Smoke and Mirrors

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.

Truax, spun from Dr. Suess’ conservationist classic The Lorax, is one of the “educational” materials distributed to schools produced by the Hardwood Forest Foundation and the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association. The colorful book, written and illustrated in the Suess style, chronicles Truax, a calm and thoughtful logger, who tries to explain the “facts” of forest management to the psychotic treehugger Guardbark.

In Philomath, Oregon, 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 closely 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 you 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 them visualize the benefits of thinning the forest. (For full realism, perhaps some of 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, cooperators, and partners that includes some of the most egregious despoilers of our forests: Sierra Pacific Industries, champion of clear-cuts in California; The Pacific Lumber Company, loggers of the redwoods; MacMillan Bloedel Packaging; Willamette Industries; Boise Cascade Corporation. One AFF project, Project Learning Tree, which works to promote logging and industrial management of our nation’s forest, 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. Parents and citizens in general must assume the role of frontline warriors if environmental education is to remain meaningful. They must demand that any curricula provided by corporate sources be reviewed, just as textbooks are reviewed prior to being adopted. They must challenge their local boards of education to keep schools free of corporate propaganda. They must study the materials children receive at school. Corporate PR 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.

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