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Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 2: Understanding the cultural context of environmental literacy

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

We need to consider how knowledge reinforces or challenges our understanding of nature and human society.  How might it influence the ways we choose to deal with environmental and social challenges?  In this post, let’s take a look at how efforts to promote environmental literacy benefit from an understanding of cultural context and speak to the ways that environmentalism itself is evolving.

The Western world continues to struggle with a nature/culture divide.  In his bestseller, End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that the worldwide reach of global change has turned all remaining wild nature into human-dominated ecosystems.  When Bill Cronon and others asserted in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature that wilderness is as much of a social construction—shaped by individual experiences and values attributed to nature (or lack thereof)—as it is a natural phenomenon, they were assailed as environmental heretics.

Both of these texts force us to consider, What’s nature?  Can it include the coexistence of people and ecosystems, or must it be human-free wilderness?  If the former, then it’s hard to see how climate change marks an end of nature if we accept the coexistence of people and ecosystems as natural.  If the latter, this means that the end of nature happened in most parts of the world with the dawn of humanity and the spread of modern civilizations over the past 10,000 years.

Each philosophy leads to different outcomes.  McKibben has focused on nature and the prevention of catastrophe through the mitigation of carbon emissions.  Uncommon Ground asserts that “if we hope for an environmentalism capable of explaining why people abuse the earth as they do, then the nature we study must become less natural and more cultural.”

Thinking about the intersection of nature and culture is often uncomfortable and complicated.

It’s uncomfortable when we look historically at how the nature/culture divide was promulgated.  For example, the establishment of national parks in the American West was often accompanied by the forcible eviction of Native Americans who had lived there for millennia.  “Wilderness,” in the traditional American experience, emerged as a product of conquest rather than by innate properties of the species and environments themselves.

It’s complicated—as Cronon suggests—when we realize that there are multiple cultures conceiving of multiple natures, each with its own notion of the relationship between nature and culture.

The Sierra Club, Inuit peoples, and African Americans, for example, have traditionally thought about nature and culture differently.  The Sierra Club was born from the classic wilderness tradition where nature is synonymous with a world without humans.  The Inuit’s perspective is (pun intended) the polar opposite:  Nature and culture are seamless, and the idea of wilderness without people is completely foreign.  And African Americans have become engaged at the interface between environmental and social issues, such as racial and class disparities in harm arising from pollution.  Where land has been important to blacks historically, it’s been about land ownership, farming and gardening, and access to public parks—overtones of the post-slavery experience, not the wilderness experience.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that the relationship between nature and culture varies dramatically, even among environmentalists (here and here).

Bottom Line:  In addition to gaining new knowledge that builds environmental literacy, students should also become aware of when they are operating within specific cultural frames of reference (and the merits and limits of each) and how new information reinforces or challenges those frames.  Sure, there are points of contention, but there are also opportunities to forge a vision for what it means for humanity to live sustainably and justly in the modern world, as Julian Agyeman and others have advocated over the past few years. Back to our simple example above:

  • The Sierra Club (and other preservationist/conservationist groups, many natural scientists, and some ethicists) shows us why the preservation of other species is beneficial in its own right as well as being instrumental to humanity.
  • The Inuit (and other indigenous cultures and many social scientists) illustrate that humans and nature can coexist for millenia and adapt to climate change provided that resource use is sustainable and social systems are flexible enough to accommodate new situations.
  • And environmental justice advocates (and some social scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and ethicists) highlight the importance of ensuring that the benefits of social progress and the detriments of environmental harm are considered fairly across race, ethnicity, and class.

Perhaps this is the ultimate challenge for students:  In the quest for environmental literacy, how do we navigate these cultural contexts to figure out how we can accomplish multiple worthwhile goals simultaneously.


Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

4 Responses to “Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 2: Understanding the cultural context of environmental literacy”

  1. [...] Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 2: Understanding the cultural context of environme… [...]

  2. [...] there should be reciprocity.  As mentioned in the previous posts (here and here), ES programs could do a much better job of incorporating how issues of race, class, [...]

  3. [...] Times today, where Ross Douthat examines the nature-culture divide in the context of religion.  In earlier posts, we have seen this divide manifested in the struggle for the soul of [...]

  4. [...] with many of the same questions that many of us in higher education have thought a lot about (here, here, here, and [...]


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