In 2011, the global human population is projected to reach 7 billion people with several billion more to be added in the next several decades. Related, humans have been causing unprecedented environmental changes across local, regional and global scales. A central goal of environmental education is to increase people’s awareness of these changes, their societal effects and individuals’ relationships to environmental issues. However, the variety, inherent complexity, and multiple interpretations of environmental issues present many challenges to environmental educators. What are the most important ideas that should be focused on in environmental education programs? Successful attempts have been made to answer this question but further clarification and refinement are needed to advance the discussion. To this end, participants in the 2010 Ecology and Education Summit, co-sponsored by the ESA, were asked to provide answers to the question: What does it mean to be an environmentally literate person? A total of 94 respondents provided answers of varying detail. We analyzed and synthesized the responses as a way to provide insights into commonalities and divergences in how people understand key components of environmental literacy.
Each individual’s response was decomposed into specific pieces of information yielding 333 relevant items. These were categorized into themes and synthesized to provide a collective “vision” for environmental literacy. Four main themes were identified: knowledge, skills, attitudes/values and behaviors/actions. Approximately two-thirds of the respondents identified general or specific aspects of environmental knowledge as central to environmental literacy with an emphasis on concepts from environmental and ecological science. Half of these responses articulated the importance of knowing about human-environment relationships including interconnectedness and the environmental consequences of human actions. Nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated that an environmentally literate person should engage in certain behaviors including making environmentally-informed decisions. One-third of responses highlighted certain attitudes or values that environmentally literate people possess such as appreciation for nature. Nearly one-third of the responses described certain skills that comprise environmental literacy such as those for critical thinking, communication and community engagement. Although great diversity about specific details of environmental literacy was observed, two central components of environmental literacy clearly emerged: a scientifically-based knowledge base about social-environmental systems and using that knowledge to guide decisions about personal behaviors. These two themes may help focus future discussions that seek consensus about environmental literacy programs.