When we're in school, we learn about a fair number of things. Things that are preparing us for the world we live in today. Or at least that's what the goal is supposed to be. We learn about math, science, language (region-specific), history (less obviously region-specific), and arts. These classes help us interface with the abstractions we've built on the world as we know it. Instead of discovering mathematic principle, we learn foundations built over time. Instead of analyzing the Earth and our universe, we learn how others before us did just that so we can, in time, build on that knowledge.
We also spend a bit of time learning how to interface with the constructs we've built around the world. In addition to verbal and written literacy, we have classes for technical and digitally social literacy. As we move the needle further down the path of humanity's growth, this will continue to change the things we learn about.
As this happens, we should be aware that some things humanity abstracts are simply things that make other constructs we've built easier to understand. The internet was once a complex environment that only governments and college students had ready access to, and the devices we used to interface with that environment were considered too complex to be of much use to the typical human. But humans move fast, and as that thought was quickly outdated, we develop skills and abstractions to make this truly complex idea of a digitally connected planet available, quite literally, in the palm of your hand.
However, when the abstractions we build are around our planet, we need to be aware of that. Of the many things humans have built, some of those conveniences, in the form of abstractions, come with a few costs. One of those costs is a very real drain on our planet. Another is harder to see, but is felt over time: a lack of literacy. The cost here is knowledge. This is where environmental education can help.
What is Environmental Education
Environmental education is, simply put, education about the environment. Understanding how the Earth functions, being able to identify species, knowing and perceiving how our ecosystems interact within themselves and with each other, these are all aspects of learning about our environment. Even this website can be seen as an example of environmental education. We do what we can to put thoughtful, researched topics in front of you to both enjoy and learn from.
If there's one thing we can share about this endeavor is that it's far more complex than people give it credit for. The Earth is a complex, living thing all its own, and there is A LOT that humanity doesn't quite understand about it yet. The things we do know prove that the Earth does a ton of work to support the life we see on it today, and the things we measure and experience tend to show that the things we build to abstract humanity's interaction with the planet change these functions in small, but drastic ways.
That's all to say that the environment isn't something you sit down and cram in the span of an afternoon. It's a topic packed with information that could span the same amount of time we spend on the other classes we used as example earlier. And given where we are today, it deserves a spot at the table.
From Literacy to Advocacy
One of the reasons I started this website was out of a belief that people who know about something can grow to care about something. It can be a bit of a journey, and this may be shorter or longer for everybody, but here's the breakdown I see:
Literacy -> Knowledge -> Care -> Advocacy
Having literacy in terms and concepts helps build a foundational knowledge to continue growing. That knowledge, in turn, lets you better see and understand the reality around the topic you now know about. You end up caring about the topic that you have vested knowledge in. And when that knowledge is challenged by an issue or problem, you're equipped to defend and fight for it. Your knowledge allows you to effectively advocate for that thing.
Now, I'm not saying you can't advocate for something you don't have a working knowledge in. That happens a lot in our reality today. There's a ton of information floating around all the time and it not everyone can be invested in everything all at once. What I think happens in this case though, is less of an advocacy role and more of a support role. You perhaps identify with a topic or it otherwise resonates with you, so you support others who do the advocating.
Tangent: Education & Activism
One of the questions I saw crop up a bit while researching environmental education is "does environmental education turn people into activists?" I think that's a fair question to look into, so let's do that real quick.
One, I think that's a little hyperbolic. I can't blame people for that though. Hyperbole sells. Jumping from education to activism is a stretch, and the only way this happens is if there wasn't actual education happening, and selling students on an agenda. The reality of education turning people into activists is a bit more drawn out than that.
Which brings us to two, the student goes through this literacy to advocacy progression. When someone learns about something, they could build up a care for that thing, leading to advocacy. When you see a part of your culture taken, misunderstood, misrepresented, or otherwise appropriated, you advocate for the truth. When there is opposition to a truth, you find activists. Or, at the very least, when you find opposition to someone's held beliefs you can find activists.
This isn't a concept specific to the environment. What's curious about the environment, at this time, is that its truth is under pressure. Humans have very little actual need to interact with the Earth directly, that we don't often think of how we're abstracted from it and what the cost of those abstractions are. To top it off, it's not like the Earth can be hidden. When you learn, you can go observe it yourself. The truth is often right outside. It's not a difficult abstraction to work around once you build your knowledge.
