Civics, thrift, environmentalism, and other American values.
The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page is obsessing about how we raise
our children. Here's the kind of advice to kids that drives the paper nuts:
"Walk, ride a bike, or take a bus instead of a car for short trips.
Turn off appliances when not using them."
As a parent, I can only applaud; our kids need more exercise, and what's
the point of leaving the TV on when no one's watching it? But the Journal
sees these modest tips-part of an environmental curriculum used in schools
across the country-as a sinister form of "behavioral modification"
being inflicted on American schoolkids.
That view is now being widely promoted in editorials, books, and conferences
by "wise-use" groups and right- wing think tanks hoping to smother
environmental education in its crib. They see the issue as a battle for
the hearts and minds of tomorrow's consumers. "Public opinion is everything,"
a speaker from the Claremont Institute-one of the loudest voices in the
corporate chorus-told a Texas conference on environmental education last
fall. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing
If Claremont and its anti-environmental colleagues are worried about
raising a generation of nature-lovers, they would probably do better banning
Peter Rabbit and kittens. Children spontaneously love nature and living
things; it's what biologist E. O. Wilson calls "biophilia." The
urge may or may not be innate, but it doesn't come from textbooks.
It is ironic that the same conservative movement that laments the erosion
of traditional values in American education should object to environmental
education programs that teach thrift (turn out the lights), personal responsibility
(recycle your trash), and civics (write your congressman). These values
are all just fine, it seems, unless they are tied to real-world problems
like global warming: the Journal's complaint about the advice quoted above
is that it was linked to the need to "reduce greenhouse gases by using
less fossil fuel." The message seems to be that we are demanding too
much of our children: "Schools are fighting the war on drugs, encouraging
physical fitness," complains Journal commentator Michael Sanera, "and
now our children are supposed to save the earth."
Critics of environmental education often complain that children are being
taught "junk science." Admittedly, American schools are full of
shoddy textbooks, and some of those are about the environment. It does not
follow, however, that environmental education is "junk." Last
year Science magazine concluded that while many officially approved textbooks
are substandard, there are good ones, and some of the best, most accurate
ecology-related materials available to teachers are prepared by the Sierra
But accuracy is not really the issue. If it were, The Wall Street Journal
and the Claremont Institute would be seeking to ban corporate "educational
products" like Amoco's Our Busy, Busy Planet, which teaches that plastics
are good for the environment and that all types of plastic are easily recyclable.
"Excellent!" a boy in the text concludes. "Plastics are cool
stuff." What is clearly an advertising campaign is distributed free
to schools under the guise of educational materials.
And if science were the question, the Claremont Institute would not be
claiming that "global warming theory is based on computer models that
have several strengths and weaknesses." In fact, our knowledge that
global temperatures are rising is based on the historic climate record and
on fundamental laws of chemistry and physics. Only the specific projections-how
much, when, and where the earth will warm-are based on climate models. Claremont's
objection to models is that they encourage us to do something to stop global
warming rather than play Russian roulette with the planet.
When corporations address global warming, they come out with videos like
Chevron's The Greenhouse Effect. While the oil giant does suggest that we
might drive less and walk and bike more, it neglects to mention that automobiles
are the second-largest source of CO2 in the country. Even more disingenuous
is Shell's video Refueling America, in which teenagers get back to nature
by gassing up their jeep and driving there.
The backlash stems from the fact that real environmental education, like
the majority of scientists, takes environmental problems seriously. Moreover,
once students understand the scientific consensus, they will be more likely
to support, even demand, action. This isn't new-it's called civics, one
of the American values we expect our schools to foster.
But if the object of civic action is environmental protection, it suddenly
becomes suspect. Writer Sanera, for instance, complains about a curriculum
called "Kid Heroes of the Environment," which "praises children
for picketing businesses, conducting petition drives, and organizing letter-writing
campaigns." Worse yet, he rails, "the solutions proposed are always
"Puh-leez!" our kids would say. Recycling, walking, riding
bicycles, conserving electricity, boycotting polluters, and writing letters
to corporations are hardly governmental solutions. They are individual,
social, and community solutions. At its core, environmentalism is an expression
of humanity as a social species. This is why the corporate advocates of
unbridled consumption and right-wingers who see individual gratification
as our only purpose in life regard environmental education as threatening
and subversive: because by talking honestly about the environment, we also
cement our connections to each other.