Ecoliteracy – From Knowledge To Action
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Is Ecoliteracy All Talk And No Action?

Does the acquisition and the application of knowledge about our environment offer a solution to the ecological crisis created by humans? Or is ecoliteracy all talk and no action? As a biologist, I have encountered situations where I wonder if my knowledge can help change the worldview of humans that I have encountered. I live near an estuary that is a legally protected area. This fresh water estuary is connected to a salt water sea. The estuary is a birthplace and a nursery to many creatures that  eventually live in the open sea. The estuary is also an important waypoint for migrating birds.  And this estuary, through tidal flow, moves valuable nutrients to its connected body of salt water.

The government established a set of rules created by trained biologists and ecologists that are meant to help preserve this internationally important (RAMSAR) wetland ecosystem. These rules are posted  in various places in two languages. Tours of this estuary are offered to the public. A visitor center offers much information about this estuary. The idea behind offering ecological information in various forms is based on the premise that environmental education is a great conservation strategy. But is it?

About 80% of the visitors to this estuary either follow the posted rules or become educated and then follow the rules. The remaining 20%  refuse to follow any rules and are openly belligerent. Their reasons for not cooperating are usually centered around personal inconvenience or resentment toward education and modern science.

As a trained biologist who has actively participated with highly competent colleagues in developing ecological management plans, I become deeply disappointed to find people who openly despise ecoliteracy and resent scientists. I am left with a sense of helplessness when I find people, like climate change deniers, who refuse to participate in caring for their earthly home. Their immediate personal comfort, their economic standing,  their over-consumption and their passion for economic growth are far more important to them than caring for the environment that sustains them.

As I searched for some perspective regarding this problem, I came across a report by the Worldwatch Institute entitled State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability.  Much of this report offered me some needed perspective on the current state of ecoliteracy within our world community.

In this report, Monty Hempel, Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Redlands, says:

“In the early 1990s, Oberlin College professor David Orr coined the term “ecological literacy” (or ecoliteracy) to describe people’s ability to understand the complex natural systems that enable and support life on Earth. It embodied the implicit assumption that if humans were more ecoliterate, then we would be more likely to respect the limits of those systems and to create communities that operate harmoniously within the natural world— the key requirement of sustainability. Colleges and universities around the world have since launched hundreds of programs that aim to raise the level of ecoliteracy among students and, to some extent, within society at large.”

“Today, this kind of ecoliteracy has disappeared in most places, and with it the fundamental sense of connection that people had with the natural world. Restoring ecoliteracy to this connective role and fortifying it with the power of science and widespread recognition of global interdependence is perhaps the greatest challenge of this century.”

If all 7.2 billion of us were to somehow be given generous access to environmental education, would it make a major difference in the measureable outcomes for climate disruption, extinction rates, global freshwater availability, and so forth ? The answer from social scientists appears to be a resounding “No!”

Ecoliteracy must look beyond the study of scientific fact. Environmental education must  find ways to engage a new and wider audience. An audience that includes the naysayers of the world who deny what modern science has discovered. These naysayers, led by the current (2018) president of the United States, must be somehow be invited to help build a sustainable future for human beings. This essay series explores what can be done to create a convincing invitation to join a sustainable future for humans on our planet.

David Orr says:

“Conventional environmental environmental wisdom in the West holds that people who are educated about ecosystems and their interactions with human social systems will follow scientific reasoning to its inevitable conclusion: protect the environment! But the climate change debate, along with public debates about many other global environmental crises (biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc) is confusing this conventional wisdom.”

“Among people who identify with strong individualism and who also rank human importance by power, wealth, or other factors, the concern about climate risks varies inversely with scientific knowledge. More education leads to a reduction in environmental concern.  These findings suggest that certain groups use education more to justify pre-existing worldviews than to enlighten themselves with new knowledge and ways of knowing. Many researchers conclude that this knowledge-for-justification tendency is universal and varies only by degree of application. There is a selective and self serving use of knowledge applied to maintain the status quo and to deny new knowledge. ”

This self serving use of ecological information has become obvious to me where I live. There are two condominium projects on a beach very close to the estuary protected area that I mentioned earlier in this essay. The condominium occupants insist on illegally walking their dogs in this protected area despite the presence of sea turtle nests and the impact of the dogs on local and migrating bird life. Signs with maps are posted along this beach prohibiting dogs. However, the condominium occupants have gotten together and developed their own interpretation of the language on the signs. When confronted, a person with a dog will purposely misinterpret the meaning of a map on the sign and argue that the sign does permit dog walking.

