Little Green Lies
The Environmental Miseducation of America's Children
By Jonathan H. Adler
Some have called it "Eco-Kid Power," while to others it is the "Newest Parental Nightmare." The latest craze sweeping this nation's youth is environmental consciousness, due in no small part to the spread of ecological issues into the classroom. This movement has reached almost every school district in the nation, as children are increasingly taught the importance of being green.
More Pennsylvania high school students are taking environmental education classes than physics. Even the federal government is actively involved. In 1990 President Bush signed the National Environmental Education Act, appropriating $65 million over five years to set up in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) an Office of Environmental Education that serves as a clearinghouse for green educational materials.
Most classroom environmental information, including most that is listed at the EPA clearinghouse, comes from literature and teaching guides drafted and distributed by the major environmental groups. These materials include everything from the World Wildlife Fund's "Vanishing Rain Forests Education Kit" and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's "What I Can Do To Save the Bay," to the Acid Rain Foundation's curriculum, "Air Pollutants and Trees," and the Sierra Club educational newsletter, "Sierraecology." Similar material is targeted to children at home, including "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth," which has sold nearly a million copies, and TV's popular "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," not to mention the recent feature-length film "Fern Gully ... The Last Rainforest."
It is entirely appropriate for children to learn about the environment. Indeed, any comprehensive science program for primary and secondary schools ought to include discussions of the food chain, the life cycles of various species, and the fundamentals of meteorology. Using nature trails and camping in the wilderness can be valuable educational experiences, particularly if children are taught to understand what they are seeing. Unfortunately, much of what is taught to children is simple-minded and inaccurate. Among the growing environmental disinformation spread through the classroom are 10 myths that give children an incomplete understanding of environmental issues.
#1: Recycling Is Always Good
The recycling craze has captured America's schools. From coast to coast, children are organizing recycling programs in their schools and neighborhoods, separating their trash, and sending bottles, cans, newspapers, and yard waste to their local recycling centers. Various environmental groups, as well as the EPA through its "Recycle Today!" campaign, actively promote recycling as a means to "help stamp out the Garbage Gremlin." Animated characters such as Henry Cycle and Captain Planet sell the practice to elementary school children.
In one guide for parents and educators -- "This Planet Is Mine" -- Mary Metzger and Cynthia Whittaker claim that recycling is "by far the most commonsensible and energy-saving waste reduction technique." This sentiment is echoed in the EPA's "Let's Reduce and Recycle: Curriculum for Solid Waste Awareness," where children in grades K-6 are told that recycling reduces pollution and saves natural resources, energy, money, and landfill space.
While recycling is often a sensible means of disposing solid waste, it is not so clear that recycling is always of benefit to the planet. Aluminum cans have been profitably recycled for years -- indeed companies actually pay for used cans -- because recycling aluminum costs less energy and money than does producing cans from virgin materials. Yet this may be the exception rather than the rule. Although recycled paper can be used for newsprint, ledger paper, and cardboard boxes, it is inappropriate for paper products that require the greater strength of unrecycled paper, as the fibers tend to deteriorate during the recycling process. The bleaching of recycled paper causes more water pollution than bleaching paper from virgin pulp. Even when materials are collected for recycling, they are often not used for that purpose. In Islip, New York, there are mountains of tinted glass from bottles collected for recycling, and in the nation's capital newspapers intended for recycling sit rotting in warehouses.
Children were told during a CBS "Schoolbreak Special" that "recycling paper saves trees," and that if all paper were recycled it would save 500,000 trees per week. However, 87 percent of all paper in the United States is produced from trees planted and grown for that purpose by the paper industry. Were there less of a market for unrecycled paper products, the incentive to plant more trees would likely shrink as well. Thus, is recycling really a policy that serves to save trees? Or, may it actually reverse the current trend of growth of America's forests? Roger Sedjo of Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, points out that there has been a steady increase in U.S. forestland for the past 40 years, and profit-seeking firms are planting, growing, and harvesting forests on an unprecedented scale." The existence of vibrant markets for virgin wood materials has encouraged this growth.
