Challenges of Working Towards an Environmentally Literate Society


“If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the Wilderness Act in 1964

Looking forward there is potential for a rich, environmentally sustainable future, as well as for a future where we face turmoil and collapse. Each day I read articles full of hope and articles full of depressing science, leaving me full of uncertainty as to what kind of planet my children will inherit from us. As problems grow, the need for an environmentally literate society is increasing rapidly. The job of environmental educators and interpreters is not an easy one, as we face many challenges. Three challenges that stand out in my mind include: the belief that we have to choose between the Economy or the Environment, the difficulties facing our schools and youth, and casual disconnect.

The Economy vs. The Environment

As I was reading through chapter one of Environmental Literacy in America, the following statement caught my attention: “Although women consistently register higher support for the environment over the economy, and more support for additional environmental regulation….” (Emphasis mine). Perhaps this statement caught my attention because I have been subjected over the past few months to political advertisements proclaiming the perils of putting the environment over the economy and jobs. It seems, these days, that many people believe that you are either for the environment or you are for the economy–that some environmental degradation is the price we pay for modern society and by trying to protect the environment we are destroying jobs and the economy.

According to the Global Footprint Network, on August 22, 2012 we passed what they refer to as “Earth Overshoot Day.” Earth Overshoot Day refers to the day when  “humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year… For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Batker and de Graffe (2011) refer to this as the Sustainability Paradox: “Never in human history have we been more successful and powerful. The human population has never been larger; we have never been wealthier, and our technological prowess has never been greater. Yet this success and the sheer size of the human enterprise now threaten to unravel the planetary systems upon which we all depend. Our successes are endangering the sustainability of our successes! You could call it the Sustainability Paradox.”

If this is the case–that human activity is putting an ever increasing strain on the planet–where is the intelligent discussions about shifting to more sustainable business practices? Strong political and economic beliefs often block people from being able to truly listen and learn new information. When a person feels strongly about something (such as the belief that environmentalists are trying to kill the coal industry), then they will often become defensive and resist learning new knowledge that could contradict what they believe. In their book What’s the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness, Batker and de Graffe discuss many different solutions–solutions that have yet to make it into mainstream media: “How about we work less, enjoy more, have more friends and time for them, consume less, pollute less, destroy less, owe less, live better, longer, and more meaningfully? Sounds positively revolutionary, doesn’t it?”

If we are going to achieve the goal of a truly environmentally literate society, we will need to change people’s beliefs about the economy’s relationship with the environment. This will not only require a shift in business practices, but also a shift in what we value as a society.

The Schools and Our Youth

Schools today are facing budget cuts, increased class sizes, and a growing list of state and national mandates. With funding (and sometimes teacher salary) tied to test scores, more and more class time is spent devoted to reading, writing, and math. Field trips are canceled so students don’t miss too much instructional time in the classroom. It is no wonder that environmental education is left lacking in todays classroom. As Coyle states in Environmental Literacy in America (pg 8): “…the slightly higher knowledge in older people also made us wonder about the weakness in current environmental education of school children. It may also be that what actually gets through to the student is too scattered, episodic, and out of sequence to build a durable base of knowledge and a critical mass of environmental literacy.” With schools and teachers facing increasing pressure to perform on tests and deal with issues that were nonexistent a generation ago, it is no wonder that environmental education is sporadic and insufficient in many of todays schools.

To compound the problem of weakened environmental education in today’s schools, is the issue of how children spend their time after school. Kids today spend significantly less time in free play outside, and instead spend their hours outside of school being shuffled from one structured activity to the next or in front of some sort of screen. Very few kids are off building forts or exploring the land that surrounds their homes. They are not developing connections to the local plants and animals, but instead observe most of the local scenery from the window of the family car (assuming they aren’t watching a screen within the car). Unfortunately, this seems to be the new normal for many families (Payne, 2009). The value of free play in nature has been lost to organized “enrichment activities.”

Screen time not only keeps kids from interacting with nature, but it also means kids are continually being exposed to advertisements that send a strong message. In the article The Religion of the Ad, Brian Swimme explains it this way: “In the propaganda world of the ad, the ideal people–the fully human humans–are relaxed and carefree, drinking Pepsis around a pool, unencumbered by powerful ideas concerning the nature of goodness, undisturbed by visions of suffering that could inspire a commitment to justice. None of that ever appears. In the religion of the ad, the task of civilization is much simpler. The ultimate meaning behind human existence is getting all this stuff. That’s paradise. And the meaning of the earth? To provide the raw materials from which to manufacture consumer stuff.” American society, through advertising and the media, is sending a message to todays youth that extrinsic values (material wealth, power, and image) bring about true happiness. This is unsettling since studies show “that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life” (Kasser, Crompton, and Linn, 2010).

