Characteristics associated with high and low levels of ecological literacy in a western society


Nature-related childhood experiences are positively related to ecological literacy in adulthood

Ecological literacy includes an understanding of how the Earth’s life-systems work and is fundamental to the health and survival of humans and many other living beings. The aim of this research was to identify “the underlying characteristics associated with ecological literacy or its deficiency, and to highlight any informative patterns.”

Over 1000 South Australian adults completed a survey instrument assessing their levels of ecological literacy. Items on the survey addressed their local and global environmental knowledge and their understanding of how local and global systems interconnect with each other and with human society. The participating adults also responded to survey questions focusing on a range of socio-demographic and lifestyle characteristics as well as perceived contributors to their ecological knowledge and understanding. Researchers used the ecological assessment scores to establish five levels of ecological literacy: extremely low, low, moderate, high, and extremely high. Most of the participants’ scores were in the high and moderate groups. For purposes of this study, just two groups were included: a “high group” (limited to those who scored “extremely high”) and a “low group” (consisting of the combined “low” and “extremely low” groups). The two groups were similar in size: 45 in the high group; 53 in the low group.

In analyzing the data, the researchers compared the high and low scorers in relation to a range of socio-demographic characteristics, including gender, age, education levels, place of growing up, student status, and employment status. They also compared the two groups in relation to psychological and lifestyle characteristics as these related to nature. Findings showed distinct difference between the two groups. Characteristics of the “high group” (i.e., the group with the most ecologically literate individuals) included (a) rating nature as very important in both their childhood and current households, (b) considering spending time outdoors as extremely important to their enjoyment of life, (c) spending at least one to two days per week involved in a natural setting, (d) engaging in pro-environmental volunteer activity, (e) growing a portion of their own food and consuming food grown or produced locally, and (f) being very interested in improving their knowledge and understanding of the natural environment. Other characteristics associated with high ecological literacy included higher levels of education (especially, science- and natural resource-based education); learning through mentors, colleagues and peers; growing up in small communities; and being male.

These findings support previous research indicating that spending time in nature contributes to human health and well-being and may promote pro-environmental behaviors. This research adds to the literature by finding a positive link between time in nature and ecological literacy. While the participants in this study tended to have a professional or personal environmental interest and thus not representative of a more diverse population, the results suggest that promoting greater engagement with natural environments may help individuals and groups become more ecologically literate.


Pitman, S.D., Daniels, C.B., Sutton, P.C., (2018). Characteristics associated with high and low levels of ecological literacy in a western society. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 25(3), 227-237.


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