Whether or not we are interested in ‘the environment’ or identify with the concept of being ‘an environmentalist’ each of us is entirely dependent on the air we breathe, the food we eat and the environment we inhabit for life. Despite this basic fact, statements about our connections with the natural world are often interpreted as platitudinous and widely dismissed. We have inherited a highly reductive intellectual tradition and worldview in profound denial of our fundamental interdependence with the natural world. We are embedded within the natural world and dependent on ecological systems for life but our belief systems do not reflect this basic relationship. Consequently, the world we have designed is deeply unsustainable.

This thesis argues that fragmentary thinking is an obstacle to sustainability and that reductive attitudes towards knowledge cannot address problems associated with complex ecological systems – or social and economic systems. Responding to this dilemma, this project uses a whole systems approach, facilitated by the visual communication of ecological literacy (EL). Ecological literacy creates the frame of mind that recognizes ecological embeddedness and adjusts cultural priorities appropriately. Ecological literacy is a powerful concept providing an integrated foundation for the understanding of environmental problems and solutions. However, ecological literacy has largely failed to spread across disciplinary boundaries in the two decades since the concept was conceived and remains marginal in education, policy and practice. This thesis proposes that communication design, informed by diverse traditions such as social theory and critical pedagogy, has the potential to facilitate large-scale learning processes to mainstream ecological literacy. Furthermore, communication design has unique properties that can nurture the development of new cognitive capacities and ecological perception.

This thesis examines what it means to be ecologically literate. Ecological literacy is a philosophical and educational programme for recognition of humankind’s essential relationship with the Earth and re-visioning educational, social, political and economic priorities to acknowledge this basic fact. Following the chain of consequences and the discovery of interdependence, ecological understanding reveals the fundamental ethical nature of environmental problems. As such it is a necessity for informed decision making for citizens in societies with the industrial capacity to severely disturb ecological processes. Unfortunately ecological learning can be a profoundly difficult learning process due to the fact that it challenges cultural traditions and basic assumptions.

Part One: Theory
Part One explores the theoretical and philosophical foundations of ecological thought, its history and exactly what it means to be ecologically literate. Chapter One examines problems arising from the Western philosophical tradition of reductionism, mechanism, dualism, rationalism and a radical disconnection with nature. This chapter introduces ecological rationality, ontology, epistemology and ethics. Chapter Two examines the development of both ecology and ecological literacy, proposes a new typology of EL and describes the relationship of ecological literacy to the concept of sustainability. Chapter Three briefly describes patterns and processes in ecology and how these could inform ecological design.

Part Two: Methodology
Part Two examines methodologies and methods appropriate for research and practice in ecological literacy. Ecological thought challenges many of the conceptual frameworks that moderate perception (i.e. paradigms) and requires methodologies that reflect shifting epistemic positions. Traditional research methods exhibit critical flaws when examined from a whole systems perspective including a problematic gap between theory and practice. This thesis’ research methodologies are a combination of design research (Chapter Four) and action research (Chapter Five). Action research is necessary due to its focus on participation, its awareness of how power influences knowledge and its epistemological insights. Transformative learning is introduced in Chapter Six as a process with the potential to transcend the value/action gap. Chapter Seven describes the choice of methods within this thesis. The methods combine critical whole systems thinking within transformational learning processes in a politically engaged communication design practice. The research design consists of a series of iterations involving design, analysis and redesign.

Part Three: Communication
Part Three explores the synthesis of theory and practice in environmental communication (EC). Chapter Eight examines issues of crisis, power, discourse, identity and values in EC. Chapter Nine explores insights from studies of denial, psychology and cognitive science in order to understand failures in EC. Ultimately, successful EC depends on acknowledging a personal relationship to the wider environment, described in this thesis as the development of ‘ecological self’. Chapter Ten investigates visual communication design. The final chapter proposes that visuals can facilitate the communication of ecological concepts due to their ability to circumvent fragmentation and support the development of perceptual practices for relational ways of thinking. Visual communication design is capable of communicating complexity, context, connections, causality, quantity and quality thereby facilitating emergent ecological perception.

Part Four: Praxis (I do not intend to publish this on-line)
Praxis is the documentation of the practice-based work. The projects are displayed here (although the work itself was created for specific context and thus some of the images are not legible – many were designed as A1 posters). Graphic work was created throughout the research project. Here each project is displayed with notes on how it responds to the design method developed for this research. These images develop content introduced in the Parts One and Three, using methods introduced in Part Two. The practice-based work not only communicates EL but often functions as part of a knowledge building process.

Introduction and other PhD chapters are now available for download here.


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