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The critical need for ecoliteracy during Earth Month and beyond

Without ecoliteracy, tree-growing initiatives can easily be misconstrued as a panacea and distract from other important work to conserve our environment.

The critical need for ecoliteracy during Earth Month and beyond
Public school garden in California. | Image via Common Vision

Earth Month, while a powerful annual moment for bringing awareness to ecological issues, often falls short of creating year-round commitment to the environment and rarely fosters sustained ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy, the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible, is fundamental for producing environmentally-minded decision makers and policies. As we continue to debate the most efficient and productive solutions to climate change, we must boost ecoliteracy to ensure that we are engaged and informed, otherwise we risk implementing poor solutions that create negative consequences.

One potential solution that has been a hot topic in climate change debates has been tree planting. The growing number of tree-planting initiatives and the ensuing controversy in public discourse reinforces the importance of ecoliteracy. Forestation that follows the principles of "right tree, right place, right community" will not only decrease CO2 in our atmosphere, but will also catalyze workforce development, improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, and empower women and girls. As more individuals become ecoliterate, more people understand how proximity to healthy forests makes them healthier, reduces mortality in women, reduces crime, and even helps them realize how their direct economic and social needs are dependent upon the health and vitality of ecosystems around them.

Without ecoliteracy, ecological understanding is a major barrier to public mobilization on issues such as climate change. However, we've found that when citizens engage in activities which build their ecoliteracy, particularly those informed by indigenous wisdom, they learn firsthand the undeniable connections between community health and ecological wellbeing, and fight to conserve, protect and enhance the ecosystems around them.

As an example, Common Vision - a leader in ecologically-based outdoor classroom education in California - is developing ecoliteracy training that catalyzes workforce development. They have cultivated an expert "youth tree corps", a cohort of high school students with Career Technical Education (CTE) training and certification in urban forestry and agroecology. Students travel in vegetable-oil powered buses to plant and prune trees at more than 275 schools throughout the state. Through programs like this, Common Vision has increased California's urban green space by 18 acres, helped sequester 180 tons of greenhouse gases, produced over 100,000 pounds of fresh, organic fruit annually, and engaged over 125,000 students in hands-on tree planting, land stewardship, arts and social justice learning. In addition to growing hundreds of trees, the youth tree corps members will develop their ecoliteracy to help shape a more resilient and ecologically sound future for humanity.

Common Vision's program is not alone, either. Dozens of other tree-planting initiatives with a focus on workforce development have been launched in the last few months. Award-winning singer-songwriter SZA launched Tree Corps with Tazo Tea and American Forests to create a paid tree-planting workforce to reforest BIPOC communities in five major US cities; the Biden-Harris Civilian Climate Corps proposes to train up new workforces to plant millions of trees; and the Tribal Ecosystem Restoration Alliance (TERA) in California has created an innovative partnership with the US Forest Service, private landowners, and tribal entities to create an unprecedented workforce development program to revitalize indigenous knowledge for tending and stewarding existing forests.

Global forest cover has decreased consistently since 2014 but it's clear that through ecoliteracy and increasing the value people place on their surrounding environment, we can combat this critical issue. Further, without ecoliteracy, tree-growing initiatives can easily be misconstrued as a panacea and distract from other important work to conserve our environment.

Indigenous tree planting project, men on hillside.
Image from Trees Water & People. | Indigenous tree planting project, men on hillside.

Ecoliteracy is one of the most effective tools in the toolbox that we have for societal transformation. So I encourage you to make your goal for this Earth Month getting ecoliterate. Whether that's enrolling in a formal ecoliteracy program, turning off your phone and sitting in the park to observe the vitality and resilience of insects, plants and trees, or even planting a tree, find a practice that will help you have a sustained relationship with the natural world. The complexities of the web of relationships of humans with the natural world take a lifetime to learn, but we should all start now. In particular, seek out ecoliteracy programs that elevate indigenous and person-of-color perspectives on ecology like the organizations Cultural Survival, A Growing Culture and Farmer Rishi. The choices humanity is making - from how we grow our food, build our homes, to what our 401ks and savings accounts are funding - are contributing to the climate crisis and it's up to us to gather the knowledge to collectively discover solutions for lasting change. If we build up our ecoliteracy and educate ourselves on the ecology of our individual bioregions, we can protect and preserve our planet and meet our own needs in ways which nourish and repair the ecosystems and human communities around us.

Erin Axelrod is the Project Director for Jonas Philanthropies Trees for Climate Health project and a Partner/Worker-Owner at LIFT Economy, helping to accelerate the spread of businesses that benefit our climate, specializing in enterprises that address soil and water regeneration and uplift traditional ecological knowledge. In addition to spearheading Jonas Philanthropies Trees for Climate Health project, the ambitious reforestation initiative working to grow over 10 million trees by 2025, Erin also leads LIFT Economy's regenerative agriculture investor network and a Restorative Ocean Economies Field-Building Initiative. She is a grassroots organizer and an amateur (for love of) ecologist.

Wanda Stewart is the Director of Common Vision and an African American urban farmer, educator and comrade to many in the movement to teach and inspire others to grow themselves, their food and their communities. She believes that cultivating food and medicine, maintaining a healthy being, and living cooperatively are essential skills for our collective survival. To support that learning, growth and healing, she revisits our shared history and trauma, reframing and reclaiming cultural knowledge and heritage while tending the land.

This article originally appeared on 04.21.21.

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