The Importance of Nature Literacy

I recently read this article on the need for increased science literacy in the United States, and how our lack thereof has contributed to a lot of our problems, to include during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of it comes down to a need for greater critical thinking skills and better filters to weed out false or misleading information. We also need to be able to admit when we’re wrong, and not see it as a cardinal sin to be denied and avoided at all times. Another piece of the puzzle is exposure to information in the first place; education in the U.S. is chronically underfunded, with too much of an emphasis on standardized testing which necessarily limits the material taught in most school curricula to whatever might be expected to be seen on the tests. This means that science taught in public schools very often revolves around easily-regurgitated information like the parts of an animal or plant cell, or the three types of rock. While these are certainly fundamental things to know, they don’t really challenge students to think about how science works, which seriously weakens science and nature literacy in childhood and adulthood alike.

I’ve also noticed a curious tendency for a lot of Americans to assume that once they have graduated–whether from high school, college, grad school, etc.–their learning days are over. They might grumble and groan about having to take a training course for their job or acquire an additional certification to stay competitive in their field, but all this does is reinforce the idea that learning is for kids. Moreover, when your last educational experience in the natural sciences was decades ago, it’s likely that the information you learned isn’t up to date any more. Given that adults are the ones making the big decisions about environmental issues and more, that gives many of us sort of questionable authority to be doing so in the first place.

Another thing that is usually seen as “just for children” is access to nature for nature’s sake. Most educational programs and materials about nature are tailored toward children, who of course often have the opportunity to go on field trips (an opportunity most adults sadly lack.) We might go outside to go fishing or hunting, or to go to our child’s sports game, and of course there’s always yard work to be done. But most people have no idea what species of animal or plant inhabit their area–or which ones have been locally extirpated–and why the local ecosystem is important. And that’s a serious problem.

Why is Nature Literacy Important Now?

We live in a time of unprecedented environmental destruction. In the space of a few centuries we have damaged nearly every ecosystem on the planet, from old growth forests to wetlands to the many aquatic ecosystems in the ocean; even places we cannot easily access have been polluted with microplastics and other debris. We have lost nearly three-quarters of all wild animals on planet Earth the past fifty years–barely longer than I’ve been alive–and the rate of extinction of individual species is accelerating. And, of course, we face perhaps the greatest threat of all, anthropogenic climate change, and our ability to endure its effects is being further eroded by the widespread habitat destruction and loss of underappreciated carbon sinks we’ve been so busily enacting in the name of profit, and its effects manifest in increasing environmental chaos such as disrupted precipitation and increased flooding.

To be sure, these problems make for eye-catching headlines, especially when bad science reporting is at play. But headlines and 500-word articles don’t often give nearly enough information for a thorough understanding, though they’re a good start at awareness, at least. I’ve found in my personal experience as a nature educator that it can be a complicated matter to explain why a particular problem is so pressing to people who don’t have the foundational understanding of how the systems affected even work, or why we rely on them. My students tend to be a self-selecting sample in that they’re already eager to learn more, even as adults. But the general public is another audience entirely.

Photo of a bumblebee on a yellow flower with red spots in a white pot for nature literacy article

Take native pollinators, for example. I can explain that while it’s great that we’re caring more about the European honeybees that pollinate a lot of our food crops and being more mindful of the disastrous effects of things like neonicotinoid pesticides, not everyone is going to understand why dead bees are a problem. This means having to talk about how a large part of the food that they eat would not exist without pollinators, along with many crops that provide textiles and other materials. If my audience seems on board with that, I then may feel confident mentioning that while honeybees are great for us, the “save the bees” campaign really needs to include native bees as well, along with other native pollinating species like butterflies, wasps, beetles, and flies, among others. I may then have to explain as briefly as possible why native pollinators and other native insects are not replaceable, no matter how many seemingly similar non-native insects we introduce, which gets into the concept of ecological value and how a lack of native biodiversity seriously weakens an entire ecosystem. And of course there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t get why we even need healthy ecosystems if we’re happily tucked away in our cities and towns, where we don’t even know where our food comes from, and then I may need to go all the way back to explaining how an ecosystem works in the first place, and why that necessarily includes us…and so on, and so on….

