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Restoring and Expanding Ecoliteracy

Scientists are able to assess the health of our planet to an unprecedented extent, due largely to advanced ground sensors and satellite monitoring. We have never before had so many pertinent facts at our disposal, not to mention mountains of data. At the same time, science and technology have introduced so much complexity into the systems that shape our lives that truths about what really matters in the long term may be harder than ever to discover.

Ecoliteracy is the principal way that we make sense out of the interacting systems that support life on this tiny blue planet. It is, first and foremost, an expression of a particular type of ecological knowledge that is testable and authoritative. We know from the scientific study of ecosystems and the basic laws of thermodynamics that much of what we call the “environment” is in fact a stunningly intricate system of cycles and flows that regulate the life-support conditions for millions of species and ecological communities. Ecoliteracy begins with knowledge of this interdependence and how it sustains the biosphere.

The goal of ecoliteracy has arguably become the ultimate aim of the Enlightenment, combining a strong emphasis on integrative systems-thinking with deep respect for the authority of science. Conventional 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 confounding the conventional wisdom.

Debates about these environment challenges are not fundamentally contests between the educated and the ignorant. A growing body of research concludes that polarization of views about climate disruption and other complex risks (e.g., nuclear power plants) actually increases with improvement in scientific literacy and numeracy. Among people who identify with strong individualism and rank human importance by power, wealth, or other factors—so-called hierarchical individualists—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-forjustification tendency is universal and varies only by degree of application. Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, for example, argues that human abilities to justify harmful environmental practices are so strong and pervasive that society should develop strict moral sanctions to limit their use.

The selective use of knowledge to avoid self-censure or to promote group bonding is well known among social scientists. Scholars refer to this phenomenon by many different names, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and cultural cognition. Combining this idea with long-studied phenomena of “groupthink” and cognitive dissonance theory, researchers have woven together a persuasive but unflattering account of human reason and its self-serving uses. The importance of these research findings for the environmental science community in general, and for climate scientists in particular, is in understanding how to communicate better and to present scientific findings in tradeoff terms when they somehow threaten the dominant values and institutions of the status quo. Equally important are the insights made by scientists themselves, as human beings who remain vulnerable to these self-serving tendencies.

The degree to which science-based notions of ecoliteracy are influential appears to depend on the types of environmental problems to which they are applied. Broadly speaking, there are three basic types of major environmental problems:

Familiar problems: These are straightforward and usually solvable with enough political will because they share three characteristics: the environmental science behind them is essentially settled and accepted by the public; the proposed solutions have been demonstrated and are considered “best practice” for the time; and there are politically powerful interests that will benefit from the solutions. Examples include “end-of-pipe” pollution, lost biodiversity, and human population growth.

Frontier problems: These problems invariably defy quick action because their solutions require new knowledge in science, policy analysis, and management for effective design. They involve large areas of ignorance, risk, and uncertainty, not because their causes are overwhelmingly complex but because they are novel or exploding in scale (i.e., reaching a tipping point) and, until recently, obscure or accepted (neglected) as tolerable “externalities.” Examples include toxics in food and water, ocean acidification, and lost ecosystem services.

Foresight problems: This class of problems, sometimes termed “wicked,” places almost impossible demands on human forecasting and policy analysis. Foresight problems are mired in ambiguity, ignorance, contradiction, and chronic indeterminacy. They require a “system-of-systems” level of understanding that identifies complex interdependencies and apparent contradictions in system behavior. Their solutions must be adaptive and evolving because these interdependencies and apparent contradictions inevitably distort the scientific understanding of their complex behavior. Such problems are easily framed and rationalized by all sides in a dispute in incompatible ways that permit no “solution” to emerge, while allowing all parties to claim, with some supporting evidence, that they are being reasonable. Examples include climate disruption, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and a variety of as-yet “unknown unknowns.”

Foresight problems can be viewed as frontier problems with a distinctive twist: their novelty or uncertainty is accompanied by a scale of complexity and long-term risk that, for many people, makes denial and disbelief preferable to action and planning. As such, foresight problems pose severe tests for democratic governance, particularly in light of the presumed knowledge deficiencies that hinder informed public deliberation.

All three types of problems are consequences in some way of unsustainable lifestyles and values; however, a relatively small number of people accounts for a large portion of the observed problems or impacts. Ecoliteracy, conceived solely as ecological science, can conveniently skirt these moral and political issues, but when it is treated in the broader context of environmental education, the issues of personal responsibility and social equity become inescapable. Because it is fundamentally misleading and self-defeating to treat ecoliteracy as science alone, it is preferable to adopt the broader view that any ecoliteracy worth having will include ethical, cultural, and political dimensions. The aim of environmental education should be a transdisciplinary form of ecoliteracy that includes experiential learning, knowledge of personal and social responsibility, and understanding of the roles of governance and communication in moving from knowledge to action.

Although most of the pioneers of ecoliteracy, such as David Orr and Fritjof Capra, understood from the outset the need to integrate environmental knowledge with political and ethical action, the typical understanding of ecoliteracy remains bounded by the science of ecology. Deep ecologists have often been outspoken in challenging this singular scientific focus. But others, who presume that formal knowledge leads inevitably to action, need no support outside of science to justify their calls for more “STEM” education (science, technology, engineering, and math). When they discover that even climate scientists tend to leave large carbon footprints, they are likely to dismiss the finding as the last vestige of behavioral momentum—habits that prove hard to break. In their view, knowledge will soon triumph and force consistent action to control personal carbon emissions.

Revising the conventional notion of ecoliteracy—and models of environmental education in general—seems fully in keeping with lessons learned from adaptive management of ecosystems. Moreover, just as approaches to general education have had to be reconceived in an era of fast-changing information and communication technology, so too may ecoliteracy need rethinking in order to respond effectively to the three types of environmental problems mentioned previously. Widespread ecoliteracy, for instance, would probably have a major positive influence on action needed for “familiar” problems, and would perhaps provide a significant push for some “frontier” problems. But could it contribute much to the solution of “foresight”

A march in Brussels against Monsanto and its development of GMOs.

problems, which appear to challenge global environmental governance most urgently and divisively?

If all 7.2 billion of us were somehow given generous access to environmental education, would it make a major difference in the measurable outcomes for climate disruption, extinction rates, global freshwater availability, and so forth? The answer from social scientists appears to be a resounding “No!” First, effective environmental education tends to threaten many dominant, deeply held values and worldviews, thus relegating it to suspect status among those seeking only a selective exposure (if any at all) to ecological knowledge. Learning that helps us avoid environmentally induced illness will be treated differently than learning that challenges our freedom to have as many children as we want, consume at high levels, or drive fuel-inefficient cars.

Second, 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.

Third, and most important, learning and the knowledge that it produces lead 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.

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