“Never before has wealth commanded so much power or been so concentrated—even to the point of threatening civilized life. Wealth becomes unable to offer, not just a better future, but any future.

“The upshot is that the public capacity to solve public problems has diminished sharply. The power of democratic governments has eroded, and the power of the private sector, banks, financial institutions, and corporations has risen.

A “crisis of crises,” exists. Each crisis is amplified by the other crises. A rapidly warming Earth occupied by 10 billion people and 193 nation-states, some armed with nuclear weapons, some clinging to ancient religious and ethnic hatreds, and still others holding fast to their economic and political advantages, threatens the survival of civilization.”

Many people perceive environmental education to be deeply contaminated by values claims and frequent exaggeration. Even if free and convenient, such education will be rejected by a large percentage of the population on grounds that it undermines their ideals of personal liberty, or perhaps their ideal of unfettered market economies.

More important, learning and the knowledge that environmental education produces, leads to positive action only under very limited conditions. Knowing that change is needed is clearly not enough to motivate it in most human behavior. Individuals must have a sense of urgency and personal control over prospective outcomes and goal achievement (“ self-efficacy”) before they will commit to meaningful action or new behaviors. A major barrier to public mobilization on climate and other global environmental issues is the psychological distance involved in moving from abstract environmental data (e.g., global mean temperature) to more immediate concerns about how local impacts, such as climate disruption of drought cycles in a particular area, may affect one’s personal prosperity or family security.

The opportunity to connect emotionally and physically with nature and wildlife has declined steadily.

Most important, there is a kind of distancing that helps to explain the failure to promote ecoliteracy when and where it is most needed. As the boundaries of the natural world recede in the face of rapid human development, people who are disconnected from nature have less motivation to learn more about it. The consequences are especially important for children, as suggested by recent book titles, such as “Last Child in the Woods” and “Free-Range Kids”. The psychological distance separating the urbanized places where most humans reside from the shrinking remnants of natural landscape has never been greater. 

Poor ecoliteracy remains a sign of crisis in education.

Ecoliteracy across vast segments of the public remains appallingly low. Much attention in environmental education  has been devoted to the classroom teaching of fact and the giving of exams. For the most part, we teach in indoor classrooms, not in Nature. We usually avoid endorsing social or political action because prescription in education is frowned upon, or viewed as politically partisan and fraught with abuses of social engineering. We teach students that knowledge is power, but the exercise of power (i.e., action) is usually treated as a dirty process best left to unscrupulous politicians. Not surprisingly, the effect of such preferences on ecoliteracy usually means that a student’s knowledge of, say, the carbon cycle will count for much more, educationally, than their personal efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The challenge for ecoliteracy in our time is to join the power of scientific fact and the joy of emotional attachment to Nature by connecting the worlds of thought, feeling, and action. 

Developing emotional connections to the natural world— to wild places, natural beauty, native plants, wildlife, and healthy ecosystems— is at least as important for protecting the environment as breakthroughs in environmental science, policy, and management. Weaving together attachment to place with scientific knowledge about that place (and its relationships with other places) is vital for effectively managing the environmental challenges we face.

An equally important goal for ecoliteracy is spreading its teachings to those who have not had the opportunity to participate in environmental education programs.

This would involve expansion of a human consciousness for Nature’s interconnected and interdependent energy flow that  is essential to all life on Earth. What follows in this series of essays is the offering of ideas for the expansion and application of ecoliteracy within the human race. In particular, the building of a consciousness that all life on Earth is interrelated and interdependent. Nothing on Earth exists in isolation. These essays will include:

  • Reviewing environmental education in more detail.
  • Legacy building.
  • Empowering our youth.

 

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays that present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   These ideas come from some of our modern great thinkers. Typically, these essays will be paraphrased quotes from books and papers authored by these people along with Internet references. The emphasis will typically be on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview includes the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and place-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the the passing of this consciousness to future generations.

Here is a current list of essays about ecoliteracy. This list will expand with time.

Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.

If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

 

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

7 Responses to “Ecoliteracy – From Knowledge To Action”

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