Ecological intimacy and truly stepping out | Inquirer Opinion

Ecological intimacy and truly stepping out

Last week, I had the honor of moderating a forum as a member of the steering committee of Ateneo’s Asean University Network on Ecological Education and Culture group. The forum was titled “From Rivers to Streams: A Situationer on Asean Ecosystems and Environmental Communication.”

On our panel were Dr. Neil Mallari, of the Center for Conservation Innovations, and Dr. Alona Linatoc, of the University of the Philippines Los Baños.


The webinar was meant to provide the participants with an overview of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) biodiversity situation, and then critique practices in communicating biodiversity. The Asean is, indeed, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, but is fast losing forest cover, clean waters, and endemic species.

I often sit through such forums dreading to hear scientists talk about science communication in often sweeping, uninformed terms. I have to fight the urge to interrupt them when they say that people simply need to know the facts, are ignorant, or simply require “cute and funny” visuals.


This time, however, I was surprised (and happy) at how the scientists handled the issue of biodiversity communication with local nuance. Dr. Mallari spoke of how we have to know something in order to love it. Dr. Linatoc relayed her work with communities in Indonesia, and how they have their own ways of knowing and doing science.

A passing look at these concepts might lead us to say, “let’s teach people facts so they can survive.” A closer examination tells us that communicating about the environment has to go beyond the facts. For people to care about their environment, they must first be intimately acquainted with it.

We have been so far away from nature that we treat it as an animal to be viewed across the bars of a cage, a mountain to be gasped at from a considerable distance, an abstract concept encapsulated in catchphrases such as “save the planet.”

Ecological intimacy, however, calls for actual engagement. It might mean making children learn gardening, taking care of animals, swimming in the sea—this immersion allows children to see that they live in a world that they must care for, to which they must respond. This immersion might even help our children grow into adults unafraid of the uncertainties of life.

Ecological intimacy is deeper knowledge that goes beyond simply standing by to watch workers at a farm, animal handlers at a zoo, or divers at an aquarium. It involves stepping out of a comfort zone, accepting that one is dwarfed by nature rather than in control of everything.

This intimacy with the environment is missing in many calls for science communication projects in the country. Often, agencies ask for concepts to be popularized, drawing a line between the expert working in the laboratory, who is solely responsible for transmitting legitimate knowledge, and the people experiencing reality, who are tasked with simply receiving knowledge.

There is very little attention paid to the possibility that people know something and should be given the chance to participate in science—simply because it is everyday life, and not something confined to laboratory work.


This recognition comes at a time when we have to contend with China’s ambassador to the Philippines, and his purportedly misinterpreted “advice” for the country to think about its Taiwan-based workers as joint military exercises are being held in the country.

Whether such words can be taken as a warning or mere semantics is not the issue. The issue is that of using people as leverage: The statement betrays a propensity for treating people as a group with neither agency nor goals, rather than intuitively recognizing another culture for its unique contributions to economies and world affairs.The statement reveals an inclination to treat people not as partners, but pawns.

We are all part of this great complication of humanity and nature, whether we are sitting in our air-conditioned offices or sweltering in the sun, whether we are old and overprotecting the young or young and so afraid of the messiness of reality—whether we are hoping for peace or pushing boundaries that do not even exist in nature, let alone history.

The key is not to cower in fear, but to step out. We can’t be afraid of difficulty, sweat, tears, or our own past forever.

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TAGS: ecology, education, Los Baños
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