The following is a speech given by Ms. Diane Katz, then-editorial writer for The Detroit News, at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's 8th Annual Scholars Summit, held Nov. 9-10, 2001, in Midland.
Thank you, Larry, for that very kind introduction. And I am grateful to the entire Mackinac Center staff for their hospitality as well as for the privilege to be with such an admirable group, those with whom I share a commitment to intellectual honesty and an unshakable allegiance to freedom.
We are all, presumably, also dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. And that means you all are ideologically obligated to listen politelyeven while I begin my remarks with a quote from an impenitent communist.
Lenin (that's Vladimir, not John) said: "Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will not be uprooted."
Hold that thought as I talk about the new Three R's: Recycling, Rationing, and Regulation.
I am not here to argue that the education establishment is actively conspiring to make environmental Bolsheviks of our children. Or "Red Greens," as a colleague of mine says. The National Education Association, in fact, is too entrenched a power to actually launch anything resembling revolution. On the contrary. The NEA appears more committed to impeding change than advancing it.
It wasn't always so. During its first 100 years, the NEA was a professional society dedicated to academic freedom. Only after ideologues assumed control of the organization in the 1960s did it became a politically muscular unionand one in lockstep with the environmental lobby. For example, the NEA's web site listing of "exemplary" resources includes the "green syllabus" available from SecondNature.org, a group dedicated to "reinventing the world socially, economically and environmentally" to ensure a "sustainable future."
But whether teachers are acting purposefully or naively matters little. The effect is essentially the same. Based on numerous reviews of commonplace classroom materials, and firsthand experience as the mother of a grade-schooler, I have come to conclude that what passes for environmental instruction in many schools today more resembles indoctrination than education.
Consequently, thousands of kids in Michigan classrooms and millions elsewhere across the nation are being taught to fear the future and look to Big Government as their sole salvation from environmental apocalypse.
It may be subtle in many instances, overt in others. But no other schoolroom subject is so fraught with scare-mongering and outright falsehood. I'll offer several examples of the misinformation that masquerades as environmental science, and then discuss the implications of feeding our kids fear, not facts.
Let's start with the textbook "Concepts and Challenges in Earth Science." The chapter on global warming features a futuristic illustration of New York City, its striking skyline submerged beneath floodwaters unleashed by melted ice caps. Only the topmost floors of the World Trade Center remain visible above the dark and frigid waters.
Talk about a skewed assessment of risk.
We also have the incongruously titled text "Two Centuries of Progress," which warns young readers that "automobiles, aircraft and factories have poured dangerous gases into the air. Sewage, industrial wastes and oil spills have polluted land and water. Many lakes, streams and coastal waters have become deadly for wildlife."
Tailpipes and smokestacks do indeed emit potentially harmful compounds. But as any scientist will tell you, it's the dose that makes the poison.
A more balanced treatment of the issues would include recognition of the dramatic improvement in environmental quality that has occurred in recent decades. Over the past 20 years, according to government figures, ambient air concentrations of lead have plummeted 94 percent; carbon monoxide 57 percent; sulfur dioxide 50 percent and nitrogen oxides 25 percent. All this despite a near doubling of vehicle miles traveled as well as substantial growth in the nation's gross national product.
Some waterways remain polluted. But compared to the days when flames licked Lake Erie, water quality has vastly improved. Industrial sources have been tightly controlled for 30 years. A primary source of pollution, in fact, is storm water runoff that carries both synthetic and natural chemicals from concrete and soil into streams and lakes.
Yet doomsday scenarios are pervasive in the curriculum, leading children to believe that only a return to pre-industrial subsistence can possibly prevent environmental catastrophe.
There was nothing particularly idyllic, however, about our horse-and-buggy days, when life expectancy barely hit 50 years. There was less cancer, to be sure, but only because a host of other now-preventable diseases killed a lot more people before they grew old enough to die from cancer. As the U.S. Census Bureau announced this week, Americans are now living longer than at any time in history77 years, on average. But our kids aren't likely to hear about that.
The misplaced nostalgia denies an essential truth about the past century: The greatest environmental gains have been achieved by industrialized nationsrich ones, that isthat can actually afford sinks, sewers and other more technologically sophisticated waste treatment solutions.
But try finding any reference to this so-called wealth effect in a conventional textbook. What we have instead is "American Odyssey," which indicts capitalism as Mother Earth's undoing. "Environmentalists warned that America's natural resources are being abused because of the 'greed and unscrupulous actions of businesses that placed profit ahead of responsibility.'"