If it were just that schools were struggling to adequately teach environmental education, then perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as worrisome. Kids would still be outside playing in the woods and building forts with the neighborhood kids–experiences that would provide students with the opportunity to develop environmental sensitivity, which could potentially launch them into learning more about the environment based on their own curiosities. Unfortunately that is not often the case. It would be interesting to compare the score on the Survey of Environmental Knowledge to both how the respondents spent their free time as a kid, as well as their beliefs about happiness (intrinsic or extrinsic values?). This is a complex challenge that does not have a simple answer. While I have found partial solutions as a parent (simplicity parenting, camping with our children since they were babies), I still often find myself at a loss. How do you, as an environmental educator with limited time and resources, reach a group of kids who are more interested in video games?

Causal Disconnect

The final challenge is often referred to as causal disconnect. According to the NEETF/Roper Study  “many Americans can understand simple one-step causes of problems easily enough. Few people seem to grasp multi-step causal relationships even when they involve such critical concerns as water pollution caused by run-off from the land, or how the use of electricity affects the quality and temperature of the atmosphere” (Coyle, 2005). While I knew there were many people who did not have adequate knowledge about environmental issues, I assumed that with exposure to information they would eventually understand. The drop in comprehension as the science and issues becomes more complex explains one of the reasons why people, despite all the information out there, have not made significant changes in their behavior. Since environmental issues are rarely simple, there are many people out there who are unable to see the connection between their own behavior and the environmental issue. Why should they make a change in behavior if they cannot see how the behavior change will make a difference? Hungerford and Volk (1990) refer to this as locus of control, and it is an important factor in empowering people to change their behaviors.

Perhaps this is why many of my former students enjoyed Bill Nye’s show “Stuff Happens.” Bill Nye was able to break down the issue (such as the age old question of paper or plastic?), and explain it clearly. He also provided basic solutions (bring your own bag), and showed how behavior changes could make a difference.

To conclude, the field of environmental education faces many challenges. Some are easier to work through than others. It is going to take many different groups and organizations working together if we are going to reach our goal of a more environmentally literate citizenry.

An example of what this looks like is took place in Anchorage, AK. In December of 2008 I had the opportunity to represent the Anchorage School District at a two day working summit that focused on getting kids outside. There were representatives from many different state and national agencies (Fish and Wildlife, BLM, etc), school districts, pediatricians, city leaders, city planners, non-profit organizations, social workers, psychologists, and more. Together we discussed the issues, brainstormed solutions, developed networks, and made plans for how to move forward. It was amazing–an entire group of people with many different backgrounds working together with a common goal of helping kids get outside. One of the products from the original summit, as well as the meetings that followed, was an wonderful website titled “Get Outdoors, Alaska!” The website is a great place for Alaskans to start when looking for organizations to partner with, as well as a wonderful resource for parents.

Environmental education faces many challenges. However, I am optimistic. There are many grassroots organizations out there that are growing rapidly, and awareness seems to be increasing among parents that somethings isn’t quite right. By defining the challenges we can now start to work on the solutions.


Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental literacy in America: what ten years of NEETF/Roper research and related studies say about environmental literacy in the U.S. National Environmental Education & Training Foundation.

Earth Overshoot Day, Global Footprint Network:

Get Outdoors Alaska:

Get Outdoors Anchorage Working Summit:

Graaf, John de; Batker, David (2011). What’s the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Hungerford, H.R. and Volk, T.L. (1990).  Changing learner behavior through environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education. 21(3), 8-22.

Kasser, Crompton, and Linn. (2010). Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Payne, Kim John. (2009). Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. New York, NY: Random House.

Stuff Happens with Bill Nye:

Swimme, Brian. (2001). The Religion of the Ad. Healthy Children–Healthy Planet. Portland, OR: Northwest Earth Institute.

Wilderness Act Turns 40, National Park Service:


3 thoughts on “Challenges of Working Towards an Environmentally Literate Society

  1. Excellent, well-documented, thought-provoking piece. I am amazed when I see a comment on Facebook asking, for example, “What’s GMO?” I don’t know how anyone can be so out of what’s going on (unless you are in complete poverty and your sole daily mission is to find food and shelter), but I guess it’s part of the great disconnect. – If you live in California, vote YES on Prop. 37, this will have a global effect! – And speaking of Facebook, I visited a safe place for teens this past week, and several teens were looking at Facebook on the shelter’s computers.

    If your passion and entertainment is to go to an overly air-conditioned enclosed shopping mall and buy items made in China, then, I guess it’s easy to not be informed. But, if your passion is the natural world, then, you are going to be much more tuned in to the perils facing us. The science is overwhelming. You can only pretend global warming doesn’t exist if you listen to a certain news station, owned by corporate giants, who’s interest it is to get tax loopholes and accumulate wealth, who will repeatedly question science. Great post! Reblogging! 🙂 – Kaye

  2. Thanks! I’m currently a graduate student working on my Masters in Environmental Education and Interpretation. The blog came from a reflection I wrote based on a nation-wide environmental knowledge survey (link to study report: According to the survey, only 32% of Americans were able to pass the basic environmental knowledge survey. Yikes!

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