Facts Not Fear

Teaching Children About The Environment


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:

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.

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.”

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.

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.