“Climate change is like death, no one wants to talk about it.”
Why is environmental literacy a clarion call? Before answering this question, it would be better to understand first the environment and environmental literacy.
The word ‘environment’ is derived from the French word ‘environ’ which means our surroundings. Everything that surrounds or affects an organism during its life span is what we call environment. It affects our quality of life on earth. The air we breathe, the water we drink or the water that covers our earth surface, plants and animals around us and so on affect us in different ways.
Environmental literacy is our capacity as individuals to act collectively in our daily lives. Simply put, it is our understanding, our sensitivity, our appreciation and relationship with the natural world. It is basic knowledge of how we are connected with society, community and our natural system. To understand our relationship with them, we require awareness, skills, attitudes, lifestyles and promising engagement. Let us outline few essential components of what environmentally literate people do:
1) Civic participation and collective action.
2) Developing critical thinking and problem solving skills.
3) Acquiring sensitivity, appreciation and concern for the environment.
4) Motivating others in environmental protection and improvement.
5) Knowledge about the environment and its allied problems.
6) General awareness of attaining harmony with nature.
Environmental literacy is the outcome of environmental education. A literate person should have environmental education. Otherwise, they cannot be called environmentally literate. For this, we have an Environmental Literacy Plan (ELP). ELP refers to a state education plan about how ecosystems and human systems are interdependent, particularly how the consumption choices human beings make alter their ability to live sustainably.
Early humans adapted themselves to their natural surroundings. They led a very simple life and fulfilled their requirements from nature around them. But with the passage of time, humans acquired new skills and ways to modify the environment according to their needs. This modified environment is something which we know today as the anthropogenic environment. People gradually learnt to grow crops, domesticate animals and led a settled life. Thereafter, the wheel was invented, surplus food was produced, the barter system came, trade and commerce developed. Transportation became faster. Information revolution made communication easier and speedy across the world.
Some anthropogenic activities are – industrialisation, agricultural activities, the use of fossil fuels, urbanisation and mining, etc. The situation with industrialisation ultimately worsened. Every nation now wants to be developed and an economic superpower. To achieve this goal or target, each nation started utilising more and more natural resources. This finally led to cut-throat competition among nations. Grave consequences of this are over-exploitation of resources, air pollution, water pollution and compelling many other factors which result in the destruction of the environment.
Although, the environment and development are interrelated. We cannot separate one from the other. One cannot think about one without considering the other. But, if development is carried out without considering the environment sensibly, it might have a harmful repercussion on the environment. To overcome this repercussion, different laws, summits, conferences and Millennium Development Goals and conventions around the world have been held and brought into existence. But it seems that these proposed efforts never seriously applied in letter and spirit. Thus, the development of nations never achieved sustainability!
Universal literacy was once a goal for many of us. We now live in a society where people can read and write. Even in the 21st century, it seems to me a partial reality in a developing or underdeveloped country. We are still facing the ‘poor literacy’ problem. Years ago, literacy was not the biggest obstacle in employability but it is today, in a technology-driven society.
In any modern society, different types of literacy are of paramount importance such as media literacy, scientific and technological literacy. Science and technology have largely affected our lives the way things drastically change and developments take place. The urgent need for environmental literacy goes for similar arguments.
With population explosion and increasing demands of employability, reckless use and over-exploitation of natural resources expedited. we now actively witness this physical, chemical, and geological change.
Various types of pollution such as air, water, noise, waste and thermal have changed the capacity of the atmosphere. Burning of fossil fuel is one such factor among others. We have changed the course of rivers and reservoirs. Climate change is a long term shift in weather conditions identified by climatic factors and other factors. Due to natural and man-made causes of climate change, we see sunspot activity, global temperature, change in Earth’s movement, volcanic activity, tsunamis, earthquakes, flood, cyclones, drought, cloudbursts, landslides, rise in sea level, melting of ice, change in ocean currents, etc. and their impact on biodiversity and human health.
How did these things happen? It happened simply due to the scale and distribution of our population, demands, choices, lifestyles and ignorance. For many of us, ignorance is bliss. This is where environmental literacy becomes the clarion call for us to do anything to protect our planet, conserve its natural resources and save our environment by minimizing our energy consumption and embracing alternative energy sources so that every living being can have an improved quality of life.
Now, the question arises: how can we have this environmental literacy? Everyone makes decisions now consciously or unconsciously. These decisions will have implications for natural systems – as a worker, as a student, as a parent of a family or as a member of any community. The way we eat, we dress, our choices, our use of transports or recreational activities or amusements, our legal, social, economic system, work, etc. – all impact our natural surroundings.
In short, the way we live our daily lives will have a significant impact on the environment. The remarkable point of environmental literacy is to understand the effects of our choices and stopping unnecessary damages to the environment which has been done due to our ignorance.
One more question comes to our mind at this point is how can we understand which choices of ours would be considered as sound or how would we be overcoming the ignorance of making choices. Well! The aim of having widespread environmental literacy would be the result of the content and process of our education. In terms of content, we need to understand the science of our interaction with nature. But understanding that must involve the complexity of questions and the limitation of our knowledge about the environment.
Why a limitation of knowledge? Since such scientific knowledge is meant to be understood or yet to be discovered. Many of the things people do in their daily lives are done without being aware of its effect. We need to understand the implications.
To understand this, let’s take a few examples. Farmers do farming but they may not know the changing patterns of land use. Foresters manage forests but they may not know about the effects of managing woodland on river systems. Transport experts build roads or develop urban transport systems but may not understand the travelling effects of the socio-dynamics of the city, on local air quality. These problems need to be addressed and taught. Since the complexity of natural systems (ever-changing) and human interaction with them are not easy to understand. We need here sustainability science – a new style of scientific inquiry and body of knowledge.
At this point, it seems pertinent to quote Barry Commoner, perhaps known as the world’s best ecologist. Commoner stated in his 1971 book The Closing Circle, “We are in an environmental crisis because the means by which we use the ecosphere to produce wealth are destructive of the ecosphere itself. The present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is suicidal.”
The key content of education for environmental literacy is his four ‘laws of ecology,’ which he outlined in the first chapter of The Closing Circle. These are
1) Everything is connected to everything else;
2) Everything must go somewhere;
3) Nature knows best; and
4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Most of our environmental problems directly arise from our inability to understand the above-stated basic ideas. Now coming to the process of environmental literacy, we would like to argue that the obvious demand for education is the process of knowledge in general and scientific knowledge in particular. Traditional knowledge of science is a ‘revelation of a fixed body of knowledge’ and is hence questionable.
Science is not a stable body of knowledge but an evolving one. Therefore, environmental science should be taught as a process of understanding rather than a body of knowledge. We must have both the basic knowledge of the local environment and a general understanding of the complex natural systems at a global level.
The growing environmental concerns provoked the world to come up with plans and policies for the integration of Environmental Education in schools and higher education. In 1991, the Supreme Court of India gave a ruling that Environmental Education course should be mandatory at the undergraduate level, which provides an opportunity to introduce sustainable development issues to higher education. It also gave directions to the University Grants Commissions (UGC) for providing grants for higher education and making policy framework for higher educational institutions to ensure the delivery of the EE course.
The need for imparting such education is to make people ecologically sensitive, to change the careless attitude of people and make them responsible global citizens. In brief, the goal of such education is to bring environmental literacy to all.