What is more, it is not clear that recycling is always the "environmentally" preferable disposal option for solid waste. Cleaning cloth diapers, for example, may at first glance seem less wasteful than throwing out disposables, but collection and sterilization requires massive amounts of water, energy (for heat and transportation), and detergent, not to mention the additional time spent in cleaning. If recycling requires increased consumption of energy, it may not result in the net saving of resources that environmentalists desire.
#2: Plastic Is Bad
Plastic has reached the top of the eco-kid enemies list. Among the "55 fun ways kids can make a difference" listed in Michael O'Brian's "I Helped Save the Earth" are: "Use paper, not plastic," "Don't buy drinks in plastic containers," and "Buy things packaged in cardboard, not plastic." "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth" calls upon all children to "Stamp out Styrofoam" because "using Styrofoam means using up precious resources ... and adding more garbage to our world." It further asserts that "plastic foam is often made with chemicals that make the ozone hole bigger!" One New York mother told the "New York Times" that her 12-year-old son's antiplastic sentiments are so vehement that "If something is in plastic, I have to hide it if I want to use it."
This message has apparently had a significant effect. In Closter, New Jersey, the elementary-school group Kids Against Pollution (KAP) has been credited with successfully promoting a ban on foam containers in their community, and was very active in pressuring McDonald's to abandon its polystyrene "clamshell" containers.
One reason plastics are attacked is that they are often difficult to recycle. In addition, plastics are generally not biodegradable, and perhaps most important, other than being "natural," are produced synthetically from man-made chemicals. Thus, the use of plastic is viewed as an inevitable source of pollution and an unnecessary contribution to the solid waste stream.
Because they are rarely recycled, most plastic products eventually find their way into a landfill. The greatest environmental concern raised by the use of landfills is the possibility that toxic wastes will seep into the local groundwater. Yet plastics are typically inert, and therefore they are certain not to decompose. The stable state of plastics -- their non-biodegradability -- is a protection for human health when they are deposited in landfills.
Of course, many kids are upset by the notion that plastics placed by people in the earth today will remain there for centuries. But while plastic does not degrade in a landfill, rarely does anything else either. As the research of William Rathje at the University of Arizona has shown, in landfills, even newspapers fail to biodegrade for decades. What is held against plastic can be a criticism of paper as well.
Children uncomfortable with using plastic might want to ask why its use is so common in contemporary society. Plastic packaging limits breakage and spoilage, and makes it possible to distribute foods and medicines over greater distances at significantly lower cost. Plastic can create strong but lightweight packaging for everything from candies and soft drinks to vitamins and vegetables that would otherwise require tremendous expenditures of natural resources. Do not these benefits offset, at least in part, the environmental concerns about disposal?
Consider aseptic packaging, the synthetic packaging for the "juice boxes" so many children bring to school with their lunch. One criticism of aseptic packaging is that it is nearly impossible to recycle, yet on almost every other count, aseptic packaging is environmentally preferable to the packaging alternatives. Not only do aseptic containers not require refrigeration to keep their contents from spoiling, but their manufacture requires less than one-10th the energy of making glass bottles.
What is true for juice boxes is also true for other forms of synthetic packaging. The use of polystyrene, which is commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as "Styrofoam," can reduce food waste dramatically due to its insulating properties. (Thanks to these properties, polystyrene cups are much preferred over paper for that morning cup of coffee.) Polystyrene also requires significantly fewer resources to produce than its paper counterpart. As documented in "Science" magazine, a polystyrene cup can be produced with one-sixth the physical material, one-12th the steam, and one-t the electricity of its paper counterpart. It is no wonder that polystyrene cups are as much as 60-percent less expensive. It should also be noted that, contrary to popular perceptions, the production of polystyrene has not required the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for years, and thus poses no threat to the ozone layer.
