On Coercive Environmental Education

In The Religion of Environmentalism, John K. Williams wrote “Extreme environmentalism ... is a decidedly dangerous religion. Its vision of the world and of humanity's place in it reeks of superstition. The pattern of behavior it prescribes is morally grotesque....”

Williams' sentiments are hardly unique. A growing number of people are disturbed by the methods and strategies used by the environmental special interest movement, particularly in the realm of environmental education. In a previous special edition of Religion & Liberty (Fall 1992), I wrote of how environmentalism is being taken to extremes--extremes in which man is viewed as intrinsically evil or incapable, having failed miserably at caring for the earth. As a result, nature worship and the elevation of “nature” above man are prescribed as necessary remedies.

In the battle to determine a role for man in nature (if there is any role for man at all), our nation's children are caught in the crossfire. To some, environmental education poses one of the greatest threats to the moral education of our kids. Educators have embraced environmental extremism, fully accepting the anti-man, anti-technology, and anti-economic growth positions. School systems across the nation, often at the requirement of government mandates, are incorporating environmental education into traditional subjects such as mathematics, history, languages, and civics.

My review of environmental education teachings revealed a number of unsettling trends and strategies. For example, it is apparent that 1) children are being scared into becoming environmental activists, 2) there is widespread misinformation in materials aimed at children, 3) children are being taught what to think, rather than how to think, 4) children are taught that man is evil, and 5) environmental education is being used to undermine the simple joys of childhood. These findings raise an important question: Are we raising critically-thinking leaders, or are we merely raising automatons that can recite the latest environmental dogma?

Raising Eco-Kids

Recommended books for kids in Friends of the Earth's “Environmental Education Resource Guide” include Going Green: A Kid's Handbook to Saving the Planet, 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, and Earth Book for Kids: Activities to Help Heal the Earth. Newsweek's Just for Kids!?! publication recommends Save our Planet: 750 Everyday Ways You Can Help Clean Up the Earth, and At Home in the Tide Pool and Will We Miss Them?

The textbook, Your Health, published by Prentice Hall, encourages children to “Consider joining an environmental group.” Its suggestions for further contacts include Greenpeace, Zero Population Growth, Planned Parenthood, and Earth First! (a group that has solicited terminally-ill people to undertake life-threatening eco-terrorist activities).

The Alley Foundation, a non-political, non-profit organization, tells the children, “Unless you take action NOW, the beautiful forests where you go hiking, the beaches where you swim in clean water, the clear morning when you take a breath of sweet-smelling air could all become things of the past. This booklet will give you an idea of some of the many things you can do.”

What's so wrong with these calls to activism? Nothing, really, if children are taught good solid facts about environmental sciences and understand the trade-offs involved in adopting alternative courses of action. Yet this hardly seems the case. Instead, children are taught by people who are not necessarily trained in the environmental subjects they teach. Consider that the United Nations Environment Programme markets its publication, Environmental Education for Our Common Future,to teachers “whatever subject they teach.” Furthermore, choosing between alternative options typically ignores consideration of the trade-offs or consequences involved. Instead, the emphasis is on choosing the one that is simply “right.”

Myths vs. Facts

Environmental professionals have learned that sensationalism sells. It sells in boosting donations to their non-profit organizations and it sells in peddling their materials to educators. The focus is typically on the negative: how man or an evil corporation is somehow devastating the environment.

Unfortunately, the truth loses out if a more sensational version is plausible. Consequently, children are taught that acid rain is destroying our forests, overpopulation will exhaust our resources, the ozone layer is rapidly being destroyed, and global warming will lead to disastrous climatic change. Yet each of these, and many other scare scenarios, have been widely debated or refuted by experts. Nonetheless, they are taught as facts, rather than hypotheses, to children.

Global warming, for example, is portrayed as a sinister process resulting from greedy human behavior. A Prentice Hall “Science Gazette” article tells how global warming could cause severe drought in the western United States. “Farms might have to be abandoned because of lack of water.” In other places, more rain will fall, but this is not good news because wet weather will cause an insect explosion. “Valuable food crops would be gobbled up by millions of insect pests.”

But in fact, the earth's warming is a natural, necessary phenomena. Essential for the existence of life forms on earth, greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, raise average temperatures to about 60 degrees fahrenheit. What scientists disagree on is whether increased carbon dioxide from coal burning and auto emissions will change the climate. The understanding is so vague that, in the mid to late 1970s, scientists predicted we were headed for a disaster via global cooling.

Understandably, it is difficult to present a balanced picture in textbooks for a number of reasons. For one thing, the need for simplicity in writing for children leads some authors to present issues as black-and-white, right-or-wrong. Furthermore, the need to appease many interest groups in order to gain statewide approval leads many textbook authors to write from the “politically correct” perspective. Nonetheless, it's well worth considering the impact such doom and gloom scenarios may have upon our children.

