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Integral Ecology

Deepen Environmental Studies Students' Understanding of Interdisciplinarity

Integral ecology has origins in philosophy and religion and thus values different ways of knowing in a contemporary environmental studies world, that increasingly privileges scientific knowledge and often treats the arts/humanities as sources of pleasure over knowledge.

These modules are a work-in-progress for introducing students to integral ecology as a tool in environmentally related courses. Early exposure to integral ecology in context-based ways teaches students about the interdisciplinary character of Environmental Studies. Faculty believes there is a triad of liberal arts perspectives crucial for ecologically aware people to know in an integrative way: natural science, social sciences, and arts and humanities. This interdisciplinary approach has always been central to the St. Olaf Environmental Studies program, but it has become increasingly threatened by financial constraints in higher education and notions of expertise that place a premium on specialization and on scientific inquiry.

This project examines modules in three courses:

  1. ENVST 202: The Culture of Nature (essentially an introductory-level course)
  2. ENVST 381: Contested Spaces, Rivers (advanced seminar with Mark Allister)
  3. PSYCH 277: Environmental Psychology (with Donna McMillan)

Special emphasis is given to the latter course, whose module was crafted and taught in collaboration with Professor McMillan in her January 2015, Interim course.

The combination of all three courses helped us test integral ecology in courses with differing relationships to natural science interests. We wanted to see how the approach could

  • Increase all students’ respect for non-scientific ideas in environmental studies
  • Increase respect for interdisciplinarity itself
  • Help non-science students appreciate the importance of scientific perspectives
  • Help non-science students see the value of their perspectives


Content/Concept Goals

  • ENVST 202 students obtain exposure to integral ecology in the framework of systems thinking.
  • ENVST 381 and PSYCH 277 students develop a basic understanding of integral ecology concepts and domains of knowledge.
  • ENVST 202, ENVST 381, and PSYCH 277 students gain at least minimum appreciation of arts and humanities thinking in the field of Environmental Studies.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

  • ENVST 202 and PSYCH 277 students increase their awareness of how a group of people can pool perspectives to create a learning community.
  • PSYCH 277 and ENVST 281 students gain awareness of the strengths/weaknesses of different perspectives (as they relate to ways of knowing ecological matters).
  • PSYCH 277 and ENVST 381 students obtain means to contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of their favored perspective(s).

Other Goals

  • PSYCH 277 and ENVST 381 students explore self-awareness about perspectives early in the course so they explore it self-reflexively, in relationship to others, and in the context of Environmental Studies for at least the duration of the course.
  • PSYCH 277 students embody integral ecology through the spatial exercise used to introduce it in ways supportive of the course’s emphasis on embodied knowledge.
  • ENVST 202, PSCYH 277 and ENVST 381 students learn respect for different individuals’ perspectives and witness the value of respect for enhancing conversational inquiry.

Dissemination Strategies

Instructors employing this pedagogy require a sound knowledge of Integral Ecology by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman. “An Overview of Integral Ecology, A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues” is the best, short introduction to the topic and is available online (see Resources & Materials). Instructors employing this pedagogy require sound knowledge in the entire book, Integral Ecology. The reading is best understood along with conversation and study augmented by diagrams and faculty instruction.

The Integral Ecology text heavily employs diagrams and other illustrations to explain various ideas such as the quadrants (and how they remain the same when different specific terminology and perspectives are employed), levels of different ways of knowing, etc. Study and use of these diagrams can be a good way for both an instructor and students to comprehend concepts. Having at hand a variety of diagrams to sketch on a chalk/white board or insert into PowerPoint presentations is valuable.

Having students create their own mappings of perspectives in a readily changeable form works well to engage students and for them to work collectively and take ownership of integral ecology concepts. Because it was an arts and humanities seminar, ENVST 381 had students map all the Environmental Studies courses they had taken onto the integral ecology quadrants as a way of mapping their careers and learning about the group’s collective knowledge. The PSYCH 277 students mapped their majors and academic interests because the class consisted of various majors in fields other than Environmental Studies.

Students in both classes conversed with one another about the nature of the quadrants because of the active means of producing the mappings. This produced more questions of the instructors, and students gained a deeper understanding of the ideas than in ENVST 202 with its emphasis, due to the limited time, on a lecture mode for teaching integral ecology.

All three courses introduced integral ecology shortly after students learned about the basic purpose and structure of the course. This helped them use integral ecology to introduce themselves to one another with a degree of confidence, learn about each other and perceive strengths and aspirations each brings to a course in it becoming a learning community. Those less confident in their ways of knowing gained some assurance about what they brought to each course, and those overconfident about the value of their knowledge could see limits and reasons for greater humility. This combination helped class discussions – both because it increased the number of students willing to participate and because of the ways integral ecology teaches the value of openness to others’ perspectives.

Teaching Notes

The Integral Ecology website (sponsored by the Integral Institute) is a good resource for ideas about integral ecology, illustrations of concepts, pedagogical perspectives, books, conferences and a variety of tools to learn and teach integral ecological ideas.

Integral ecology is based on Ken Wilbur’s integral theory and has been applied to numerous domains additionally. Integral systems can be translated to any number of interdisciplinary approaches without study of integral theory itself and used to counter the lure of specialization.

Esbjörn-Hargens’ and Zimmerman’sbook also spends much time advocating for using integral ecology to contend with environmental disputes. The authors provide theoretical and case study support for this, though the concept does not appear to have a strong reputation in the realm of environmental conflict resolution.

PSYCH 277 students’ continual referencing of the integral ecology quadrants showed the value of returning to the topic occasionally throughout the semester. It helped students not only grasp the concepts better through practice, but this also helped them understand and better appreciate material they studied as they contemplated the perspectives of thinkers or creators when they encountered material they initially found uninteresting or confusing. Integral ecology broadens students’ responsiveness to ideas by helping them to become empathetic readers and alert to the dangers of thinking narrowly. PSYCH 277 students also had the benefit of working with two instructors versed in integral ecology from different fields and watching us map our positions and take part with the students in trying to figure out the concepts.

Resources & Materials

Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean and . Zimmerman, Michael E. Integral Ecology. Boston and London: Integral Books, 2009.

Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean and Zimmernan, Michael E. “An Overview of Integral Ecology, A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues.”

The Integral Institute’s Integral Ecology Center website

PSYCH 277 Student Course Evaluations

Outcomes and Significance

Student Assessment

Donna McMillan asked a narrative, assessment question about integral ecology in the online course evaluation for PSYCH 277:

Question 7: What did you think of the ideas of Integral Ecology (e.g., the quadrants)? Should it be included in the course in the future?

The student responses strongly endorsed its use in the course and for many of the reasons of intellectual self-awareness and interdisciplinarity we sought.

See PSYCH 277 Student Course Evaluations in Resources & Materials.

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