The environmental benefits of plastic are demonstrated every day as over a million American students receive their milk from plastic, pillow-shaped pouches that require less material to produce than the conventional mini-milk carton and that create 70 percent less waste by volume. Indeed plastic is typically less bulky than other forms of packaging, and therefore reduces the amount of solid waste disposal.
Many environmental leaders now recognize that the plastic versus paper decision is not as clear-cut as they once supposed. As John Ruston of the Environmental Defense Fund acknowledged to the "New York Times," "I don't think we have strong evidence that one is better than the other." Nonetheless, anti-plastic messages are still pushed to many school-age children as part of environmental education.
#3: There Is Too Much Garbage
The popular children's book "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth" declares, "We are making so much garbage that in many places there is not enough room to bury it all." Another EarthWorks publication, "Kid Heroes of the Environment," claims that "America faces a 'garbage crisis'; we're running out of places to dump our trash." A handbook produced by the Council for Solid Waste Solutions instructs children on how to establish school recycling programs because "overflowing landfills are threatening Mother Earth." In New Hampshire, a teacher's guide produced by the state for Earth Day 1990 calls for students to write to companies complaining about "excess packaging," and the EPA's solid waste curriculum even claims that the growing "garbage crisis" is a problem that "threatens to weaken our cities and consume valuable portions of our natural resource base." Many children's environmental concerns are based upon the underlying assumption that too much waste is being created and that there is no place to put it.
However, there is ample space in which to dispose of America's garbage through landfilling, should such an approach be desired. As the research of A. Clark Wiseman of Resources for the Future has demonstrated, all of the solid waste produced in America in the next 1,000 years could easily fit in a single landfill accounting for less than one-10th of 1 percent of the United States. This landfill would be approximately 44 miles on each side and only 100 feet deep. If there is more than enough space to dispose of America's garbage, can we really say that there is too much trash? Given that landfilling is significantly less expensive than most other disposal options, advocating that landfilling not be used means that more money will be spent on waste disposal, and less will be available to spend on other things. Some communities have even discovered that modern landfills can be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, adding jobs and economic resources without producing the environmental hazards and aesthetic objections that accompanied the dumps of the past
While landfilling remains an environmentally and economically viable option, other methods of waste disposal are continually being developed. One increasingly attractive approach is the development of "waste-to-energy" facilities, whereby garbage can be turned into a source of energy. As more communities begin to rely upon this approach to waste disposal, garbage will actually become an important commodity. What is more, should landfill space ever truly become scarce, the resulting increase in the costs of waste disposal would encourage individuals to reduce the amount of waste they produce and develop alternative waste disposal options.
It is important to remember that human activity has always involved the production of waste, and that efforts to reduce, or even eliminate, must ultimately come at the expense of much human activity. Product packaging may end up in the trash heap, but during its life it also serves important functions, such as the preservation and protection of perishable goods. As long as society has ample ability to dispose of the waste it produces, there seems to be little reason to worry children about a supposed garbage "crisis."
#4: Pesticides Are Always Bad
"ABC's for a Better Planet," a children's book featuring the immensely popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, recommends that children "get folks to buy fruits and vegetables that are grown organically -- that is, without chemical pesticides. Organically grown stuff may not look as perfect, but it tastes great -- and it's good for you." Linda Lowery's Earth Day, a book designed for children in grades K-4, asserts, "People don't need to use chemicals on their crops and lawns. There are safer, more natural ways to protect plants and help them grow."
To emphasize concern over pesticides even further, the National Environmental Education Act requires that the EPA annually present a Rachel Carson Award in honor of the author who first brought fear of pesticides into the mainstream with her 1962 book "Silent Spring." A biography of Carson is also one of the first in a new series of children's books published by Simon & Schuster's Silver Burdett Press.
