Eco-Literacy and America's 'Nature-Deficit Disorder'

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by: Joel Makower

It's axiomatic that the more people truly understand something, the better able they'll be to create informed opinions and decisions. And in the case of environmental literacy, what we don't know truly could hurt us.

That's why a new report on American's eco-literacy is so humbling to those of us in the environmental information business — and why it is one of the more important reports I've read of late.

The report, Environmental Literacy in America, comes from the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, a nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1990 to promote "environmental education in its many forms." (Full disclosure: NEETF is the parent organization of, the Web site I founded and still serve as Director of Strategy.)

The report, by NEETF's former president, Kevin J. Coyle (currently vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation), represents an analysis of nearly a decade's worth of research on Americans' environmental literacy, conducted by NEETF in partnership with the Roper Public Affairs unit at GfK NOP (which also conducts the Green Gauge survey I covered recently).

The bottom line, according to the report:

Most people accumulate a diverse and unconnected smattering of factoids, a few (sometimes incorrect) principles, numerous opinions, and very little real understanding. Research shows that most Americans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do.

For example, says Coyle:

That is why 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water; 120 million think spray cans still have CFCs in them even though CFCs were banned in 1978; another 120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when they actually represent about 1% of the problem; and 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source, when it accounts for just 10% of the total.

It is also why very few people understand the leading causes of air and water pollution or how they should be addressed, says Coyle, adding that his years of research have found "a persistent pattern of environmental ignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society."

Coyle lays the blame in part on what family expert and author Richard Louv calls our "nature-deficit disorder" — unprecedented pattern changes in how young people relate to nature and the outdoors.

As kids become more "wired" than ever before, they are drawn away from healthful, often soul-soothing, outdoor play. The age-old pattern of children spending hours roaming about and playing outside is becoming close to extinct due to a combination of electronics, cyberspace, and parental efforts to keep their children indoors and, in their minds, safer.

In one of the more provocative parts of his report, Coyle promulgates an "environmental literacy index" that attempts to monetize the value of a better-informed, eco-literate society.

The gist is that Coyle's and others' research has found that environmentally knowledgeable people are:

  • 10% more likely to save energy in the home
  • 50% more likely to recycle
  • 10% more likely to purchase environmentally safe products
  • 50% more likely to avoid using chemicals in yard care
  • 31% more likely to conserve water
  • twice as likely to donate funds to conservation

Using an admitted back-of-the-envelope calculation of what an improved level of environmental knowledge might mean for savings in the national economy, Coyle came up with the following:

  • The U.S. Energy Department estimates that home electricity use in America costs about $233 billion per year. Increased environmental knowledge that led to a 5% reduction in home electricity use would generate annual savings of $11.5 billion.  
  • Similarly, gasoline use accounts for $137 billion per year and a sizable percentage of our petroleum usage. A 5% savings in gasoline brought about through improved fuel efficiency and driving habits would save nearly $7 billion per year.  
  • A 5% reduction in domestic water use would save $14.2 billion and trillions of gallons of water. 

Coyle found another $25 billion in savings from small businesses reducing overhead costs by 5%, and $18 billion in savings resulting from a 2% drop in home and office hazard costs as the result of increased environmental knowledge — a grand total of $75.5 billion in direct savings to the public for just five outcomes.

Economists, neocons, and others might find such calculations overly simplified, and Coyle would likely be the first to agree. But along the way he makes a valuable point: Even incremental improvements in the public's environmental literacy can lead to small changes by large populations that can have a significant positive economic, environmental, and public health impacts. Put in strictly business terms, the financial dividends for investments in increased public eco-literacy can be substantial.

The question, of course, is who's going to lead — and pay for — this eco-literacy crusade: Government? Companies? Schools? Activists? All of these institutions have a unique role to play, and all could benefit from a better-informed populace.

Who, then, will step up to the plate?

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