Water Grand Challenges: Defining Environmental Literacy
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In the United States, the relationship between social behavior and environmental health is often not entirely understood by the general public. Environmental literacy is at times thought to be the same as environmental awareness. In actuality, it is a more complex concept that involves understanding the dynamics of the natural world, and the connection between human actions and environmental changes.1 This can be taken for granted, resulting in ecological health taking a backseat to industrial progress. Such oversight is detrimental to the health of all entities in an ecosystem, including humans.
An illustrative example is the connection between forest dynamics and logging. If too large an area is harvested, not only are re-growth slower and the potential for nutrient leaching increased, but the biodiversity of the forested area is also jeopardized. Through understanding the effect of ecosystem fragmentation on wildlife and the role of tree root systems in maintaining water quality, harvesters can better plan environmentally sound logging practices.
The Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) formed through research challenges between human and environmental systems. In 2003, AC-ERE released a report on the state of environmental literacy in the U.S., stating that the public will need to understand environmental matters in order to assess risk and “understand how individual decisions affect the environment and local and global scales.”1
Sustainable resource management operates under the idea that everything we as humans need for survival exists within our natural environment.2 As the basis of sustainability and to ensure natural resource availability for future generations, environmental and human systems must be understood as interconnected from the very beginning.3 Effective environmental literacy promotes environmental stewardship through hands-on training and applied knowledge (figure 1).3