Should Education Include Junk Science? ...by Bill Knell
Johnny can't read, write or do math. But he may know how to save the Earth.
Johnny knows about global warming, acid rain, nuclear power, deforestation, big oil and capitalism.
Johnny knows all this because his teachers have told him so. And they got help from interest groups, the Environmental Protection Agencyand green textbooks that purport to explain these Earth-in-the-balance issues. Problem is, most of the texts are one-sided, say critics. They also fail to explain basic economics, such as prices, which affect demand forand supply of natural resources and energy.
Many texts have the look of advocacy tomes, often ignoring sound science in favor of junk science, the critics say. Socialist solutions toproblems are favored over capitalist ones, and new age spirituality is emphasized. ''With few exceptions, textbook treatment of environmental issues is influenced by an ideological view that presents human beings as eviland blames the United States in particular and Western industrial societies in general for every environmental ill,'' said Michael Sanera, headof the Center for Environmental Education Research at the Claremont (Calif.) Institute.
Sanera and Jane Shaw wrote ''Facts, Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment,'' which is based on theirreview of more than 130 texts and 170 environmental books for kids in grades K-12. Views similar to theirs were expressed by the green magazines Garbage and Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society.
Of course, advocates say the environment is too important to be ignored. And they say traditional approaches -a reliance on markets, a focuson the individual - haven't worked. Getting schoolkids to change their way of thinking is the only way to save the planet from the wasteful habitsof their parents, according to those who push the green agenda in schools.
Many analysts agree that public schools, in general, fail to teach kids what they need to know to be educated. Learning about theenvironment probably is helpful.
But critics say mastering the basics first is most important for kids. And learning about the environment shouldn't include a radical greenagenda, bereft of balance and sound scientific rules. The question is: How do you best teach kids about the planet?
The environmental movement in the U.S. sprouted in '62 with the publication of the semi-apocalyptic ''Silent Spring.'' In '69, Congresspassed the National Environmental Policy Act.
One year later came the Clean Air Act Amendments and the first Earth Day. That same year, Congress passed the National EnvironmentalEducation Act to promote and fund environmental education in grades K-12.
In '72, a group of global leaders called the Club of Rome published ''The Limits to Growth.'' It warned that the world would run out ofgold in '81, mercury in '85, tin by '87, zinc by '90, oil by '92, and copper, lead and natural gas by '93. It was wrong, of course. But it helped set the tone for environmental education for two decades.
In '90, for instance, Congress funded the Office of Environmental Education in the EPA. This office hands out funds for teacher training,curriculum research and enviro-related internships and fellowships nationwide, according to the Claremont Institute.
In '94, the EPA published the ''Environmental Science Education Materials Review Guide.'' One of its guidelines: Materials must ''reflectEPA policy on the topics explored.''
According to the Claremont Institute: ''Students learning from materials produced under the 'Guide' will not learn about the problems withSuperfund or the EPA's failures in implementing the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Evidently, the EPA does not want to educate students,but rather indoctrinate them to blind obedience to federal policies.''
The OEE got $7.8 million last year and has requested $7.3 million for fiscal year '99. Its director, Michael Baker, said that the officeprovides money for teaching about the environment at the grass roots, largely the public schools. Textbooks have some of the most serious problems, say critics.
Examples studied by Sanera include:
''Access to Health'' (Prentice Hall). It says that the planet's natural resources ''will become so depleted that our very existence will becomeeconomically and environmentally impossible.'' This, it warns, will cause ''famine, disease, pollution, unrest, crime and international conflicts.''
''Earth Science: The Challenge of Discovery'' (D.C. Heath). This book says, ''The world could run out of petroleum by the year 2080.. . . What can you do to lessen the demand for fossil fuels?'' It then advises: ''Reduce greenhouse gases by using less fossil fuel. Walk, ridea bike, or take a bus instead of a car for short trips.'' This text also claims that proven reserves of copper, zinc and petroleum ''will be depletedin 60, 40, and 30 years respectively.''
''World Geography Today'' (Holt). It claims that world petroleum supplies will last ''only another 50 years or so.'' It goes on to say:''(The) people of the world must share and use the planet's resources more wisely. . . . Will the richer nations share their wealth and resourceswith the less fortunate nations?''
''Biology, an Everyday Experience'' (Glencoe). This book claims that ''the supply of fossil fuels is being used up at an alarming rate''and that ''governments must help save our fossil fuel supply by passing laws'' limiting their use. ''Concepts and Challenges in Earth Science'' (Globe). It says that if global warming continues, ''New York City would almost be coveredwith water. Only the tops of very tall buildings will be above the water.''
''Biosphere 2000: Protecting Our Global Environment'' (HarperCollins). It reads: ''As human activity interferes with the earth's capacityto maintain a maximum range of tolerances for life, history traces the roots of degrading activity to: the advent of agriculture and the rise ofcivilization; the Judeo-Christian view of human beings as having domination over the earth; the industrial and scientific revolutions; and therise of capitalism.''
These are a few samples from among hundreds of texts. Critics note that, besides their apocalyptic views, these place little emphasis onbasic economics - prices, scarity, supply and demand -and how these factors affect the use of resources and the environment.
If gasoline prices rise, people drive less. They use substitutes, such as a bicycle, bus or subway. Rising demand and higher prices willgenerate greater supplies.
For instance, between '50 and '90, oil and natural gas reserves rose 733%, according to Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. Furthermore,the real average price of natural resources has decreased. It's now about one-eighth of what it was in 1900, said Moore.
Also, no one knows how much oil is in the Earth. Government officials and private analysts have predicted at various times that oil wouldbe depleted in 1914, '19, '26, '39, '49 and '80. President Carter falsely predicted, in '77, that ''we could use up all proven reserves of oil inthe entire world by the end of the next decade.'' But this is rarely found in green texts.
''In essence, the environmental educational campaign is aimed at turning our nation's schoolchildren into environmentalists,'' said Jo Kwong,a researcher at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, in a report for the Center for the Study of American Business. ''We are producinga nation of 'doomsday kids' or 'eco-kids' -children who can tell you what is right and wrong but are woefully ignorant of the reasons why. .. . (Environental education) preaches socially or politically correct lessons. (It) is unabashedly devoted to activism and politics, rather thanknowledge and understanding.''
Many green texts urge students to become politically active and join radical groups such as Greenpeace, Earth First!, Planned Parenthoodor Zero Population Growth.
And some advocate that consumers switch to renewable energy - solar, wind - now, said Sanera. The texts also advocate government controlof energy because the private sector has neither the will nor the means to do the right thing.
To date, 31 states have mandated environmental education in public schools. It's also often woven into other subjects, such as history, math and English.