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Education Reporter
EPA's Environmental Mis-Education

by Michael Sanera, Ph.D.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently seeking reauthorization of the 1990 National Environmental Education Act. The Act expired in 1996, but the EPA has continued to use appropriated funds for environmental education programs without authorization. The National Environmental Education Amendments Act of 1998 (H.R. 3441) was introduced in the House in early March. This bill is similar to one that passed the Senate but failed to be considered by the House in 1996. The EPA has made several changes in the new legislation but, as always, the devil is in the details.

As Members of Congress consider whether or not to pass the 1998 reauthorization bill, they should examine EPA's environmental education programs, because environmental education is a relatively recent addition to the nation's public school curriculum and it affects millions of students nationwide. Unfortunately for our children, the implementation of the 1990 law over the last seven years has not improved the teaching of environmental subjects in the classroom - mostly because the EPA does not recognize the problems inherent in much current environmental education.

In 1990, the EPA assumed nationwide leadership in environmental education (EE) under the auspices of the National Environmental Education Act. The 1990 law established the Office of Environmental Education at the EPA, an EE training program, and the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. The law provides for teacher training, curriculum research and development, and environment-related internships and fellowships for students. Congress authorized $65 million over five years for these programs, although the EPA has spent additionally-appropriated funds beyond this authorization.

To date, 29 states have laws mandating some form of environmental education and the EPA has targeted other states for new programs. Rather than teaching kids about the complex and often-disputed science behind such controversial issues as global warming, acid rain and pesticides, programs funded by the EPA present kids with misleading and one-sided information. The EPA is spending significant funds in target states to encourage questionable environmental education programs, which seek to activate students, both in their personal lifestyle — i.e., recycling everything regardless of whether or not it makes sense, and in political activities — i.e., lobbying elected officials.

EPA: Propagating the Problem

Our children need to learn how hard work, ingenuity, science and technology can remedy environmental problems. Unfortunately, in America's classrooms today, children are taught that the only way to solve environmental problems is with top-down, command-and-control government regulation. Instead of inspiring our children to become scientists, inventors and engineers who confront and solve environmental problems, schools are busy teaching them to become politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and regulators. The EPA's environmental education programs do little to correct these problems.

In response to many long-time Congressional critics of its environmental policies, the EPA has proposed in H.R. 3441 two minor changes to the 1990 statute. The EPA says these changes will correct the abuses in environmental education. New language in the bill requires the EPA to support "balanced and scientifically sound" environmental education programs, and to prohibit "lobbying activity." Yet a look at what the EPA actually means by these terms should serve as a warning for those committed to reforming environmental education.

"Balanced Information": The EPA's definition of "balanced" environmental education programs excludes any criticism of EPA policies. In 1994, the EPA published the "Environmental Science Education Materials Review Guide." The Guide instructs teachers, curriculum authors, and potential grant recipients about the important characteristics of "quality" EE materials. One important guideline states that materials must "reflect EPA policy on the topics explored." Students learning from materials produced under the Guide will not learn about the problems with Superfund or the EPA's failures in implementing the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Evidently, the EPA does not want to educate students, but to indoctrinate them to blind obedience to federal policies.

Sound Science: After seven years of effort, the EPA has failed to influence the production of "balanced and scientifically sound" EE materials. My review of more than 140 textbooks (6th through 10th grade science, health, and geography texts) and more than 170 environmental books written for children shows that the scare tactics such as those previously mentioned predominate, and "scientifically sound" information is largely missing. With a few rare exceptions, these materials fail to even mention the following scientific and economic facts.

  • The world population growth rate has decreased since the late 1960s - from slightly more than 2% to about 1.7% in the 1990s - and is expected to drop to less than 1% by the 2020s.

  • Many natural resource and energy prices have been level or falling (when adjusted for inflation) for many years-which indicates abundance, not scarcity.

  • The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization reports that tropical rain forests are being cut down at a rate of about 21 acres per minute, not the 100 acres per minute cited in many environmental education materials.

  • The global warming theory is based on computer models that have both strengths and weaknesses. Most of the observed temperature rise over the last 100 years took place before 1938. And according to NASA satellite temperature readings, the earth's average temperature has remained stable (or decreased slightly) between 1979 and 1996.

