Facts Not Fear Needed About Environment

Too often, environmental teaching takes the form of fearful and gloomy messages, presented to children as early as kindergarten or even preschool. It’s a disturbing trend with potentially devastating ramifications.

In 1994, Nancy Bray Cardozo, writing in Audubon magazine, shared her uneasiness about children’s environmental education. Her 6-year-old daughter had received a hand-me-down bed from an aunt, and she was about to sleep in it for the first time. Cardozo noticed that something was bothering her daughter, and she asked what it was. The little girl told her, “They killed trees to make my bed.”

The gloom and anxiety often overshadow the facts. Students become alarmed about toxic waste, acid rain, deforestation and global warming, without ever learning basic scientific facts about these complex issues.

Environmental education became popular in the 1990s, when global warming and species extinction issues reached fever pitch. Parents noticed children coming home with strange ideas about the natural world. Adults were condemned for normal things like having a job as a logger, or driving cars. One parent wrote 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.”

Observations like these prompted Michael Sanera and me to review high school textbooks covering history, biology, civics and environmental science to examine how they dealt with environmental issues. What we found led to our book, Facts, Not Fear.

The misinformation was astounding. For example, to illustrate the dangers of global warming, several textbooks publish pictures of how flooded cities might look if the ice caps melted—including drawings of New York with all but the tallest buildings submerged. Actually, scientists anticipate that global warming might lift sea levels by between 6 and 40 inches.

When it comes to forests, young people receive images of severe devastation in the United States. “Large areas of forest also have been wasted,” says Biology: Living Systems, implying that cutting trees to build houses or make paper was a waste of resources.

Environmental Science: Framework for Decision Making (Chiras, 1988) reports: “Commercial interests in the United States took an especially narrow view of the forests until after World War II, seeking monetary gain with little concern for the future.”

Rarely do students learn the economic realities of sustaining forests, or that until the early 1900s abundant wood and low timber prices made replanting trees a losing business proposition, or that even Gifford Pinchot, the famed first director of the Forest Service, was unable to make money planting trees when he managed timber in North Carolina.

Jim Bowyer, a professor of forest products at the University of Minnesota, became concerned about student attitudes when he taught a course called “Natural Resources as Raw Materials.” Some students were hostile to forestry and he tried to find out why. So, he developed a survey on forestry and related environmental issues in the late 1990s that was taken by more than 2,000 students at 11 U.S. universities.

The results were troubling. Seventy-three percent of the students believed: “At current rates of deforestation, 40 percent of the current forests in the United States will be lost by the middle of the next century.” In fact, the forested area of the United States has been stable since 1920 and more timber is grown than is cut every year. Seventy-two percent of the students thought that populations of elk, pronghorn antelope and wild turkey have declined in the past 50 years. Truth is, they have increased dramatically.

As Bowyer discovered, students are not simply uninformed—they are misinformed in one direction. They are led to think that our natural resources, including our forests, are in danger of elimination.

Not all of the misunderstanding comes from the classroom, of course. Print and television media are steeped with exaggerated claims that have crept into the schools.

Addressing this problem is complex. Better environmental science is one answer—but who will teach it? What texts will they use? A study by the Independent Commission on Environmental Education (now the Environmental Literacy Council) concluded: “Many high school environmental science textbooks have serious flaws. Some provide superficial coverage of science. Others mix science with advocacy.”

Perhaps instead of “environmental science,” we should just teach science.