The ABCs of Environmental Myths

Author: 
Wall Street Journal
September 4, 1996

By Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw

Without fanfare (or even public hearings) a cadre of environmental activists is quietly pushing for reauthorization of the 1990 National Environmental Education Act, which has passed the Senate and will soon face a vote in the House.

The 1990 act created the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Education Division, which has received $34.9 million in appropriations over the past five years. But little good has resulted. Take, for example, the 13 essays by second-graders at Canyon View Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., published recently in the Arizona Daily Star. From the windows of their school, the children watched a housing development under construction. They didn't like it. "The desert used to look beautiful, but now they are wrecking it," wrote one child.

"I love the smell of plants, but all of them are being bulldozed to make apartments," wrote another. "Our class used to sit in the desert to write and do other school activities," said a third. "But now they're using that land just for people to live in homes they don't really need."

Homes they "don't really need"? What, pray, do these young writers live in? Well, it may not be logical, but it is the state of environmental education today, in keeping with teachers' ideas about "biodiversity" or "sustainability." The examples are so egregious that even environmental magazines have taken note:

"They killed the trees to make my bed," said a six-year-old child. The child's comment led her mother, Nancy Bray Cardozo, to take a second look at what her child was being taught. "As if children don't have enough to worry about these days - AIDS, wars, starving people - environmentalists are teaching them that their very planet is at risk," she wrote in Audubon magazine.

Patricia Poore, writing in Garbage magazine, found environmental curricula "incomplete at best and misleading and unnecessarily pessimistic at worst"; words like menace, catastrophe, collapse, shortage, disaster, breakdown, alarm, degradation, and deadly are ubiquitous."

Our own review of over 140 textbooks and nearly 170 environmental books written for children shows that on major issues, the "education" is strictly one-sided. For example, children don't learn:

that the largest scientific study of acid rain ever conducted (the $500 million government-funded National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program) found that the much-feared acid rain has harmed only a small number of lakes. Instead, students learn to mix water and vinegar to see "acid rain" killing plants.

that recycling can waste energy and natural resources and create pollution, and that it won't save trees. Instead, standard textbooks teach slogans about recycling being the "solid waste solution of the future."

that the world's population growth rate has decreased dramatically, and that world population is expected to level off by the end of the next century. Rather, they learn that technology has "only put off the time when there will be far too many people for Earth to support." China's one-child policy may seem restrictive, but allowing population expansion would have "far worse consequences."

The EPA's Environmental Education Division has done nothing to address such problems of exaggeration and bias - or even to recognize that they exist. Just the opposite, in fact. The division's recent report to Congress on the act's implementation complains about a "disproportionate emphasis on science-oriented activities" in environmental education today; instead it hopes for a less specific, more "interdisciplinary" approach. A couple of years ago, moreover, the EPA issued an "Environmental Science Education Materials Review Guide," which stated that materials are to "reflect EPA policy on the topics explored." The EPA is shamelessly advocating political action, and it won't tolerate any deviation from its positions.

The EPA believes the No. 1 problem is that environmental education is "not a clear priority at any level within our education system or society." To correct this, the EPA is focusing on a teacher training program and has given nearly $2 million to the North American Association for Environmental Education, a group of educators, environmentalists and business interests, to develop it. (Not surprisingly, NAAEE officials are urging NAAEE members to support the law's reauthorization.)

The NAAEE is scrambling to deflect the criticism with new environmental education "guidelines." But the draft guidelines for curriculum materials are worthless gruel. Nowhere is there a statement about what is actually taught in schools. The draft guidelines say that materials should reflect "sound theories and well-documented facts," and "scientifically and socially credible positions and explanations." But they do not define "well documented" or "socially credible." When we proposed some specifics, such as a statement that materials about acid rain should include the results of the NAPAP study or that population materials should point out that the rate of world population growth has declined, NAAEE officials offered one excuse after another for why this cannot be done.

In addition to the teacher training project, EPA funds projects all over the country, such as a grant to help children make "informed decisions about their lifestyles" and another to develop a "model youth education program about environmental justice." At a time when basic education is failing in our schools, do we need federal support to perpetuate this kind of "education"? We don't think so. We think that parents want their children's environmental education to be based on good science and good economics. So far, it is not.

Mr. Sanera and Ms. Shaw are authors of Facts, Not Fear: A Parents' Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment, published by Regnery.

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Before joining PERC, Jane Shaw was a journalist who had developed an uneasy feeling that much of the commentary about environmental policy that she read--and even some that she wrote--was tilted in the wrong direction. The usual solution to an environmental problem was to turn it over to the government. She had become uncomfortable with this...
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