globe and degree

Earth Smarts

The 4 Primary Domains

domains mind map

To help make it more useful for educators, researchers and policy-makers, socioecological literacy has a hierarchical design that begins with four main domains that encompass the knowledge, values, sensitivities, and skills we need to maintain our quality of life. Quick summaries appear below:


The Concepts domain can also be thought of as knowledge, or content - this is the domain that traditional education has focused on. What knowledge is essential to maintaining our quality of life? Basic ecological principles and a general understanding of thermodynamics are critical, but to learn from the past and adapt to the future, it is also important to have a general sense of human history, particularly as it relates to the success or failure of societies to adapt to their own environmental challenges. Also essential are evolutionary (biological) and geological (earth systems) principles, and a sense of their time scales.

Sense of Place

This domain attempts to capture some of the elements that influence how we think and feel about our environments, both local and global, so it involves affective elements, or attitudes and emotions. It includes a basic awareness of environmental connections and issues – something essential now on a global as well as local scale, as even the best local knowledge may not protect a community from global changes. People also need to feel connected to their environment in a positive way. The specifics are probably quite flexible; whether you call it biophilia, environmental sensitivity, love of the land or some other emotional or spiritual bond, we need to feel connected to our local and global environments, and our mobile, technological world makes this more challenging. We also need to feel we can affect our environment – this is the essence of self-efficacy. To avoid fatalism, a key aspect of earth smarts is the realization that we can have positive impacts. This kind of empowerment is critical at the individual and community level.


This domain is moral, based on respect and justice, and and incorporates the importance of biological and cultural diversity. The focus on respect and justice suggests that the quality of life that earth smarts is based upon is not just yours – it applies to other individuals, communities, cultures, species, and ecosystems. If earth smarts is to be just, we must respect these “others”, and their right to maintain or improve their own quality of life. Empathizing with their existence and rights, we must seek to better our own lives without diminishing theirs. This moral grounding also requires us to think beyond our "selfish" genes by balancing individual rights with community responsibilities, a tension at the heart of social and environmental justice - navigating it requires moral development beyond simple right/wrong dualism. This domain benefits from skills included in the competencies domain, especially the ability to see multiple perspectives and the practical ethics skills to find compromises as we share resources and space with other stakeholders. Our children's children are at the heart of most definitions of sustainability - earth smarts requires some form of basic respect for the wellbeing of future generations, as we need to consider quality of life beyond the next economic boom or political cycle.


This domain consists of cognitive skills, rather than knowledge, and includes of a variety of pragmatic abilities and “manners of thinking”, including scientific reasoning, systems thinking, practical ethics, and community skills, the latter of which will vary considerably across cultures. As these are skills, they all require practice and mental development – when nurtured, they contribute to the ability to make reasonable decisions regarding complex, ill-structured problems, which environmental issues usually are. Incorporating modern research on cognition, the competencies domain also includes self-regulated learning, which encompasses metacognition, motivation and strategic action. From an ecological perspective, self-regulated learners might be considered as cognitively adaptable – they are able to respond to changes. In educational terms they are typically effective, lifelong learners. To maintain our quality of life, individuals and communities will need to quickly adapt to new information or changing conditions.

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