Why we need environmental literacy


The other night I had dinner with a friend of mine from elementary school. When the topic moved to environmentalism I was given the opportunity to administer a simple test: 

I posed to my friend a simple question — The kind of question a six-year old might ask his father:

Do you know why the wind blows?


In order to protect the environment, it helps if people have a basic understanding of how it all works. But her response was the same that many other friends give me when posed the same question: A blank stare. Fumbling for words. Mumbling something about blue and red lines on the weather report.

It's remarkable to me that such a basic component of life on this planet is completely unknown by otherwise well-educated people. Whereas most have a basic understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics, those outside of environmental studies or geography never receive a basic education on some of the basic ways that Planet Earth functions. You would imagine that it should be mandatory topic in high school.

Sure, we learn about volcanoes and plate techtonics. And perhaps we learn about animals and food chains in elementary school. But that's generally where the details end. When, at 21 years old, I learned that the oceans affect and regulate temperature, gases and even airborne pollution, I was amazed.


As a result we have particle physicists who have a basic understanding of cellular biology, but can't explain why the ocean is salty. We have neuroscientists who can explain chemical combustion, but struggle to explain the factors that cause rain. Perhaps this is why we have scientists that create genetically-modified crops, but fail to realize that their seeds can, and do, spread throughout an ecosystem.

This is an enormous problem. How are we supposed to solve climate change if people don't have a basic understanding about atmospheric currents? How can citizens make informed decisions on fracking when no one is ever taught basic hydrology? 

As an environmentalist, 90% of my job is educating people on basic information they should already know. Items that, if there were an owner's manual for the planet, would be there the same way people learn about the electrical wiring and the plumbing in their house. People have no problem understanding the link between breathing and blood, but many have no idea how fossil fuels are actually used to generate electricity.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Earth sciences aren't mandatory is because they cross into the realms of biology, physics, and chemistry, and delineating which topic area goes into which scientific silo can be a convoluted process. Should glaciation be taught in Earth science, or should we place it in the realm of physics or, since animals inhabit these areas, into biology?

But if that were truly the problem, then why can I recall a few months during my high school years where I was learning quantum physics in chemistry class and organic chemistry during biology? Fitting these subjects awkwardly into a course description didn't seem to be a problem then.

If we're serious about a transformation to a sustainable society, we need to make basic Earth science education a mandatory subject. It's elementary.

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Howie Chong