The Bridge Between Ecological Knowledge and Green Living

by James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

Guest writers James H.Wandersee and Renee Clary discuss why having a green mentor can make a difference when you’re trying to bring about behaviour change.  And if you can’t find one, well, become one yourself!  You may well be on the way to “sprout” an entire movement!

For decades, science educators have focused their teaching on making the public scientifically literate. The underlying reasoning was that a scientifically literate citizenry can and will make sound personal and political decisions about scientific issues. The problem is that even when people are equipped to do so, they often do not! In other words, scientific literacy is necessary but not sufficient for environmental activism.

How do we know this is so? Researchers for the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication surveyed 1,001 US adults about their conservation behaviors (Sierra, July-August, 2010, p. 21). Here are some startling data drawn from that study.

Knowledge and action

In Environment 360, environmental journalist Doug Strunk argues that many of the environmental threats that people face today are not immediate sensory threats that trigger an emotional reaction of alarm (May, 2009; Beyond abstraction: Moving the public on climate action). He cites Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber as saying that instead, “They are psychologically removed in space and time. So cognitively, we know something needs to be done about, [say], climate change, but we don’t have that emotional alarm bell going off.

Through our own nation-wide research on people and plants, we have found that only when novices establish a working relationship with a green mentor do they take action and do what they already know is best for the planet.  We think green mentors are the bridge between the public’s ecological knowledge and actualized green living,

Two of the things that mentors provide are motivation and enthusiasm. You won’t get that from a book. To illustrate our point, take a look at this video on how to grow your own bean sprouts. The couple who made the video clearly are good mentors because they possess an infectious enthusiasm for green living, and motivate their viewers to take action and share the eco-joy they already have.


Philosopher D. Bob Gowin of Cornell University once said that educating is the fluent integration of thinking, feeling and acting. Example: Even after you learn what foods are best for your body and for sustainability, you may not act upon that knowledge.

You may continue to eat junk food.  Why? It’s hard for humans to break long-established habits. You also need relevant, inspirational motivation and passion in order to translate what you already know into a changed lifestyle, Frequently, this results from your interacting with an influential person who has already mastered the integration of green knowledge and green living–a green mentor.

Wangari Maathai planting a tree

Photo : www.takingrootfilm.com

If you desire to become a green mentor, then do as Mahatma Gandhi counseled—“Be the change you want to see in the world” because “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” That’s what successful mentors do.  Try green-mentoring just one person and discover how satisfying this experience can be. Your mentoree can be a friend, neighbor, relative, or school child.  The essence of being a mentor is possessing more knowledge and experience than your mentoree, and wanting to share it in a supportive way to enlighten and empower.

The famous environmental advocate and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, turned her small tree-planting initiative into the Green Belt Movement which mobilized more than 100,000 women to plant, and thus restore, 30 million indigenous trees across the nation of Kenya. Her rallying cry: “This land is naked, let’s dress the land, make a belt…a green belt!” Thus, an entire country was changed by a single green mentor!


About our Guest Writers:

Dr. James H. Wandersee is the W.H. LeBlanc Alumni Association Professor of Biology Education in the College of Education at Louisiana State University and Chair of the Teaching Section of the Botanical Society of America.
Dr Renee M. Clary is the Director of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum and Assistant Professor of Geoscience Education in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. Both are part of the EarthScholars™ Research Group and have done extensive research in the pioneering area of Plant Blindness  and how to sensitise people to plants.

Further links you may be interested in:
EWTT: Plant Blindness: What research says


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Posted by on Jul 23 2010. Filed under Behaviour Change, Green Activism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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