May 9th, 2010

Essential Ecoliteracy, or “earth smarts”: Defining and validating a pragmatic educational construct based on quality of life.

By Bryan H. Nichols

To contribute to the Essential EcoLiteracy database, contact the author directly at bryanhnichols at

Or check for updates and explore the EEL Analysis Mind Map at:

Introduction—The Issue

Most readers of this journal will be familiar with the notion that human societies across the planet are facing a series of interrelated environmental challenges. Whether we consider them to be crises, catastrophes or even opportunities may vary locally and ideologically, but it is worth asking why, with all the remarkable advances we have made in science and technology, environmental challenges remain serious concerns. This is not a trivial question – communities and societies have collapsed because they failed to adapt to environmental challenges (Diamond, 2005).

Why do we act in ways that exacerbate the environmental threats we are facing? Although population growth and runaway resource use are certainly factors, this study concentrates on a more subtle issue – an unprecedented, worldwide loss of ecological knowledge. For the first time, more than half the world now lives in cities, and while urbanization and technology have provided numerous benefits, they are superficially insulating us from natural systems we rely on. Our growing ignorance of even basic ecological connections contributes to poor decisions that jeopardize local and global environments and the quality of life they support. Unfortunately, our education systems are failing to adequately address this loss of knowledge, continuing to produce graduates at all levels who are “ecological illiterates”, a phrase used by Orr (1992) two decades ago, and one that recent studies have shown remains at least as relevant today (e.g., NWF, 2008).

What does it mean to be ecologically literate in 2010? A perusal of popular and academic literature will reveal numerous related definitions from a variety of academic disciplines and less formal sources, definitions that overlap, complement or even contradict each other. While pluralism has its advantages, this diversity of definitions makes it problematic for researchers, educators and policy makers to communicate clearly. Furthermore, many definitions are decidedly impractical from an educational standpoint, particularly in a world that continues to move towards standards-based teaching. Finally, the issue is complicated by fundamental disagreements about the very purpose of education itself.

This study began with an attempt to find a definition of ecological literacy that was flexible enough to be useful in variety of contexts, but also included components that were coherent and clear enough to be helpful. It grew into an attempt to create such a definition by incorporating ongoing research in socioscientific issues (Zeidler & Nichols, 2009) and ecojustice education (Mueller, 2009), and a theoretical technique called a conceptual analysis. In order to overcome the issues just mentioned, the new construct was designed from the following elements:

  1. An underlying purpose: maintaining our quality of life.
  2. A transdisciplinary search – not restricted by discipline.
  3. Modern cognitive science to deal with affective elements.
  4. The flexibility to remain useful in different cultures, times and bioregions.
  5. Enough coherence and clarity to be useful in modern, standards-based education systems.

Although very much a transdisciplinary enterprise, this formulation was undertaken from an educational perspective, and intended to produce a construct that is useful in a variety of educational contexts. Therefore, Eisner’s (1998) notions of  educational connoisseurship and criticism are relevant to the methodology and product – the process is meant to capture the “best” and most relevant work from a variety of academic disciplines and professional practices.

The literature review of terms related to ecological and environmental literacy revealed a wide range of views from within and beyond academia. For practical purposes, most definitions were undertheorized, underdeveloped, and too vague or esoteric to be directly useful. Although there was considerable overlap, many also contained conflicting elements. While dozens of constructs and hundreds of components were considered (see Table 1), four emerged as particularly useful due to some combination of their insight, practicality and comprehensiveness, and are worth mentioning here. New work by members of the Ecological Society of America (Jordan, Singer, Vaughan, & Berkowitz, 2008), a 95 year old institution with over 10,000 members, represents an attempt to define ecological literacy in a way that is achievable by all, but moves beyond just an understanding of basic ecological concepts. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), a 38 year old organization with approximately 1300 members from dozens of countries, has developed an excellent set of interdisciplinary benchmarks for Pre K-12 education (NAAEE, 2004). The Center for Ecoliteracy, founded in California in 1995, has been actively involved in promoting ecological literacy in the K-12 setting, most notably through school lunch and garden programs. Their sustainability competencies (Center for Ecoliteracy, 2008) manage to capture some of the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of ecoliteracy in a more practical, education-oriented framework. Finally, the Earth Charter, a “global consensus statement on the meaning of sustainability” (Earth Charter Initiative, 2000, History page), provides an excellent set of internationally derived  principles that incorporate ecology, democracy and social justice.

