Understanding Environmental Literacy in America

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    What Ten Years of NEETF/Roper

    Research and Related Studies Say

    About Environmental Literacy in the U.S.

    THE NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION

    & TRAINING FOUNDATION

    EnvironmentalIN AMERICALiteracy

    Kevin Coyle

    September 2005

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    2005 The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, Washington, D.C.

    EnvironmentalIN AMERICALiteracy

    What Ten Years of NEETF/Roper

    Research and Related Studies Say

    About Environmental Literacy in the U.S.

    THE NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION

    & TRAINING FOUNDATION

    Kevin Coyle

    September 2005

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    ii Environmental Literacy in America

    Preface

    I

    n 1944, noted conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: Acts of conservation without therequisite desires and skill are futile. To create these desires and skills, and the communitymotive, is the task of education. Almost sixty years later, in January 2003, the National

    Science Foundation released a report of its Advisory Committee for EnvironmentalResearch and Education. The Committee found that in the coming decades, the publicwill more frequently be called upon to understand complex environmental issues, assessrisk, evaluate proposed environmental plans and understand how individual decisionsaffect the environment at local and global scales. The Committee called for the creationof a scientifically informed citizenry and pointed out that this will require a concerted andsystematic approach to environmental education grounded in a broad and deep research

    base that offers a compelling invitation to lifelong learning.

    Now in 2005, Environmental Literacy in America offers an assessment of environmentalliteracy in America that is both sobering and hopeful. This summary of almost a decade ofNEETF collaboration with Roper Reports provides a loud wake-up call to the environmental

    education community, to community leaders, and to influential specialists ranging fromphysicians to weathercasters. At a time when Americans are confronted with increasinglychallenging environmental choices, we learn that our citizenry is by and large both uninformedand misinformed.

    This is worrisome. Yet, here at NEETF we are a community of glass half-full thinkers.True, we have a confused public that performs poorly on basic environmental literacyquestionnaires. But 95% of this public supports environmental education in our schools.And most Americans want environmental education to continue into their adult lives. Over85% agree that government agencies should support environmental education programs.A large majority (80%) believe that private companies should train their employees to helpsolve environmental problems. People want to understand environmental issues and how

    they apply to their daily lives. Environmental education can and must respond.

    NEETF is committed to fostering environmental literacy in ways that spur critical thinkingskills and creativity on the part of individuals and institutions. We also emphasize practical,pragmatic, workable solutions not more rhetoric. For example, this report explains howfocused environmental education can guide the public to simple actions that could save at least$75 billion annually. Imagine the trillions of dollars to be saved with a coordinated, mobilizedenvironmental education network fully supported by private and public institutions!

    Read this report. It offers a wealth of data and analysis accompanied by recommendationsintended for environmental educators, NGO leaders, funders, public decision makers, andprofessionals who are daily affected by environmental issues. As you will see, this reportraises the bar for environmental education. It emphasizes the need for more research, clearerbenchmarks to demonstrate impact, and far greater coordination. We do not have theluxury of duplicating efforts; instead, we must find ways to collaborate effectively withinand between the public and private sectors. Fortunately, a wealth of programs and expertsare already available to help meet the urgent need of educating Americans in their essentialenvironmental ABCs.

    We welcome this opportunity to recognize the invaluable role that Kevin Coyle has played,both in authoring this report and in furthering the cause of environmental literacy in America.

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    Environmental Literacy in America iii

    For nine years Kevin served as President of NEETF and worked with colleagues at Roper andelsewhere, as he analyzed the data, developed our groundbreaking NEETF/Roper reports,and formed expert opinions on every facet of environmental education. His contributionsto environmental education are unparalleled, and his new position at the National WildlifeFederation will make excellent use of his enormous insights and commitment to this field.

    NEETF will be using the findings of this report and recommendations as the basis of ourwork for the rest of this decade. We invite readers to do the same. With the full support ofour Board of Directors, we renew our commitment to environmental literacy: environmentaleducation in our classrooms, in our homes, in our professions and workplaces -- environmentaleducation that instills a love of land and nature. Our mission dictates that we commitourselves to more research, more listening, and more openness to collaboration with allsectors of this nation. Please join us in this effort.

    Richard Bartlett Diane WoodChairman, NEETF President, NEETF

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    Most Americansbelieve they know more

    about the environment

    than they actually do.

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    Environmental Literacy in America v

    Foreword

    I

    n the course of a lifetime, an individual will accumulate environmental knowledge froma combination of school, the media, personal reading, family members and friends,outdoor activities, entertainment outlets, and a wide range of other professional and

    personal experiences. For a few motivated individuals, this can eventually add up to anaccomplished environmental literacy. But for most Americans, it falls far short. Most peopleaccumulate a diverse and unconnected smattering of factoids, a few (sometimes incorrect)principles, numerous opinions, and very little real understanding. Research shows that mostAmericans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do.

    That is why 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water; 120 millionthink spray cans still have CFCs in them even though CFCs were banned in 1978; another120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when theyactually represent about 1% of the problem; and 130 million believe that hydropower isAmerica's top energy source, when it accounts for just 10% of the total. It is also why veryfew people understand the leading causes of air and water pollution or how they should be

    addressed. Our years of data from Roper surveys show a persistent pattern of environmentalignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society.

