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From Knowledge to Behavior

The preoccupation in science with objective knowledge begs the question of whether more knowledge is the key to solving or managing impending global environmental crises. We may all be sailing on what William Ophuls calls an “antiecological Titanic.” But the iceberg in this case has less to do with the

Table 4–1. Factors Contributing to Eco-Complacency and Disbelief

knowledge that lies beneath the surface than with the looming ambivalence, even hostility, toward meager actions to prevent or reduce the threat. Much attention in environmental education and risk communication has been devoted to the “knowledge deficit” theory of social change when the real issue appears to be a behavior deficit. Even if ecoliteracy as we now define it could somehow pass through the filters of the human psyche undiminished and undistorted, would it be enough to change the course of our “Titanic?”

The behavior deficit seems to exist with or without added ecological knowledge. Is this gap between knowledge and action inevitable? Or is it the result of the way that most of us acquire knowledge? In other words, is failure among the ecoliterate to take action commensurate with the perceived threat a sign of education's limits, or might it be a failure to instill knowledge about action—personal, political, and social—into learning?

How we define and teach ecoliteracy poses interesting challenges for today's educators. For the most part, we teach in indoor classrooms, not in nature. We usually avoid endorsing social or political action because prescription in education is frowned upon, or viewed as politically partisan and fraught with abuses of social engineering. We teach students that knowledge is power, but the exercise of power (i.e., action) is usually treated as a dirty process best left to sausage makers and unscrupulous politicians. Evaluating student action or behavior change is generally shunned as being too difficult and controversial, leading to a professional preference for assessing conventional learning objectives and knowledge performance. Not surprisingly, the effect of such preferences on ecoliteracy usually means that a student's knowledge of, say, the carbon cycle will count for much more, educationally, than their personal efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Granting that ecoliteracy across vast segments of the public remains appallingly low, it is nevertheless unclear whether ignorance in this case is more of a cause or an effect (i.e., psychological defense mechanism) of growing environmental threats. Failure to act in a timely and sufficient manner cannot be explained by deficiencies in education alone.

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