“The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance. Sometimes the balance is in his favor; sometimes – and all too
often through his own activities – it is shifted to his disadvantage.” Rachel Carson (from “Silent Spring”)
Allowed to exist in a natural state, the interconnected ecosystems of our environment and the substrates that support them would continue to function in a dynamic perpetual balance. The geologic and fossil records document the natural fluctuations and cycles of this natural balance that have occurred throughout Earth’s approximate 4.6 billion years. Yet, in the last 15,000 years or so as the population of a relative newcomer and recently civilized species, Homo sapiens or as we are better known, “Humankind”, has grown and migrated throughout the world, the impact of our increase has left an unmistakable footprint on the natural world, our environment.
Since the onset of the mid-eighteenth century Industrial Revolution, the quality of life and economic growth of the western world have reached an unprecedented momentum. A new breed of entrepreneurs, financiers and industrialists were raised up that would soon change not only the face of the land but challenge the ethics behind our values for it. More than two hundred years of industrialization that brought fossil fuel combustion, industrial, consumer and commercial waste and toxicity, and natural resource depletion have faced us with serious decisions for our future (Senge 2010).
The twentieth century was a watershed in our country’s environmental protection and conservation legislation (Lewis, 2005). But in the last forty years, an ever-expanding, ever consuming human population has incessantly demanded natural resources, open space and agricultural lands, and has become embroiled in heated debates over energy consumption and general health issues directly related to environmental degradation and resource depletion. The resulting environmental crisis appears to have divided our ideologies and polarized our value systems.
In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm declared that Environmental Education must be used as a tool to address global problems. Subsequently, the course of environmental education has been set by three major declarations created by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (North American Association for Environmental Education 2011).
In 1975 the International Workshop on Environmental Education held in Belgrade, Serbia produced the Belgrade Charter which set a framework of goals for environmental education consisting of knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment.
A study by the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation on environmental Literacy in America found that “a higher level of environmental knowledge correlates significantly with a higher degree of pro-environmental behavior” (Coyle, 2005).
Before the United Nations declared it as the means to address the problem, environmental education was not a new concept when the public’s attention was turned towards the looming crisis in the 1960’s with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or even with the First National Environmental Teach-In in 1970. In the early 18th century, Romanticists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau emphasized the value of an education that focuses on the environment in Emile or, On Education (Delaney, 2005). In the late 19th century, Louis Aggassiz, Swiss naturalist, led the “nature study movement” by encouraging his young students to learn from the “direct observation of natural phenomenon rather than learning about the outdoors from books” (Armitage, 2009).
Later, during the Great Depression, Conservation Education emerged and led to early efforts to bring about the prudent use of natural resources by infusing conservation education into American schools by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), a department of the National Education Association (NEA) of the United States. The AASA appointed the 1951 Yearbook Commission on Conservation Education in American Schools with instructions to “explore the role of the nation’s schools in the area of conservation education” (Administrators, 1951).
As a result, Conservation Education in American Schools Twenty-Ninth Yearbook was published to guide school administrators in defining the broad areas of the school’s responsibility towards education of the wise use of natural resources. The “Yearbook” (1951) contained instructional information on teaching wise resource use and included chapters such as “Guides for School Programs in Conservation Education” and “Some Good Practices in Rural/City Schools.” The result was that children in both rural and urban areas of the country came to understand the natural processes that occur in their environment because schools were “incorporating units of study on conservation into existing natural or social science courses” (p 66).
The children of that generation soon became the young men and women of the environmental movement of the 1970’s and subsequently, by 1990, the National Environmental Education Act was passed. However, while the demand and need for environmental education has been positive, there have been several obstacles that have left the majority of Americans environmentally illiterate. The result is “an American society incapable of achieving the environmentally sustainable growth that alone will maintain and enhance a high quality of life.” (Campaign for Environmental Literacy, 2007).
In February 2005, the Campaign for Environmental Literacy was established “as a response to the environmental education community’s vital need for concerted support from the federal government” (Campaign For Environmental Literacy, 2007). The Campaign operates under Public Interest Project (PIP), a 501(c) (3) grant-making public charity that seeks to foster a movement for positive social change. As to why environmental education is important, the Campaign (2007) responds:
“Creating a scientifically informed citizenry requires a concerted, systematic approach to environmental education…At the same time, business leaders increasingly believe that an environmentally literate workforce is critical to their long term success and profitability, with better environmental practices and improved efficiencies impacting positively on the bottom line while helping to better position and prepare their companies for the future.”
In defining environmental literacy, the Campaign (2007) describes it thusly:
“The test of environmental literacy is the capacity of an individual to act successfully in daily life on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems, and how they might do so sustainably. This requires sufficient awareness, knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to incorporate appropriate environmental considerations into daily decisions about consumption, lifestyle, career, and civics, and to engage in individual and collective action.”
