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Literacy to Save the Earth

What’s the value of an environmentally literate America? By Joel Makower

What's the value of an environmentally literate America?

According to Kevin J. Coyle, the answer is: about $75 billion a year. And that's just the low-hanging fruit.

Coyle is president of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, or NEETF, a nonprofit group established by Congress to support environmental literacy in its many forms. (Disclosure: One of those forms is GreenBiz.com and the other Web sites and activities of Green Business Network, of which I am founder and which merged with NEETF in 2001.) Coyle is one of the nation's leading advocates of environmental education, and over the years he has closely tracked the environmental literacy of Americans.

In a recent paper, still in draft form, Coyle offers an assessment of the past decade of progress in educating Americans about the environment. (The current draft can be downloaded here.)

There's good news and bad: While Coyle notes that “overall awareness of simple environmental topics is reasonably high nationwide,” it's still not a pretty picture. Real comprehension of more complex environmental subjects is very limited, he says. The average adult American -- regardless of age, income, or education level -- “mostly fails to grasp essential aspects of environmental science, important cause/effect relationships, or even basic but multistep concepts such as runoff pollution, power generation and fuel use, water flow patterns, or ecosystem dynamics.”

Perhaps most distressing, Coyle notes that “There is little difference in knowledge levels between the average American and those who sit on governing bodies, town councils, and in corporate boardrooms.”

The media are partly to blame, Coyle says, as that's where kids get most -- and adults get all -- of their environmental information. It's a mixed blessing: increased environmental coverage is welcome, but superficial and inaccurate reporting helps to create and perpetuate myths and misinformation. Examples of Americans' persistent myths -- culled from a series of surveys NEETF conducted with Roper, the international research and polling firm -- include:

  • Myth: America relies on energy from air pollution-free hydroelectricity, nuclear power, and solar. Reality: Most electricity is produced by burning coal, a leading cause of air pollution.
  • Myth: Aerosol cans contain ozone-depleting CFCs. Reality: The chemical was banned from aerosols in 1978.
  • Myth: Famine is the primary cause of childhood death worldwide. Reality: Water pollution causes more childhood deaths, by far.
  • Myth: Most water pollution is caused by factories. Reality: Land runoff (from roadways, farms, etc.) is the leading source.

Why should all this matter? Coyle points to “a compelling body of evidence” that increased eco-literacy affects behavior. For example, NEETF/Roper data show that those with higher environmental literacy are 10% more likely to save energy at home or purchase environmentally safe products, and 50% more likely to recycle, or avoid using chemicals in their yards.

Simply put, an eco-savvy public is more apt to appreciate -- and support -- environmental leadership companies.

But there's more. In his paper, Coyle introduces the notion of an “E-literacy Domestic Product,” a dollar measurement of the value of environmental literacy on the U.S. economy.

The EDP works like this: U.S. residential electricity use costs about $233 billion per year. So, if Americans better understood electricity's link to pollution, and that led to their reducing consumption by 5%, it would lower their energy bills by $11.5 billion a year.

Along those same lines, Coyle points to $6.8 billion in gasoline savings, $14.2 billion in lower water use, $25 billion less in small business overhead, and $18 billion in healthcare savings.

That's $75.5 billion, and we're just getting started.

Clearly, there's significant value here. But public-sector funding for “environmental ed” is scarce in these days of homeland security and yawning deficits. Could the private sector step in to help fill the void?

It all depends. What's an eco-literate public worth to your company?

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Joel Makower is founder of GreenBiz.com and editor of The Green Business Letter, where this essay originally appeared.

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