Environmentalists' little green lies

Jonathan H. Adler

July 07, 1992|By Jonathan H. Adler

SOME call it "eco-kid power," while to others it is the "newest parental nightmare." The latest craze sweeping the nation's youth is environmental consciousness, due in no small part to the spread of ecological issues into the classroom. This movement has penetrated nearly every school district in the country, as teachers instruct children on the importance of being earnestly green.

While it is entirely appropriate to learn about the environment in the classroom, much of what is taught to children is simple-minded and inaccurate. Myths and half-truths pervade environmental materials aimed at children, skewing their understanding of environmental issues.

Take, for example, one of the most prominent axioms in environmental education: Recycling is always good. In one guide for parents and educators, "This Planet Is Mine," Mary Metzger and Cynthia Whittaker claim that recycling is "by far the most commonsensible and energy-saving waste reduction technique." This sentiment is echoed in the Environmental Protection Agency's "Let's Reduce and Recycle: Curriculum for Solid Waste Awareness," in which children in grades K-6 are told that recycling reduces pollution and saves natural resources, energy, money and landfill space.

What children are rarely told is that while recycling often is a sensible means of disposing solid waste, it does not always benefit the planet. The bleaching of recycled paper, for instance, causes more water pollution than bleaching paper from virgin pulp. Likewise, the reuse of certain consumer goods, such as cloth diapers, requires greater energy use than their disposable counterparts.

Other examples of misinformation include the popular children's book "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth," which declares "we are making so much garbage that in many places there is not enough room to bury it all."

But, as research by A. Clark Wiseman of Resources for the Future demonstrates, all of the solid waste produced in America in the next 1,000 years could easily fit in a single landfill accounting for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. land mass.

Most classroom environmental information, including most distributed by the EPA, comes from literature and teaching guides produced by the major environmental groups: the World Wildlife Fund, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Acid Rain Foundation and the Sierra Club. Other materials target children at home, including various children's books, TV programs like the popular "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," and the recent feature-length film "FernGully . . . The Last Rainforest."

Because the environmental information offered to children is so dominated by the views and materials of the environmental establishment, apocalyptic predictions are now a mainstay of environmental education -- from acid rain and global warming to the ozone scare and overpopulation.

Educational books like the popular "50 Simple Things" claim that in a warmer world "places that are warm would become too hot to live in, and . . . the places that grow most of our food could get too hot to grow crops anymore." But no scientific consensus on global warming exists, as even a recent Greenpeace-conducted poll indicates. Nevertheless, in the classroom, as in the media, doomsday scenarios garner more attention than scientific fact.

Children should be taught facts, not conjecture. If water use is an issue, children should learn about the hydrologic cycle; if the concern is solid waste, they should learn where paper comes from and where it might go. It may be appropriate for a schoolchild to hypothesize about how public or private action might address environmental concerns. But children should not be pressured by their teachers to sign petitions, endorse political agendas or write pleading letters to the president.

Environmental education can be a valuable addition to school curricula, but only if it is conducted in a careful, fair and non-ideological manner. After all, schools are for educating, not indoctrinating. If teachers address environmental issues in a balanced fashion, our children might not turn out politically correct, but at least they will have the chance to become truly "eco-smart."

Jonathan H. Adler is an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. This article is adapted from a publication of the Heritage Foundation.

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