What is Community Level Environmental Literacy?

Four kids stare down at the camera against a blue sky

While the specifics of environmental literacy are often debated among researchers and practitioners, one common definition for the term is the skills, knowledge, and motivation that allows an individual to make decisions that responsibly consider natural systems, human communities, and future impacts. As this definition suggests, environmental literacy is most often thought of at the scale of an individual person. It is certainly important to equip individual young people with the information and tools they need to fight for environmental change in their communities. However, some researchers are also starting to zoom out their perspectives on environmental literacy to see more than just an individual person. This broader understanding of what it means to be environmentally literate is called community level environmental literacy.

a young woman holds a child on her back and both smile in sunlight

Community Level Environmental Literacy (CLEL) is more than just understanding the context in which an individual lives and relates to the natural world. CLEL looks at a whole network of people to understand what skills and knowledge are held communally across many people that would allow for meaningful collective action. High levels of environmental literacy in a community setting may be far more effective in sparking action than literacy at solely an individual level, because it promotes collaborative problem solving.

Two people hug a baby close while standing in a backyard

Of course, CLEL is a complicated idea. Some communities are geographically based and share the same physical environment they are committed to protecting. Other communities are based around family ties, identity, or shared experiences and may have common interests but exist across a range of natural settings. Perhaps even more complicated are virtual communities that occur almost exclusively online or on social media platforms. All of these types of communities have huge potential to activate environmental change if they work together, but it’s difficult to assess skills, knowledge, and motivation across groups of people with nuanced relationships to and understandings of the natural world.

a group of pre-teens sit on a bench together with their backpacks

One aspect of CLEL that is particularly exciting is they key role that young people play in bringing all types of communities together. Youth are often important connectors in families, neighborhoods, and virtual communities. Schools, extracurricular programs, and social services connect adults and children across networks of educators, parents and caregivers, friends, coaches, and the many other people who come together to raise a child. This makes kids key players in understanding how a community works and what kinds of environmental views people hold as they learn from the people around them and share their own ideas.

A group of young people stand on a hill with their arms around each others' shoulders

Although CLEL is a relatively new concept in the world of environmental literacy research, most people working in the fields of outdoor and environmental education understand the importance of community context. CLEL is expanding that idea to create a better understanding of how we can build capacity and spark action in communities that want to push for a more hopeful environmental future. Ultimately, shifting to a community level, rather than only operating at the individual level, is a form of support we can offer to young people working towards a better world.