How to Become Eco-Literate

Life is expensive. Humans consume considerable amounts of resources daily (especially North Americans). Some of this consumption is necessary for survival, but most is excess, which ultimately ends up in our landfills and junkyards. Much of what we consume and waste can be given a monetary value, but the cost of extracting these materials cannot so easily be assessed. Forests are cleared, water and air polluted, ecosystems spoiled. Can you put a dollar amount on a wetland or a mountain? What is the value of a rare plant species? The true cost of life, therefore, is incalculable.

The natural world relies on nutrient cycles and energy flow to function properly. Where there is a break in the energy flow or a dearth in nutrients, tragedy often ensues. Conventional farming is a prime example. As crops grow, they mine the soil of nutrients. In the natural world, these nutrients would be replaced as plants and animals die. In an agricultural setting, plants are often completely removed, and this feedback portion of the nutrient cycle is lost. In order to compensate, farmers must add copious amounts of fertilizer (usually synthetic) to achieve high yields. Removal of the plant layer also leaves the soil unprotected, leading to erosion and additional nutrient loss. In this case, a better understanding of ecological principles combined with sustainable practices would lead to a healthier agricultural system.

So, why am I giving you this lecture about the cost of living and the value of properly functioning nutrient and energy cycles? Well, I’m trying to make an argument for simple and mindful living. These days we are being inundated with “green” propaganda. While once relegated to the fringes of society, the green movement has now been co-opted by the mainstream, and whether they are in it for the money or because they really care, it doesn’t change the fact that the message has become ubiquitous. But is it convincing? Frankly, most mainstream arguments seem vague and untenable, and their solutions are often equally questionable (e.g. don’t buy less stuff, just buy different stuff). So, I don’t know how well the campaign is working or how long it will last. Are people getting sick of hearing it? Are they seeing it for the corporate greenwashing that it very well may be? Does anybody even care?

Of course people care. Nobody wants to see the planet go down the crapper. Most people want to do the right thing. The problem isn’t that people are ambivalent; it’s that they are ignorant. It’s one thing to tell people what to do. It’s another to help them understand why they should do it. If the general public was more environmentally educated and ecologically minded, encouraging them to mend their fuelish ways would be much easier. If the masses had a basic understanding about the importance of biodiversity and the services that ecosystems offer us when they are functioning properly, living green would come more naturally. Eco-literacy makes for a more eco-minded society, and an eco-minded society is a sustainable one.

So, how do we become more eco-literate? As with any new concept, it’s best to start small and simple. Spend some time outside, in nature. Learn the names of the plants and animals that are common in your area. Grow native plants in your garden. Visit your local watershed. Research some of the environmental issues that impact your region and find out what you can do about them. Volunteer with a local organization that does environmental work. Ask questions. Participate in workshops. Most importantly, don’t just accept everything that is placed in front of you by the media. Find out for yourself if what you’ve heard about an environmental product or issue is credible. Being skeptical isn’t the same as being cynical. Skepticism is science, and it is through critical thinking and scientific research that answers are realized. Good science (i.e. empirical evidence) allows us to move forward with greater knowledge and understanding. As a citizen scientist, you will be part of a global movement to better understand our home planet, and with that greater understanding, you will become a more effective steward.

I am a proponent of the simple life. I am by no means the paragon of such a lifestyle, but I’m working at it. Along the way I have found that living simply requires, among other things, patience, conviction, and intelligence. Living small means living smart. If you want to avoid getting ripped off, it helps to be an informed consumer. If you want to help protect the planet, it helps to be an informed human. So don’t let the science scare you, get out into the world and get informed. The planet will thank you.


Dan Murphy is a seasoned zine writer (The Juniper, Elephant Mess) and proponent of the slow
life. His long-time passions include bike riding, skateboarding, punk rock, and gardening. His
new interests include botany, ecology, wildflowers, and lichens. Dan has a B.S. in horticulture
and an M.S. in biology (his thesis was on green roof technology research). He works at the Idaho
Botanical Garden in Native Plant Horticulture. Learn more about Dan at
daniel murphy

(Credit: Dan Murphy)