Rethinking environmental education
By David Seymour
Saskatchewan Policy Analyst
Frontier Centre for Public Policy
Recent polls indicate that the state of the environment is of major concern to most Canadian voters. Politicians toss phrases such as "climate change," "global warming," "reducing our ecological footprint," "promoting energy conservation" and "going green" like children with a brand new toy.
Considering its importance, it is reasonable for our public schools to educate students about the environment. They need to know how the environment works and to be familiar with the challenges facing it. In short, students should learn how to think about the environment rather than simply what to think.
Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that schools are indoctrinating students in environmentalism rather than teaching them about the environment. One only has to observe the hype surrounding Earth Day every April to question whether there is a lack of balance in environmental education.
Environmental researchers Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw conducted a study of over 140 textbooks and 170 children's books about the environment, and they found most presented environmental issues in a strictly one-sided manner. Lest one dismiss their findings because they focused on U.S. sources, a recent Fraser Institute study of materials in Canadian public schools found similar results.
Both studies document numerous instances of children learning "facts" about the environment that are erroneous. Children are told the Earth is rapidly running out of space for people, technological advances have made our air and water dirtier and global warming is indisputably caused by humans producing greenhouse gases. As will be made clear, these types of claims are easily debunked by real science.
Not only are students given one-sided information about the environment, but they are also encouraged to use their newly acquired knowledge to become politically active. They often engage in letter-writing campaigns to politicians urging them to promote more recycling and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Students are encouraged to tell their parents about lifestyle changes their families should make to help save the planet. The problem with all of these activities is that if they are not based on solid evidence, they are worse than useless — they are harmful and counterproductive.
One of the most pervasive theories taught as fact in schools is the belief that the Earth is experiencing global warming due to increased greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) produced by human activity. While there has been a small increase in the world's average temperature over the past century, climate changes of much greater magnitude have taken place over most of Earth's history — long before humans began producing significant amounts of greenhouse gases. This means that naturally caused climate change needs to be seriously considered as a possibility.
In addition, there is no demonstrable correlation between the CO2 record and the temperature record at any point in Earth's history. This is hardly surprising, since CO2 makes up less than 4 per cent of all greenhouse gases while water vapour (H2O) makes up approximately 95 per cent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Thus, to claim that man-made climate change through increased CO2 emissions is a fact is clearly not justified by the evidence.
Another widely promoted myth is that technological advances have caused the Earth's air, soil and water to decline in quality. However, the Environmental Indicators study conducted by the Fraser Institute shows that the environment, particularly in Canada, is getting better, not worse. Air and water quality has improved markedly over the past 30 years.
Students are constantly told of the importance of recycling. While a strong case can be made that reducing and reusing benefits both consumers and the environment, recycling programs do little more than make people feel good about their efforts. When one factors in the labour and energy costs involved in recycling products such as paper, glass and plastic, and the limited market for recycled products, it becomes apparent that there are better ways to help the environment. However, one sees little evidence that this is understood in elementary classrooms.
It is clear that there are significant problems with the way environmental education is taught in schools. Despite the variety of views among scientists on topics such as climate change, students are exposed to only one side of these issues.
A better way to approach environmental education would be to ensure students are given as many facts and theories as possible. Resources from a variety of perspectives should be presented and students should be given the opportunity to make up their minds on this issue. While this would take away the simplicity of the current approach that tells students that human activity is bad for the planet, it would go a long way toward giving this topic the depth that it deserves. This is the best way to ensure that our students have the information they need to critically evaluate environmental issues.
Copyright © 2008 Troy Media Corporation. All rights reserved
Published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, March 28, the Red Deer Advocate, April 1, and the Brandon Sun, April 21, 2008.