Raising Automatons

In order to educate our children, we need to give them basic tools. They need the scientific knowledge to understand environmental issues. This includes studies of botany, ecology, hydrology, entomology, and so on. They also need to understand the basic scientific method: that scientific hypotheses must be verified by observation and experimentation. Surely, some of this is technically beyond the understanding of the younger ones, but if they aren't able to understand the science, they shouldn't be called upon to lobby for specific policy options.

Beyond the science, children need to learn about decision making if they are to be thinking contributors to the activism network. They need to see why certain types of energy, for example, are preferred by consumers, even though some people feel they are sinister or wasteful. They need to understand what we give up when we pursue one course of action over another.

Yet that perspective is a far cry from the litany of goods and evils in the environment. As nearly all school children can recite: Oil is bad, hydroelectric is good. Disposable diapers are bad, cloth diapers are good. Landfills are bad, recycling is good. Automobiles are bad, bikes are good. Using teak or mahogany wood is good, using rainforest woods is bad.

As an example of the teaching tools used to get these messages across, consider National Geographic's Wonders of Learning Kit. It suggests that teachers of science or language arts “Have the children write or dictate stories about two imaginary planets, 'Trashoid 4' and 'Recyclet.' What would the planets look like? How would they be different? What would the beings who live on these planets look like? How would they live?”

While students may be adept at describing the evils of planet Trashoid, few can satisfactorily tell you exactly why something is classified as an environmental good or bad. Children are drilled, for example, to accept that recycling is the only correct way to deal with resources. By coercing their parents to sort paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass, and then to haul it all out to the curbside, the children are making their environmental mark on the world.

With this clean conscience, there's no need to look at the facts. To name a few: each additional recycling truck rumbling through the neighborhood adds vehicle emissions to the air, consumes oil and gas, and increases noise pollution. At the recycling plants, energy resources are consumed to process the materials, typically releasing huge volumes of waste water or other wastes into the environment. Rather than focusing on the trade-offs, however, the educational focus is finding ways to get others to recycle. In the words of the Alley Foundation's book, “Cry out to others to cut down on their waste and to recycle whenever possible!”

Man Is Evil

The many kid's books mentioned above clearly suggest another underlying theme: that man is evil. For example, in 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, kids are told “When your parents were kids, hardly anyone ever worried about saving the environment ... They developed some bad habits. They made as much garbage as they wanted; they wasted energy whenever they wanted; they used up the Earth's treasures, just for fun.” The underlying suggestion of evil couldn't be more apparent.

Other statements simply suggest parents are dumb. In a discussion of the ozone issue, children are told “We don't think adults would keep on making these [CFC] gases if they realized they were harming all life on Earth.” At a time when family values are an important concern, perhaps caution should be exercised in using the environment as a wedge between parents and children.

In addition to being anti-parent, teaching aids are patently anti-man. In one pre-school exercise, four-year olds were given four pictures and asked to choose the one that does not belong. They were shown pictures of three different animals in the forest and a picture of a logger.

Environmental Education: Morally Correct or Morally Bankrupt?

Commenting on the declining moral, spiritual, and aesthetic character and habits of society, William Bennett recently opined that “the worst of it has to do with our children”:

Apart from the numbers and specific facts, there is the on-going, chronic crime against children: the crime of making them old before their time. We live in a culture which at times seems almost dedicated to the corruption of the young, to assuring the loss of their innocence before their time.

Isn't this exactly what we are doing by burdening children with the fright of environmental catastrophes caused by man? Consider Vice President Al Gore's environmental preaching about ozone: “We have to tell our children that they must redefine their relationship to the sky, and they must begin to think of the sky as a threatening part of their environment.” Is this a good message for the young, who are characteristically known for crayon drawings of clear blue skies and shining, smiley-face suns?

It certainly seems as if we are dedicated to assuring the loss of their innocence before their time. How else can we explain comment after comment coming from the mouths of our children that express nothing less than fear of dying and guilt of living? Consider some of the now-famous quotations by several eco-heroes:

Catherine Mitchell:

Our Earth is getting hotter every minute and the only way we can stop it is to stop burning styrofoam. I'm also too young to die, might I add, so STOP BURNING THE EARTH! (FACE newsletter).

Melissa Poe, age nine:

Mr. President, if you ignore this letter we will all die of pollution and the ozone layer.

Jesse Hornstein, age 10:

No gases! No air pollution! It's life or death.

Adam Adler, age 11:

I think global warming and the greenhouse effect are very bad! What do we want the earth to become, a flaming ball?

Teaching Values Once Again, But Whose Values?

In a society where we are no longer free to teach traditional values in the school systems, it's unsettling to find a new set of values in the classroom. We have allowed the widespread teaching of environmental values based upon politically-correct propaganda. Those concerned about traditional values and the moral corruption of our children should keep an eye on environmental education. As suggested earlier, it poses one of the greatest threats to the moral education of our kids. We need to learn more about methods and strategies in environmental “education” and, taking our cue from the activists, dare to “speak out.” Our challenges may not be politically correct, but, hopefully, they are morally grounded.