Environmental education in the United States has continuously grappled with the question of what it means to be an environmentally literate citizen and how to design and implement effective, comprehensive environmental education programs. For many environmental educators, two founding documents, the Belgrade Charter (UNESCO-UNEP 1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCO 1978), offer a strong foundation for a shared view of the core concepts and skills that environmentally literate citizens need. Since 1978, bodies such as the Brundtland Commission (Brundtland 1987), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (UNCED 1992), the Thessaloniki Declaration (UNESCO 1997) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (United Nations 2002) have influenced the work of environmental educators, highlighting the importance of viewing the environment within the context of human influences. These perspectives have expanded the emphasis of environmental education, focusing attention on social equity as well as economic, cultural, and political systems. Even with these internationally agreed upon descriptions of environmental education and environmental literacy, many in the field felt that a generally agreed upon environmental literacy framework was needed in the United States.
In 1993 the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) initiated the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education in an attempt to address critical issues related to the development of an environmentally literate citizenry. Arguing that environmental literacy must be a goal of our society and our school systems, NAAEE has produced tools designed to help educators develop effective, locally relevant environmental education programs leading to environmental literacy. A vision of environmental literacy was developed acknowledging that a knowledgeable, skilled, and active citizenry is key to preventing and resolving current and future environmental problems. This environmental literacy framework, Excellence in Environmental Education – Guidelines for Learning (PreK-12) (NAAEE 2004), examines the relationship between the environment and quality of life, and uses an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes development of inquiry skills and an understanding of the processes and systems that comprise the environment, including human social systems and influences. Importantly, the framework also stresses the development of decision-making and citizenship skills as well as an understanding that what one does individually and in groups can make a difference (i.e., a sense of personal and civic responsibility). This presentation will describe the elements of the NAAEE environmental literacy framework, discuss the points of overlap with views of ecological literacy, and consider where the two views diverge.