Fewer than 20% of Americans are sufficiently literate to read a science article in a major newspaper, understand a science-based television program, or comprehend a popular science book (Miller 2002). That leaves about four- fifths of the population insufficiently knowledgeable about issues that may affect their lives. Literacy in certain areas of science – the environment, for example (Glenn 2001; Coyle 2005), or evolution (Miller et al. 2006) – lags substantially behind expectations for an informed citizenry.
Ecological literacy is necessary for understanding the natural world and human interaction with it (eg Slobodkin 2003; Speth 2004) and for making informed decisions about the conservation and management of resources (Berkowitz et al. 2005). An ecologically literate person exhibits awareness about local habitats, can link local issues to global concerns, and has an under- standing of spatially independent concepts and issues.
A framework for ecological literacy includes three components:
(1) possession of scientific habits of mind in ecology (ie those that promote the ability to reason about ecological science and issues);
(2) understanding of ecological connectivity and key concepts; and
(3) appreciation of the links between human actions and the environment.
People need a level of literacy sufficient to enable them to evaluate scientific claims in ecology. This requires a general comprehension of the process of science. It also necessitates an understanding of the nature of uncertainty in science, because issues related to uncertainty influence people’s view of environmental and ecological issues (Bradshaw and Borchers 2000; Robertson and Hull 2003).
An understanding of ecological connectivity (interactions and relationships) is essential to ecological literacy. This entails a realistic understanding of evolution across scales, an appreciation of feedbacks and constraints, and an ability to explain and predict basic patterns of population dynamics.
Ecological literacy allows people to understand connections between themselves and ecological processes and can help them to make informed decisions about environmental issues. Ecological literacy must include an understanding of the links between human actions and their subsequent effects on ecosystems. Participants in societal decision making must be able to consider the influence and interactions of economic, social, and ethical values in that process. Ecological literacy also requires the ability to distinguish between scientific evidence and values-based appraisal and to recognize the different roles of these perspectives.
Berkowitz AR, Ford ME, and Brewer CA. 2005. A framework for integrating ecological literacy, civics literacy and environmental citizenship in environmental education. In: Johnson EA and Mappin MJ (Eds). Environmental education or advocacy: perspectives of ecology and education in environmental education. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Bradshaw GA and Borchers JG. 2000. Uncertainty as information: narrowing the science–policy gap. Conserv Ecol 4: article 7. www.consecol.org/vol4/iss1/art7. Viewed 17 Mar 2008.
Miller JD. 2002. Civic scientific literacy: a necessity in the 21st century. FAS Public Interest Report J Fed Am Sci 55: 3–6.
Miller JD, Scott EC, and Okamoto S. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313: 765–66.
Glenn JL. 2001. Using environment-based education to advance learning skills and character development. Washington, DC: North American Association of Environmental Education.
Coyle K. 2005. Environmental literacy in the US: what ten years of NEETF/Roper research and related studies say about environ- mental literacy in the U.S. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF).
Robertson DP and Hull RB. 2003. Public ecology: an environmental science and policy for global society. Environ Sci Policy 6: 399–410.
Slobodkin LB. 2003. A citizen’s guide to ecology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Speth JG. 2004. Red sky at morning: America and the crisis of the global environment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
What should every citizen know about ecology? Rebecca Jordan, Frederick Singer, John Vaughan, and Alan Berkowitz Front Ecol Environ 2009; 7, doi:10.1890/070113