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Eco-Literacy and America's 'Nature-Deficit Disorder'
Joel Makower, 4 Dec 05

It's axiomatic that the more people truly understand something, the better able they'll be to create informed opinions and decisions. And in the case of environmental literacy, what we don't know truly could hurt us.

That's why a new report on American's eco-literacy is so humbling to those of us in the environmental information business -- and why it is one of the more important reports I've read of late.

The report, Environmental Literacy in America, comes from the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, a nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1990 to promote "environmental education in its many forms." (Full disclosure: NEETF is the parent organization of, the Web site I founded and still serve as Director of Strategy.)

The report, by NEETF's former president, Kevin J. Coyle (currently vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation), represents an analysis of nearly a decade's worth of research on Americans' environmental literacy, conducted by NEETF in partnership with the Roper Public Affairs unit at GfK NOP (which also conducts the Green Gauge survey I covered recently).

The bottom line, according to the report:

Most people accumulate a diverse and unconnected smattering of factoids, a few (sometimes incorrect) principles, numerous opinions, and very little real understanding. Research shows that most Americans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do.

For example, says Coyle:

That is why 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water; 120 million think spray cans still have CFCs in them even though CFCs were banned in 1978; another 120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when they actually represent about 1% of the problem; and 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source, when it accounts for just 10% of the total.

It is also why very few people understand the leading causes of air and water pollution or how they should be addressed, says Coyle, adding that his years of research have found "a persistent pattern of environmental ignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society."

Coyle lays the blame in part on what family expert and author Richard Louv calls our "nature-deficit disorder" -- unprecedented pattern changes in how young people relate to nature and the outdoors.

As kids become more "wired" than ever before, they are drawn away from healthful, often soul-soothing, outdoor play. The age-old pattern of children spending hours roaming about and playing outside is becoming close to extinct due to a combination of electronics, cyberspace, and parental efforts to keep their children indoors and, in their minds, safer.

In one of the more provocative parts of his report, Coyle promulgates an "environmental literacy index" that attempts to monetize the value of a better-informed, eco-literate society.

The gist is that Coyle's and others' research has found that environmentally knowledgeable people are:

  • 10% more likely to save energy in the home
  • 50% more likely to recycle
  • 10% more likely to purchase environmentally safe products
  • 50% more likely to avoid using chemicals in yard care
  • 31% more likely to conserve water
  • twice as likely to donate funds to conservation

Using an admitted back-of-the-envelope calculation of what an improved level of environmental knowledge might mean for savings in the national economy, Coyle came up with the following:

  • The U.S. Energy Department estimates that home electricity use in America costs about $233 billion per year. Increased environmental knowledge that led to a 5% reduction in home electricity use would generate annual savings of $11.5 billion.

  • Similarly, gasoline use accounts for $137 billion per year and a sizable percentage of our petroleum usage. A 5% savings in gasoline brought about through improved fuel efficiency and driving habits would save nearly $7 billion per year.

  • A 5% reduction in domestic water use would save $14.2 billion and trillions of gallons of water.

Coyle found another $25 billion in savings from small businesses reducing overhead costs by 5%, and $18 billion in savings resulting from a 2% drop in home and office hazard costs as the result of increased environmental knowledge -- a grand total of $75.5 billion in direct savings to the public for just five outcomes.

Economists, neocons, and others might find such calculations overly simplified, and Coyle would likely be the first to agree. But along the way he makes a valuable point: Even incremental improvements in the public's environmental literacy can lead to small changes by large populations that can have a significant positive economic, environmental, and public health impacts. Put in strictly business terms, the financial dividends for investments in increased public eco-literacy can be substantial.

The question, of course, is who's going to lead -- and pay for -- this eco-literacy crusade: Government? Companies? Schools? Activists? All of these institutions have a unique role to play, and all could benefit from a better-informed populace.

Who, then, will step up to the plate?

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I would love to see some stats for Canada. Especially, stats for those CBC watchers. A public broadcaster that features the like of David Suzuki probably has a massive impact on at least some segment of the population.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 4 Dec 05

This is why everything "eco" should be subject to market forces. People don't need to know if hydro power is 10% or 90% of the US supply. It doesn't make a difference to them. What they need to know are the costs and benefits of their daily actions, and for that they need pricing information.

Want to discourage CO2? Tax it. Tax it as much as it needs to be taxed to pay for the damage it does. People will emit less of it to avoid the tax. (Cars are taxed at original sale based on 10 year lifespan. After 10 years they pay yearly taxes when they get the car inspected).

Landfills overflowing? Charge people by the pountd (kilo, whatever) for garbage removal like so:
-- Non-reducible garbage (fridge, bicycle): $10/lb.
-- Recycleables: $1/lb.
-- Compost: -2$/lb (it's a credit).
Overnight people would seperate their garbage faithfully (cheaters trying to put non-recyclables in the recycle bucket would have to be severely fined). E*Bay's used appliance market would grow even faster. Consumer products companies would jump out of the woodwork or sell products that qualify as recycleable or (better yet) compost. Even Wal*Mart shoppers would pay a premium for them to avoid the garbage costs.

