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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Schools of Thought

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 can succeed."

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 Club.

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 government solutions."

"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.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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