Environmental Worldviews and the Importance of Environmental Literacy

The material from this week demonstrated that an important aspect of environmentalism is that humans have differing perspectives of their roles on our planet. This means that people have a vast variety of approaches and degrees of motivation for protecting natural capital. Different humans may see themselves as a part of nature, separate to nature, or masters of nature. They may feel a moral obligation to save the planet, be motivated to conserve the earth for human gain, or even not feel the need to protect the planet at all. There are infinite variations of ecological perspective, so in lieu of impending climate crises, we must learn how to find common ground to ensure the safety and environmental care of future generations.

First of all, it is relevant to note some of the environmental worldviews which shape the way people perceive and interact with Earth. One branch of perspective is the Human-Centered approach. This window includes the Planetary Management worldview, which focuses on the needs and desires of people and sees humans as the dominant species on Earth. This mindset centers on the idea that we can and should “manage” the earth to fit our society’s demands, and that control over the planet’s natural systems is not only possible but ethically acceptable due to the privileges of being a human.  Another is the Stewardship worldview, which focuses on the human ethical responsibility to care for and respect the environment. Though it may seem that a stewardship role is honorable, human-centered worldviews in general are often criticized because they rely on the assumption that it is possible for humans to succeed in managing or even saving the world. I personally agree with this critique, as I don’t think people have the power or capacity to manufacture a sustainable world out of one which has been entirely depleted. 

To demonstrate this criticism of human-centered perspectives, the core case study of chapter 25 of the textbook describes the “Biosphere 2” experiment, which attempted to mimic the natural systems of Earth as a man-made, self-sustaining ecosystem. The project, which was supposed to last two years, quickly experienced a series of unexpected mishaps like oxygen depletion, invasive ant species, and the extinction of many species. Because of these unfortunate events (which technically shouldn’t have happened according to the program’s calculations and efforts,) biosphere 2 was forced to end early. This illustrates the fact that though humans can learn from nature and incorporate biomimicry into their lives, the only sustainable way to live is to preserve and take advantage of Earth’s natural (and free) services. Humans cannot recreate a fully habitable Earth out of an environment which has been stripped of its natural capital.

Fig. 1: Biosphere 2

An alternative to these human-centered perspectives are life-centered and Earth-centered worldviews. This perspective believes that “all forms of life have value as participating members of the biosphere, regardless of their potential or actual use to humans,” meaning we are not separate and do not control the natural systems of Earth (Miller 2019, 640). This argues that we must do our best to limit harm towards the Earth, as we are completely interconnected and interdependent with the environment. I agree with this notion, and think that this perspective of interconnectedness could be a key to a sustainable future. However, of course, this is not the only mindset which motivates people to fight for the environment.

 Despite their differences, many people share the desire to sustain the earth for one reason or another. Because of this, the push for environmental justice can come from a variety of different perspectives. In the words of Michael Elliott, “scholars in philosophy, legal studies, cultural studies, history, literature, the arts, the social sciences, and the ‘‘hard’’ sciences, especially biology” have all made significant contributions to the movement (Elliot 2009, 341). Additionally, citizens of all walks of life can rally for and work towards environmental justice on an individual scale. Environmental justice is a battle for the rights and existence of the environment, but also rallies for the rights and equality of marginalized populations of people. A focus point within the environmental justice movement is that of distributive justice, which  acknowledges that environmental burdens statistically affect certain socioeconomic and populations (such as African Americans, Latinx Americans, the disabled, the poor, etc.) more than others. It fights for the right to justice and mutual respect between communities, and hopes to form a society in which goods and services are available to everyone to a fair degree. In this light, environmentalism and human rights are connected at the hip. This means that the fight for environmental justice is a battle for human rights as well, and visa versa. 

Similarly, another concept of environmental ethics is that of intergenerational justice, which refers to the moral obligations a generation holds to past or (more frequently) future generations. Intergenerational justice is an idea which is discussed often in my generation (gen Z) because as climate change and the general state of the environment grow more and more bleak, we are forced to reflect on the fact that we must suffer the consequences of older adults and our ancestors. Intergenerational justice fights for the right of future humans and organisms to live in a world which is able to sustain them. The concept is tricky in practice, because this sort of moral responsibility may not fit into the molds of everyone’s ethical code. However, it is important to the future of the human race for people to hold themselves responsible for the long term wellbeing of the environment. As The Land Ethic points out, “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence” (Leopold 1933, 202). If someone hopes for humans to continue to live on Earth, I believe it should be within their ethical responsibility to make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. 

One way people can aid their intergenerational obligations is to raise children in an environment which appreciates the inherent value of nature and the outdoors, and teaches environmental literacy. As Last Child in the Woods describes, there is an increasing lack of connection between children and their environment as technology and indoor activities become more advanced. This is dangerous, because as environmental conditions worsen, there is a greater need for people who are passionate about the earth to alleviate the issues at hand. The No Child Left Behind movement is a great example of legislation which could help in the development of a generation-wide love for the Earth as well as a better holistic understanding of Environmental and social issues. I believe this sort of movement is especially important in today’s social climate, as there is so much social and political disagreement which has led to a large amount of ignorance involving environmental issues such as climate change. Unless we find a way to increase environmental literacy in the population from a young age, future generations may have to face severe ecological consequences. 

Fig. 2: Environmental education

This concept of incorporating environmental education into school curriculum is especially interesting to me, as I plan to become an elementary science teacher. Originally, my career goal was to be a biologist and do field research on the evolution of  plant and animal species. This was my way of contributing to the environmental narrative. However, I decided to change paths when I realized the tremendous impact certain elementary school teachers had on my love and passion for the environment. I recall in particular my 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Daniels, who through projects like making compost piles and field trips to the botanical gardens, taught ecology in a way that both entertained and informed her students. When reflecting on how important this was to my environmental conscience, I decided to join Fordham’s teaching program so I can do my part in encouraging future environmentalists. 

Evidently, there is a huge degree of difference between people’s intentions to care for the environment and campaign for environmental justice. However, with proper educational efforts towards younger generations, humans can learn to set their differences aside and work towards goals of environmental action, love for the environment, and the sustainability of our planet for generations to come. 

Word Count: 1368

Question: How could we push to incorporate environmental literacy/education at a university level, as many majors don’t have an environmental emphasis?

Bibliography:

Callicott, John Baird., and Michael Elliott. “Environmental Justice.” Essay. In Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, 341–47. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009. 

Callicott, John Baird., and Michael Elliott. “Environmental Justice.” Essay. In Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, 341–47. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009. 

 Kobylecky, Jennifer. “Understanding the Land Ethic.” The Aldo Leopold Foundation, September 14, 2018. https://www.aldoleopold.org/post/understanding-land-ethic/. 

Leopold, Aldo. Essay. In The Land Ethic, 201–26. 1933. 

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods – Children and Nature Movement.” Richard Louv. Richard Louv, 2008. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/. 

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods – Overview.” Richard Louv. Richard Louv, 2008. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/. 

Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.

“No Child Left Inside (Movement).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Last Modified September 30, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Inside_(movement)

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