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.  If people are in the future you see, they 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 – no matter what.  Things change.

So, what will business look like in the future?  What do we want it 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 either ignore business or to label it as the problem, per se, prevents us from creating the world we want.  If our vision is for a beautiful, healthy, thriving world, we must ask ourselves what kind of business will enable that.

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 severely hampered by the 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 (or are perceived to hold this opinion) and many involved in business see environmentalists as “anti-business.”   These are generalizations, of course, and there are people and organizations working to find common ground between these two worlds.  But the two camps just described also play a significant part in 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 business 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.  Since I’ve been involved with Environmental Education (EE) for most of my career, I further address this need for collaboration from that perspective.

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In the United States, EE is a large and diverse collection of formal and informal educational activities ranging from experiential field experiences to technical classes and courses.  Despite this diversity, however, it is fair to say that a major goal of EE 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 and, while they are all worthy and needed, I don’t believe that they are sufficient to address the huge sustainability challenges we face.  For environmental literacy to be effectively harnessed in the creation of a sustainable society, it must be directly linked to envisioning and creation of careers and avocations of the future. The sum total of all of our careers and avocations is, roughly speaking, “the economy.” And, if essentially all of our careers are not founded upon and guided by solid knowledge of how human systems fit in with Earth systems, the economy will continue to be out of balance with Earth’s living systems.   I’d like to see EE organizations, businesses, civic groups and others work together to enable people (especially young people) to apply environmental literacy and business skills to create a healthy, thriving world.

This message has become a major 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.”

On Nov. 8, 2017, I presented a program in Lafayette, CO, entitled Making a Living and a Life; A New View of Environmental Careers.  The main title of this program, “Making a Living and a Life,” 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  –  by expanding upon existing EE lessons, through guidance counselors, workshops, trainings, creation of schools especially for this purpose, and many more.  The business community has a big role to play as well by supporting this kind of education and by evolving to reflect these needs.   We all 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 recent 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.

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.

In Boulder County, Colorado (where I live), the Parent Engagement Network (PEN) is working with the Boulder Valley School District to explore ways to make connections between environmental literacy and all careers.  In their work of helping parents raise mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy young people that then contribute to a heathy and thriving community, PEN believes that connecting environmental understanding with all careers can give kids purpose, hope for the future, and a better understanding of themselves and their options in college, vocational school, as entrepreneurs, and more.

If the sentiments of this essay resonate with you and you are in or near Boulder County, attend this program and let others know about it. In the meantime, find ways to help advance this discussion within your own family, community and beyond.


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