Reading, empathy, and environmental literacy for Earth Day

If we don’t halt the more than 4.8–12.7 million metric tons of plastic estimated to enter the oceans each year, there will be more plastic in the oceans (by weight) than fish by 2050. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation made this prediction in 2016 when it launched the New Plastics Economy initiative, a contest which sought innovative solutions to tackle the 30% of plastics that can’t currently be reused, such as sachets, lids, and mixed-material bags.

Innovative solutions, together with a change in attitude and behaviour about the use of plastics, will all be needed to tackle plastic pollution, the focus of this year’s Earth Day on 22 April.

It's empathy that generates change in behaviour

It is empathy however that provides the will for people to understand and care enough to change their behaviour, and the skills to collaborate and create solutions for a better world. In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin wrote that “the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development ... will likely decide our fate as a species”.

And reading, according to research, is one way to help develop empathy.

Divers free a seal from marine debris fishing nets.
Plastic is an ongoing and widespread hazard for marine life. Freedom from marine debris by NOAA's National Ocean Service. CC0 1.0.

Reading can help children and teens develop empathy

A 2014 study led by neuroscientist Professor Gregory S. Berns and published in the journal Brain Connectivity found that reading fiction enhances the reader's ability to understand what another person is going through and develops the imagination, increasing empathy. A University of Toronto academic carried out research on the subject of the psychological effects of fiction and found that engaging with stories about other people can improve empathy.

While there’s debate about the type of books that can improve empathy like other creative activities, reading and storytelling hone the problem-solving and emotional and environmental literacy skills of young people.

In his lecture for the Reading Agency Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, Neil Gaiman said of reading prose fiction:

... using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals. You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

Finding books with an environmental conservation theme

Environmental conservation has been an enduring theme in New Zealand children’s literature and can most recently be found in the works of writers Des Hunt, Maria Gill, and Mandy Hager to name but a few. Searching the National Library catalogue using keywords such as 'environment' or 'pollution' is a good place to start and can be used to help select books for school loans to support inquiry and/or reading.

Many Answers has entries on environmental issues such as pollution and include examples of books and other resources.

International lists of books about the environment

A number of organisations and individuals have compiled lists of resources and fiction aimed at increasing awareness in young people about environmental issues. Here are a few worth exploring:

A mighty girl’s top children's books on the environment — includes Sara Pennypacker’s sophisticated picture book Sparrow Girl, based on Mao Zedong’s Kill a Sparrow Campaign that kicked off in China in 1958. Sparrow Girl is a reminder of the power of compassion and that we tamper with nature’s balance at our peril.

Children’s books about the environment — Stanford Libraries has curated a list of children's books and young adult literature that deal with issues surrounding the environment, ecology, conservation, or pollution.

Environmental novels: Juvenile and young adult fiction — the University of Illinois has developed a list of novels with environmental themes for children and young adults.

Plastic Pollution Coalition: Books — this list of books about plastic and the environment includes books for children.

Find out more

There are other resources available to help engage children and young people on environmental issues. Here are few resources we recommend:

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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