Growing Up Green

Are schools turning our kids into eco-activists?


In the repentant 1990s, environmentalism is "in." Recycling, reusable shopping bags, green marketing, and cloth diapers are high fashion. Now the trend is infiltrating the primary and secondary schools, where the young generation is being taught to be "environmentally literate." Ten years ago, one unit of a social-studies or science class or one chapter of a textbook might have been dedicated to ecology. Today, entire classes and textbooks focus on the environment, and dozens of activist organizations are working to shape environmental curricula nationwide. Environmental education has become a growth industry.

The overt activism that can accompany environmental education is troubling. More subtle, but equally problematic, are the assumptions behind the enterprise: that the goal is to teach children how to make political decisions rather than to understand natural processes; that environmental problems necessarily require political (rather than individual or market) approaches; and that environmental values should be given special weight in trade-offs with jobs, health, safety, convenience, and other factors.

Unlike previous attempts at issues-oriented education—such as peace studies—environmental education seems to be taking hold, thanks to the efforts of environmental groups and the Bush administration. The Environmental Protection Agency's new Office of Environmental Education, created under legislation signed last year by President Bush, is working to "ensure that topical environmental issues are part of an environmental education curriculum."

A strategic plan for the office indicates that it will be taking its cues from the National Wildlife Federation and other activist organizations. The legislation creating the program requires, among other things, that the EPA annually present a "Rachel Carson Award," in honor of the author of Silent Spring, the 1962 book that described impending environmental catastrophe.

So far, the EPA's efforts have been more comical than worrisome. A suggested environmental vocabulary list for elementary schools distributed for Earth Day 1990 includes anadromous fish, evapo-transpiration, eutrophication, carrying capacity, and other terms of bureaucratic and scientific art. But some other activities augur ill for the future: The EPA suggests letter-writing campaigns and consumer boycotts to demonstrate concern for the environment.

As the EPA's programs suggest, environmental education includes a wide range of activities—from perfunctory field trips to nature centers, where students wander along well-worn trails, to calls to activism, in which students are organized to lobby for particular regulations. There are few formal grade-school environmental texts available, so schools and teachers generally are left to develop their own programs from press accounts of particular issues and from literature provided by environmental and conservation groups.

"There is no set curriculum," says Dan Mattson, who teaches environmental education to elementary students at the Dowling School, one of three magnet "urban environmental learning centers" in the Minneapolis Public School System. "That's part of the problem. There's an abundance of material. What we have to do is pick and choose."

The textbooks that do exist often impart an extremist message: If the population explosion doesn't deplete the world's resources and cause mass starvation, pollution and the destruction of the ozone layer will kill us all anyway. Or more simply, the world would be a great place if it weren't for all the humans.

Scott Foresman's People on Earth: A World Geography declares, "Every twenty-four hours more than 3,000 acres of green space are lost around this country. Every year adds up to at least a million acres.…Its place is being taken by housing, schools, business, industries, roads, highways." This lament seems to assume that "green space"—which, by the way, does not mean forest land, since that's actually growing—is an unqualified good, always preferable to the places where people live, learn, work, and travel.

Then there is Harper and Row's A People and a Nation, a 1981 civics text still in use. It states: "Ugliness, junk, clutter and noise scream for attention. What solution is there to 'too much' of everything?…While billions were spent on the moon shot and the war in Vietnam, problems of public life mounted. The United States, like other industrial countries, was plagued by pollution of the water and the air…and by hideous graveyards of abandoned cars.…Strong regulations protecting our natural resources and controlling pollution may be needed to avert a possible ecological disaster. Yet industry sees such measures as being too restrictive."

Demand for textbooks to serve these new classes is so strong that Addison-Wesley, a leading science publisher, revised a college text for high school use. Environmental Science: A Framework for Decision Making is in its second edition, and a third is on the way. The recurrent theme is that people and population growth threaten "the survival of human life." The text describes Communist China's forced sterilizations and abortions as "highly successful" and "innovative" programs to control population. And while the book does present point/counterpoint sidebars on various issues, little doubt is left about which view students are supposed to adopt: "Modern industrial society as we know it cannot continue."

