Smoke and Mirrors

How polluters influence environmental education


| May/June 2001


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, packets, books, stickers, posters, and other goodies.

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.

When I started teaching 20 years ago, I could not have imagined such a perverse display: industries and their front 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.

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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 curriculum. 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). They 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, it is "managing" them, acting as their stewards—even saviors.