is Environmental Literacy?
overall objective of this course of study is to provide the students a
solid foundation for environmental literacy. Environmental literacy is
a difficult concept to define. David Orr, environmental educator, ethicist,
and author, poses the multiplicity of questions that the quest for environmental
literacy brings in his book Ecological Literacy1:
crisis of sustainability and the problems of education are in large
measure a crisis of knowledge. But is the problem as is commonly believed,
that we do not know enough? Or that we know too much? or that we do
not enough about some things and too much about other things? Or is
it that our scientific methods are in some ways flawed? Is it that we
have forgotten things we need to remember? Or is it that we have forgotten
other ways of knowing that lie in the realm of vision, intuition, revelation,
empathy, or even common sense? Such questions are not asked often enough....."
cites Garrett Hardin's definition of ecological literacy as "the
ability to ask 'What then?'," and goes on to say that in addition
to the ability to read and calculate (literacy and numeracy--both indoor
activities of education), ecological literacy also implies an intimate
knowledge of our landscapes, and an affinity for the living world. It
is, too, a systemic view, "to see things in their wholeness"
[Orr 92]. Following this philosophy, we both present the environmental
issues in terms of systems and in an interdisciplinary fashion. This approach
means that we cannot simplify or abstract problems to a level where their
connections to the context are lost. The analytical modes of teaching
we often use, especially in science courses, often abstract problems from
the context in the perceived interest of clarity and simplicity. But this
clarity is deceptive, because, devoid of context--and hence apparent relevance--the
ideas do not stay with the students.
discusses the importance of a "sense of place" in ecological
thinking. To this we would add the importance of a "sense of time".
Discussing today's "technological imperative", philosopher Hans
Jonas has pointed out that the ubiquity and "causal pregnancy of
technology" has increased our reach in space and time to an unprecedented
level. This trend, he argues, calls for a new ethic and responsibility
for the technological age. The ethics of responsibility and care are essential
to our definition of environmental literacy.
Schneider, climatologist, popular author, and educator, states that it
is "an unattainable goal to expect students to gain a detailed knowledge
about the content of all environmentally relevant disciplines." Instead,
he proposes that students should be taught how to ask three questions
to the experts that include "what can happen," "what are
the odds," and "how do you know." 2
He argues that students do not need to know the technical aspects of opposing
views, but they should have the skill to evaluate the credibility of the
process. Though we agree with much of what Schneider discusses, our thrust
in the curriculum is that to understand the answers to those three questions,
the student needs a basic level of understanding about the science, technology,
and policy associated with the issues.
discussion, we conclude that environmental literacy is the capability
for a contextual and detailed understanding of an environmental problem
in order to enable analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and ultimately sound
and informed decision making at a citizen's level. This means that "environmentally
literate" students will have the knowledge, tools, and sensitivity
to properly address an environmental problem in their professional capacity,
and to routinely include the environment as one of the considerations
in their work and daily living.
literacy is about practices, activities, and feelings grounded in familiarity
and sound knowledge. Just as reading becomes second nature to those who
are literate, interpreting and acting for the environment ideally would
become second nature to the environmentally literate citizen. We take
the idea of literacy a step farther, intending not only an "understanding
of the language of the environment, but also its grammar, literature,
and rhetoric."3 It involves understanding
the underlying scientific and technological principles, societal and institutional
value systems, and the spiritual, aesthetic, ethical and emotional responses
that the environment invokes in all of us.
Orr, David W. Ecological Literacy : Education and the Transition to
a Postmodern World, Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1992. (page 155)
Schneider, Stephen. "Defining Environmental Literacy." TREE,
12(11), 1997, pg. 457.
Amanda Bobick, student in Science & Technology for the Environment
at CMU, 2001.