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Does Ecoliteracy Prevent Environmental Action?

“Knowledge is not enough” is the slogan of the WorldWatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 campaign, raising the question of whether current environmental education is enough to promote action. The Institute reports that the current ecological literacy (“ecoliteracy”) model of filling the knowledge deficit rather than addressing the behavior deficit has generated an array of highly knowledgeable individuals who still fail to take action despite their understanding of the underlying issues.

“Knowing that change is needed is clearly not enough to motivate it in most human behavior,” writes Worldwatch Institute’s contributing author Monty Hempel. “Individuals must have a sense of urgency and personal control over prospective outcomes and goal achievement before they will commit to meaningful action or new behaviors.”

In a data-noisy world, generating information about pressing global long-term issues is becoming ever more prominent, meaning scientists can now study the state of the planet and its ecosystems to an unprecedented level. With the range of complexities in Earth’s natural systems, trying to develop people’s ability to understand them has put a large focus on improving ecoliteracy. Despite this push for understanding, the issues of climate change and wider biodiversity crises continue to escalate — highlighting the insufficiency of knowledge alone as a driver for change.

In his chapter, “Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough,” Hempel, professor of Environmental Sciences at Redlands University, states that environmental education should restore nature-based attachment to place and go beyond teaching science — it should include ethical, cultural and political dimensions.

“The fundamental sense of connection that people had with the natural world has disappeared in most places,” says Hempel. “Restoring ecoliteracy to this connective role and fortifying it with the power of science and widespread recognition of global interdependence is perhaps the greatest challenge of this century.”

Poor ecoliteracy not only represents a failing in education, but also represents a wider crisis in governance, reports Hempel. Discussing the challenges in trying to tackle pressing issues such as climate change and other environmental concerns on a global scale, he highlights the ability for a democratic system to distort, diffuse or ignore pressing actions that need to be taken. To deal effectively and quickly with issues such as climate change, there is quiet but important political pressure to replace the current failing democratic system with a more technocratic, oligarchic one.

Strong governance should develop collaboration that not only provides a vision of what can be achieved but also sets out practical steps on how to get there. To make real head-way in addressing environmental decision-making and to protect current democratic systems, ecoliteracy needs to redefine itself to also include action-driven thinking. Its current model of merely expanding knowledge is not enough to make progress — thinkers also need to have a drive for taking action.

Several recent reports have highlighted the growing disparity between consumers’ knowledge base on important issues and their tendency to take action. Last month (despite CEO Suzanne Shelton’s earlier assertion that she “might have been wrong” about education not leading to action), Shelton Group’s seventh Eco Pulse study found that, despite seeing a shift to more pro-environmental attitudes, these beliefs were not reflected in consumers’ purchasing patterns. Such a trend seems to extend to other lifestyle choices: Despite living in an age where information is widely available on health and nutrition, and campaigns on healthy eating are being pushed throughout the developed world, a recent study from the University of Sydney revealed that they have been broadly ineffective in improving consumers’ eating habits.

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