Closing the Green Intelligence Gap
In October, my local NPR station, WAMU, aired a story about a cleanup effort on the banks of the Anacostia River, a chronically troubled tributary that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.
One of the volunteers picking up Styrofoam cups and other trash said, "I think at this point people know what they're doing and they know it won't biodegrade and they're still doing it. I think that's the scariest part."
I found myself nodding in agreement at the time, but I'm starting do wonder: Do most people really know that polystyrene won't biodegrade? Do they even know what "biodegrade" means? Do most U.S. citizens grasp how much non-degradable waste our country generates? Do they understand how non-degradable trash in one place (the banks of the Anacostia) ends up other places (the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and shorelines around the world)? Do they have any sense of the long-term impact of environmental toxins on plants and animals and people?
I'm guessing the answer to all those questions is a resounding "no."
Yes, some people know. But most people don't, because a majority of Americans don't have a basic grasp of basic science, so they don't have a mental framework for acquiring more scientific knowledge and concepts.
In 2009, the California Academy of Sciences commissioned a national survey to assess basic science literacy. The survey, which was conducted by Harris Interactive and surveyed 1,002 adults age 18 and over, found that only 53 percent of adults know how long it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun, and only 59 percent know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
Only 47 percent of those surveyed could approximate the portion of the earth's surface that is covered with water (acceptable answers ranged from 65 to 75 percent). And only 21 percent of adults answered all three questions correctly.
This might lead one to conclude that a lot of people are not smarter than a fifth grader. However, that's really not a fair assessment, because "smart" and "educated" are two different things, and the problem is that a lot of people aren't as educated as a fifth grader--or as a fifth grader should be, anyway.
Presumably many people learned these facts at some point and have since forgotten them. Sadly, some probably never learned these basics to begin with. Either way, as this survey and many other studies demonstrate, something is very wrong with our approach to science education and our cultural expectations about general science literacy.
Science illiteracy is a big roadblock on the path to a sustainable future. First of all, we need many more students who are prepared to pursue careers in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) - including careers as STEM teachers. But just as importantly, we need average citizens to have a basic grasp of scientific facts and methods.
The 2011 Green Intelligence Forum brought together a lot of "sustainable brains" to talk about critical issues. I left the Forum with a renewed sense of hope after listening to so many smart, passionate people talk about sustainability problems and solutions.
But I also came away reminded that our nation has a serious green intelligence gap.
Given the woeful state of basic science literacy, how can we expect people to make informed judgments about something as complex as climate change - especially when they are regularly presented with conflicting information and opinions?
Thankfully, there are a lot of federal agencies and nonprofit programs trying to raise awareness and turn things around. One good example is Project 2061, an initiative led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This program aims to help all Americans become literate in science, mathematics, and technology by the year 2061.
Despite this forward-looking program and many more like it, making significant inroads on science literacy will be an uphill battle, especially given the general state of our educational system. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on climate change and a host of other environmental issues with irreversible consequences.
How many more times can the earth go around the sun before we pay the price for such widespread scientific ignorance?