The works of the alarmist Worldwatch Institute's Lester Brown, described as "superb," figure prominently in suggested reading lists at the end of each chapter of Environmental Science. The work of market-oriented economist Julian Simon, on the other hand, is described as "an economic projection based on past trends that many critics doubt will continue."

Despite its title, Environmental Science places nearly as much emphasis on political action as it does on science. "You can take political actions," students are told at the end of a chapter on "Feeding the World's People." "You might challenge current policies that place military demands above agricultural and economic development.…Support politicians who take a strong and sensible stand on world hunger. Write the newspapers with your informed opinions. Start or join discussion groups emphasizing the need for personal as well as widespread political changes."

And what might those changes entail? Among other things, "converting the current economic system of unlimited growth to one of steady-state economics. Government can play a major role here" because, as the text notes a few pages earlier, "redistribution would yield a more equitable sharing of resources."

Environmental Science isn't alone in its call for activism. Some texts go out of their way to incorporate demands for environmental activism into totally unrelated subjects. For example, Macmillan's Eastern Hemisphere, a 1990 sixth-grade social studies text, leaps in a single sentence from the Code of Hammurabi, a system of laws recorded around 1780 B.C., to the tale of a present-day environmental activist: "The people of Mesopotamia knew that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were valuable sources of life. As you have read, civilization flourished in 'the land between the rivers.' Even the laws of the Code of Hammurabi warned 'If a man fails to honor the rivers, he shall not gain life from them.' In modern times, people have often failed to remember just how important the environment is. There is, however, a senior citizen in Levittown, Pennsylvania, who reminds us of the great value of nature. His name is Ray Profitt and he is a one-man environmental hero. When Ray sees people who pollute, or dirty the environment, he does not look away. "It goes on to tell how Profitt tracks down and reports polluters to the authorities.

"This sort of thing is common today in textbooks" at all grade levels, says Gilbert Sewall, president of the American Textbook Council, a private organization that reviews textbooks for accuracy and bias.

Teachers looking for techniques to teach environmental courses encounter the same messages. One popular exercise, suggested by the National Science Foundation, is "The Foolish Daughter," which begins with the story of a father who complains that $10 is too much for a weekly allowance. His daughter offers him a deal: one penny the first day, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, etc. The father, calculating that the first week's allowance would be only $1.27, agrees. This is to illustrate exponential growth. After noting that the world's population doubled between 1950 and 1987, an NSF exercise guide advises: "The population explosion is the cause of many environmental problems.…These problems are examples of the limits to human growth that we must face. No amount of technological or cultural intervention can change the fact that the Earth and its resources are finite."

Again, the situation is more complex than the exercise suggests. Economists such as Julian Simon contend that the problem isn't so much excessive population growth as it is inadequate economic growth. Birth rates decline as countries become industrialized. Simon and other scholars argue that the best way to advance the welfare of "overpopulated" countries and to reduce the population explosion is to foster economic growth, not stifle it. But the NSF exercise omits this view. Simon also takes issue with the idea that we are in imminent danger of depleting the world's natural resources. He notes that the real prices of most raw materials have been falling during this century, repeatedly confounding predictions by limits-to-growth doomsayers.

Many of those who shape the environmental education curriculum believe that their purpose is not to weigh conflicting facts, values, and theories, but to instill a sense of crisis. "Understanding that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is half of environmental education," says Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which tries to instill respect of animals through school assembly programs.

In a draft paper, a special National Science Teachers Association task force on environmental education suggests a three-step approach, calling for nominal, functional, and operational environmental literacy. Those buzzwords translate approximately to: general respect for nature and a gut-level knowledge of man's impact on the environment (nominal) ; broader knowledge of the environment, the ability to analyze environmental problems and issues on the "basis of sound evidence and personal values and ethics," communicating findings to others, and taking some remedial action on issues of particular individual concern (functional); and individual and political action (operational).

