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Guest Commentary

by John Borowski

Publication Date: 2002-08-17

What passes for 'environmental education' often is just smoke and mirrors

7/17/01 ? Florida's Orange County Convention Center is big. Big enough to hold the Sears Tower if you laid it on its side. So big you could walk 10 miles and never leave the cement behemoth.

A hulking structure like this was necessary to host the recent National Science Teachers Convention, the largest gathering of educators in the nation: more than 14,000 science teachers and hundreds of exhibitors passing out armloads of pamphlets, books, stickers, posters, and other goodies.

When I started teaching 20 years ago, I could not have imagined such a perverse display: industries and their groups trying to justify everything from deforestation to the extinction of species:

? The coal industry's Greening Earth Society passed out videos and teacher guides on the "fallacies" of global warming.

? The Temperate Forest Foundation offered a video titled "The Dynamic Forest," in which insects and fire hurt forests but industry provides the needed remedies?with the help of chain saws.

? The American Farm Bureau, avowed enemies of environmental education, propositioned teachers to reconsider the dangers of chemical herbicides and insecticides.

They were selling lies, and the teachers were buying?quickly filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes.

A handful of conservation groups were on hand offering teachers inspiration and information on how to teach about environmental issues, but they were clearly in the minority.

Where were the largest environmental groups to counter this frontal assault on environmental education? Where was the outcry of the educational community?

Most Americans consider our public schools to be hallowed ground, where young people learn about the world through carefully chosen curricula. Yet corporations now view schools as convenient locations for the dissemination of propaganda debunking environmental concerns.

Environmental education is under assault on two fronts. First, multinational corporations are designing and distributing environmental curricula that are professionally produced, easy to use, often free, and incredibly biased in favor of industry. Second, some of the most prominent conservative think tanks in America are mounting a well-funded attack on genuine environmental education.

Their objective is simple: Protect industries that despoil the planet and put the brakes on the emergence of environmental awareness among young people.

The spectrum of curricula is breathtaking and its shamelessness is overt. The American Nuclear Society provides "Let's Color and Do Activities with the Atoms Family." Materials I received from Exxon portray the Prince William Sound cleanup as a victory of technology, brushing over the cause of the disaster?the Exxon Valdez.

But the most brazen miseducation campaign is carried out by the timber industry. Big timber spends millions on so-called educational programs (which, of course, they generously donate to public schools).

Timber companies offer hikes, presentations, and paid workshops for teachers. They distribute books, posters, videos, lesson plans, and other materials.

Through the looking glass of big timber, old-growth forests become biological problems that require clear-cutting in order to survive. Logging companies are not cutting the forests, the propaganda explains. They are "managing" them, acting as their stewards?even saviors.

In Philomath, Ore., where I teach science, Starker Forests offers a guided hike in a small section of their forest, an outing that resonates strongly with the kids and can shrewdly confuse the most earnest educator.

Classes are instructed to play a game in which the largest child in the group pretends to be the big tree. The other children stand close to the big tree and crowd it. The company guide asks them to choose three words that describe how they, the little trees, feel when they are crowded together under the big tree. Then all the little trees scatter out, providing more space.

The purpose of the exercise is to help children visualize the benefits of thinning the forest. (For full realism, perhaps the children should be asked to visualize the feeling of being chopped down and processed into end tables.)

Often, the very organizations that preach the gospel of environmental education are actually industry shills. They have earthy names but clandestine roots.

The American Forest Foundation (AFF) has a list of co-sponsors and partners that includes some of the most egregious despoilers of the our forests: Sierra Pacific Industries, champion of clear cutting in California; Pacific Lumber Co., loggers of the redwoods; MacMillan Bloedel Packaging; Willamette Industries; and Boise Cascade Corp.

The AFF, which works to promote logging and industrial management in the nation's forests, sponsors Project Learning Tree, which has reached more than 500,000 teachers and some 25 million students from prekindergarten to 12th grade.

Surreptitious public relations campaigns and deceptive advertising are battling today for the hearts and minds of our children. And they're winning.

The North America Association of Environmental Education (the largest environmental education group in the world) has endorsed Project Learning Tree.

Corporate public relations campaigns in classrooms are reminiscent of tobacco companies' secretive strategy of peddling cigarettes to teens. Their effort must be brought into the full light of day.

School board leaders must make sure environmental education is meaningful. They must demand that any curricula provided by corporate sources be reviewed, as textbooks are reviewed, before they are adopted. School boards must keep schools free of corporate propaganda.

John Borowski is a science teacher in Philomath, Ore. This article was originally published in the May-June issue of the Utne Reader.

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