Okay, so I've thrown around the word "abstractions" a bit and that probably deserves some clarification. Before doing more writing I was a web developer, so the word comes a little more naturally to me. An abstraction is something that you put in front of something else to hopefully make interacting with something complex a little easier. Staying the programming space for a bit, telling a computer to display a phrase with a custom name like "Hello, Jon!" is usually done by having someone type in a word, reading that word from wherever they typed it, and displaying it on screen. An example of an abstraction, could be creating a method, something that does a whole task, rather than having the developer do all the steps. In this case, I may not have to know how to read what the user typed or how to display it, I just need to know the name of the method. +1 programmer points!
In our physical space, we also have these abstraction concepts, though when they're well made, we don't often think of them. One of my favorite ways of thinking about this is driving a car. I don't think about how my car pushes me forward by making a bunch of explosions literally a few feet in front of my face. The interface I'm presented with is a dashboard with controls to operate it. The function of the car is thoroughly abstracted from the controls. And if the convenience of the controls outweighs my need to know anything about it, I likely won't learn about it or the effects it has. I don't often consider the parts or processes that the car depends on. For the longest time, it was just a reality that cars transport people and the primary controls are two pedals and a steering wheel.
Similarly, I don't have to interface with the Earth for much. My energy is supplied by a food or drink neatly arranged in a store, already grown, picked, and bundled for me. I don't need to understand how to find supplies to build and generate heat for cooking. I don't need to necessarily learn about how the planet works or what is dangerous because the concept of "inside" is a thing. The "outside" is something I choose to interact with when I tire of the inside. And there's a lot to do inside these days. The controls for Earth interaction, even as a medium for social human interaction, are largely abstracted from the function.
And if you catch the drift from the programming and driving analogies, the goal of those are to trade a need to know something for ease of use. In all 3 examples here, knowledge is an obvious cost. You trade needing to learn a complex system for simple controls. Also in all 3 examples, a hidden cost is ignorance.
I've always been at least slightly interested in the environment. Being outside was a curious thing to me and I'd like to explore, but I also really enjoyed modern entertainment like video games. Even so, I still spent more time outside when I was a kid than I did entering adulthood. In college I was always studying and practicing (the woes of a music major) and after graduation I was continuing my education in programming, art, and design while working in the remaining hours to afford that education.
This isn't to say I spent no time outside. I still enjoyed the occasional hike or throwing around a frisbee on campus, but these were often low-priority leisure activities that I'd only have time for if I was ahead of schedule on everything else going on. I realized that the world we're prepared for, and the one we're thrown into growing up is one highly disengaged from the Earth. You NEED to go out of your way to learn about the Earth in a meaningful, cultural way.
It's no surprise that I found myself on the periphery of wanting to care about the environment, but missing a catalyst to actually care. Or at least care in a way that helps make a difference. The catalysts for me ended up being travel and volunteering with local environmental groups where I built experiences that resonated with me and literacy from other experienced volunteers. I strongly think that this link from literacy to knowledge to care to advocacy is a key part in getting involved with anything. It's core to why I started this website. Education is a gateway not only to understanding, but to care. We need people that care about our planet. Environmental education is key to building that community.
Environmental Education Today
Environment education has been around for quite some time, recently becoming a bigger deal as humanity has started realizing the limits it is pushing with regards to the planet. Understanding how our home functions and how humans can help mitigate our impact is hugely important and very much needed. There are organizations looking to push the importance of environmental education throughout the world including the North American Association for Environmental Education, the National Environmental Education Foundation, and the Ecological Society of America. Each of these organizations push strong missions and strategies to engage humanity in the environment and build a literacy that is very much needed today.
Beyond national and global organizational initiatives, it's always great to check out local efforts within your community. Try visiting local museums, park districts, national parks, and wildlife rescues to learn more about the environment around you. Better yet, if you find one that really resonates with you, consider volunteering some time and effort to help them out. Often one of the best ways to learn about anything is to jump in and give it a try.
We're likely a ways away from environmental education being a core classroom topic, but we have a number of resources to help build our environmental literacy and knowledge today. Heck, even Prismatic Planet tries to do its share of conveying environmental topics in engaging ways. So if you're here, thanks for learning. Thanks for expanding your knowledge about the Earth. And thank you for wanting to care about making our home a better place.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Environmental Education Organizations
North American Association for Environmental Education
National Environmental Education Foundation
Ecological Society of America
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.