While the first two steps are arguably worthwhile, the third is nothing more than a call to get students involved in political battles, a call that will find a ready audience among at least some teachers. Indeed, some educators have already turned their classrooms into centers of activism. In an article in The Science Teacher, Edna Figueroa, a biology teacher at H.M. King High School in Kingsville, Texas, suggests these exercises: "Explain the environmental and health problems associated with incineration of wastes on land"; and "Prepare a bill for consideration by your state legislature that will protect a particular area of the environment your community is concerned about."

At Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Alaska, reports NEA Today, sixth-grade teacher Zada Friedersdorff has had her students construct miniature "landfills" in glass bottles to observe how garbage rots. The students will submit their findings to the local landfill "in the hopes of improving garbage disposal."

"Ah! Building good protesters!" responds Sewall, of the American Textbook Council. "This is a new kind of citizenship course, isn't it? Instead of helping old ladies across the street, we go and present a bill of particulars to the local landfill operator and presumably lobby at the local level for amelioration, some kind of reform of some terrible local atrocity. I don't mean to be facetious, but I think environmental education does just fine when it sticks to applied science and descriptive analysis of some of the major problems."

Nor do the young lobbyists stick to local issues. Second graders at P.S. 174 in Rego Park, Queens, New York, founded the national KIDS Save The Ozone Project (S.T.O.P.). "They are working to 'save the planet' from the deadly effects of ozone depletion caused by continuing release of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, into the atmosphere," reports Science Scope, a publication of the NSTA. "The children are supporting federal and city legislation that will prohibit the release of CFCs. They have created a KIDS S.T.O.P. Starter Kit for teachers or students…which includes blank petitions, personal letters, pledges and a list of suggested projects."

"Now what the hell does a second-grader know about chlorofluorocarbons?" asks Jack Padalino, president of the Pocono Environmental Education Center and chairman of the NSTA task force. There's a difference, says Padalino, "between an environmentalist and an educator. An environmentalist is an advocate.…But the people in schools should be environmental educators presenting the balanced view, nonadvocacy."

In fact, many educators do try to be fair. When Bev Jones's son Tony told her that Earth First! had made a presentation to his fourth-grade class in Blue River, Oregon, she became quite upset. His father is a timberman who has little affection for an organization that allegedly spikes trees. After Mrs. Jones called the principal to discuss the matter, however, the school agreed to allow a presentation by an industry group.

But the difference between activism and education is often subtle. It involves more than allowing competing interest groups to present their wares. And political action can find its way into much environmental education—even the fairest and most evenhanded.

Consider the way Mary Boeni teaches her elective course "Science, Technology, and Society" to juniors and seniors at Springfield High School in Springfield Delco, Pennsylvania. She tries to present students with a balanced view of environmental issues. "I call it the PMI breakdown—the Plus, Minus, Interesting or Unresolved. And with that, we look at known facts, good points, bad points, and information that we have and 'what are we going to do with it?'"

Using the Socratic method, Boeni gets students to list what they see as the pluses and minuses of, say, nuclear power. Low air-pollution emissions might be a plus for nuclear power, and waste disposal and the "fear factor" might be minuses. She sometimes breaks the class into groups, which must list the pros and cons of some project—a trash-to-energy plant, for instance—and arrive at a unanimous "go" or "no-go" decision. The class-as-collective approach suggests that these consensus processes are how decision making works, or ought to work, in the real world. While particular solutions to environmental problems may be challenged, this approach leaves children with the impression that most environmental problems should be solved by the political process. The course would be improved by making this assumption explicit and examining it.

"If I had my druthers, there would be kids writing legislators saying do this, and there would be kids writing legislators saying do that," says Joe Premo, Minneapolis's coordinator of elementary science education. "If I've done my job, I would expect kids to come up with different points of view. And they might take political action on a variety of points of view."

