Environmental Education in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach

Environmental Education in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach

June 01, 1996

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Our schools have been charged with preparing the next generation to be conscientious stewards of the planet as well as productive adults and good citizens. We know that tomorrow’s adults will grapple with many of the same problems that confront their parents today. It will be up to them to deal intelligently with pollution, species preservation, human population growth and other environmental problems. It is very important, therefore, that education about these vital issues include a solid grounding in the body of accepted scientific and economic knowledge as well as information about evolving research, theories and possible remedies.

Research Methodology

The objective of this study is to evaluate what the average Wisconsin student learns about the environment. To implement this objective, I use content analysis to evaluate how the textbooks used in 12 Wisconsin school districts educate students about environmental issues. These 12 districts were selected at random based on size. Large, medium and small school districts were selected to provide a good cross-section of the student population in Wisconsin. I constructed my content analysis around three basic questions as they apply to each environmental issue:

1. Do the texts fairly and accurately state the facts which are generally agreed upon by scientists working on the issue?

2. Do the texts fairly and accurately explain difficulties and complexities of scientific research methodologies?

3. If the available evidence leads scientists to differing conclusions and different theories, do the texts fairly and accurately explain these to students?

To determine what the average Wisconsin child is learning about environmental problems I surveyed science, geography and health textbooks used in 12 Wisconsin school districts. I evaluated the materials in the 6th through 10th grades because students at these grade levels should have sufficient background information in basic science as well as the maturity to grasp complex environmental issues.

I compared the material presented in the texts to the current state of scientific and economic knowledge by using worksheets to review and rate the texts. Special environmental education materials that teachers might introduce into the classroom on their own are not part of this review because they do not represent what is taught to the average Wisconsin student.

My focus is on the key environmental issues of population growth, natural resources, American forests, rain forests, endangered species, global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, solid waste and recycling. I examined the texts for scientific and economic accuracy, objectivity and balance.


Most parents assume textbook coverage of the environmental issues is scientifically accurate and objectively presented. My review of 62 textbooks used in twelve Wisconsin school districts dealing with topics of environmental importance does not support this assumption.

With few exceptions I found that textbook treatment of environmental issues in influenced by an ideological view that present human beings as evil and blames the United States in particular and Western industrial societies in general for every environmental evil. It is my view that the facts provided in textbooks should not be subject to ideological “spin” but should be presented in so far as scientists know them without attempts to propagandize students.

Acid Rain: Most texts I reviewed do a poor job of explaining even the basic scientific facts about acid rain. Seventy-five percent of the texts don’t mention the naturally acidic nature of precipitation. Most texts list a host of detrimental effects and state as fact that acid rain is the cause. Opposing views, including the findings of the largest scientific study of acid rain ever conducted, are either ignored or denigrated. American Forests: Based on what students learn from most of their textbooks, most would conclude that government control of forests is essential to saving our woodlands. They would know nothing about the problems of government management or how market incentives work to encourage replanting.

Endangered Species: The vast majority of texts that discussed endangered species explain the human causation theory. Although some texts admit that no one really knows the number of species that have been lost, all the texts estimate very large numbers. The numbers cited, however, vary greatly in each text. Although the high estimates appear to be based on island biogeography, no text includes the weaknesses of this method of determining species loss.

Although the vast majority texts advocate strong government action as a solution to species loss, private ownership as a powerful incentive for species preservation is only mentioned in passing and is never adequately explained. The role of economic incentives in species preservation is ignored by all but one text. Energy and Natural Resources: Textbook treatment of natural resource and energy issues is mixed. Most texts present a more balanced presentation of these topics than of other environmental issues. Even so the outlook is usually pessimistic, with dire predictions of resource depletion. No text mentions that resource prices have been constant or falling for years, indicating that scarcity is not really a pressing danger.

