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A Closer Look into Ecological Literacy

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Jeremy Radford

Eng 101 Sect. 119

J. Fletcher

Project 2


A Closer Look into Ecological Literacy

In 1992, David W. Orr, a professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College published the article "Ecological Literacy", where he argued that Ecological Literacy was almost all but extinct in today's society. Orr states, "The failure to develop ecological literacy is a sin of omission and of commission. Not only are we failing to teach the basics about the earth and how it works, but we are in fact teaching a large amount of stuff that is simply wrong" (Orr, 1992, p. 300). This is where I truly believe that Orr gets his point across to the reader. In a world where literacy and numeracy are demanded out of every child, these tasks are but minuscule

to the big picture that ecological literacy is more important than any number or word. Orr's theory strikes me in an awkward way. I am amazed by the fact that I can be persuaded a great amount just by his opening statements. However, Orr uses his emotions toward the topic to provide a sense of urgency to his theories that the public does not understand ecological literacy and why it is so hard to learn this concept. As you will see, I agree with Orr on most of the subjects within the argument, but not all.

First, Orr tries to give the reader a better understanding about the subject at hand. He does this by explaining what he means by ecological literacy and how one can become ecologically literate. Orr states, "Ecological literacy requires the more demanding capacity to observe nature with insight, a merger of landscape and mindscape" (p. 300). Orr also goes on to tell how disturbing it is to him that this kind of intimate knowledge of our landscapes is rapidly disappearing and this can only impoverish our mental landscapes as well. The first section of his article is just an introduction into how and why he is disturbed by the subject of ecological literacy.

Then, Orr starts to explain why ecological literacy is so hard to obtain in modern Western culture. Orr's first reason is stated, "it implies the ability to think broadly, to know something of what is hitched to what" (p. 301). In the society we live in today, people are being taught to just look for the direct answer. That there is one right answer to every problem and no one has the intuition to say otherwise. Another reason Orr believes that ecological literacy is difficult is that the learning aspect of society is believed to only be capable in a classroom. The thought of observing abroad is not an option for learning anymore for children. Orr argues his third reason that ecological literacy is difficult due to a "decline in the capacity for aesthetic appreciation" (p. 302). We have become accustomed to the ugliness of the world and no one has the intuition to question or protest the subject. Orr also gives his view on what ugliness is. "Ugliness is, I think, the surest sign of disease, or what is now being called 'unsustainability'" (p. 302). He believes that we hide the catastrophic nature of our doings from our eyes because we do not want to accept our own misbehavior. The last reason Orr believes that ecological literacy is so difficult is "not because there are fewer books about nature, but because there is less opportunity for the direct experience of it" (p. 303). Orr goes on to back this argument by saying that there are less people growing up on farms or in rural areas where they would be subject to the constant viewing of nature and the effects that mankind has on it. The respect for the natural world is on a decline because of the lack of ecological literacy among the Western culture.

Orr also goes on to state how society as a whole is taught that ecological literacy is not needed from them and that the only people who should worry about the environmental problems are the government officials. Orr argues, "Since there is no particular need for an ecologically literate and ecologically competent public, environmental education is most often regarded as an extra in the curriculum" (p. 303). In addition to this statement, Orr explains how the public should not expect technology advancements to solve all of their problems. The public must also have an understanding of the relation between its well-being and the health of the natural systems.

To live sustainably, Orr gives six foundations that make up the answer. His first is "the recognition that all education is environmental education" (p. 304). He goes on to describe this idea as conventional education to be a celebration of all that is human to the exclusion of our dependence on nature. The second concept that Orr believes society must understand is, "environmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department" (p. 304). Third, "education occurs in part as a dialogue with a place and has the characteristics of good conversation" (p. 304). Orr explains this by saying that formal education happens mostly as a monologue of human interest, desires, and accomplishments that drowns out all other sounds. He then goes on to introduce the fourth theory of living sustainably. Orr states, "the way education occurs is as important as its content" (p. 305). He is emphasizing the fact that one does not learn exactly the power and importance of nature if they are not subjected to nature.

His fifth theory is that experience in the natural world is just as important as being taught knowledge of nature. Direct experience could take the place of learning in a classroom.

Orr's final stepping stone in understanding the problems of the natural world is that, "education relevant to the challenge of building a sustainable society will enhance the learner's competence with natural systems" (p. 305). His idea of a quality society is the population being very knowledgeable of their environment and them doing everything possible to preserve nature while blossoming as a society.

My evaluation of Orr's explanation of ecological literacy is quite simple. I understand his position on trying to give the reader a full comprehension of the topic at hand and I also agree with his definition of ecological literacy. I too believe that the lack of ecological literacy is very disturbing. However, I do not agree with Orr's direction that we have fully lost touch of our will to protect nature. I believe that we have been misled by technological advances and we tend to shield our eyes from the damage



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