While Carson deserves credit for raising awareness of the potentially damaging effects of DDT on eagle and osprey populations, many of the concerns she promoted, such as fear of the risks of pesticide residues on food, are greatly overblown. Metzger and Whittaker's "This Planet Is Mine" tells parents and eco-educators that pesticide use is killing millions of people, and that "children often receive greater pesticide exposure" than adults. However, the path-breaking work of Bruce Ames, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, has demonstrated that pesticide residues on foods, such as fruits and vegetables, pose no significant health risk.
Notes Ames, "99.9 percent of all the pesticides we ingest, by weight, are natural, produced by the fruit and vegetable plants themselves as part of their protective mechanism." This can be seen in many common foods. While "everyone worries about minute amounts of dioxin," Ames has discovered that "there is a lot more of a dioxin-like compound naturally in broccoli than you will ever be exposed to through dioxin contamination in the environment." But, Ames points out, even the higher level of carcinogenic compounds naturally present in foods poses a negligible health risk.
As a result of the scare over Alar -- a substance used to strengthen apple stems and prevent apples from falling off the tree prematurely -- frightened mothers were calling the EPA to inquire if one could safely pour apple juice down the drain. Yet Alar residues posed no threat to their children. As Rutgers professor Joseph Rosen noted, Alar "has not been identified as the cause of a single childhood cancer." In fact, according to Dr. Sanford Miller, dean of the University of Texas Health Science Center's Graduate School of Biomedical Science, "The risk of pesticide residues to consumers is effectively zero." As he told the late columnist Warren Brookes, "This is what some 14 scientific societies, representing over 100,000 microbiologists, toxicologist, and food scientists, said at the time of the ridiculous Alar scare. But we were ignored."
While pesticide residues pose no appreciable threat to human health, Ames has noted that the probable impact of efforts to limit pesticide use "will be to raise cancer risks, because it will cut consumption of the very foods most beneficial in preventing cancer." Pesticides, including those compounds used to fight insects, weeds, and fungi, increase agricultural productivity and help to prevent food spoilage. The result is that fruits and vegetables are more readily available to consumers at lower prices. And, pesticide-assisted increases in agricultural efficiency have enabled farmers to produce more food while devoting less land to agriculture. Fewer trees are cut down, and fewer wetlands are filled to meet increases in food demand.
#5: Acid Rain Is Destroying Our Forests
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tell our children that "acid rain" pollutes rivers and kills fish and trees." "50 Simple Things" claims, "Acid rain is extremely harmful to plants, rivers, and lakes .... In some places it is killing forests. And it pollutes the water that animals and people need to drink." The EPA lists the Acid Rain Foundation as a source of educational materials in its booklet "Environmental Education Materials for Teachers and Young People (Grades K-12)." Materials provided include acid rain educational activities for grades 4-8 and a curriculum for grades 6-12 that repeat these charges time and time again.
Similar information is available from other sources as well. The children's comic book "Water In Your Hands" published by the Soil and Water Conservation Society and distributed by the federal government, claims, "Acid precipitation can harm plants on land as well as plants and animals that live in streams and lakes thousands of miles from the source of pollution. Already there are many lakes in which only a few things can live because of high acid levels." The proposed solution is for people to use less energy. They should drive less and "use less electricity. The less you use, the less coal-burning, power plants must produce. That may mean less acid precipitation."
The curricula state correctly that many trees are dying in the eastern United States, that northeastern lakes and streams have fewer trout and other sport fish than they did earlier this century, and that burning fossil fuels can make rain more acidic. But a $700-million study commissioned by Congress, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP), concluded that acid rain is not a major source of problems in eastern forests and fisheries.
On the contrary, the nitrogen contained in acid rain actually helps much of the eastern forest by providing a necessary nutrient. It also turns out that most acid lakes in the Northeast have been acidic for most of their history. Fish could live in them temporarily when the clearing of forests for farming and paper pulp made watersheds more alkaline; but the watersheds returned to their natural acidity when the farms and dairies became uneconomic and the forests grew back. NAPAP determined that little damage could be attributed to acid rain in the United States, and even then only at very high altitudes in a few small areas. (The minor effects of acid rain on this continent, and the history of lake acidity in the United States, were explained by soil scientist Edward C. Krug in "Fish Story" in the Spring 1990 issue of Policy Review.)