Tax harmful chemicals at point of sale (but not lawn treatments - let the market find an environmentally friendly solution).

Incorporate the Federal Parks as publicly traded, semi-autonomous regulated utility providers of "ecological services." Have them send a bill (with itemized bill of lading) to municipalities who benefit from their eco-services. The money is used to pay park rangers and buy more park land. Municipalities would have the opportunity to reduce their "Green Utility Bill" by showing how their own ecological footprint is so low as to be beneath some regulated threshold.

As for water conservation, the first thing we need to do is stop subsidizing farmers. They waste more water than the cities do, and at below-market prices. Simply letting the market price water (without any regulations) would be an improvement over what we've got today. A simple regulation might say "The Colorage River must be X feet deep, so you can only take what's above that." would probably be all you need to then let market forces do the rest. People in the SW will come to love their rock & cactus gardens :-)

Posted by: Brock on 4 Dec 05

In general, good ideas. But a couple of the specifics need to be different. Don't tax vehicles, tax fuel. A big ol' sedan might emit 3x as much CO2 as a subcompact, but if grandma drives the sedan 6,000 miles a year, and I drive my subcompact 24,000 miles, who emits more? Also, taxing waste as you describe encourages illegal dumping. Look over the bank along any lonely roadside in communities with tipping fees - garbage galore. Too many of us are happy to take the "easy" way out when faced with these sorts of charges. The cost must be incorporated into the price of the goods, so we'll use less and have incentive to recyle them, 'cause they're worth something. There really is no such thing as garbage. There's just re-usable material, compost and what we choose to waste. The latter is of course our preference in the throw away society. Nature will throw away the throw away society if we don't clean up our act...

Posted by: dan combs on 5 Dec 05

The suggestion to tax farmers for wasting water is something that should be approached with concern. Food is so unerpriced that only megafarms make any profit, while small family farms are slowly gobbled up by developers. Taxing agribusiness who produce pesticide and antibiotic tainted food is something I do not have a problem with, however, any measures put into to protect the enviroment should not put local oragnic farms out of business.

Posted by: Chris Burrell on 5 Dec 05

Actauly in most cases the water belongs to the farmer as they have mineral rights. In fact they also built the dam in many cases that provides all thier water and as they paid for that dam...

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Dec 05

Agricultural water use is a tiny issue compared to the world's biggest water problem: water loss at the soil surface. For instance:

  • Research in Namibia showed that 14% of rainfall is transpired by plants, 2% is runoff into dams, rivers, and ocean, 1% recharges groundwater, and a whopping 83% evaporates.
  • U.S. government figures for Nevada's severely desertified Great Basin, which averages 5-8" (100-200 mm) of rain per year, show 7% of precipitation going to plants and groundwater recharge, 3% runoff, and 90% evaporating. This means that from a plant's point of view, the area receives under 1" (25 mm) of rain!

Improving soil's ability to absorb and retain water can capture astounding amounts of rainfall, and turn desertified land back into grassland in just a few years. Capturing just 1/5" (5 mm) more rain per year means:

  • 1 gallon more usable water per square yard (5 liters per square meter)
  • 5,400 gallons more water per acre (50,000 li/ha)
  • 3,400,000 gallons per square mile (5 million li/square kilometer)

Surprisingly, the most effective way to capture more rainfall in seasonally dry environments is to use grazing animals to increase soil's ability to absorb water. Grazing animals are how nature maintains grassland ecosystems, and when we graze in nature's image, it restores land.

Performance-based economic incentives for managing land to capture more water, coupled with reasonable economic incentives for water conservation, would go a long way toward solving regional water problems.

The above information about ecosystem function, and the thousands of successful implementations of it worldwide, are not yet widely known. This is a good example of the kind of environmental literacy problems the original post describes.

Posted by: Wilma Keppel on 6 Dec 05

It's true that people don't seem to really care about much besides their bottom line, and that's a really good motivator.

But in terms of the *mental* environment, which exists alongside our external one, a new cultural perspective is needed. Whenever I hear some anti-enviro types bitching about those wacko environmentalists wanting to regulate the size of their toilet reservoir (or whatever), I'm satisfied that we've come at least that far. Lots of people are aware of the issues, and that's good. But they can't relate to them, which is bad.

So proposing a tax on gas or on waste bound for the landfill will not be greeted warmly, because no one can relate to why it would be worth doing. Can you imagine? "Candidate X wants to tax your GARBAGE!"

And all this brings us back to the idea that people, especially children, need to spend time outdoors, in natural environments. There are many programs being run by smart people who do this, for instance taking underpriviledged kids to hike up a mountain trail or something. This 'nature-deficit disorder' and environmental ignorance is a health issue, a mental health issue, and that's how the solution should be sold.

I've often thought that family trips to national parks should be tax-deductable. Every American should see Yellowstone, for instance. Just the act of traveling brings new perspective. Send kids to Outward Bound. ROPES courses. Whatever. Get them out there.

Posted by: Enoch Root on 6 Dec 05



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