Methods – A Construct Analysis

In education and psychology, constructs are abstract ideas such as joy or intelligence. Because they are abstract, they can cause problems when not clearly defined.

“But when a construct is fuzzy, when its meaning differs markedly from person to person or instance to instance, when we use the same term in different ways, then it can be a source of difficulty and misunderstanding. A conceptual analysis of constructs removes the ‘fuzz’ and clarifies how the term is being used” (Krathwohl, 1993, p. 148).

This paper uses a conceptual analysis to define and validate essential ecoliteracy (EEL). This process began with an extensive, transdisciplinary literature search encompassing numerous descriptions of ecological, environmental literacy and related terms – Table 1 includes a selection and related references. As Figure 1 shows, the analysis also incorporates educational frameworks (e.g., educational levels, domains, taxonomies), government & NGO documents (e,.g., Tbilisi, Brundtland, Rio, Earth Charter), and educational standards (e.g., NSES & Project 2061 science, NCSS social studies, NAAEE, Ocean Literacy, Earth Literacy).

Table 1: Some of the Terms Used in the Analysis and Their References.

Term Select References
21st century skills Hilton, 2010
consciousness of interdependence Daloz, 2004
contextual sustainability education Verhagen, 2004
critical pedagogy of place Furman & Gruenewald, 2004
deep ecology Devall & Sessions, 1985
ecocomposition Grant, 2009
eco-ethical consciousness Martusewicz and Edmundson, 2005
ecojustice Center for Ecojustice Education, 2008
ecoliteracy Center for Ecoliteracy, 2008
ecological citizenship Dobson, 2004
ecological consciousness O Sullivan & Taylor, 2004
ecological education Hautecoeur, 2002
ecological economics Røpke, 2005
ecological literacy Orr, 1992; Jordan et al., 2009
ecological naturalism Code, 2006
ecological thinking Berkowitz, 2000
eco-ethical consciousness Martusewicz & Edmundson, 2005
education for sustainability The Cloud Institute, 2009
educating for the commons Bowers, 2006
education for sustainable development UNCD 1992
educating for pluralistic life Mueller & Bentley, 2007
education for sustainable living Center for Ecoliteracy, 2008
environmental citizenship Berkowitz, Ford, & Brewer, 2005
environmental learning Scott & Gough, 2003
environmental literacy Roth, 1992
environmental literacies Lencastre & Leal, 2007
global citizenship Oxfam, 2006
habits of mind Costa & Kallick, 2009
historical ecology Crumley, 2007
integral peace education Brenes-Castro, 2004
natural guides Charles, 2009
permaculture principles Holmgren, 2002
place-based education Sobel, 2004
political ecology Stonich and Mandell, 2007
socio-ecological perspective Wenden, 2004
socioecological justice Furman & Gruenewald, 2004
sustainability education Earth Charter Initiative, 2000
sustainability literacy Stibbe, 2010
sustainability literate USPESD, 2009
sustainability science Kates et al., 2001
sustainable development UNSD, 1993
transition movement Hopkins, 2008

The EEL analysis mind map represents an attempt to distill the wide-ranging literature review into key concepts. This process corresponds to Krathwohl’s (1993) first step of construct analysis, which involves examining many examples of how a construct is used and speculating about its defining characteristics. Distilling the wide variety of documents down to their essential theories, domains and components is facilitated by assembling them into a graphical form, in this case a hierarchical mind map using the open source software Freemind. Figure 1 shows the completely contracted mind map – managing the numerous and diverse concepts is challenging, and it is worth clicking through either the Freemind or online versions to get a sense of the process. The expanded map is huge, an example of visual, computer-aided thinking that does not translate well to linear prose such as this.

Figure 1. The EEL analysis mind map, fully contracted, showing the categories of definitions and related terms that were used.

The numerous domains and components that make up the mind map were then assembled in a table for basic quantitative work. Although fraught with many of the issues that make standardized curricula and tests problematic, essential ecoliteracy as a construct will be more practical if the components (or proxies for them) can be specifically described and tested. Individual components will, in all likelihood, end up being a combination of global and local factors that change over time, and some will undoubtedly be more amenable to quantification, instrument design and standardized testing than others. Specific components were considered using The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Marzano & Kendall, 2007), an updated version of Bloom’s taxonomy. This framework, which is built into the EEL analysis mind map, uses a two dimensional system of educational domains (psychomotor, mental, & information) and levels of processing (from simple retrieval to self-system) to specify what level of skill goals and objectives require.

