What Is ‘Ecological Literacy’? by Susan Brown

“without significant precautions education can equip people merely to be effective vandals of the  Earth. If one listens carefully, it may even be possible to hear the Creation groan every year in late May when another batch of smart, degree-holding, but ecologically illiterate, Homo sapiens who are eager to succeed are launched into the biosphere” (Orr, 2004,p.5).



The above is an oft quoted passage from Orr’s book: Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. I thought of it as new ‘batches of Homo sapiens’ recently began University here in Manchester and in other Universities and learning institutions.


The passage is poetic and forceful, calculated to make us sit up and take note. Some may think it constitutes an unfair indictment of the Higher Education system, others that it is no indictment at all (Universities are there to turn out graduates with expertise in specific fields and not environmental literates).


Rather than focus on the possibly contentious aspects of the passage, I’d prefer to address a question it raises for me and which is fundamental to how we approach sustainability education:


What do we mean by ecological literacy (the term social-ecological literacy would be better– as the environment and the social are inextricably linked. For brevity’s sake I will not use the whole term) ?


You might contend that this is pretty obvious: ecologically literate individuals are concerned about the environment and act on that concern whereas environmentally illiterate people never think about it. What about the following examples however? Are these examples of ecological literacy?


  • Someone buying organic products from overseas rather than locally produced food which does not carry the organic label
  • becoming a vegetarian and eating more soya based food
  • opposing the building of wind farms, given their negative affects on some bird species
  • getting an endangered species app on a brand new mobile phone


Soybean plantation in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, photo by Tiago Fioreze/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.
Looks harmless enough….Soybean plantation in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, photo by Tiago Fioreze/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

The above examples reflect an awareness of environmental issues and a willingness to act in respect of these.  In these terms they can be construed as examples of ecological literacy. However, they also highlight complexities and tensions where determining one course of environmentally action can have other detrimental environmental effects.


Buying organic produce from overseas may be good for the soil in the area it is grown but contributes, via its transportation, to a greater carbon footprint. Do you need to be aware of these complexities to be ecologically literate? Do you need to have a sufficiently complex understanding of an environmental/social issue to mindfully determine one course of action over another?


A number of writers argue that one of the hallmarks of ecological literacy is a capacity to think ‘holistically’ about environmental issues, that is to say to view issues from multiple perspectives. In relation to point 1 above the holistic thinker will have thought about the products they are buying from various perspectives e.g., air miles, water consumption, pesticides, the conditions of people growing the food etc and decided that, on the basis of this, the organic option is better.


It is, arguably, impossible for a single individual to discern the most appropriate course of action given these complexities. We need a means of dealing with complexity without losing ourselves in a complexity quagmire. This cannot be done at the level of the individual. Ecological literacy, rather, comes from shared understanding and learning, from building up rich pictures as they play out at local and global level.


This means delineating, scoping and describing issues together so that we can establish ways of managing them. For example, we could think about soya production (see Point 3 above) in terms of resources (does soya production impact on other resources, e.g. water in the locale where it is grown?); environmental processes (does soya production deplete nutrients in the soil? (Steffen et al, 2011,p.740).


We could think about it in relation to governing systems, what is triggering soya consumption and who is making decisions about its production (Ostrom, 2009) and the effects on humans (in terms of health/welfare etc). Already that gives us a shared discourse through which to understand our ecological impact both locally and globally.


These shared understandings need to be disseminated and assimilated into more complex understandings. These then need to be distilled back into information accessible enough so that it can be used to inform our everyday existence. In other words, we help build the complex pictures which can then inform our own decision making. Fortuitously, we now have the technologies that can help us do this.


For example, we can collate locally derived data into global databases with indexes evolving according to that accruing data. We can create accessible, interactive visuals that can give us a better sense of how our actions impact on the local or global environment. Such information, with careful thought, could be accessed via mobile devices etc, thus allowing us to make informed decisions when buying products, for example.


Ecological literacy, from this perspective then involves a willingness to help shape the complex pictures that will allow us to form better understandings of systems and to act to the best of our consciences, in respect of these understandings.


This brings me to Orr’s discussion of the ‘significant precautions’ that education needs to take to ensure ecological literacy.  Universities can play a major role in the development of these rich, emergent understandings. They can help in formulating discourses which allow us starting points for building complex understandings/framings of environmental/societal challenges. They can help develop the technological systems which will allow us all to assist in collating data we need to do this.


They can analyse the forces that militate against the greater elucidation of these systems – e.g. vested interests. Students are well placed to contribute to this process, bringing their respective discipline knowledge to the process and sharing understandings across disciplines. In this sense, they should be perceived not as recipients of knowledge but as active builders of it.


Orr, I think, is right. We have to educate people for ecological literacy. The ecologically literate student will know that this means finding the collaborative ways via which we can all educate ourselves into ecological literacy and the  skills to facilitate that process.



Orr, D. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press: Washington DC. (available as a Google ebook. Free excerpts available via Google Scholar).

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Ostrom, E. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social –ecological systems. Science, 325.419-422. Elinor Ostrom is the only female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. She died in June 2012.


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Steffen, W., et al. (2011). The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment.40 (7), 739-761. 

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