Monty Hempel is a professor of environmental sciences at Redlands University in California. He studies ecological literacy -- or ecoliteracy, for short. Ecoliteracy is the ability to think about and understand the natural processes that make life possible.
Monty Hempel says ecoliteracy gives people knowledge about environmental problems. But he says it does not always work to get them to change their behavior.
“Ecoliteracy is a phrase invented to describe the kinds of knowledge that we need to operate sustainably in the society in which we live. And that means with the environmental life-support systems that provide sustenance for everybody, not just humans, but other species.”
Mr. Hempel wrote part of the Worldwatch Institute’s latest State of the World report. His chapter is called Ecoliteracy: Knowledge is Not Enough.
“Some people think that ecoliteracy is just a green form of science literacy. And what I have tried to ask is whether that’s enough. In other words, what an ecologically-literate person needs to know might include things like the cycles and the flows, the energy systems, all of those kind of things that we would call the science of ecology.”
In other words, he says, simply knowing about environmental problems does not lead people to do something about them.
“That doesn’t seem to lead to action to protect our environment -- to protect our life-support system to the level that we need to. Just because we know a lot about the environment doesn’t mean that we actually act to save it.”
He adds that people may not be very worried about environmental problems if they seem far away.
“Some people call it psychological distance. A lot of climate issues are worse in the Arctic and most of us don’t spend time in the Arctic. And so, there’s a certain distance. But there’s also a distance that’s happening in the world as it urbanizes -- people spending more time in front of screens and less time out in nature. We become, if you will, disconnected from the natural systems that used to be the key to success for a human being.”
He says that, in the past, it would be hard for individuals to find food, water and shelter if they did not understand their environment.
“We give it less thought and perhaps we give it less importance in our own lives.”
Professor Hempel says learning about nature would help people balance their lives. And he says it might even help reduce the number of people in the United States who are overweight, especially children.
“To help children discover the wonders of nature. To help children discover what it is when they take a breath. They can probably thank the ocean for every other breath they take because of the oxygen that’s produced there.”
He adds that children should learn about nature in school.
“One of the things that I think ecoliteracy would help us do is to bring back -- through experience -- those wonders of encounters with wildlife, with other creatures than ourselves. And that that would actually contribute to our learning.”
Most scientists agree our climate is changing. But Monty Hempel says there is not such agreement among non-scientists. He says too many decisions are affected by money and politics rather than science.
“How do we go back to a governance system that can actually use science to help us solve problems? That if we had a kind of system of governance that allowed us to incorporate what we know in science -- and to respond to it -- we would all be better off.”
I’m Christopher Cruise.
Words in the News
protecting – adj. to guard or defend something (or someone) against harm
ecological – adj. related to the environment
problems – n. questions or situations with unknown or unclear answers
overweight – adj. weight over and above what is considered normal or required
agreement – n. the act of agreeing