Do you see where this disconnect happens? If people don’t have even have the basic understanding of why we’re still reliant on the rest of nature, even in the most urban area, it makes it more difficult to explain why the immense imbalances we’re witnessing today are such an enormous threat. We may not be able to solve these complicated problems as individuals, but even basic nature literacy would make it much more apparent to the average American why lawns basted constantly in herbicides and fungicides are ecological wastelands, or why it’s actually a good thing if you have a garden full of plants that your local native insects are happily eating.

Making Nature Literacy Accessible

Over the years I have had many, many students take my classes on nature identification, natural history, and other related topics. These are non-credit community education-level classes, and the people taking them have ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens, and all points in between. Most didn’t have any sort of a formal scientific background, and all the classes are designed to be entry-level. And to be very clear, other than my Master Naturalist certification I don’t have a formal background in the natural sciences either, mostly thanks to terrible math skills. But that hasn’t stopped me from learning as much as I can about the natural world and sharing what I’ve learned with others.

Photo of the quadrangle at University of Glasgow for nature literacy articleAnd I don’t think people should have to get a degree just to understand basic nature literacy and how the natural world works. Academics and other professionals are crucial in continuing to develop their fields, and some of that information makes its way to the layperson through science journalism and science communication, and yet many of us just ignore that wealth. We’re so tunnel-visioned into the idea that there’s only one educational trajectory, and that once you step off of it you’re done, that many people never see any alternatives in learning. (It also doesn’t help that many scientific findings are either hidden behind expensive paywalls, or obscured in so much field-specific jargon that most folks wouldn’t be able to fully understand what’s being communicated, nor would we want to wade through all that highly technical, obfuscating terminology. Hence the ongoing need for effective science communicators.)

The biggest problem, though, is that we’re not getting nature literacy from the start. We have several generations of Americans whose lives have been largely devoid of any awareness of the natural world except where absolutely necessary, which has fostered a sense of disconnection from nature. Therefore it’s unsurprising that topics like ecology–other than, perhaps, some vocabulary like “ecosystem” or “habitat”–are largely missing from many science curricula in our schools. And just as most kids miss out on learning practical financial skills like how to create a budget or pay taxes, they also aren’t getting a basic introduction on how interrelated we really are with the rest of nature. After all, it’s hard to put that on a Scantron sheet. So unless you’re one of those kids lucky enough to grow up in a household with at least one nature enthusiast, you’re not likely going to get much of a foundation in why nature is awesome, and why we need to actually care about how it works.

That means many of us have to catch up in our adulthood–and that’s okay! There’s a growing number of layperson-friendly books out there that delve into all sorts of topics from the realms of biology, ecology, botany, etc. and make the material understandable to a much wider audience than your average research paper. Your friendly neighborhood librarian is likely very interested in learning what books and other media the library lacks that you would like to read, or what topics you’re even interested in learning about in the first place. And as long as you have access to the internet, you have a dizzying array of information literally at your fingertips any time you access a computer, tablet, or smartphone. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by everything, that librarian can be very helpful, as can experts in various fields who are often happy to make a few suggestions of recommended reading to get you started. And feel free to get in touch with me if you would like some suggested books or websites on any of the topics I teach or write about!

There’s one thing that I can’t do for you, though, and that’s make you curious. You’re the one who has to be asking questions, and engaging your sense of curiosity enough to go looking for answers. I know it’s tough as an adult; we’ve got a bunch of responsibilities and obligations we didn’t have as kids. (And sometimes we’re just too plain tired to care!) But it’s never too late to develop your own nature literacy, and there are lots of us other nature nerds who are excited to have you join us!

Did you enjoy this post? Consider taking one of my online foraging and natural history classes, checking out my other articles, or picking up a paperback or ebook I’ve written! You can even buy me a coffee here!

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