Defining Environmental and Geographic Literacy

The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office is committed to fostering environmental and geographic literacy. But what do “environmental literacy” and “geographic literacy” mean?

More than 17 million people currently live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; that number is expected to grow to 20 million by 2030. Within this 64,000 square miles are forests, small towns, farms, and sprawling towns, and cities. The diversity of these lands is matched by the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of its residents. The Chesapeake itself is an economic engine, driving billions of dollars of commerce through shipping, tourism, recreation, fishing, and more. The lands that drain into the Bay include some of the most agriculturally fertile and productive in our country, with millions of acres devoted to crop production. Some sections of the watershed sustain large forestry sectors, while still others support a booming natural gas industry that is affecting the global economy.

It is critical that today’s students understand the ecological, economic, and cultural connections between the humans and the watershed and realize how decisions made by individuals (including themselves) and governments influence these areas and the connections among them.

Literacy in both environment and geography are integral to fostering this understanding. Both emphasize that humans are part of a global community and that decisions made locally by individuals or communities have effects that go well beyond local environments. Environmental literacy emphasizes environmental concepts and behaviors, while geographic literacy focuses on citizenship skills. Together they constitute a holistic approach to education that will foster responsible citizenship and environmental stewardship.

Environmental Literacy

An environmentally literate person, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life. Those who are environmentally literate possess, to varying degrees:

  • Knowledge and understanding of a wide range of environmental concepts, problems, and issues;
  • A set of cognitive and affective dispositions;
  • A set of cognitive skills and abilities; and
  • The appropriate behavioral strategies to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make sound and effective decisions in a range of environmental contexts.

For more information on environmental literacy:


Geographic Literacy

As defined by the National Geographic Society, geographic literacy—“geoliteracy”—is the understanding of how the world works that all members of modern society need. It is the ability to reason about Earth systems and interconnections to make far-reaching decisions. Geoliteracy fosters the understanding, reasoning, and citizenship skills necessary for professional careers and responsible citizenship. Whether deciding where to live or what precautions to take in the face of natural hazards, people make decisions that require geoliteracy throughout their lives.

Under this definition, the three components of geoliteracy are:

  • Interactions: How the world works.
  • Interconnections: How the world is connected.
  • Implications: How interactions and interconnections determine outcomes of actions.

For more information on geographic literacy:


Related Literacy Principles