#6: We Use Too Much
Last year the "New York Times" ran a story on the "Newest Parental Nightmare," the "eco-smart" child who constantly pesters his parents to use less and "conserve" energy, for one day we might run out. This pressure results in part from school materials such as the EPA children's activity books on water conservation, which proclaim, "We need to save water! This is also called 'conserving' water -- not wasting it so we'll have enough for the future!" The TV special based upon "50 Simple Things" told children, "Turn down the heat and put on a sweater" because that is a more efficient use of resources. Muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy were enlisted to promote this message, appearing in a public service announcement for the National Wildlife Federation.
Children are taught to monitor the "wasteful" activities of their parents. As Dee Kloss told the "Philadelphia Inquirer" about her eight-year-old eco-conscious daughter, "She's harassing me, that child. If I leave the water on when I'm brushing my teeth, she yells at me. She says, 'Off, off, off. You're wasting that water.'" Ironically, some health groups actually recommend letting tap water run for a full minute before using due to concern over lead or other potentially toxic sediments.
Unfortunately, this effort to watchdog water use reflects a simplistic view of natural resources. Water in the United States will not "run out," although it may be misallocated. In almost all cases, water shortages have occurred as a result of political intervention; California's problems can be attributed, for example, to artificially low water prices for agricultural use. As for energy, oil and natural gas prices are at their lowest price in decades, a clear sign that fossil fuel supplies are abundant. The price of a resource rises when it becomes more scarce. But the prices for the vast majority of non-renewable resources -- from aluminum to zinc -- have declined over the past century.
Even if a given resource were to become scarce, this would not be the end of the world. Its price would rise and the economy would promote increased efficiency and the development of alternatives. Thus, it is understandable that 80 percent of the energy efficiency improvements in the United States between 1973 and 1988 were the result of increases in energy prices. Fears of an impending coal shortage in England not only spurred the development of more efficient technologies, but also encouraged coal's eventual displacement by the use of petroleum. Similarly, when whale oil scarcity drove up prices, entrepreneurs were prompted to develop refined petroleum as a substitute for lighting and other uses.
In the case of energy, the goal should not be "conservation" in the sense of simply using less but "efficiency" -- using less to accomplish more. Otherwise, reducing energy use would require sacrificing personal mobility, autonomy, and living standards. Any serious effort to reduce personal consumption would require giving up various human activities, from transportation of people and resources, to heating, lighting, and cooking. Driving to and from school or the office may burn fuel, but it often saves time that can then be devoted to other important activities. Almost all efforts to enhance energy efficiency involve trading capital expenditures in the present for potential energy savings in the future. These trade-offs are inherent in any serious effort to reduce the use of energy, and must always be considered. Nevertheless, they are rarely discussed in the classroom.
#7: There Are Too Many People
As population continues to increase, so will the human impact on the natural environment. More people on the planet means that more people are engaged in activities that shape the world around them. As a result, children are taught, the earth faces dire ecological consequences, from resource depiction to famine and extinction. From the EPA's "Earth Notes" -- sent to educators for grades K-6 -- the educational materials such as "For Earth's Sake" and "The Population Challenge" of Zero Population Growth, educational materials on population growth are becoming part and parcel of the environmental curriculum.
One educational guide, distributed in conjunction with Turner Broadcasting's "Save the Earth Season," provides a worksheet in which the students' "ultimate goal is protecting the environment through population control." A high-school text published by Addison-Wesley even talks of the "innovative" population measures developed in the People's Republic of China, a country known for coercive abortions and draconian laws limiting family size.