    A more recent and disturbing phenomenon also warrants our careful attention. It is perhapsbest described in a book by family expert and author Richard Louv (2005) as widespread"nature-deficit disorder." Louv is among a growing number of analysts who see unprecedentedpattern changes in how young people relate to nature and the outdoors. As kids becomemore "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 playingoutside is becoming close to extinct due to a combination of electronics, cyberspace, andparental efforts to keep their children indoors and, in their minds, safer.

    Without being alarmist, these conditions are becoming less acceptable and more perilous tosociety. We are moving past the time when we can rely on a cadre of environmental expertsto fix our environmental problems. With most environmental issues becoming more complexand difficult to manage, and with the preponderance of pollution shifting toward problemscaused by individuals and small entities, a stronger and wider public understanding ofenvironmental science and related issues is a growing necessity. We are also moving into a timewhen direct contact with the natural world is being markedly scaled back. Comprehensiveenvironmental education is the only real answer. But can we get there?

    Our leaders need to comprehend far more about what works and what does not. The publicneeds true education on the environment. We need to improve the quality and delivery of lifelongeducation on the environment to grasp its original promise and make it work. We need tobuild more support for resource stewardship through education and use an informed public tomitigate some of the adverse effects of our actions on the environment. This report will help sortout this complexity in a way the non-expert can readily see and do something about.

    Kevin J. CoyleFormer President, NEETF

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    Acknowledgments

    T

    his report started as a cursory effort to recap some key findings of ten years of NEETF/Roper research. From there, it grew and grew. Along the way there are several peopleto thank for their help.

    David Lintern of Roper Public Affairs at GfK NOP deserves much credit for this report.NEETF could not have asked for a better partner at Roper than David. In addition to helpingdesign and test the survey instruments, over the course of ten years David often wrote andedited drafts of our National Report Cards and has worked with us consistently to maintainresearch and editorial quality. David's boss, Ed Keller, and his partner, Jon Berry, also madea significant amount of their research available to this effort, particularly with regard to theirwork on Influential Americans.

    We also wish to acknowledge the important design work that Dr. Lynn Musser provided in1997 when we converted the ongoing NEETF/Roper survey ofattitudes to a report card onenvironmental knowledge. It was her expertise, hard work, and patient encouragement that

    made the Report Card program a reality. Francis Pandolfi, former NEETF chair, deservesacknowledgement and thanks for starting this survey research effort while at Times MirrorMagazines, and for assisting in conveying the survey from Times Mirror to NEETF in 1996.Our chair, Dick Bartlett, has also made the writing of this report more possible with his ownunique combination of unbounded enthusiasm and sharp critique.

    In the summer of 2003, Jennifer Bland, a wonderful student intern from Stanford University,ably collected some critical supplemental research used throughout this report to helpcorroborate (and challenge) Roper findings.

    Several reviewers went above and beyond in helping with this report, including MichaelRains, a NEETF board member and research director at the USDA Forest Service; Jim Elder

    who recently wrote an important "field guide" to the environmental education movement;and Dr. Tom Marcinkowski of Florida Tech who strongly and effectively challenged us touse more existing research, get basic models and definitions down more accurately, and thinkharder about what is needed in new research, assessment, and evaluation. Tom also providedsome very helpful bibliographic reviews of the research that are incorporated in appendicesto this report.

    Our outstanding editor, Gilah Langner, spent long and patient hours with this manuscript tomake it presentable, consistent, and more professionally rigorous. We thank Gerry Bishop,editor ofRanger Rick, for the cover photo of the two boys.

    Finally, we are extremely grateful to the Peter Sharp Foundation for its generous support ofthis work and for the ongoing support of NEETF Advisor and friend, Dan Lufkin.

    The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation is a Congressionally-chartered, private nonprofit organization that supports the development of environmentalliteracy in its many forms.

    NOP World, publisher of Roper Reports, is a full-service international research and marketingfirm.

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    Environmental Literacy in America vii

    Contents

    Summary ..........................................................................................................................vii

    Introduction .....................................................................................................................xv

    Chapter 1: Knowledge: What Americans Know About the Environment .......................... 1

    Chapter 2: Beliefs: Environmental Myths and the Media ................................................ 19

    Chapter 3: Environmental Attitudes and Actions ............................................................ 33

    Chapter 4: Media Strategies for Enhancing Adult Environmental Learning ..................... 45

    Chapter 5: Understanding Environmental Education ...................................................... 51

    Chapter 6: Effects of Environmental Education on Youth ............................................... 65

    Chapter 7: Long Term Value of Environmental Education .............................................. 79

    Chapter 8: A Plan for Improved Environmental Literacy ................................................ 87

    Appendix 1: Sample Roper Questionnaire ....................................................................... 98

    Appendix 2: Roper Methodology .................................................................................. 100

    Appendix 3: Report Bibliography.................................................................................. 101

    Appendix 4: Bibliography of Needs Assessments and Status Reports in EE ................... 110

    Appendix 5: Selected Bibliography of Research Collections and Reviews ...................... 115

    Appendix 6: Related NEETF/Roper Data Trends ......................................................... 118

    About NEETF ............................................................................................................... 129

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    Just 12 percentof Americans can pass a

    basic quiz on awareness

    of energy topics.

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    Summary

    Environmental Literacy in America

    Aware? Yes, But Hardly In-the-KnowThis report finds that overall awareness of simple environmental topics is reasonably highnationwide. That is certainly good news and we should not lose track of it. The study alsofinds a very strong nationwide belief in the value of environmental education. This also offersan encouraging point of departure for a closer examination of the somewhat disappointingstate of...

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