Global Warming: All the texts I reviewed did a good job of explaining how carbon dioxide and other gases trap the sun’s radiation which warms the Earth. Most texts explain that the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased and that some warming has occurred, although estimates of the exact amount of warming differ. There is general agreement within the scientific community about these facts and they are covered in varying degrees of detail in the books I reviewed. However, the vast majority of textbooks emphasize global warming theory, citing the catastrophes predicted by global warming theorists. To avert these catastrophes, according to the majority of texts I reviewed, immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gases are necessary.

The vast majority of texts, however, provide little information about the work of scientists who do not subscribe to global warming theory. Most texts do not explain the weaknesses of the computer models on which global warming theory is based nor do they mention their weaknesses as predictive instruments. No text mentions that the pattern of warming causing so much concern does not parallel the rise of CO 2 in the atmosphere as would be the case if global warming theory were certain. Nor are students told that climate change predictions are highly speculative and that 20 years ago a group of scientists looked at the temperature record and predicted that a new ice age was coming. Few texts include possible beneficial aspects of global warming, should it take place. A more balanced exposition would inform students of both sides of the global warming debate and motivate them to consider a wide range of possible answers and solutions.

Ozone Depletion: Most textbook explanations of the scientific facts about ozone are incomplete. The texts generally skirt the issue of natural ozone variability in favor of an alarmist picture of human-caused thinning. The ozone depletion thesis is usually explained in detail, but opposing arguments are either not explored or denigrated. As a result, students will not understand the natural factors that cause variation. All the authors seem to accept the ozone depletion thesis without question. Since the information in the texts is so limited, students have no choice, but to accept it as well.

Population: Neo-Malthusian theory receives the major emphasis in most of the textbooks Wisconsin students read. The coverage is deficient of alternative theories. With two notable exceptions, neo-Malthusian theory is the only theory presented by textbook authors even to the point, in some cases, of manipulating facts to make them fit. Only one text mentions that worldwide, the population growth rate has been decreasing since the late 1960s and most texts present data in graph form which ignores this fact.

Rain Forests: All texts cite high numbers for rain forest destruction, although each text seems to use different figures and no attribution is provided. Developing nations’ preservation efforts are ignored and students are given the impression of ongoing, unlimited and uncaring rain forest destruction.

Recycling: The texts provide incomplete coverage of the complex economics of recycling. Instead, they give students an oversimplified picture that recycling is always beneficial because it saves resources. Students are seldom provided with information about the economic trade-offs which are inherent in recycling decisions.

Solid Waste: Implicit in most textbook discussions is that there is a serious problem represented by overflowing landfills and a shortage of new landfill space. Texts rarely explain why more landfills are not being built, or the difference between older and modern landfills. They do not explain that even biodegradable wastes degrade slowly, if at all, in modern landfills. Products, such as plastics, that do not degrade are demonized. Scientific studies of landfill content are not mentioned, leading students to believe that non-degradable waste consume the most space.


In summary, Wisconsin students are given frightening scenarios of future environmental catastrophes. Students are taught that they have a gloomy future living in a world where drastic lifestyle alterations are necessary if they are to save the planet. In short, the texts give a false impression of scientific certainty where none exists, making children fearful and suspicious of technology. Debates over environmental issues are often presented as morality plays in which the villains (human beings in general, Western nations in particular) have been identified and solutions (population controls, reduced use of resources, life style changes) are predetermined.

Environmental issues are often presented in a emotional rather than a scientific manner and students are encouraged to endorse public policy decisions that outstrip the current knowledge base. Weak science and misleading or incomplete information lead students to draw conclusions contested within the scientific community.

In my view, a balanced environmental education would encourage students to become participants in the quest for environmental knowledge on which to base solutions. Social and economic benefits and costs ought to be included in environmental discussions so that the next generation is aware of numerous trade-offs and encouraged to seek a balance among them.

Properly presented, opposing scientific theories about environmental issues are important components in the search for scientific truth. They introduce students to the way knowledge is obtained, and how scientific validity is established.