Some educational messages are more explicit in their advocacy of population control. "This Planet Is Mine" instructs educators to tell children that population growth will cause severe environmental problems "unless the use of birth control methods increases." In suggested activities, educators should "talk about what would happen to the planet if all the people in the world created large families generation after generation." Captain Planet and the Planeteers also tell children, "When it's your turn to have a family, keep it small. The more people there are the more pressure you put on our planet." The population message is summed up well by a "Green Tip" published in the daily Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic strip: "The world grows by 95 million people each year; the U.S. by three million. We can help greatly by all having fewer children and considering adoption." The TBS children's special "One Child -- One Voice" claims that population growth is causing the growth of the Sahara Desert in Africa, ignoring "Science" magazine's reports that the desert has actually been shrinking in recent years, and that its growth may have been more the result of climatic conditions than population-related pressures.
If population growth is such a dire threat, why are living standards worldwide increasing concurrently with increases in the world's population? Even in the Third World, increases in agricultural production typically outpace population growth. If it is true that a continually expanding population will overcome the limits of world food supply, why then is most of the world experiencing increases in agricultural productivity that far outpace the increases in people? There are indeed areas that continue to experience famine, but more often than not these areas are in the throes of civil war and violent unrest that disrupt the distribution of food. It should be no wonder that in nations with totalitarian regimes, such as that recently deposed in Ethiopia, there were also shortages of food. But these shortages were more the result of political problems than they were of a deficiency in the world supply of food.
Moreover, children are rarely taught that as societies become more prosperous, population growth eventually slows and resources are used more efficiently with less environmental damage.
#8: The Air Is Getting Worse
A common refrain on air pollution in school materials is that "the problems are here and they are growing at an alarming rate" ("This Planet Is Mine"). "50 Simple Things" claims, "Today the air is so polluted in some places it's not always safe to breathe!" whereas "until about 150 years ago, the air was pure and clean." This sentiment is echoed in a Charlie Brown film produced for the American Lung Association with a grant from the EPA. In the film, the air is so polluted that Lucy cannot even see a baseball hit into the air due to a great cloud of smog.
There is little recognition in school curricula that, by most measurements, air quality is actually improving. According to the EPA's own data, levels of ground-level ozone, the pollutant known as "smog," are declining significantly in most urban areas. Even were ozone levels not declining, there is little evidence that the moderate levels found in most cities are responsible for any long-term health effects.
The Virginia Department of Air Pollution Control's "Airy Canary" has trouble flying because of "Dastardly Dirt" created by increased industrial and commercial activity. Yet after initial industrialization, economic growth typically results in decreases of airborne particulates, the form of air pollution with the most significant health effects. Particulate concentrations in such cities as Tehran and Calcutta are almost 10 times greater than those found in New York. As Resources for the Future vice president Paul Portney has noted, "It is important to remember that cities in the United States that are relatively polluted by our standards might be considered quite clean in other parts of the world." This is particularly true when compared with the cities of the former Soviet Union.
While children are taught to dislike automobiles, they are not told that not all cars pollute equally, or that in most cases the contributions of individual vehicle emissions are negligible. Much air pollution is the result of incomplete fuel combustion. As technology has improved over time, cars have naturally become more efficient and have thus polluted less. While many give full credit to federal laws for these gains, reductions in automobile emissions began well before the first national clean air legislation was enacted.
Another source of air pollution that is often overlooked is the natural environment. While air pollution is almost always blamed upon human activity, in some areas most of the pollution comes from natural sources. Particularly acute in some areas is the emission of methane and other volatile organic compounds -- a primary component in the formation of smog -- from plants and animals. In addition, the topography of some areas makes them natural air-pollution traps. As a result, cities located in valleys or depressions. such as Los Angeles, often suffer from greater pollution than those areas where there may actually be greater levels of emissions.
#9: Global Warming Win Kill Us All
Topping the list of environmental concerns these days is the threat of global warming. Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases, it is argued, will cause an irreversible change in the earth's climate by increasing average world temperatures by several degrees. Thus, it should be no surprise that discussions of global warming have become very prominent in the classroom. "Beat the Heat: The CO2 Challenge," distributed to teachers by Scholastic, Inc., charges that "the world is hotter today than any time in recorded history," but fails to acknowledge that the "recorded history" of accurate temperatures barely extends back 100 years.
