Shades of green: understanding sustainability in a post-truth age

Environmental literacy helps us close the circle... and widen it.

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala
Apr 21, 2017
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Bill Burnside, Xujia Jiang, Aiora Zabala

Biologist and author Barry Commoner popularized the first idea, that everything is connected within a closed system —like Earth— and so we can’t ignore away pollution and other environmental ills. By widening the circle, I mean considering how something is embedded within the environment more broadly. A practice that appears sustainable may look different when considering, say, associated increases in transport. Globalization, with its accelerating movements of people, goods and services, has made these interconnections all the more tangible and pressing.

We can broadly define environmental literacy as the ability to read, to read about, and to understand your environment. This literacy leads us to grasp the wider impact of our choices, hence to understand to what extent they are sustainable. This literacy involves observation and imagination, memory and critical thinking.

This is not just a philosophical or finger-wagging point. All of us already do this. Usually we save effort by offloading most of the task of critically gathering information to the provider of a given product, action, or policy. We do this because constantly questioning can be exhausting. We may use “green labels” to overcome lack of information, so-called “information asymmetries” between seller and buyer. We glance at news stories and, yes, blog posts to gauge how to think about a novel, supposedly green idea. We adopt views and talking points from family, friends and coworkers. Steadily, we harden our positions. Righteousness breeds obstinacy, and the more invested we become in an explanation, the more threatening any counter argument becomes. In a sort of escalation of commitment, we move beyond truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Harnessing the potential of environmental literacy can be empowering. Understanding where things we use come from and where they go is quiet and contemplative, but it is powerful. Just as reading new words opens new worlds, being able to comprehend the environmental intricacies of our actions provides awesome insight, no matter whether this knowledge is first hand or second. It means paying attention to invisible connections, like linking products of daily use with air pollution in distant geographies, and discovering surprising facts, like the ratio between the time of use of a disposable wood stick and the time it took to travel from its original tree to the coffee shop. Such reading is playful and, as it clearly is for humans more intimately linked to local environmental constraints, fundamental.

Imagination and curiosity are important here. Does this really make sense to choose this product if I think through the connections and ramifications? Where does this action fit into the broader scheme of things? Does it coincide with my observations over time and with similar contexts? It means cultivating your inner naturalist. It also means being comfortable with shades of gray rather than black and white, because choices are rarely fully sustainable. In effect, gray is the new green.

On Earth Day 2017, consider what it means for you to read the environment in things around you. Think of recultivating those joyful habits of curiosity, observation and problem-solving. Then, like the newly literate child walking into a library for the first time, look at your world as a sea of sometimes green shades you are literally born to explore.

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala

Aiora Zabala

Associate Editor, Nature Research

Sustainability and environmental policy

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