The reality is, when it comes to conserving resourcesnatural or otherwisenothing has proven more powerful than the profit motive. Economist Mikhail Bernstram has estimated that socialist economies discharge twice as much air pollution as Western markets, and consume nearly three times as much energy to produce the same amount of goods.
Rather than nurture appreciation for our march of progress, some texts actually demonize the whole of Western culture. According to one, for example: "(H)istory traces the roots of degrading activity to: the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilization; the Judeo-Christian view of human beings as having domination over the Earth; the industrial and scientific revolutions; and the rise of capitalism."
There is also a decidedly Malthusian bent pervading our classroomsthe discredited theory that population growth will exhaust Earth's natural resources, resulting in mass starvation the world over.
Prentice Hall's text "Biology: The Study of Life" states, "At some point in the future, human population growth must stop because the earth will reach its carrying capacity and will not be able to support any more humans."
But such notions ignore mankind's genius for innovation, marvelously demonstrated by a famous bet between economist Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich, whose book "The Population Bomb" resurrected the Malthusian myth.
Ehrlich bet that population growth would begin to exhaust global stores of copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten, thereby driving up prices. Simon put his faithand moneyon human ingenuity to counteract scarcity, as measured by a drop in commodity prices.
The payoff was based on how much the value of an imaginary $1,000 stockpile of the metals changed between 1980 and 1990. If the value appreciated between 1980 and 1990, Simon agreed to pay Ehrlich the difference. If it declined, Ehrlich would do likewise.
Ehrlich lost. Big time.
By September 1990, each of the five metals had decreased in cost.
Reflecting Ehrlich's distrust of our collective talents, modern environmentalism treats technology as suspectall evidence of its benefits to the contrary. Youngsters are routinely taught, for example, that genetically modified foods are inherently hazardous rather than the best hope for combating cruel and deadly nutritional deficiencies ravaging poorer nations.
And in what must rank among the most blatant of Luddite propaganda, the text "Exploring a Changing World," goes so far as to laud China for having "a lot to show the developing world about producing food" because "they rely on human labor rather than expensive machines."
Yet can we expect better when only a quarter of those who teach environmental topics actually have science training? Of the 30 states that now mandate environmental education, only three require any teacher training in the subject. Left unprepared, many teachers simply resort to newspapers and magazines for their instructional material.
But trust me. As a journalist I know that you can't always believe what you read in the newspapers. For example, headline hell broke lose when a Tulane University research team purportedly demonstrated that pesticides combine in the environment to produce a toxic "cocktail" that disrupts the human endocrine system with tragic resultsreduced sperm counts and undescended testicles, as well as breast and uterine cancers. Newspapers from the New York Times to the New Orleans Times-Picayune heralded the grisly findingsreplete with visuals of under-sized alligator penises and hermaphroditic frogs.
Alas, at least four major research institutions failed to duplicate the Tulane results. And in August 1997, researcher John McLachlan "withdrew" his study from the journal Science. I searched the press for word of the retraction. But even a brief mention in a major daily was harder to find than a humbled green activist.
A more recent example closer to home: The Detroit Free Press, earlier this summer, carried a banner headline on page one warning of a dramatic deterioration in national air quality. The story was based solely on a report issued by the American Lung Association.
Well, I read the ALA study. It was alarming indeed, asserting that air pollution is making millions more Americans sick. This conclusion supposedly was based on "a careful analysis of . . . concrete data and sound science." But remember, emissions of smog-forming compounds have been declining for more than a decade, yielding improved air quality nationwide. Only by grossly manipulating the way in which air quality is measured was the ALA able to conclude otherwise.
The dearth of accurate information yields predictable consequences: there's more political science than natural science in environmental education today. This is borne out by a survey conducted by the North American Association for Environmental Education, in which 51 percent of teachers cited promoting activism as the chief reason they teach students about the environment.
We're not talking about civics here, but a systematic schooling in green political tactics. This may be the result, in part, of a generation of teachers who themselves were reared on Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome and the other doomsayers who gave rise to the modern environmental movement. But it also demonstrates the danger of allowing the federal government to dictate educational standards.
In response to the environmental "crisis" three decades ago, and coinciding with the premier of Earth Day in 1970, then-President Richard Nixon signed the first National Environmental Education Act. The law directed the Environmental Protection Agency to create curriculum and training guidelines for environmental studies, thereby ensuring the perpetuation of command-and-control dogma. Allowed to lapse in 1981, the law was revived by none other than that regulatory champion George Bush Sr.
Taking ideological direction from the United Nations, of all things, the EPA adopted the following definition of environmental education: "A learning process that increases people's knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action."
Knowledge and awareness of the environment. Skills and expertise to address the challenges. Commitments to take responsible action. Sounds like a job description posted by The Sierra Club.
