How Ecologically Literate Are Your Kids?

Health & Wellness on 05.25.11
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Photo: Kevin Krejci / Creative Commons

Do you know if your kids can indicate where north is? Do they know from which direction the prevailing winds come from? Can they name some plant species that grow locally? Do they know where their food comes from? Can they describe how the hydrological cycle works? The answers to these simple questions are hints as to how ecologically literate they might be.

What's ecological literacy?

Coined by environmental educator David Orr and physicist Fritjof Capra in the 1990’s, ‘ecological literacy’ or ‘eco-literacy’ is knowing the basic facts of the place or bioregion within which we live, even if it’s in a city. It’s also having a basic grasp of how ecological cycles work. Though it has roots in the extensive knowledge systems of traditional cultures, eco-literacy is part of a new kind of educational movement that emphasizes holistic ‘systems thinking’ grounded in science, problem-solving with interdependence, sustainability and the bigger picture in mind, instead of just relying on standardization, narrow specialization and piecemeal, technical know-how.

While the question of how ecologically literate your kids are may seem like a strange one to ask, it’s nevertheless a profoundly relevant question in our society, where many kids are increasingly raised by electronic surrogates like television, video games and computers. Kids nowadays spend their free time glued to screens instead of being out of doors -- a precious learning activity in of itself -- and completely foregoing a vital grounding in the ‘real world’.

Kids increasingly disconnected from natural world

The numbers speak for themselves: according to a recent Kasier Family Foundation study, American children between the ages of 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day indoors using computers, video games, television, and MP3 players, rather than playing outside. It’s become so prevalent that it now even has a name: nature deficit disorder.

It’s an unfortunate trend, because even in our highly technocratic culture, we cannot escape the fact that we are a part of nature and that our survival largely depends on the judicious use and conservation of the planet's natural resources, not to mention the fact that it's our home. We are at the mercy of ecological cycles that directly affect us, a truth that we ignore at our peril. 

Eco-literacy: essential to the survival of our species?

Yet, we ourselves also actively play a critical role in how severely our environment will affect us. Natural disasters like floods or tsunamis, for instance, are even more destructive when humans eliminate the wetlands that would have acted as a natural buffer. Droughts, landslides, desertification -- you name it, we’ve got a hand in them -- and it’s clear if you step back far enough to see the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that the very basic structures and institutions of our society are built upon an attitude of alienation from the natural world, overglorification of wasteful consumerism and rampant pollution, all of which are bound to have negative consequences on a finite planet. In that sense, it could even be argued that an ecologically literate population is essential to the survival of our species.

And it all starts with how we educate our kids. David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College, puts it this way:

In other words, the ecological crisis is in every way a crisis of education... All education is environmental education… by what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are part of or apart from the natural world.

So how do we remedy this apparent lack in conventional education? How can we properly prime our children to help solve the next generation of complex ecological, economic and social problems? There’s no simple answer, but I believe it begins by setting a firm foundation by boosting their eco-literacy -- and ours -- by starting with small, easy steps, which I’ll tackle in my next post. We’ve got nothing to lose -- except smarter kids and a healthier planet.

And here’s the bonus round: check out how you do with these 30 eco-literacy questions about “The Big Here”, compiled by conservationist and founding executive editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly.