Environmental Literacy and ALL Careers

Take a few seconds to imagine the world several decades in the future.   No matter what your background or values are, it’s very likely that the future you just pictured is quite different than our world today.   Things change . . . and these days, faster than ever before!

Now, hone in on what people are doing in your envisioned world.  In almost any but the most bleak future you see, people will probably be “doing business” in some way, shape or form.   Business – the trade and commerce of ideas, goods, and services – will always be a part of human society.   What business looks like, though, will definitely evolve like everything else – no matter what.  Things change.

So, what will business and the overall economy look like in the future?  What do we want them to look like?  The answers to these important questions will determine whether or not human beings do well, even thrive, in the future . . . or not.   To ignore business and economics or to label them as the problem, per se, prevents us from creating the world we want.   Of course, conducting business in the “same old ways” will not lead us to the future we want either.   We must ask ourselves what kind of business will enable us to create a beautiful, healthy, thriving world . . . not leave it to chance.

How can we live in a way that allows us to be “long-term” on this planet?  To astrobiologist, David Grinspoon, this is the measure by which we decide whether we are an intelligent species or not.   According to Grinspoon, “The basic ability to not wipe oneself out, to endure, to use your technological interaction with the world in such a way that has the possibility of the likelihood of lasting and not being temporary – that seems like a pretty good definition of intelligence.” (From “Earth in Human Hands’: Q&A with Astrobiologist David Grinspoon.”)

I believe that our ability to think and act intelligently is being severely hampered by a rift (both real and perceived) between two broad “communities” – those who work in the “environmental field” and those in the business world.  Many environmentalists consider business to be the problem and many involved in business see environmentalists as “anti-business” or not concerned with business.   These are generalizations and there are people and organizations working to find common ground between these two worlds.  But the  two camps just described are increasingly important part of the polarization we see in politics, social discourse and education today.  We are not acting intelligently.  I propose that we work together to base and build an economy of the future on good, sound understandings of how we humans fit in with the living systems of the planet of which we are a part.  Imagine the power this would have to reconnect Americans and to empower young people to help create their own future!

Since Environmental Education (EE) has been a big part of my career, I will further address this need for collaboration from that perspective.  But, in my career and community work, I’ve also worked to create a “green economy.”  Thus, I hope the thoughts that follow will help unite people working in education, business, sustainability, environment and essentially all others.  I propose an “ALL Careers” initiative  that connects environmental knowledge/concern with ALL careers, not just a narrow slice of the economy presently thought of as “environmental careers.”  This is an initiative that looks at our work, our aptitudes and interests and our life energy as part of a truly “Green” economy because they are based on the relationship between human systems and living systems overall.

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A major goal of environmental education  in the U.S. is “environmental literacy.”  Environmental literacy, itself, is interpreted in a wide range of ways, but is fundamentally about creating a public knowledge base about ecological principles and how human beings and human systems relate to Earth’s living systems.

Even if environmental literacy is well-achieved, however, a very important question remains:  what will an individual, a community or even a society do with this knowledge?  Obviously, there is a broad range of actions environmentally literate people can take, including habitat improvement, trash pickup, various behavioral changes (i.e., using less water at home) and civic engagement.  Sometimes, these kinds of actions are included as part of the definition of environmental literacy but, while they are all worthy and needed, I don’t believe that they are sufficient to address the challenges we face.  Environmental literacy needs to be directly linked to envisioning and creation of careers and avocations of the future; to the creation of new ways of doing business.  The sum total of all of our careers and avocations is, roughly speaking, “the economy.”   If we want a truly “green economy,” all of our careers must be founded upon and guided by solid knowledge of how human systems fit in with Earth systems.   We need businesses, environmental education organizations and all educators, civic groups,  and others to work together to enable people (especially young people, and especially in high school) to apply environmental literacy and business skills to create a healthy, thriving world.

This message has become a theme of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book that launched a movement for getting kids outdoors and away from the various screens that take up our time.  In his lesser-known book, The Nature Principle, Louv writes about how we must begin to apply environmental knowledge to all careers, not just those we usually associate as “environmental careers” today:

“When people begin to consider the career possibilities of human restoration through nature, their eyes light up:  here is a positive, hopeful view of the human relationship with the Earth.  Many people would pursue such jobs, if career guides and other resources were available and widely known and if these also described how any [my emphasis] career can be molded in a way that restores both nature and human beings.”

As of this writing, I have presented dozens of programs for schools, public groups and youth business groups such as DECA and FBLA (largely in Boulder County, CO, but elsewhere as well).   Many of these programs have included Making a Living and a Life in the title.  This is a chapter heading in The Nature Principle and was used with permission from Richard Louv.

The connection between environmental literacy can take place in a variety of ways  – see Actions to advance an ALL Careers approach.    Perhaps the biggest need is to make connections for high school students who are starting to envision their own careers.   We can provide the message that environmental concepts are relevant to all careers and empower students to take this approach as they enter the work world by providing them with the substantive knowledge of the relationships between human systems and Earth’s living systems.  The business community has a big role to play by supporting and being part of this kind of interaction and education.   Together, environmental advocates and educators can “co-evolve” with business to address the challenges we face.   The “environmental community” and the “business community” (and those who consider themselves part of both) can be on the front line of creating a new economy based on sound environmental understanding.   When we consciously take up this challenge, a multitude of methods and venues for making these connections will emerge.

David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College has long been an advocate of tying environmental knowledge to everything we do.  Two decades ago, he oversaw the design and construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, still one of the world’s “greenest buildings.”  In a 2015 talk entitled Hot Careers in a Warming World, Orr said careers in renewable energy, finance, the arts, architecture, farming and many more will be necessary for creating a sustainable future.

There are some efforts emerging to help make the connections between environmental literacy and ALL careers.  The 2015 California Environmental Literacy Blueprint states “Ensuring that students attain environmental literacy is also a critical investment in California’s future workforce.”   One of the report’s goals supporting this statement reads: “Communicate the importance of environmental literacy, green schools, and time spent outdoors to a 21st century education, college and career readiness, and California’s economy.”  It’s true – solid environmental literacy can be the basis for selecting, envisioning and creating careers of the future.  We just need to identify this is as a major need and get busy providing the concrete steps that will make this a reality.

With the financial support of the Boulder Rotary Club, the Cottonwood Institute and individual donors, a video was created to disseminate the ALL Careers approach to a larger audience.  Produced by a high school student in Lafayette, CO, the film’s title “Making a Living and a Life; Empowering young people with an ALL careers approach,”  A number of virtual watch parties were held to watch and discuss the film and you are encouraged to watch it yourself and share it with others.  Some specific projects emerged from the watch parties.   For example, a watch party hosted by Louisville (CO) Library inspired staff at Louisville Middle School to make the ALL Careers approach the theme of their 2020 career fair (which because of Covid, was virtual).  They invited several businesses in the community, from a variety of fields, to share how they are implementing changes to their work (or have designed their businesses to begin with) based on environmental understanding and concern.  The fair was a big hit!  Local businesses were eager to share how they are greening their work.   The virtual format was conducive to this and breakout rooms allowed students to ask questions and engage.

The ALL Careers approach demonstrates that it is possible to apply environmental concepts and concern in all careers and it can empower students  to take this approach as they enter the work world.  This approach can be incorporated into education in so many different ways.   How might you incorporate the ALL Careers approach to education in your work? 

If the ideas of this essay resonate with you, consider how to put them into practice – whether you are an educator, an administrator, a parent or no matter what place you have in your community.    If you are in business, be a mentor to encourage this approach; if you are an elected official, use your platform to further elevate and promote it; anyone can help empower youth with the vision that they can create their own world – a truly green economy that involves everyone in every area of work and endeavor!

If you have questions, ideas, or want to share ways you are implementing an ALL careers approach – or something like it! – contact me at Martin@EntrepreneurialEarth.com.