A few years ago, I participated in a monthly gathering of university faculty, staff, and students around the subject of improving environmental literacy. How human societies relate to their physical and biological environment has long been an intellectual and ethical interest of mine. But increasingly, our current global realities such as human-induced climate change, unsustainable soil loss and degradation, species extinction, dead zone expansion, and natural resource limitations demand smart and equitable responses from every society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in a few decades, the nearly 7 billion of us currently inhabiting this finite planet will grow to 9 billion or more, and I assume all of us will want to eat well and live well, with access to clean water, safe housing, and healthy, prosperous livelihoods. Currently, only a small fraction of us are fortunate enough to enjoy high living standards, and too often, our prosperity comes from shifting the true costs of development to someone or somewhere else.
At our monthly gatherings, we wondered what strategies or programs could be used to enhance and deepen student understanding of current global realities. What should an environmentally literate person know? Is a college classroom the best place to learn how our ecosystems provision us with what we need to survive? Our group came to be known as the Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative, and one of my colleagues—Heather—spearheaded and organized many of the activities. She won funding from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Program to bring in guest speakers, and the movement eventually convinced the University to create an Office of Sustainability to provide institutional support for various student initiatives.
I was flattered when Heather asked me to contribute a chapter to the book she was putting together. Eric, another researcher with interests similar to mine, agreed to help me co-author. The book was released by IU Press a couple of weeks ago. College faculties are the target audience for this project, which is somewhat unfortunate, as many of the strategies can actually be used by educators at any level. High school students and the general public are likely to find something of interest in Teaching Environmental Literacy. For example, Bennet Brabson, a physics professor, contributed a chapter that makes explicit the connections between aggregate economic growth, population, our per capita energy consumption, and environmental degradation. How many citizens truly understand these relationships? Scott Russell Sanders, an English professor, argues powerfully for nurturing a culture of conservation instead of our current culture of consumption. I’ve enjoyed Sanders’ work for years (especially Wilderness Plots, which a couple of years ago inspired a group of Bloomington musicians to put into song.)
In our chapter, Eric and I focus on Indiana’s forests and the many ecosystem services that well-functioning forests provide us for free. We touch briefly on how ecosystem degradation has negatively impacted Haiti’s developmental history, and highlight some of the success stories that are possible when society changes course and commits itself to ecosystem restoration. We even give a nod to work done by civil engineers in an Indianapolis flood control project.
Our society’s general deficiency in environmental literacy certainly runs much deeper than what this particular collection of essays can ever hope to address, but I was pleased with what Heather and her co-editors put together. Faculty from the School of Law, Religious Studies, Public and Environmental Affairs, Physics, Biology, Anthropology and more are represented—a true interdisciplinary effort.