A Primer for Environmental Literacy

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Unique in its breadth and accessibility, this book presents the key concepts of environmental science and an overview of the entire field. An ideal introduction for readers who are not natural scientists, the book explains core ideas and applies them from top down--first to earth, the largest system, then to land and water systems, and finally to populations and individual organisms.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300073157
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/11/1998
  • Series: Environmental Studies
  • Pages: 254
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.73 (d)

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My objective is to present information on the natural and built environments in a form that will give the general reader an organized way to think about the environment. The information is derived from the environmental sciences, which include geology, physical geography, hydrology, the atmospheric sciences, ecology, anthropology, biology, and human ecology. I will call the organized way to think about the environment environmental literacy. In this book environmental literacy is built upon a foundation of scientific concepts.

What is environmental literacy? How can it be developed? What does it mean to take a scientific approach to environmental literacy and what are the limits to a science-based approach? Discussions of these questions will provide and overview of the book.

David Orr, in his book Ecological Literacy (1992), begins by stating that literacy is the ability to read. Literacy, like numeracy, the ability to read numbers, is a mark of education. A person who is literate can understand what is written and place it into a context of meaning.

But environmental literacy is more than the ability to read about the environment. It also involves developing a sense of the spirit of places. Orr refers to a sense of wonder. The ancient Chinese made a science of the sense of place, which they called feng-shui (Eitel 1984). When my students and I go into the field, I tell them that our first task is to learn to read the landscape. I show them that the landscape is a text that informs us about its capacity to produce and support life, its history, and what organisms are likely to be present.But for me, at least, environmental literacy connotes more than knowing the names of he organisms and understanding geomorphology. I also emphasize feeling the landscape through all the senses. This feeling of place distinguishes each site and makes a place special and memorable.

Environmental literacy begins with an experience of the environment. In my case it began with scouting and led to an intense study of camping and woodcraft over about three years. I was fortunate to have the natural landmarks of the Chicago region to explore - the Indiana Dunes and Turkey Runs State Parks, the river canyons, the oak-grass savannah woodland, the northern forest of Michigan, and Lake Michigan itself. This region and these landscapes were a birthplace of American ecology (Cowles 1901), although I only learned of that history after I had chosen ecology as a profession. My students tell me similar stories. Scouting, family camps in the national parks, volunteer work as naturalists all figure in these young peoples' backgrounds and provide the direct experience that leads to their study of ecology and environmental science.

Experience is the trigger for environmental literacy. It ignites the curiosity and tests the muscles. It teaches us that we live in a world that is not of human making, that does not play by human rules. We call this world nature. To build environmental literacy, it is necessary to go beyond books and the libraries and experience nature directly. Only then do we gradually come to recognize a depth and complexity in nature that continually challenges and surprises us. Nature has no purpose, as we humans define purpose, and we soon learn that it does not care about us one way or another. Foolish and risky action in nature can lead to death. As Paul Shepard (1982) shows, life in nature is one route to human maturity.

From the initial experience with nature the road to literacy runs in a variety of directions. In my case it led to the study of ecological science and ultimately to studies in most of the world's great ecological formation. For others the road leads to a world of imagination, of thought and spiritual growth. The products of such travels are the great paintings of nature, the music, the dance, the books of philosophy and religion, and the life style of the naturalist. You can distinguish a man or woman of the forest, the desert, the mountains, or the seas from the farmer and the city person. Nature marks the human.

Still others have expressed environmental in a life of action. You will find these people in Congress and other branches of government, in business and industries. Often they are working for change in environmental laws and policies. These people link health and condition of the environment with the health and conditions of human society. They return to nature to recharge the spirit; they buttress their arguments with the facts and principles of science, but their life is one of action, or dispute, or the attempt to move what is toward what might be.

Finally, there are the countless professionals who actively work in the environment, rebuilding and constructing nature to fit their vision of an ideal state. Professionals base their work on scientific principles, but the blueprints from which they build are designed for human purposes. Often these purposes are so deeply informed by experience with nature that they fit well into the natural world and it takes an experienced environmentalist to detect the artificial. In other cases, the design reflects custom, tradition, artistic fashion, or economic costs.

All of the people mentioned above would consider themselves environmentally literate individuals concerned about the environment and doing what they can to protect and support the natural world. Environmental literacy can be expressed in many ways. Experience, when combined with scientific study based on imagination, intuition, and disciplined thought, sometimes results in insights that are profoundly different from those of the professional or the activist. In such cases conflict often arises and we must resort to the skills of the conciliator. Where there is no solution, it is best to sit back and allow natural processes and needs to emerge more clearly before the case is reconsidered.


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Table of Contents

Cluster 1 Foundation Concepts
1 The Environment 3
2 The System 10
3 Hierarchical Organization 18
Cluster 2 Land and Water Systems
4 The Ecosphere, with Comments on the Gaia Hypothesis and the Biosphere 29
5 Energy Dynamics 37
6 The Composition of the Earth 45
7 The Biome 59
8 The Landscape 69
9 The Watershed 78
10 The Ecotope 90
11 Species Diversity 101
12 Primary Production and Decomposition 109
13 Ecological Succession 118
Cluster 3 The Population and the Individual
14 The Population as a Demographic Unit 127
15 Life-History Adaptations 138
16 The Individual Organism 146
17 Body Size and Climate Space 154
18 Speciation and Natural Selection 163
Cluster 4 Interaction Between Individuals and Species
19 Interactions Between Individuals 173
20 Mutualism 181
21 Competition 188
22 Predation 198
23 Coevolution and Niche 205
24 The Biotic Community 211
25 Island Biogeography 217
26 Human Ecology 224
Conclusion: Ecology, Environment, and Ethics 229
Literature Cited 239
Index 249
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