In "The Greenhouse Effect: Life on a Warmer Planet," an educational text for grades 5 and up -- praised by the "School Library Journal" as "a book that is especially noteworthy for its calm, balanced approach to a timely topic" -- children are told:
"It's frightening to think about the world's food reserves dwindling away or entire islands disappearing under rising seas. Yet this is what scientists predict our world could be like in the next century if greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere."
Following the initial broadcast on PBS of "After the Warming," the show's producer, Maryland Public Television, drafted a teachers' manual as if the program -- which chronicled the "history" of environmental degradation to the year 2050 -- was based upon fact, rather than exaggerated assumptions and unfounded conjecture. The TBS children's special "One Child -- One Voice" claimed that the greenhouse effect could increase temperatures by as much as 5 or 6 degrees. The American Museum of Natural History, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund, is promoting a series of educational activities and programs based upon its exhibit "Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast." Educational books like "50 Simple Things" tell children that with the greenhouse effect "places that are warm would become too hot to live in, and ... the places that grow most of our food could get too hot to grow crops anymore." Simply put, global warming is portrayed in the classroom as a threat to all human civilization.
While these arguments are put forward as scientific fact in the classroom, various polls of climate scientists indicate little consensus on how the climate will change over the next century or the relationship between human activity and these changes. On the need for urgent action by the United States, there is even less agreement. In fact, one poll of climate scientists conducted by Greenpeace found that fewer scientists (45 percent) believed action was necessary to avert a "runaway greenhouse effect" than those who felt otherwise (47 percent).
Even if the world does warm up, the higher temperatures could well be beneficial. There is much research to show that plants would thrive in a carbon-dioxide enriched atmosphere, and that a slightly warmer climate would create a healthier planet. Agricultural experts point out that because carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer for most plants, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will increase agricultural productivity. Also, most of the recorded temperature increases in recent years have occurred at night, meaning smaller swings between night and day temperatures, and thus, fewer killing frosts.
Any serious effort to reduce the claimed threat of warming through a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would have drastic economic consequences. One recent study by the Department of Energy projects that reducing carbon dioxide emissions to only 20 percent below 1990 levels would cost as much as $95 billion each year -- and for many environmental advocates, such reductions are only the first step. When massive expenditures are forcibly directed toward averting global warming, fewer resources are available for use in other sectors of the economy, from nutrition and education to health care and housing. As Richard Stroup of the Political Economy Research Center testified before Congress's Joint Economic Committee, "If 'insurance' against a particular risk, such as the threat of global warming, is bought at the cost of reduced economic growth, then a decline in the automatic insurance represented by wealth, and the social resilience it provides, is one of the costs borne by future generations." These costs of prevention are rarely accounted for in classroom calls for decisive action. Instead, children are exhorted to become politically involved.
For example, children were encouraged to write to President Bush to attend the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where global climate change was at the top of the agenda. The TBS "Save the Earth" series, which included an episode of the popular cartoon "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" on the need to go to Rio, was in large part an effort to mobilize impressionable youth for this politically popular cause through the use of children's programming, "action packs," and educational materials.
#10: The Ozone Layer Is Going, and So Are We
The other global environmental threat that keeps children awake at night is the fear that human activity is destroying the ozone layer, exposing humans -- and for that matter all types of flora and fauna -- to hazardous levels of solar radiation. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tell children, "The ozone layer protects us from the sun's deadly radiation ... but the ozone layer is getting thinner each year." According to "This Planet Is Mine," ozone depletion will cause "DNA damage and resultant genetic defect." Moreover, "Ultraviolet rays also contribute to the dramatic increase we have seen in skin cancers, eye cataracts....and impair the human immune system, reducing our ability to fight disease." In a recent debate on the Senate floor, Senator Albert Gore intoned, "We have to tell our children that they must redefine their relationship to the sky, and they must begin to think of the sky as a threatening part of their environment."
