate itself. But we can see a human as an ecosystem in itself, and in addition humans are agents increasingly with a huge impact on ecosystems and the whole Earth system. I prefer to use the term ‘capacities’ rather than ‘literacy’ to describe skills and knowledge (e.g. in any domain or across a curriculum) because it’s…more capacious. The movement for ecological literacy (or ecoliteracy) has been hugely valuable and influential, but I think that the term ‘literacy’ is potentially limiting to cognitive and, more specifically, verbal forms of learning. I’m allergic to the use of terms such as ‘literacy’ or ‘ecosystem’ in overly metaphorical ways, where ‘literacy’ is meant more broadly as ‘capacities’ or ‘ecosystem’ is applied to systems that have little to do with the sustaining the biosphere.

I suggest that a fuller set of ecological capacities can be identified by first understanding all the ways that people are more or less separated from their contexts.

I’ve mapped these in relation to four areas: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. The separation might be experienced on a range from traumatic displacement to living comfortably with no awareness of what is lacking. Essentially, this mapping shows that ‘nature connection’ is about more than being outdoors in wild places. The emotional and spiritual areas of disconnection are less considered than the physical (e.g. outdoor pursuits) or mental (e.g. environmental science). Spiritual is meant as much broader than religion, to include all the ways that people make meaning and connect deeply or holistically. For more about how this separation came to be, read this piece by Jenny Andersson, part 4 of An Economy of Place.

Once we can see the range of ways in which people, particularly in the Global North and industrialised cities, are separated, we can build a curriculum for reconnection. At the centre of this curriculum is exploration of many contexts, rooted in direct experience of specific places. This should include experience of thriving biodiversity, or activities to create conditions for it.

A curriculum for reconnection would include subjects such as: cultivating imagination; making; physical skills & wellbeing; science; literacy; humanities; and (ceremonies for) holistic understanding. This seems fairly close to a standard curriculum, but the content of it would be fully enriched by eco-centricity and awareness of the critical state of the planet.

The outcomes of such a curriculum would include:

  • Observational skills and attentiveness to the world
  • Skills and knowledge for stewardship for ecosystems at every level, from microbiota inside us to Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Understanding plants and nutrition, and being competent to grow and cook.
  • Being able to playfully explore ideas and solutions.
  • Being planet-kind and aware of ecological externalities of all actions.
  • Being anticipatory of futures and multiple ways that decisions might play out.
  • Being emotionally resilient by holding out a sense of possibility in future.
  • Expressing feelings in embodied and symbolic ways.
  • Cultivating empathy for other people and species, inclusively.
  • Knowing that all life is connected in a vast symbiotic mesh, and that humans are inextricably a part of this.
  • Accepting that people have a diversity of values, holding this difference while also promoting transcendent, ecocentric values.
  • Cultivating ceremony to connect with ancestors and future generations, to generate stories for the places you in habit.
  • Communicating and collaborating effectively to be able to learn and teach as situations require.
  • Being able to interpret complex data and think in systems as part of this learning/teaching, and to inform stewardship, futures thinking and decision-making.

Below is a set of prompts for activities to reconnect, to develop some of these capacities. This was shared by me via Climate Museum UK on New Year’s Day. Not all of them will be possible, and certainly visiting a diversity of places might seem expensive and — for now unsafe, but it is possible to visit digitally or to discover diversity on your own doorstep. Some might just take a small shift e.g. exercising freely and imaginatively, not just following rules.

I’ve also been thinking about other tools that can help our partners and audiences develop eco-capacities. An idea we’re developing is an ‘Eco Lens on Things’ — ways to see everything, places, collections or issues, with an ecological mindset. It’s occurred to me that there isn’t one single eco lens, but several, because there isn’t one eco-literacy, rather there are several eco-capacities.

It would be interesting to know what you think of this as an overall approach. What is missing or what is confusing? What most resonates for you? What are you doing to practice reconnection for yourself or with others, especially with children and young people?

If you are interested in this, you might like to respond to this call to be heard [now past] — a Listening Project about culture and the Earth crisis with young Londoners in mind.

If you feel moved to support me in my work as an unsalaried Regenerative Culture leader, you can make a donation here.




Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK. Co-founder Culture Declares. Cultural researcher, artist-curator, educator.