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Writing about disasters as an environmental literacy tool

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Here’s an interesting idea:  Get a bunch of people writing about environmental disasters to help raise awareness about what these are like (and may become) and to spur planning efforts for preventing/dealing with them.  That’s the latest from io9:

We can’t prevent environmental disasters without preparing for them. That’s why io9 is going to pay $2000 each to two people who write the best stories about environmental disaster. It’s io9′s Environmental Writing Contest – for science fiction and non-fiction.

io9 is looking for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth’s history.

We’re holding this contest to reward people for coming up with ideas that could help avert the next Deepwater spill and Pacific garbage gyre – or help people prepare better for the next Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti earthquake. Storytelling is a powerful tool. We want you to use it well.

Our awesome team of judges includes Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker’s environment reporter), Paolo Bacigalupi (author of Ship Breaker and Windup Girl), and Jonathan Strahan (editor of the Eclipse anthologies), as well as others to be announced.

Interested?  The contest rules can be found at the link above.


Photo credit:  Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, education, environmental literacy, nature and culture | No Comments »

Civic education and climate change

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Matt Nisbet has an excellent new post, Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?, highlighting some of the next-generation approaches to helping people engage climate change.

Related posts:

Why don’t people engage climate change?

Posted in behavior, education, environmental literacy, nature and culture, solutions | No Comments »

More on gender differences and environmental behaviors

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

In the same issue of Population and Environment as the previous post, another article, by Chenyang Xiao and Dayong Hong— Gender differences in environmental behaviors in China—shows some interesting cultural differences compared to the study of the American public:

China represents the third largest economy and the highest level of
national carbon dioxide emissions when compared to other nations across the globe.
Yet, little social science research has focused on the environmentally oriented
behaviors of Chinese nationals, key to understanding levels of environmental
impact. This study examines, in China, gender differences in environmentally
oriented behaviors, environmental knowledge, and general environmental concern.
Making use of path analyses, we identify a pattern of gender differences similar to
common findings in the West: women demonstrated greater participation in environmental behaviors inside of the home (e.g., recycling), while outside of the home (e.g., environmental organization donations) no gendered patterns were exhibited.  However, Chinese women expressed lower levels of concern than men—a finding opposite of most Western studies. Also distinct from other settings, in China, higher levels of knowledge regarding environmental issues did, indeed, translate into proenvironmental behaviors—thereby not exhibiting the knowledge-behavior gap
demonstrated elsewhere.


Photo credit: tfpang

Posted in behavior, environmental literacy, gender, social science | No Comments »

Parker: What happened to the seasons?

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

This interesting piece by John Parker can be found in this quarter’s Intelligent Life, the lifestyle and culture magazine from The Economist.

With a seemingly distant and global challenge like climate warming, it’s been a struggle for science to convey the realities that warming is underway and that it’s likely human caused.

What would it take to persuade the 50% of Americans and others around the world who are unconvinced that warming is happening and that is has the potential to fundamentally alter our lives and experiences?  A catastrophe like sudden, major ice loss from Antarctica or Greenland?

Subtle shifts like the timing of flowers, the lengthening of spring, the migration of birds, or thawing permafrost—things we have been documenting and writing about since the 1990s— seem to happen unnoticed.

Or perhaps not, as Parker indicates…

In the Indian state of Orissa, the black-headed oriole is the messenger of spring. It appears in the villages in January to greet the season’s start and flies away to the forest in March, signalling its end. Richard Mahapatra’s mother used the oriole’s fleeting appearance to teach her son about the natural rhythms of the world. “People like my mother remember six distinct seasons,” says Mahapatra, an environmental writer who now lives in New Delhi. After spring (basanta) and summer (grishma) came the rainy season (barsha). Between autumn (sarata) and winter (sisira) came a dewy period called hemanta. Each season lasted two months and the appearance of each was marked by religious festivals. “She had precise dates for their arrival and taught me how to look for signs of each.”

Damselflies gathered thickly a week before the rains began. Markers of the monsoon, they did not cluster at other times. The open-billed stork alighted on the tamarind tree on Akshaya Trutiya, a festival which usually fell in April or May and traditionally marked the start of the agricultural year. Farmers said that if you forgot the day, the bird would remind you, so predictable was its arrival. In the Mahapatra family’s garden, the nesting of bats in the peepal tree marked the onset of winter; when the tree flowered, it was midsummer.