  • The largest scientific study of acid rain (National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, a 10-year, $500 million congressionally-funded project) concluded that acid rain was less severe than indicated in most EE materials.

  • Certain types of recycling use more energy and natural resources and create more pollution than making products from virgin materials.

  • The best scientific research indicates that paper biodegrades very slowly, if at all, in modern landfills. Therefore, the distinction between paper and plastic (including plastic foam products) as used in drinking cups and packing materials, is largely meaningless.

If the EPA is so concerned about "scientifically sound" EE materials, it should have produced reports which highlight these problems and recommend improvements. Yet, EPA documents do exactly the opposite. EPA's draft report to Congress on its implementation of the 1990 EE Act criticizes current EE materials for having "a disproportionate emphasis on science-oriented activities."

Lobbying: It is true that the recommended changes for the new law prohibit formal lobbying using federal grant money (per Office of Management and Budget Circulars A-21 and A-122), including electioneering, political party activity and direct attempts to influence legislation. But this narrow, technical prohibition against lobbying does absolutely nothing to reverse the 18-year trend in the EE community to make teaching students political action skills a cornerstone of environmental education. In fact, the EPA's own report to Congress makes it abundantly clear that the EPA wants to encourage more, not less, political activity by students.

Starting with a 1978 U.N.-sponsored conference held in Tbilisi (then Soviet Georgia), the environmental education community has insisted on making "responsible action" (read: political action) a centerpiece of EE. The Tbilisi Declaration, as it is known, enshrines the notion that children should be taught the "skills" to "participate" in activities that lead to the resolution of environmental problems. Political action taken by students often follows a biased (or non-existent) presentation of scientific and economic information about environmental problems.

For example, 2nd-grade students in Tucson, Arizona, noticed a construction site near their school at which a contractor was clearing desert land for new homes. As a class project, the students wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper explaining to readers how they "felt" about what they saw. Apparently, students were not provided instruction on the need for new housing, housing markets and prices, or economic trade-offs, as all 13 student letters conveyed precisely the same opinion. Every one of these students felt that the construction of the new homes, for families much like their own, was a terrible thing.

The letters from these 2nd graders are a stark but all too common example of environmental "education" in practice. "Man is killing Mother Nature just for money," concluded Brian in his letter. "It's like a battle between nature and money, and so far money is winning." And Katie noted that since the bulldozers were destroying cactus, trees, and plants, "They (the animals) won't have a house. It's just because of money that they're (the construction company) killing the animals." Thus, as Mike Weilbacher observes in E Magazine, children are increasingly becoming pawns as they are enlisted to be "warriors" in the environmental battles of adults.

A final example of EPA's failure to use taxpayer money responsibly in support of good environmental education is illustrated through its pet concept of "sustainability" as the only model consistent with a clean and thriving environment. The EPA report to Congress on the 1990 Act states flatly: "The future health and welfare of our nation depends on our ability to use the Earth's resources sustainably."

Although "sustainability" lacks a solid academic or scientific definition, the general idea is to create economic and resource development policies which "meet present needs without compromising the

ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Needless to say, this requires a great deal of information about current usage of natural resources and predictions about future technological developments and future resource usage patterns. This is difficult, if not impossible, to do accurately. Forty years ago, experts failed to predict the current power of the personal computer or the progress in DNA research.

Teaching sustainability as the only model of development which is consistent with the environment does a disservice to our students and is clearly not education. The sustainability concept conjures up the academic debate between the supporters of central government planning and the supporters of markets. This rich intellectual debate which has raged for most of this century should be the focus of environmental education.

In fact, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which produces and administers the SAT test for college admissions and high school Advanced Placement test for college credits, recently developed a new AP Environmental Science course for high schools. ETS understands the meaning of education, and has placed the concept of sustainability in the context of three other environmental concepts which students must learn: conservation, preservation and remediation. By making sustainability the EPA's only acceptable model, students will be taught EPA dogma but not critical thinking skills.

By most measures, the EPA's stewardship over environmental education is an educational failure.

Michael Sanera is the Director of the Environmental Education Research Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the New West. David Barrett of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC provided invaluable research assistance for this report.

Environmental Education Research Institute
7049 E. Tanque Verde Rd., #386
Tucson, Arizona 85715
Phone: (520)722-3300
Fax: (520) 722-3335

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