Strive for Accuracy, not Alarmism, in Environmental Education

California plans to provide an environmental education curriculum to its K-12 schools, home to more than six million students, by 2010. Since California often sets the tone for the rest of the nation, it wouldn’t hurt to see just what kind of environmental curriculum the Golden State has in mind.

“The intent behind it is not only to do activities, but to really make young people, teens included, informed users of the environment so they can take responsibility and make informed decisions.” That’s Jim Greco, administrator of the state Department of Education’s mathematics and science leadership office, explaining the plan to the San Francisco Chronicle.

To be sure, providing young people with the education necessary to make informed decisions is a critical function of any school system – arguably, the most important function. But some education seems to be aimed not at helping students learn to make informed decisions, but rather at telling them what decisions to make. Consider the example of Australia’s Planet Slayer, “the world’s first irreverent environmental website . . . an interactive website that tells the shocking truth about how the environment is affected by the way we live.”

The website and its associated games and activities are from the Australian Broadcasting Company and Film Victoria, both government agencies. The website, whose heroine wears patchwork pants and a bare-midriff t-shirt with a peace symbol on it, is recommended by the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative, a partnership of the Australian national and state and territory governments. Geared towards children – who may or may not totally get its irreverence – the website seems somewhat less than purely educational.

For example, it includes a “greenhouse calculator” where children can see how much of a “pig” they are by answering questions about their lifestyle. The size and ugliness of your pig increases with every additional ton of CO2 linked to your lifestyle. There are some not-so-hidden messages in this “game” – your piggishness increases with the miles you fly in a year, but it increases even faster if you fly those miles for work rather than pleasure. It also increases depending on how much money you spend, though you do have the option of pointing out that some percent of your spending was for “stuff that’s better for the environment.”

Most of us understand that rampant consumption tends not to be environmentally friendly. The game, however, sends a message to children that having a job and money makes you a planet hog. To drive home the point, the villain is a well-groomed woman in a suit and carrying a handbag that looks like a briefcase.

In comparison, the Cool the Earth program used in some schools in California and nationwide seems unobjectionable. Children are encouraged to reuse and recycle materials, check the tire pressure on the family vehicle, and adjust their home’s thermostat a few degrees to conserve energy in heating and cooling. When used appropriately, programs like this can be effective at educating students about simple conservation. When used inappropriately, however, they can be a political tool intended to coerce children and parents into adopting a particular philosophy.

In Marin County, California, adoption of the Cool the Earth program came with a screening of An Inconvenient Truth, a film by former vice president Al Gore. A British court found the film to contain several significant errors in “the context of alarmism and exaggeration,” requiring British schools to provide well-rounded guidance notes to balance the biased presentation of science in the film. Meanwhile, the film’s producer Laurie David says, “kids are putting pressure on their parents, and this is a very good thing.”

Scientific accuracy is also a very good thing, much better than unsupported alarmism and political correctness. That is something California and all states should understand as they construct environmental curricula. Parents and legislators alike should put pressure on educators to get the facts right, with good reason. K-12 students are something of a captive audience and providing them with a solid education in environmental science is an important component of their schooling. Providing students with indoctrination cloaked as science and civics, however, is not.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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