Lately the heralds of the seasons have become unreliable. Damselflies swarm not only in the rainy season but in winter, the driest time of year. The stork no longer appears just on Akshaya Trutiya, but at other times, too. Villagers hear the song of the oriole in summer and the rainy season, not just spring. And this, Mahapatra says, is because spring is no longer a distinct season. Instead of six periods of equal length, Orissa now has two, a brief rainy season and a burning eight-month summer. Winter is a mild transition between the two, and spring, autumn and hemanta have been relegated to little-noticed interludes of a mere week or so.

“When I return home”, says Mahapatra, “my mother mourns the death of the seasons. Her memories of Orissa’s climate are alien to the generation I belong to. For me, my childhood Orissa is dying. The state now has a new and strange climate that nobody can understand or predict.”

Read more here


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Posted in behavior, climate change science, communication and framing, environmental literacy, nature and culture | No Comments »

High school science teachers: Make it relevant

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009


In this week’s issue of Science, Chris Huelleman and Judith Harackiewicz argue1 that making science relevant lends a big boost to high school students with low expectations of themselves.

In a controlled study, they passed out textbooks to 9th grade science students from a small city in the Midwest.  One set of books had questions that asked an experimental group of  students to write essays about how the material was relevant to their lives.  The other (control) set of textbooks asked students to write essays simply summarizing the material.

Furthermore, they gave students a survey at the beginning of the semester to assess whether students had high or low expectations for success in the course.

The team found that, for the low-expectations students, connecting the material to their lives led to a significant improvement in interest and grades over the semester.  There was no difference for students with high expectations.  In fact, the students with low expectations who connected the course material to their lives had the highest average second quarter grades among all students.

Bottom line:  For high achievers, taking extra steps to make science relevant may not matter as much as it does for students with low expectations or self esteem.

1Hulleman, C.S.  and J.M. Harackiewicz (2009) Science 1326: 1410-1412.


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Posted in behavior, communication and framing, environmental literacy, K-12 | No Comments »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 4: Making it happen

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

We should work towards the goal of creating a curriculum where the majority of students are learning environmental perspectives outside Environmental Studies (ES) programs.

ES programs are often the focal point for environmental education and scholarship.  It seems natural, then, for ES programs to deliver environmental literacy (EL) to the academic community.  But giving ES responsibility for EL absolves the rest of campus from addressing it.  Our disciplinary silos remain intact.  If, as many suspect, traditional, disciplinary structures produce graduates unprepared to meet contemporary environmental and social challenges, higher education needs to re-frame the disciplines.  ES programs are certainly key to this conversation, but all disciplines need to be part of this transformation.  Environmental issues are increasingly covered in political science, economics, history, and philosophy courses.  We could do more to show students how environmental changes are relevant to civil society, social traditions, and other expressions of the human condition.

Environmental literacy needs to grow from the bottom up—from faculty and students realizing the importance of using multiple frames of analysis.  Faculty in ES could take a leadership role in providing information, helping faculty understand concepts, and identifying useful case studies.  Issues can be framed through the use of readings, papers, field trips, issues, media, case studies, and other approaches, where students would have the opportunity to explore how an environmental perspective adds meaning and important new perspectives to their understanding of disciplinary issues and experiences.  Faculty outside ES programs have an active role to play in thinking about which connections they’d like to emphasize in their courses. There are many courses on the books that include potential ES or ES-related material without being fully self-conscious about it.  With a little retooling, it can be as simple as asking a different set of questions about existing reading and subjects.

Women’s Studies, International Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs have undergone this transition and can serve as a useful template.  In the last decade, disciplines have become more international, multicultural, and focused on issues of power and identity. The environment now needs a similar nudge.

And 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, gender, power, and culture inform attitudes on the environment.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 3: Framing contemporary problems

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

Understanding environmental change and its impact on natural and social systems is a critical frame of analysis that needs to be added to the repertoire of student perspectives (such as race, class, gender, and power) and competencies (such as writing, quantitative skills, and languages).  Each of these frames/skills is an arrow in the quiver of a 21st century liberal arts education.

Upon graduation, students encounter problems—environmental change, poverty, war, disease, injustice.  An environment frame, together with race, class, gender, and power frames, is critical for a more-sophisticated understanding of (1) environment within a social context and (2) society within an environmental context.  That is, it is not just about habitat, charismatic animals, or big government/corporate policy, but about all of the ways that the social and the cultural intersect with questions surrounding environment — What is nature, how it is implicated in our lives, who benefits and who loses from environmental harm, what issues of power and identity are invested in environmental discourses, how do we make policy or economic decisions given these questions?

