Hello everyone,

In the light of this week’s lab discussions on defining the many “literacies” there are and search for perhaps a more appropriated term (such as the the term “fluency” suggested by Katie Stofer), I would like to stretch the debate to discuss Environmental Literacy (EL) in particular. So, since I wasn’t in lab this week, here is my two cents on the literary definitions of the term:

Generally, a “desired outcome” of environmental education (EE) is to create a public that is environmentally literate (whatever that means). Many EE programs and materials have this as a stated purpose. However, the definitions and measurement tools of environmental literacy (EL) has remained elusive. Some national surveys have been conducted that attempt to measure literacy of the general public. A few states have attempted to periodically survey their citizenry to gather EL data. While these are important attempts, I believe that many of the questions asked in the instruments used still lack in accurately measuring some “degree” of EL as defined in their proposals. Further, I believe that these important instruments fail to account for cultural and educational system differences and don’t always take into consideration accepted benchmarks for EE.

As the term “literacy” first appeared, it was solely associated with the idea of being able to read and write. Michaels & O’Connor (1990) attempted to provide a better understanding of the concept, proposing that “… we each have, and indeed fail to have, many different literacies. Each of these literacies is an integration of ways of thinking, talking, interacting, and valuing, in addition to reading and writing … [literacy] is rather about ways of being in the world and ways of making meaning…” 

Dinsinger & Roth (1992), in their Environmental Literacy Digest, gave credit to Charles E. Roth as the one who coined the term “environmental literacy” in 1968. They reviewed various definitions of EL, and suggested that it should be based on an ecological paradigm, which includes interrelationships between natural and social systems. A person who is environmentally literate relates his/her values with knowledge to generate action. Here is a brief list of EL definitions given by various authors and organizations since then (some referring to it as Ecological literacy), and that highlight the complexity of such discourse:

“[EL] is the capacity of an individual to act successfully in daily life on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems, and how they might do so sustainably. This requires sufficient awareness, knowledge, skills and attitudes to incorporate appropriate environmental considerations into daily decisions about consumption, lifestyle, career, and civics, and to engage in individual and collective action.” ( Elder, 2003) 

 “Ecological Literacy presumes a breadth of experience with healthy natural systems… a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems and how they might do so sustainably… the knowledge necessary to comprehend interrelatedness… an attitude of care or stewardship… in a phrase, it is that quality of mind that seeks out connections… Ecological Literacy is driven by the sense of wonder, the sheer delight in being alive in a beautiful, mysterious, bountiful world… to become ecologically literate, one must certainly be able to read… to know what is countable and what is not… to think broadly, to know something of what is hitched to what… to see things in their wholeness… to know the vital signs of the planet… to know that our health, well-being, and ultimately our survival depend on working with, not against, natural forces…” (Orr, 1992) 

“EL is a set of understandings, skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that empowers individuals to relate to their environment in a positive fashion, and to take day-to-day and long term actions to maintain or restore sustainable relationships with other people and the biosphere … The essence of EL is the way we respond to the questions we learn to ask about our world and our relationship with it; the ways we seek and find answers to those questions; and the ways we use the answers we have found.” (Roth, 2002) 

 “Ecological Literacy is the ability to ask: And now what?” (Garret, 1999) 

“EL should aim to develop:  

  • Knowledge of ecological and social systems, drawing upon disciplines of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities; 
  • Go beyond biological and physical phenomena to consider social, economic, political, technological, cultural, historic, moral, and aesthetic aspects of environmental issues; 
  • Recognize that the understanding of feelings, values, attitudes, and perception at the center of environmental issues are essential to analyze and resolve these issues; 
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills for personal decisions and public action.” (Dinsinger & Monroe, 1994) 

“EL should aim for: 

  • Developing inquiry, investigative, and analytical skills; 
  • Acquiring knowledge of environmental processes and human systems; 
  • Developing skills for understanding and addressing environmental issues; 
  • Practicing personal and civic responsibility for environmental decisions.” (NAAEE, 1999; Archie, 2003) 


Even though all of the definitions above have some common attributes, based wholly or in part on the AKASA (awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills and action) components listed in the Tbilisi declaration, some different aspects and considerations are arrived at through different perspectives:

Orr and Elder’s definitions are very similar (Orr uses the term “ecological literacy” instead of “environmental literacy”). However, Orr clearly emphasizes the importance of intrinsic values and abstract feelings, as do Dinsinger and Monroe. Dinsinger and Monroe, as well as NPEEE, mention “interdisciplinary” in their definitions; The NPEEE standards and others do not include the latest thoughts and advances in EE, such as notions of sustainability, or even locally-based educational issues. Roth takes these notions into consideration when implying the necessity to understand changes. The NAAEE definition refers not only to personal action but also goes further to mention “civic” obligation.

The question about what Environmental Literacy is and what it should approach at its core are still far from being answered in a common agreement between scientists and practitioners in the field. Morrone et al (2001) reaffirm that the study of environmental literacy is relatively new, and no definition has been given to it that is universally accepted, and consequently the attributes of an environmentally literate citizen are still subject to discussion and investigation. However, what has been discussed so far in the literature, and in the thousands of meetings of the “real world of practicing Environmental Education”, are very important for the understanding of what environmental literacy should be aiming for, even if a widely accepted definition is never agreed upon.


Sorry for the long post if you are interested in the literature cited here visit the link and you can see my entire thesis.


If you are interested, my next post can be about the applied research in environmental literacy.

Hope I didn’t bore to death with this. To me is still a fascinating subject.










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One thought on “The discourse of the many “literacies”

  1. Susan, I think we’re all interested and will be anxious to hear more. I’ll post my writeup on science literacy and/or fluency in a couple of weeks, too!

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