More recently, scores of web sites have sprung up with tips on enhancing environmental ed. The Daily Lesson Plan posted online by The New York Times advises teachers to organize student into small groups to "propose solutions for restricting greenhouse gases." Homework assignments include naming the organization to reflect its mission. So if the group supports the banning of logging, the lesson plan suggests naming the group H.E.L.P., Humans Enraged with Logging Practices. Kids are also advised to create a book for younger siblings on how they, too, can battle global warming.
I'm not making this up.
Issue No. 36 of The Green Teacher carries an article headlined "Local Heroes," which recommends introducing students to citizen activists who can "demonstrate the practical strategies needed for environmental change." Issue No. 34, meanwhile, advises teachers on the wisdom of "mov(ing) beyond democracy." "The conformity which democracy demands may thwart our age-old desire for peace in human society," it states, with suggestions for "another decision-making model which better accommodates a diversity of opinion."
Rarely is even token attention paid to free-market approaches to environmental problems. In the week my daughter's class studied endangered animals, for example, not a single mention was made by teacher or text about private property rightsfar and away the most successful method of species preservation. A most famous example is the plight of African elephants prized for their ivory tusks. Under the "protection" of government authorities, the herds were decimated by poachers. But elephant numbers grew impressively once control of the lands on which they roam was returned to the indigenous tribes. The tribes had a far greater interest in keeping trespassers at bay than some bureaucrat a thousand miles away.
Nor is there recognition that statism has created the world's worst pollution problemsthe environmental degradation wrought by the Soviet Union being a prime example.
And woe to the politician who dares defy the Red outlook. Consider the classroom glossy Time for Kids, a Weekly Reader of sorts, disseminated to millions of school kids by the Time-Warner Group. A recent issue brought home by my daughter quoted Greenpeace deriding the president as "The Toxic Texan" for his support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A quarter-page photo of an anti-Bush banner flying from a Texas water tower accompanied the article.
This is the same publication, by the way, that recently warned kids that "the snows of Kilimanjaro will simply melt away in 15 years . . . because humans have cut down billions of trees."
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, private industry has largely wasted the opportunity to compete for kids' hearts and mindsor at least to introduce a semblance of balance into classroom discussions. And bear with me here as I again quote our friend Lenin, who said: "When it comes time to hang the capitalists they will compete with each other to sell us the rope at a lower price."
Exxon, for example, distributes a video for classroom use that tells kids offshore drilling is good for the environment. Oil rigs, the voice-over croons, "provide homes for King Neptune's creatures." The Mead Corporation warns of a "solid waste crisis." And the new CEO of Ford Motor Co. publicly laments that his most-profitable and best-selling products as environmentally unsound.
The danger in all this, of course, is not that our children will come to care too much about the environment. An appreciation for the marvels of nature is both socially useful and personally satisfying. The real danger lies in teaching our children that humanity is cruel, consumption selfish, technology dangerous, capitalism destructive, and government supreme. Moreover, it is unconscionable to exploit our children's innate compassion for political ends.
Well, change is possible, although neither easy nor imminent. The state of environmental education is a direct reflection of conventional wisdom. The trick, then, is to wrest control of policy from the Left and break its seeming monopoly on environmental concern by advocating free-market solutions as far more environmentally protective than the regulatory model.
For four decades now, conservatives have been largely obsessed with cost-benefit calculations, arguing that government mandates are just too damn expensive to implement. But in the abstract, which is how most Americans contemplate environmental issues, the green eyeshades just can't compete against seemingly selfless green activists.
And in this task it is groups like the Mackinac Center that will prove crucial. Unfair as it may be, lawmakers and the public are predisposed to take environmentalists' claims on faith. Reformers must prove their case to recruit converts. And that's the role of the experts assembled here, following on the excellent efforts already undertaken by people like Michael Sanera of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Jane Shaw of the Political Economy Research Center, from whose work I have borrowed.
In the short run, it is up to parents to counter the deception in which their children are steeped. To the extent they can exercise choice in education, the task is made all the easier. Otherwise, we must counter every myth with truth every day. We must tell them that nature is resilient. And enlighten them on the fact that the best guarantees of a healthy environment are free minds and free markets.
I am living proof that Lenin just didn't get it. Convinced in 1967 by Mrs. Sekerjian that my future and that of my seventh-grade classmates was very much in jeopardy, I founded the Birney Junior High School ecology club. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance, too. And yet here I stand, three decades later, a suburb-dwelling, SUV-driving, gainfully employed Libertarian. And ever so grateful for your kind attention.