writing figures on chalkboard

Components of Environmental Literacy


Awareness is holding a general impression, or consciousness, about something. An individual may be aware that climate change is an issue or that human life depends on a healthy environment without knowing much more. Environmental awareness can arise from many activities - education being just one.


Developing knowledge requires more than acquisition of new information or data. It requires an orderly comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of that material as well as the intellectual framework within which new information can be placed and manipulated. Developing knowledge often requires a pedagogy (a formal methodology for constructing knowledge with the student) - something that is absent in simple information transfer.


Developing attitudes of appreciation and concern for the environment is a subtle process that is difficult to deliberately program. Many educators believe that attitudes change primarily from a variety of life experiences which can take place outside as well as inside the classroom. Thus, experiences in the environment such as those provided by nature and environmental centers
("non-formal" education) are essential to gaining environmental literacy.


Most consider skill development to be a practical exercise, often with an orientation towards a future career, even though the line between knowledge development and skill development can be imprecise. Skill development often is an essential part of a formal (or non-formal) education program.


The ultimate (and perhaps most difficult) goal of environmental literacy programs is developing the capacity for action and participation. This is an especially complex process. It often requires adopting new behavior which in itself is also a complex process. In addition, it often requires all of the steps above as well as such elements as personal mentors and life-changing experiences which are usually (though not always) outside the realm of both formal and non-formal education. (Efforts that primarily seek to change individual behavior and/or encourage individual action alone are usually considered to be social marketing efforts, not education.)

Note that several of these steps, if the only focus of a particular activity, often become something other than strictly education. For example, programs that focus primarily on skill development, especially in a career context, are considered training programs; programs that focus only on action and behavior are considered social marketing.

Also note that, in the final step of action, environmental literacy is the capacity to act in daily life on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and natural systems. Environmental education is the process of developing that capacity. Education is not deterministic: literacy alone does not guarantee that the learner will exhibit a specified set of behaviors. Rather, it guarantees only that the learner has the capacity for such behaviors. Put another way, the primary beneficiary of education is intended to be the learner him/herself. Ancillary benefits to business, the environment, schools, and other sectors of society can reasonably be expected to result from this learning - but they are ancillary. If these benefits are intended to be primary, then the activity is better defined as social marketing rather than education.