Premo's main concern is that teachers should not use their positions to push their own viewpoints: "I think getting first-graders to picket city hall is probably not appropriate," he says. "That tends to be using kids for adult agendas." But he does promote political action, especially by older students. "I think getting them involved in accessing the political system is a logical extension of what you are doing." The problem is that by stressing activism as a solution to environmental problems, educators implicitly urge their students to get involved in green politics.

And not everyone is as evenhanded as Premo or Boeni. Some teachers get upset when kids make individual decisions about environmental issues—especially when those decisions involve concrete actions. Unlike nuclear energy or endangered species, recycling is something students can control themselves. And most teachers seem to have taken a cue from Wilford Brimley and presented recycling as "the right thing to do."

Deborah Rubinstein's eighth-grade class at South Milwaukee Junior High School conducted a newspaper-recycling lab as part of the Earth Day 1990 celebration. The students made recycled paper "to model the process that reclaims the waste paper that we hope their families will save and take to recycling centers." More common are school recycling clubs and other programs that encourage students to recycle newspapers, glass bottles, and aluminum cans.

Such programs don't always consider such messy details as the toxic sludge produced by deinking newspapers or the high energy costs of driving old bottles to glass-recycling plants. And they present recycling not as one choice among many but as a requirement of good citizenship—and perhaps of the class itself.

Take the Los Angeles boy who announced to his parents that henceforth he wanted his lunch packed in reusable Tupperware-style containers; he cited plastic sandwich bags and juice boxes as especially wasteful. His father pointed out that there are disadvantages to reusable packaging. A juice container might spill, but a juice box couldn't be opened until lunch. And besides, he told the boy, come disposal time a plastic bag takes up very little space, while a plastic container may not crush so well when it's eventually thrown out.

After reconsidering the options, the boy took his lunch to school the next day in the usual manner—sandwiches in plastic bags, juice in a box, and so on. When the teacher wanted to know why he hadn't followed her suggestions, he recounted the conversation with his father. When the father went to pick up the boy that afternoon, the teacher told him, "I heard what you told [your son]. I really wish you wouldn't interfere. We're trying to make the children more environmentally sensitive."

The father explained that he thought the way his son's lunch was packed was in fact environmentally sensitive and that the teacher's facts about juice boxes and lunch bags were wrong.

"That may well be," she said. "But it's what we are teaching them, and I wish you wouldn't interfere."

"It was actually rather amusing," says the man. "She thought that it was better to do that which appears to be environmentally sensitive than that which really is."

It's possible to teach about the environment without indoctrinating students into eco-activism. For younger students, schools can teach how sewage treatment plants work, what is involved in recycling, and how ecosystems work. They can, in short, teach science rather than public policy.

High-school students, on the other hand, can grapple with some of the public policy implications of environmental controversies. Teachers should deal with all of the important questions: Does a problem exist? If so, how should we decide on how to deal with it? And are the cures more costly than the disease? Gilbert Sewall suggests a debate format. "Not a loaded debate, where everyone knows there is a right answer, but a kind of 'according to this view x, and according to that view y, and some people weigh in with z."'

Joe Premo's Dowling School tries an approach similar to the one suggested by Sewall. For instance, the school often asks an architect "to talk about how to do building, what materials to use and all that. And each of those kinds of decisions is a trade-off—you need strength, you need durability, you need to worry about pollution, will it ever decay—the whole recycling business is a very important part of this particular school. We have to trade off convenience for pollution. Do we want to do that, and what are some other options that we have?"

Premo's approach suggests that environmental education can be taught impartially. But too often, environmental education, unlike history or mathematics, leads to some form of action, whether it be petitioning state legislators or choosing to recycle. That's the unstated goal of many teachers, even some of the best ones. "You want to have people exhibit behaviors that guarantee that the environment is going to be here, an environment that's healthful and healing," says Jack Padalino. "That's ultimately what it is about."

Thomas Harvey Holt is assistant editorial page editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.