Adding an environmental frame to courses does not connote advocating a particular agenda or ideology.  Rather, it is one of several analytical frameworks that allows faculty and students to evaluate critically the interconnected dimensions of our contemporary world.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 2 Comments »

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.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 4 Comments »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 1: What a changing world means for our graduates

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


Prerequisite post:

To the extent that all of our disciplines and personal lives are rooted in the natural world, and the natural world is changing dramatically because of human impacts, the foundation for each of our lives and disciplines is likely to change in the decades ahead.  And the lives of our students and their opportunities for a rich liberal arts education will be impacted as well.

Responding to these changes is a matter of theory, methodology, and praxis. Higher education needs to develop a curricular strategy to help our students learn how to navigate this change and become important leaders in business, government, science, and civil society.

But it is also a matter of cherishing human-environmental experiences and preserving some of them for future generations of students, faculty, and the rest of the world.  Being a scientist, writer, photographer, sociologist, educator, fisherman, hunter, farmer, or islander in the year 2100 may bear little resemblance to these experiences now because of the diminution of the natural world in which these activities thrive. Whole cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world may disappear:

  • Coastal Inuit in the Polar North, coastal Bangladeshi farmers, and Micronesians living on Pacific coral atolls will be among the first cultures forced to migrate because of sea level rise and permafrost thaw.  As they will tell you, physically relocating people is not the issue—it’s leaving their homelands and losing their hunting grounds that marks the end of their culture.
  • The Great Barrier Reef (Australia) is expected to be significantly diminished—if not largely dead—by 2050 from a combination of acidification and warming temperatures.  How do you tell students to soak up this opportunity because they will be among the last generations to experience this ecosystem in anything other than photos and videos?  Tourists will continue to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  They will don SCUBA gear and cruise past the remnants of the coral formations we once dove as living ecosystems.  But it’s unlikely that they will have similar kinds of experiences when the coral and fish are gone.  Eventually nobody will return there to dive.
  • Imagine the plot of Old Man and the Sea if Hemingway were to fish off Key West (Florida) today:  Instead of battling a legendary marlin to exhaustion, Santiago would have to settle for the all-you-can-eat shrimp platter at the local Red Lobster because of overfishing.

What is the measure of success when our graduates do well in a world that is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust? Higher education can be a leader in society’s transition to reinvent itself, but to do so it needs to think critically about how disciplines are rooted in an environmental context.  We are training students to have disciplinary depth and proficiencies in writing, quantitative literacy, foreign languages, and breadth across natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Now we must take the next step and help our students understand how their lives impact and are dependent upon the natural world.  In the short run, technical skills and distribution breadth are undoubtedly important for an individual’s well-being in society, but in the long run, teaching sustainability—which has been omitted from the curriculum taught to generation after generation of college students—is vital to the well-being of society itself.

To extend the Titanic metaphor, higher education is in the business of producing people who can count, speak, and write about ships and icebergs, but it is failing to train them how to recognize that the ship is sinking and how to rescue those on board.

It’s time for higher education to integrate the environment across disciplines to help our students become leaders of this sustainable future and to ensure that the cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world we enjoy today can also be enjoyed by future generations.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Overview

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

In the next series of posts, I’d like to continue the conversation about environmental literacy initiated in the context of why people don’t engage climate warming.  In that discussion, EL was mostly framed as a matter of knowledge about climate warming and the earth system:

  • People don’t know enough about how human and environmental systems work and interact.
  • Personal actions don’t match required solutions.
  • Bad mental models facilitate underestimation of the problem and the time scale to deal with it.
  • Environmental literacy is affected by how we structure disciplines in higher education

Let’s build on this last point and broaden the focus to higher education and environmentalism.

Many thanks in advance to friends and colleagues, most notably Matt Klingle (Bowdoin), Joe Bandy (Bowdoin), David Hecht (Bowdoin), Kim Smith (Carleton), Jen Everett (DePauw), and David Orr (Oberlin), who helped shape my thinking about this issue.

Related post: Why don’t people engage climate warming? Problem 1: Environmental literacy

Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, environmentalism, higher education | 4 Comments »

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