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The ABCs of Environmental Myths

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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