Toxic Materials?

By Peter West — September 01, 1993 8 min read

Over the past few years, the mass media and aggressive environmental groups have issued dire warnings that the Earth is gradually warming and that its protective ozone layer is eroding. The consequences, they say, will be catastrophic. Many citizens, including teachers, have accepted the warnings as facts.

But news accounts in recent months have made clear that there is a growing debate within the scientific community over whether the Earth really is warming as a result of human activity and to what extent the planet is threatened by the thinning of its protective ozone layer. It’s a debate that hasn’t worked its way into most of the nation’s schools.

In fact, many education observers, including some environmentalists, assert that much of the information young people receive at school on these and other environmental issues is outdated or inaccurate. Moreover, they say, it tends to promote the agendas of the activist groups that develop curriculum materials, which, given the scarcity of environmental education textbooks, are often the sole source of information in classrooms.

“The biggest problem is that there’s a vacuum, and the environmental lobbying organizations have been very good at filling that vacuum,” says Jonathan Adler of the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. This past spring, Adler criticized in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal the quality and tone of many environmental education efforts.

Corporate interests also flood teachers’ mailboxes with “science based” materials on environmental issues, ranging from the cleanup of the 1989 oil spill by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound to the virtues of steel recycling. “We have a great number of industries that are producing materials to use in the classroom,” says Linda Knight, an earth science teacher at Paul Revere Middle School in Houston and president of the National Earth Science Teachers Association. “These are, in each case, put forward as materials that are unbiased, but the companies do have vested interests.”

Although environmental topics have been a feature of precollegiate teaching since the 1970s, some 30 states in recent years have approved a series of widely varying mandates to infuse environmental education into the curriculum. California, for example, has made environmental science an integral part of its science framework, encouraging the use of environmental topics to teach scientific principles. But few schools in California, or anywhere else, offer a separate course to cover these topics. Instead, teachers piece together a variety of available materials to add to an existing science course.

As a result, critics say, many young people are the targets of poorly written and extremist literature on the environment that turns up in school classrooms and libraries. Following are several common misconceptions or exaggerations they say are contained in readily available environmental materials:

• An artificially produced increase in carbon-dioxide levels is precipitating a dramatic global warming. In fact, credible scientific evidence suggests that climatic fluctuations are little-understood cyclical phenomena and that the Earth’s primary “greenhouse gas” is water vapor, not carbon dioxide.

• People living today face unprecedented risks from poor air quality. In fact, air quality overall has improved measurably in recent decades thanks, in part, to federal anti-pollution laws and regulations.

• Aerosol-spray products contain chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that damage the ozone layer. In fact, CFCs were outlawed in the United States in 1978.

One prominent critic is Patricia Poore, editor in chief of Garbage magazine, a popular environmental publication. In a special report in the April/May issue of Garbage, Poore contends that many environmental education materials abandon scientific objectivity in favor of calls for activism. She notes that many works that are commonly found in schools perpetuate outdated and inaccurate assumptions about environmental hazards and sometimes call for a return to a supposedly idyllic agrarian, pre-technological way of life. Few textbook companies, she writes, have taken up the challenge to produce science-based texts for environmental education.

Moreover, Poore states that some educational psychologists are concerned about the “apocalyptic” tone of the classroom materials, which tend to ignore the improvements made in air and water quality in favor of dire pronouncements on the threats posed to humanity by global warming, the “solid-waste crisis,” or ozone depletion.

Other observers share this concern, noting that young children, the audience for many of the environmental messages, are poorly equipped to weigh the nuances, uncertainties, and even miscalculations that characterize the scientific process. “Kids are being scared to death,” Adler asserts. “Most environmental materials certainly don’t give an optimistic view of the future of humanity.”

Alan Sandler, education director for the American Architectural Foundation, which produces materials that focus largely on the human-created environments of urban areas, concedes that a few materials may indeed contain factual errors. Yet, he says, critics who focus solely on the scientific aspects of environmental education fail to understand that the topic often spills out of the science curriculum into the social sciences and other areas. “Environmental education is not like science; there’s not a right answer in the back of the book,” he says. “We’re trying to deal with the consequences of human behavior, and many times we are not aware what those will be.”

Educators must also contend with environmental misinformation that seeps into the curriculum from the mass media. John Padalino, who heads the National Science Teachers Association’s task force on environmental education, held a press conference last fall during an NSTA regional meeting in New York to point out that many popular children’s books and comics, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ ABCs for a Better Planet, contain the error about CFCs in aerosol spray products. The press conference, supported in part by the aerosol industry, was organized, Padalina said, to counter “the myths that are perpetuated in this country.”

“There’s a lot of junk that works itself into the curriculum,” he said.

Observers agree that there are programs that do a good job of examining the scientific questions surrounding such potential environmental hazards as ozone depletion, solid-waste management, global warming, and air and water pollution, particularly at the high school level. But they say many elementary and middle school teachers find that the information overload, coupled with the complex and continuously developing state of environmental knowledge, makes it difficult to present a coherent and balanced picture of the nature of an environmental problem in a typical class period.

Those strictures, they say, often lead to the promulgation of simplistic, sometimes inaccurate, views of the state of the environment, views, for example, that fail to take into account the vastly improved standard of living in this century that has as one of its costs some level of environmental degradation.

Precollegiate science “often tends to ignore the nature of risks, and risk analysis, and the whole issue of scientific tentativeness,” says Mark Koker, assistant director of the Chemical Education for Public Understanding Program, or CEPUP, a middle school environmental curriculum. Developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, the program is designed to foster informed, science-based decision-making.

Adler and others complain that political action, not good science, is the goal of many of the environmental materials that make their way into the schools. Too often, Adler says, children are encouraged to join letter-writing campaigns to influence political ends, rather than to examine both sides of an issue. “Were this done with any other issue, public figures and parents would be up in arms,” he says. “The question is, `Are schools for education, or are they for indoctrination?’ “

One environmental group that unabashedly produces brochures for children that urge political action is Greenpeace. Let’s Call Ourselves Greenpeace, aimed at children ages 6 to 13, is distributed through the organization’s “activist network,” a grassroots coalition of some 22,000 volunteers, including teachers. Among other things, the booklet urges children to write to the chairman of the Du Pont Co., which produces CFCs for sale abroad, to “stop making chemicals that eat away the ozone layer.”

An issue of another Greenpeace publication called Kids Alert encourages children to write to officials of the People’s Republic of China to demand that they stop testing nuclear devices and to President Clinton to urge him to “start using sun and wind power instead of nuclear power plants.”

Kyle Halmrast, who coordinates the Greenpeace activist network, says the materials are designed to encourage children to think about environmental issues, perhaps as a precursor to future activism, and to serve as a counterbalance to materials put out by corporations. To say that the wide and diverse array of environmental groups that produce classroom materials are bent on creating environmental radicals is not true, he says.

Others further argue that letter-writing campaigns and similar political activities promote good citizenship in areas that interest children. Says Midge Smith of the National Audubon Society: “These issues can be good opportunities for children to learn about political issues and to tie into the political process.”

In the final analysis, teachers are frequently left to decide for themselves which materials are inaccurate or biased and which are not. Jane Person, an environmental science teacher at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) High School and author of an environmental textbook, says she recently showed her students a film produced by Exxon that minimized the impact of the Valdez oil spill on the Alaskan ecosystem. This aspect of the film made her squirm. “There are scientists who are disagreeing with this,” she says. “One of the dilemmas we have is, whom do we believe?”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Toxic Materials?