Three matrices were used to help select the most parsimonious set of domains and components. The EEL system matrix was adapted from the systems analysis work of Nadler (1981). It is a 48 cell solution framework that provides a useful tool for examining complex systems and their ramifications. The EEL ethical matrix was adapted from a more generic matrix designed for rational ethical analysis (Mepham, 2000). It is based on the work of John Stuart Mill (utilitarianism), Immanuel Kant (rights) and John Rawls (justice), examining issues from the perspective of stakeholders, other cultures, future generations, different species and ecosystems. Finally, the EEL responsibility matrix explicitly addresses what part of a society should be responsible for the domains and select components. This necessitates the consideration of how components might be achieved – for example, knowledge content components are traditionally considered to be the realm of formal K-12 education, but who or what may be responsible for moral or affective elements is more complex and potentially controversial. Specifically considering how components might be achieved for an individual or society also discourages noble but overly vague or impractical components from inclusion.


The components of essential ecoliteracy emerged in four domains: concepts, sense of place, respect for other, and competencies (see Figure 2). These domains align with knowledge, affect, morals, and skills (mostly cognitive) respectively. It is worth emphasizing that sacrifices need to be made in order to make such a complex construct practical in education systems. Parsimony is critical; constructs can become unwieldy if they act as grab-bags of every idea that might be relevant in every situation. Furthermore, the hierarchical structure used here lends itself well to standards and testable components, but does not always capture the connections between the components well. This is especially true for affective and moral components; here they are grounded in sense of place and respect, but they undoubtedly influence other components across all four domains. Nonetheless, while a nebulous cloud of interconnected components might be more realistic, it certainly isn’t more practical, and educational constructs need to be useful.

A quick look at the domains that emerged will reveal content (or awareness, or knowledge) and competencies (skills), both of which are common elements of literacy definitions. However, researchers are increasingly recognizing the role that emotions and values play in both environmental and science literacy; discussing their collective research, Rickinson, Lundholm & Hopwood (2009) consider both to be critical to environmental learning. In essential ecoliteracy, moral and affective elements appear within the domains respect and sense of place.

Figure 2. The domains and components of essential ecoliteracy.


Just about every environmental or science literacy formulation acknowledges there is a base of knowledge that is important – traditional education has emphasized the content or knowledge domain, and still does in most educational contexts. What do we need to know and understand to maintain our quality of life? What knowledge is “essential”?  Basic ecological principles and a general understanding of thermodynamics are critical, but to learn from the past and adapt to the future, it is also important to have a general sense of human history, particularly as it relates to the success or failure of societies to adapt to their own environmental challenges. Also essential are evolutionary (biological) and geological (earth science) principles, and a sense of their time scales.


Another domain, that of competencies, should also be familiar. Consisting of cognitive skills (rather than knowledge), it includes of a variety of pragmatic abilities and “manners of thinking”, including scientific reasoning, practical ethics and sociopolitical skills, the latter of which will vary considerably across cultures. As these are skills, they all require practice and mental development – when nurtured, they contribute to the ability to make reasonable decisions regarding complex, ill-structured problems, which environmental issues usually are. Incorporating modern research on cognition, the competencies domain also includes self-regulated learning, which encompasses metacognition, motivation and strategic action. From an ecological perspective, self-regulated learners might be considered as cognitively adaptable – they are able to respond to changes. In educational terms they are typically effective, life-long learners. To maintain our quality of life, individuals and communities will need to quickly adapt to new information or changing conditions.

Sense of Place

This domain attempts to capture some of the elements that influence how we live and think about our environments, both local and global. It includes a basic awareness of environmental connections and issues – something essential now on a global as well as local scale, as even the best local knowledge will not protect a community from global changes. Two other, more affective factors emerged from the analysis. People need to feel connected to their environment in a positive way – this has been expressed in many ways, and will likely express itself in new ways in our increasingly urban landscapes. The specifics are probably quite flexible; whether you call it biophilia, environmental sensitivity, or some other emotional or spiritual bond, we need to feel connected to our local and global environments, and our mobile, technological world makes this more challenging for educators and communities. Addressing this component is something we need to do much better, and urban planning and green spaces will likely play a critical role alongside place-based educational pedagogies.

