Too Much Fear, Too Few Facts

This article is adapted from Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children About the Environment (1999, Regnery Publishing), by Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw.

Michael Sanera is director of CEI’s Center for Environmental Education Research. Jane S. Shaw is a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center.

In schools today, it is typical to see walls covered with posters depicting endangered animals. Students hold tee-shirt sales to raise money to save the rain forest. Children write pleading letters to government officials to save the planet. In math class, students may solve word problems about deforestation or air pollution as well as multiply fractions. Environmental issues are part and parcel of children’s education.

This emphasis could be a good thing. When taught well, environmental education can be informative and absorbing. It can bring to life the scientific principles and information that underlie ecology, for example. Children can learn about how plants grow and how different kinds of vegetation foster different ecological communities. And making children aware of environmental problems can encourage them to think critically and creatively.

Too often, however, environmental education skips the basics, pushing students into complex and controversial topics such as endangered species and global warming without establishing a scientific basis of knowledge. Education can play second fiddle to emotionalism and political activism.

Shortly after Earth Day in 1997, for instance, a parent wrote a letter to the New York Times: “I have noticed a disturbing trend. With each passing school year, my children are more convinced that humans and technology are bad for the planet….While teachers are helping to insure a ‘greener’ future, I do not think they understand that children may infer a condemnation of humanity.”

And to celebrate Earth Week in 1998, the Sierra Club took a group of fourth graders on a field trip to downtown Denver. After encouraging the children to use sidewalk chalk to draw pictures of endangered animals, the Sierra Club organizers gathered the children around a podium and began denouncing the voting record of a Colorado senator.

Because environmental issues are emotional and complicated, sometimes it is easier for parents and teachers to let emotions, rather than facts, guide their discussion. Sometimes it’s easier to let outsiders, even those who may be biased, present information. And, unfortunately, many of the materials in schools, including textbooks published by the leading national publishers, are unreliable. They echo the views expressed by the media or by politicians or by an uninformed public. It is difficult for parents and teachers to sort the facts from the fiction.

The purpose of Facts, Not Fear is twofold: to raise some questions about the way environmental issues are being taught and to offer information to balance the biased presentations that are so prevalent.

We, the authors of this book, believe we have the background to help teachers and parents correct misinformation found in the materials. Michael spent seventeen years as a political science professor teaching at Northern Arizona University. He also has started two research institutes and published two books. Jane was a journalist for many years before she began to write and edit articles for a research institute in Montana. Our research has been aided by people familiar with each environmental issue we write about. In addition, we are both parents of preteens, and we know from personal experience the conflicts between emotion and fact that crop up in environmental education.

First , you need to understand the nature of the problem.

Apocalypse Tomorrow

“Our Earth is getting hotter every minute and the only way we can stop it is to stop burning Styrofoam,” wrote Catherine Mitchell, then a student at Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m also too young to die, might I add, so stop burning the Earth!”

Catherine worried about dying because she had learned that global warming and a thinning ozone layer threaten her life. Never mind that the greenhouse effect and the so-called “hole” in the ozone layer have little to do with each other, or that burning Styrofoam has little to do with either one. Catherine’s environmental knowledge was scientifically weak but emotionally potent.

Consider the following:

e Global warming will cause polar ice caps to melt, says one junior high school text. “New York City would almost be covered with water. Only the tops of very tall buildings will be above the water.” But most scientists believe that if the world gets warmer, the sea level might increase only by between six and forty inches.

e Rainforest, a storybook for small children, tells how a man on a bulldozer destroys the rain forest and its animal life. Justice is done when the rains come and wash the bulldozer over a cliff, killing the man. (A drawing shows the man falling to his death.) “The Machine was washed away!” the book concludes. “But the creatures of the rain forest were safe.”

e The National Wildlife Federation tells students to pour highly acidic water on potted plants to simulate acid rain. When the plants die, students conclude that acid rain kills forests. Yet the largest scientific study of acid rain ever conducted (at a cost of more than $500 million) couldn’t find convincing evidence that acid rain is destroying forests.

e An environmental supplement to the Weekly Reader states that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) “break down and go directly to the ozone layer and destroy it.” These CFCs “are found in the plastic foam from which cups, plates, and some fast food containers are made.” But by 1992, when this issue appeared, plastic foam products had been CFC-free for two years.

These are just some of the many examples found during a review of more than 130 textbooks, 170 environmental books for children, and examples of curriculum materials from environmental and business groups. Unbiased materials are a rare exception. Most materials either present only one side of an issue, select worst-case examples, or omit important information.

