Environmental Education: Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 09, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
14 May 1997

pen2About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by the Marshall Institute in Washington, D.C. to see if I would consider becoming a member of the Independent Commission on Environmental Education (ICEE), an autonomous panel they were forming to review the state of K-12 environmental education in the U.S.

I was taken aback by the request because the Marshall Institute is a politically conservative organization. Its members are well-known in scientific circles as having, for example, challenged those scientists who believe that the burning of coal, oil, and gas is contributing to a global warming of the Earth s atmosphere. Some people at the Institute have even challenged the generally accepted theory that human-made chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have caused the now-infamous Antarctic ozone hole, despite the fact that most scientists now believe otherwise.

I asked the caller if he had called the right Glantz and told him that I was the “tree-hugging” Glantz. He assured me that I was the right Glantz. I said that I would try to control my pro-environment bias, expecting that others on the Commission would do the same with their biases. I agreed to serve.

The task of the ICEE was to evaluate environmental education in the United States, in order to see if there were a bias against, for example, industry or a bias in favor of political advocacy for the environment.

At the very first meeting, one of the most conservative members of the 11-person Commission circulated copies of a popular article discussing environmental education in American schools. The writer claimed that environmental education was a plot to create “Eco-Nazis” out of unsuspecting little kids. The writer felt that pupils taught about the environment would be inundated with pro-environment, anti-industry literature (brainwashed, more or less), and that they would be sent home to badger their parents to “do the right environmental thing” — that is, either recycle or re-use appropriate items in the home.

When I saw the Eco-Nazi article and listened to some of the fears of the more conservative members, I began to wonder whether rational discussions on environmental education would be possible.

After a year and a half of meetings and debates among Commission members, the final report of the ICEE (“Are We Building Environmental Literacy?”) has been published. It represents a major shift from the conservative end of the political spectrum toward the center.

Its tone is positive toward the value of environmental education (originally, I had the fear that the Commission would find it too political to recommend teaching about the environment in grades K-12). It supports the teaching of environmental education in the schools and suggests that scientists have a responsibility to make sure that the
science is correctly explained, that publishers have a responsibility to produce better books, and that telling students to write their Congressional representatives in support of a specific policy is inappropriate (although writing based on their own views is OK).

The commissioners also found that teachers require expert help in dealing with the science of environmental issues. These findings are a far cry from what was expected of a Commission put together by (but operating independently of) the Marshall Institute.

The report was released to the public in early April at a press conference in Washington, D.C., which was attended by CNN, the Associated Press, National Public Radio, Time, USA Today, and the like. The questions from the press centered on the messenger and not the message. We were asked: “Why should we believe anything that comes out of the Marshall Institute?” or “That sentence on page so and so could have been written by an industrialist.” or “The Commission’s funding came from conservative foundations.” and so forth. One reporter told me that he thought the report was balanced but that his editor didn’t like the Marshall Institute and was not likely to agree to run a story.

There were also a few attacks on the report BEFORE it had been seen. For example, a writer for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) delivered a blistering attack on the Commission’s report, making all sorts of claims against what she expected the report to say. She had never read it but assumed that, since the messenger was the conservative Marshall Institute, therefore its message must be anti-environment. Wrong. The Commission’s favorable report on environmental education attests to the fact that people with different political persuasions can cooperate effectively on serious issues … when they negotiate in good faith.

I must say that I am pretty angry about the response of some of the environmental groups to the ICEE report. If environmentalists can let go of their bias and get to a point where they can focus on the message instead of the messenger, they will see that the report is a step toward finding a permanent niche for environmental education in K-12 classrooms.

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