According to the Campaign (2007), “Environmental literacy has made tremendous progress since 1970, securing inroads within the nation’s formal and informal educational systems. Today, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 2.5 million K-12 teachers include Environmental Education (EE) in their classrooms, and the majority of all students at over half of all colleges take an environmental course – just two examples of the broad reach of environmental education.”
Although Americans have been exposed to environmental education, it has become widely recognized that there is still a lack of knowledge and information that the American public would need to make enlightened decisions and be properly informed on issues regarding public health, natural resources, energy conservation, and efforts towards a sustainable future. “The public needs true education on the environment” (Coyle, 2005).
The utilitarian view that the natural world and all its resources are exclusively available for society’s benefit is a prevailing perception “not only within American society but within most academic disciplines and subjects as well” (Campaign for Environmental Literacy, 2007).
As stated by Saylan and Blumstein (2011, p.27)
“It is critical that environmental education teach the concept of individual responsibility, just as traditional education teaches respect for the law and order or as religious education teaches its respective version of morality. This must become a fundamental aspect of the environmental educational approach if we are to fix the environment we teach about.”
Assessing Environmental Literacy
By 1977, a Global Framework for Environmental Education delivered a goal statement and objectives for Environmental Education, and by inference, for environmental literacy:
- Awareness of the relationship between the environment and human life,
- Knowledge and understanding of human and natural systems and processes,
- Disposition or attitudes of appreciation and concern for the environment,
- Behavior or the capacity for personal and collective action and civic participation.
Primary Content Domains and Interrelated Components for the Framework of Environmental Literacy as clarified by UNESCO in 1978 (NAAEE 2011).
- Knowledge of physical and ecological systems
- Knowledge of environmental issues
- Sociopolitical knowledge
- Knowledge of strategies for addressing environmental issues
Dispositions (attitudes) toward the Environment
- Locus of control or efficacy (belief in ability to bring positive change)
- Responsibility for positive actions
- Intentions to act (indications of actions to prevent future problems)
The North American Association for Environmental Education (“NAAEE”) prepared the report, Assessing Environmental Literacy – A Proposed Framework for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 (NAAEE, 2011) under a grant from the United States National Science Foundation (“NSF”) which structured a conceptual framework for assessing environmental literacy as defined by the 1977 UNESCO statement.
The cultivation of effective environmental awareness is needed to enable an environmentally “literate” citizenry. A higher level of environmental knowledge correlates significantly with a higher degree of environmental behavior (Coyle 2005).
The Emergent Ecological Consciousness
Yet, Knowledge is inanimate without Attitude. The empirical Knowledge component of environmental literacy must be brought forth to an effective change in Attitude, quickened by the “primal connection of the human psyche and the living biosphere” (Louv 2011).
This “mind/nature” connection is the primal, ever-present ecological consciousness that emerges upon the deeply empathetic and wholly aesthetic appreciation of nature which is “cognitively informed by natural history and scientific understanding” (Carlson A. and A. Berleant, 2004).
“An ecological model of consciousness has significant implications for education” (Morris, 2002). Interdisciplinary environmental education
courses which could be integrated into any educational level curriculum become the first step towards achieving this change of consciousness through education in environmental awareness, environmental ethics and an aesthetic appreciation of the natural world.
Perhaps, as in the eighteenth century and for the following 150 years, before the onslaught of the industrial revolution that changed the history and condition of humanity, the study of nature by children unfettered in unstructured time and thinking and allowed to explore led by their naturally feral curiosity, may once again revive the cooperative and humble relationship humans shared with the natural world that conceived them.
An environmentally literate citizenry will be best prepared to responsibly address the issues of sustainability for the future.
Administrators, A. A. (1951). Conservation Education in American Schools. Washington DC: National Education Association of the United States.
Armitage, K. C. (2009). The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Campaign for Environmental Literacy. (2007). Retrieved January 9, 2012, from Campaign For Environmental Literacy: http://www.fundee.org/facts/envlit/
Carlson, A. &. Berleant (2004). The Aesthetics of Natural Environments. Ontario: Broadview Press Ltd.
Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental Literacy in America. Washington DC: National Environmental Education & Training Foundation.
Lewis, J. G. (2005). The Forest Service and The Greatests Good: A Centennial History. Durham: The Forest History Society.
Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Morris, M. (2002). Ecological Consciousness and Curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 571-587.
NAAEE. (2011). Assessing Environmental Literacy – A Proposed Framework for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015. Washington DC: North American Association for Environmental Education.
Saylan, C. and Blumstein (2011). The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Senge, P. (2010). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.