Teaching for the Environment
What is Environmental Literacy?

What is Environmental Literacy?

The 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:

"The 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....." [Orr 155]

David Orr 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.

Orr also 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.

Stephen 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.

From this 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.

Environmental 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.


[1] Orr, David W. Ecological Literacy : Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1992. (page 155)

[2] Schneider, Stephen. "Defining Environmental Literacy." TREE, 12(11), 1997, pg. 457.

[3] Amanda Bobick, student in Science & Technology for the Environment at CMU, 2001.

  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.