Armageddon in the Press

These materials echo messages conveyed by the media:

e “Let there be no illusions,” wrote Time magazine in its “Planet of the Year” special issue. “Taking effective action to halt the massive injury to the earth’s environment will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation and sacrifice unknown except in wartime.” Sprinkled through the issue were statements such as: “Nearly every habitat is at risk,” “Greenhouse gases could create a climatic calamity,” and “Swarms of people are running out of food and space.”

e Actress Meryl Streep appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to warn mothers about a substance called Alar, a growth regulator used on apples. CBS’s 60 Minutes presented the charges, too. Both were part of a public relations campaign conducted in 1989 for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The group claimed that one out of every five thousand preschoolers exposed to Alar residues was likely to get cancer. Parents were terrified. Schools stopped selling apples in their vending machines. (The NRDC’s claims were never substantiated.)

e Captain Planet, a cartoon seen on the Cartoon Network, begins a typical episode with this narration: “Our world is in peril. Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, can no longer stand the terrible destruction plaguing our planet.” One of the shows features “Hoggish Greedly” and “Dr. Blight,” who are trying to destroy the rain forest and make it into a golf course.

Reinforcing the Message

Some scientists and other prominent citizens reinforce the message conveyed by the media. In fact, they often speak through the media. While scientists must be objective and careful when they publish articles in scientific journals, they can speak dramatically for popular consumption:

e Stephen Schneider, a scientist at Stanford University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Good Housekeeping readers that “world global warming would mean that food and water supplies would be threatened (temporarily, at least), that certain diseases might go haywire, that numerous species of animals or plants–even whole ecosystems–would be endangered, and that both the temperature and the level of the oceans would rise, leading to more likelihood of severe storms and flooding of the coastlines.” Each of these statements is questioned by equally reputable scientists.

e James E. Hansen, who directs the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Newsweek that even the deep snow blanketing the East in the winter of 1995–96 was caused by global warming. “As you get more global warming, you should see an increase in the extremes of the hydrologic cycle–droughts and floods and heavy precipitation,” he explained.

Since so much scientific research is funded by government grants, some scientists often improve their access to funds if they can show politicians that their work may “save the planet.” In fact, other scientists who downplay crises may find themselves in hot water because they are threatening the budgets of their colleagues:

e Melvyn Shapiro, the chief of research at a laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Insight magazine that much of the reason for alarm about ozone depletion was budgetary. “If there were no dollars attached to this game, you’d see it played on intellect and integrity,” he said. “When you say the ozone threat is a scam, you’re not only attacking people’s scientific integrity, you’re going after their pocketbook as well. It’s money, purely money.” But soon after the article appeared, Shapiro stopped accepting calls from the press. Word circulated that his superiors had told him to quit talking.

Government officials recognize that environmental “crises” mean bigger budgets, too:

e When the Superfund law, designed to clean up hazardous waste sites, was passed in 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget went up almost instantly by hundreds of millions of dollars—and ultimately by billions. The EPA administrator at the time actively campaigned for the Superfund law. He made sure that the EPA, not some other agency, would be in charge, and, in fact, the law that emerged was largely written by members of his agency.

But perhaps the most accomplished promoters of crises are environmental groups. Many environmental groups were born out of genuine alarm about air and water pollution or other issues. But advocacy has become big business. Multimillion-dollar organizations are housed in skyscrapers and managed by well-paid executives who spend much of their time as Washington lobbyists. If these organizations are to continue to exist in their comfortable style and maintain their political power, they must keep donations coming.

So their fund-raising letters are calculated to grip the reader’s attention:

e “It is entirely possible that we may be the last generation of humans to know this wondrous earth as it was meant to be,” warns the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

e “In the time it takes you to read this letter, nine hundred acres of rainforest will have been destroyed forever,” says the Rainforest Action Network.

e “Without firing a shot, we may kill one-fifth of all species of life on this planet in the next 20 years,” shouts the World Wildlife Fund.

Ironically, fear about the environment does not mean that the environment is significantly worse than it used to be. As Facts, Not Fear demonstrates, by most measures the environment in North America has improved substantially:

e Air quality has dramatically improved in the last few decades. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, national emissions of carbon monoxide declined by 14.8 percent between 1975 and 1994, and emissions of sulfur dioxide declined by 24.6 percent during the same period. These declines occurred in spite of substantial economic growth.

e The United States has more standing timber now than it did in 1920, and more timber grows each year than is cut.

e Many wildlife populations are greater than they were 80 or 100 years ago.

So, just as the texts are often irresponsible in predicting the future, they are often negligent in describing the past and present.

Saving the Planet without Scaring Kids

How can parents and teachers give students a balanced view of environmental problems? One way is to expand the information they receive. Facts, Not Fear contains the facts that are not covered in textbooks and the scientific controversies that are not explained.

Simply learning that reputable scientists often disagree with the claims of imminent catastrophe will keep children from blindly fearing the future. Such information will also help them see that environmental science is a discipline that reflects scientific uncertainty and is open to continual discovery. Students can learn about environmental issues and develop their critical thinking skills at the same time. As scientists do, they can collect the facts and see whether the theories that have been advanced actually fit the facts.

With this greater objectivity, students can begin to think critically about why we have environmental problems and can become more aware of human nature. They won’t be so quick to accept the simplistic claims of catastrophic global destruction. Children will probably stop pestering parents to take up the cause of the day, or at least they will be willing to consider that their crusade may not be for everyone.