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Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough

Monty Hempel

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.

Yet the results have been mixed, and serious questions remain. For example, is ecoliteracy just a green version of scientific literacy? Is improving ecoliteracy the key to stronger environmental governance? Will it enable us to address the host of pressing sustainability problems that we face—especially runaway climate disruption?

These questions were on the minds of 10 American college students during a recent research expedition in the Republic of Palau, a coral Eden of nearly 300 islands located about 800 kilometers east of the Philippines. When asked if the climate was changing in Palau, a local fisherman replied: “Of course it is. We all know it. But it doesn't matter what we think unless you guys in the U.S. know it, too.” He pointed to coral bleaching events, seasonal shifts in rainfall and wind direction, and rising spring tides. Then he observed, slowly shaking his head, “It's not science; only what every eagle ray already knows.”

The spotted eagle ray is a totem spirit for some traditional Palauans. It symbolizes a kind of indigenous, place-based knowledge about ecology that may yet serve to refi and strengthen Western understanding of ecoliteracy and its role in environmental governance. Roaming the waters of a coral reef, the spotted eagle ray may or may not be a good indicator of climate conditions, but the fact that many islanders know the ray's habitat needs, including water temperature, suggests a form of cultural ecoliteracy that could prove useful in monitoring climate impacts on coral reef ecosystems.

The islanders' knowledge of the eagle ray represents the pre-scientific era of ecology—a time when practical understanding of one's bioregion was highly valued, even necessary for survival. It was a time when being able to “read” one's environment was essential for securing food, water, personal safety, and other requisites of a more self-sufficient way of life. (Granted, this practical knowledge was often used destructively to exploit natural resources.) 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. Meeting that challenge will require both scientific learning and visceral learning about humanity's place in the great web of life. It also will require forms of governance that can effectively apply this blend of ecological and emotional intelligence in the creation of more sustainable communities—place-based communities that are green, prosperous, fair, and “glocally” embedded in international and transnational networks of ecoliterate citizens.

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. Such braided concepts of ecoliteracy hold enormous promise for improving environmental governance, particularly in response to a global set of interlocking, slow-motion crises, beginning with climate disruption.

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