If not now, when? If not us, who? It is time for our community - ecologists - to advance a vision for ecological literacy that will inspire and guide the urgent work ahead of us in fostering environmental citizenship among all Americans.
The Summit's organizers, including Alan Berkowitz of the Institute for Ecosystem Studies and Carol Brewer of the University of Montana, broke participants up into groups, who each had brainstorming sessions to identify 5 basic elements that the public should know about ecology. A key goal was to come up with ways to get the public to engage in becoming good environmental citizens.
In the end, the groups agreed on the following things (discussion to be continued):
1. People need better knowledge of where scientific information comes from. It's not just an article of faith. The fact that many people still don't believe in global warming and even trust the bible over science as a source of environmental information suggests that people need better understanding of how science is produced. This being via the elegant scientific method -- the use of carefully designed experiments to test a hypothesis (address a question), and then either accept or reject the hypothesis and formulate a conclusion based upon results.
The link between human activities and climate change, for example, has been determined not by a bunch of wacky wookies, but via decades of brilliant research that has gradually addressed remaining areas of uncertainty and ultimately achieved scientific consensus on the matter.
Under this element of where scientific information comes from, the public also needs better understanding of scientific uncertainty. Uncertainty is a crucial element of discussions between scientists because it helps us identify and fill key information gaps. However, when scientists talk about uncertainty in our findings to the public, it tends to cause a lot of confusion. The result is often to hinder very appropriate conversions of the best available science into on-the-ground management and policy solutions. We need to foster greater public awareness of the difference between uncertainty about finite details of scientific understanding, versus uncertainty about whether scientific understanding is sufficient to justify management and policy changes.
2. The Environment and You: We need to improve public awareness and understanding of the value of the services that nature provides to everyday people and to society. This includes understanding of how we are a part of nature -- how our everyday choices either improve or degrade our environment, economy, health, security and quality of life.
Today, too many people seem to have forgotten that we are a part of nature. We need to make it clear how keeping nature healthy is good for people, and to establish incentives that reward those who make environmentally friendly choices. Children should be taught, from an early age, about the many ways that nature is important to human well being.
3. Appreciation for Life: We need to foster greater public appreciation of the different types of life on earth. These include the letters of diversity - some basic awareness of the birds, mammals, trees and other plants in one's area. As people become more aware of their surrounding environment, they tend to become less likely to harm it. Field trips and creating school gardens were cited as ways to foster appreciation for life.
4. Nature and its ecosystems are dynamic, not static - they change over time (and humans can be and are often agents of causing and accelerating this change). Even if damaged, restoration is still possible.
5. Diversity is good. Our foods, medicines, and many other things we enjoy are examples of why diversity is good. Plants and animals provide our food, cure us of disease, and plain 'ol make us happy. The public needs to be made more aware of these benefits of biological diversity, but in ways that simply, yet concretely relate to the masses -- via emotive stories about how protecting biological diversity benefits economic well-being, reduces cancer risk, protects the safety of our children...
Local Examples Are Most Powerful: The group agreed that using local examples will be most effective for making these lessons stick. People tend to be most interested in learning about the plants, animals, and other natural elements in their area.
What other elements of ecological literacy can you think of that are important for fostering environmental citizenship in America and beyond?
Note: this discussion is being continued over the course of the next year, leading up to the theme of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America, which is...Ecologial Literacy!