Children are rarely told that the ozone layer naturally thins and accretes every year in a seasonal cycle that is controlled by the sun. Manmade chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are blamed for ozone depletion, while natural sources of ozone-depleting substances (for example, the oceans and volcanoes) are typically overlooked. Although chlorine molecules can contribute to ozone depletion, Linwood Callis of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Atmospheric Sciences Division charges that "73 percent of the global (ozone) declines between 1979 and 1985 are due to natural effects related to solar variability." While such claims are not universally accepted in the scientific community, it is clear that children are only getting a small part of a very complex story -- a story that hardly justifies fears of an impending apocalypse.
Contrary to what is being taught, the marginal ozone depletion that may be caused by CFCs would only result in marginal increases in UV-B radiation. For example, if 10 percent (a common estimate of the maximum potential ozone decline) of the ozone layer above Washington, D.C., disappeared tomorrow, radiation levels would only increase to approximately those typically found in Richmond, Virginia, almost 100 miles south. In fact, natural levels of UV-B rise rapidly as one approaches the equator or moves higher above sea level. Someone living in Denver receives significantly more UV-B exposure than a person in Minneapolis, but this is hardly cited as a reason not to move to the "mile-high city." It also must be noted that there is some inconclusive evidence that atmospheric ozone levels in the 1980s were higher than those in the 1950s.
The school materials also typically fail to explain the important human benefits that have resulted from the use of CFCs. For example, these chemicals have helped save millions of lives through making available to the peoples of the world inexpensive refrigeration for food and medicine. As with many environmental crusades, the drive to eliminate CFCs, even if potentially justified, involves trade-offs that children should be taught as well.
Toward a Better Shade of Green
While environmentalism is likely to be a mainstay of education in the years to come, this does not mean that America's children are to be condemned to curricula of half-truths and political advocacy. Instead, children can, and should, be taught facts, not conjecture, and they should learn the whole story, including how an environmental concern fits into the greater ecological and economic context. Rather than impressing upon children the need for political advocacy, children should be encouraged to think of their own solutions after all the facts have been presented. If water use is an issue, a child should learn about the hydrological cycle; if the concern is solid waste, a child should learn where paper comes from and where it may eventually go. At that point it might be profitable for a schoolchild to hypothesize about how public or private action might address the concerns raised about a given issue. Children should not be told by their teachers that they should sign petitions, endorse political agendas, or write pleading letters to the president.
Children need to understand that modern activities do not cause only "negatives" and that all efforts to alleviate environmental impact are purely "positive." Children need to be taught that there are trade-offs implicit in every environmental issue. Recycling paper may reduce the logging of trees (although they are indeed a renewable resource), but it may increase the use of energy and water. Banning CFCs may theoretically affect the levels of stratospheric ozone, but it would restrict the availability of refrigeration needed to preserve food and medicine in the Third World.
Children also need to learn environmental issues in a balanced manner. If there is scientific uncertainty on the likelihood and probable impact of global climate change it is wholly inappropriate to children by telling them their parents are destroying the earth. Environmental regulations can often have significant impacts upon regional and national economies, yet wealthier societies are not only healthier, but also more likely to be concerned about the environment. This, too, should be an important consideration.
Environmental education can be a valuable addition to school curricula, but only if it is conducted in a careful, thoughtful, and non-ideological manner. After all, schools are for education, not political indoctrination. If educators approach environmental issues in such a balanced fashion, our children might not turn out politically correct, but at least they will be much more "eco-smart."
Jonathan H. Adler is an environmental analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and a contributor to the book, Environmental Politics: Public Costs, Private Rewards, published by Praeger.
Reprinted with permission from the Summer 1992 issue of POLICY REVIEW. Published by The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002
Global Issues, USIA Electronic Journals, Vol. 1, No. 2, April 1996