The final component of sense of place relates to our perceived impact upon the places we live. While there is much emphasis on our negative impacts, it is important that we feel we can affect our environment – this is the essence of self-efficacy.  Fatalism is one of the five major barriers to environmental engagement (Pike, Herr, Minkow, & Weiner, 2008), and a key aspect of essential ecoliteracy is the realization that we can have positive impacts. This kind of empowerment is critical at the individual and community level.

Respect for Other

The final domain is ethical, and one that incorporates the importance of biological and cultural diversity. The quality of life that essential ecoliteracy is based upon is not just yours – it applies to other individuals, other communities, other cultures and other species. We must, therefore, respect these “others”, and their right to maintain or improve their own quality of life. Empathizing with their existence and rights, we must seek to better our own lives without diminishing theirs. This domain speaks to the heart of social and environmental justice, and requires two important cognitive skills we have previously mentioned under competencies – the moral development to respect and empathize with others, and the practical ethics skills to find compromises as we share resources and space.

Two more “others” must be considered as well. The first is a holistic, ecological consideration – that of ecosystems, not just species. The clash between individual rights, human or otherwise, and the rights of ecosystems can be philosophically complex, but it is going to become increasingly relevant as we are forced to consider which ecosystems and species are worth nurturing in a shrinking, changing world. Note the use of nurturing, rather than preserving – ecosystems will need to adapt in order to thrive, just as we will.

Future generations are the final “other” that we must respect. Our children’s children are at the heart of most definitions of sustainability, and there are numerous appeals to the wellbeing of future generations in popular environmental literature, although the implications are more philosophically complicated than catchy sayings might imply. While specific applications will be complex and culturally dependent, essential ecoliteracy requires some form of basic respect for the wellbeing of future generations; we need to consider quality of life beyond the next economic boom or political cycle.

Where’s the Action?

Many definitions of environmental literacy in particular include a behavioral, or “action” domain, although this can be both theoretically and politically problematic. It is worth noting here that education should not be considered deterministic; behavioral change is not guaranteed. Despite the emphasis on action in many formulations, activities with behavioral change as the primary goal are best considered social marketing, rather than education, particularly when specific behaviors are sought. Telling people what to do is only effective in certain cultural contexts, and can cause considerable backlash. Essential ecoliteracy is designed to give individuals and communities the capacity to act in ways to improve their quality of life, but it cannot specify exactly what those actions are; such solutions derive from local creativity and sociocultural norms. Furthermore, as Ratcliffe and Grace (2003) note, in educational contexts, evaluating behavior in anything but contrived situations is difficult, particularly for controversial issues, and educational constructs are far more useful if they are testable. For these and related reasons, an explicit behavioral component was left out.


The initial components of essential ecoliteracy are currently undergoing validation and localization using a mixed-methods triangulation design. Experts and practitioners from related fields are encouraged to get involved in one of two ways. The easiest way is to take the EEL survey, a  specially designed instrument that may be completed online or by email. It collects basic demographics, area of expertise, and thoughts on specific domains and components that are included or potentially missing. It is designed to elicit insights from a wide variety of experts and practitioners, and there is also an opportunity to provide localization input for those from different bioregions and cultures. In addition to the web site (see, electronic and paper versions of the survey may be requested and returned to the author.

Interested parties, including those involved with state environmental literacy plans, are encouraged to contact the author directly. Essential ecoliteracy is designed to be open and adaptable, and input is desired from sources well beyond Western universities with large software budgets. With this in mind, every effort was made to use free and open source software in design, data collection,  analysis (Freemind, R and RQDA), and dissemination (OpenOffice Writer, Draw and Impress), to make these processes, particularly ongoing validation and localization, available to as many people as possible. Whenever possible, this project will also utilize open educational resources and new collaborative technologies, so that the number of experts and professionals involved in the initial analysis may expand to include individuals, including stakeholders, from a wide range of countries and cultures. Essential ecoliteracy, or earth smarts, is designed to provide a pragmatic, apolitical framework that researchers and educators may benefit from and build upon – to get the most out of it, JSE readers are encouraged to get involved.


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