Fighting Environmental Illiteracy

You"d need environmental blinders to believe the horsefeathers retailed in the "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators." Each year, the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and author Steven F. Hayward present these pseudo-scientific "indicators" that claim all is well with the earth. People swallow this hokum because they are, in fact, starved for good green information, and the environmental illiteracy rate in the U.S. is very high.

Environmental education funds are threatened.

According to PRI"s topsy-turvy world view, global warming is supported solely by "junk science" (there are actually hundreds of peer-reviewed studies saying it"s real and caused by humans, and virtually none denying its reality); air pollution "has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded" (even though the EPA says 99 million Americans are "breathing unhealthful air that can cause respiratory problems and even premature death" (Washington Post); "consumers can feel comfortable consuming fish" and concerns about high mercury levels have "abated" (perhaps Mr. Hayward missed the 2004 joint Environmental Protection Agency/Food and Drug Administration advisory recommending that pregnant women and children "avoid some types of fish [specifically shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish] and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury"? Didn"t he notice that "one-in-six [American] children born every year have been exposed to mercury levels so high that they are potentially at risk for learning disabilities and motor skill impairment and short-term memory loss"? (PBS). And on and on.

Guys like Hayward and Rush Limbaugh (who consistently retails the "global warming is hot air" thesis) get away with it because they"re supported by the conservative sounding board and have media forums science educators lack. According to a 2004 report by Kevin J. Coyle, president of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation:

"Just 32 percent of Americans have basic awareness of environmental topics;
"All but 20 percent are heavily influenced by incorrect or outdated environmental myths;
"Just 12 percent can pass a basic quiz on awareness of energy topics.

How could they know much, when the commercially supported media is the primary source of environmental information for 83 percent of the children polled? Environmental news is declining in most of the major media, causing huge knowledge gaps on such vital 21st century questions as population growth, climate change, air pollution and loss of biodiversity.

But people want to know more. A 2002 Roper poll showed that 92 percent of respondents were either moderately or very interested in environmental topics. And their instincts are good. A Gallup Tuesday Briefing poll taken in March 2005 indicated that 53 percent of Americans say that protecting the environment should be given priority "even at the risk of curbing economic growth," while only a third (36 percent) would prioritize economic growth "even if the environment suffers to some extent." Among young Americans ages 18 to 29, there is 58 percent support for putting the environment first. And contrary to assertions made in the widely circulated "Death of Environmentalism" essay, support for green priorities is actually rising over the past two years. "These most recent results represent a tilt back toward the environment," the pollsters said.

Gallup"s annual environmental poll, taken in April 2005, concluded that Americans most trust local and national environmental organizations to protect the quality of the nation’s environment and least trust the Republican Party and large corporations. Just 11 percent trust Congress "a great deal" to be good stewards of the environment. The Democratic Party is not widely trusted, either, but 15 percent have "a great deal" of faith, and 33 percent a "moderate" amount. Faith in the Republicans is at rock bottom: nine percent trust it a "great deal," and 32 percent trust it a "moderate amount."

The belief/knowledge gap is vast, and it"s not surprising that the Bush administration wants to keep it that way. According to the newly launched Campaign for Environmental Literacy (CEL), Bush has tried to "zero out" funding for the EPA"s Office of Environmental Education every year that he"s been in office. And this year he may succeed.

According to Marialanna Lee, CEL"s campaign manager, the group was launched with the idea of increasing the federal investment in environmental education, but has gotten involved in the rear-guard action of protecting existing funds. The Office of Environmental Education stands to lose $9.2 million, and the Office of Education and Sustainable Development (housed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) $5 million. The EPA office distributes grants, drafts materials for teachers to use in classrooms and directs pedagogy for environmental education by crafting and editing standards. The federal government does have other resources devoted to environmental education, but CEL estimates that only about $70 million in 2003 went out into the field in the form of grants.

"We"re getting mixed signals about getting the funding restored," Lee says. "The budget is really tight." CEL"s preference, she adds, is to "move on to bigger and better things, to be proactively assertive rather than being on the defensive all the time. The average American today doesn"t believe that his or her everyday decisions affect the environment. "Childhood asthma related to my SUV driving habits? That"s propaganda." Think how much further along we"d be if there was good environmental education across the board." A 2001 Roper Starch poll showed that 95 percent of respondents believe that environmental education should be taught in classrooms.

Lee says the Bush approach "is discouraging and frustrating. By zeroing out funding every year, the administration is saying that environmental education is irrelevant and unnecessary. It"s arrogant, considering the challenges we face as a nation."

CEL parallels the work of the Environmental Literacy Council, which works to strengthen green understanding at the K-12 level. As that group describes it, "Environmental literacy requires a fundamental understanding of the systems of the natural world, the relationships between the living and the non-living environment, and the ability to deal sensibly with problems that involve scientific evidence, uncertainty, and economic, aesthetic and ethical considerations." With its war on science, the Bush administration has proved antagonistic toward such literacy.

CEL"s campaign is supported by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the National Council for Science and the Environment and the World Wildlife Fund. The group"s website allows supporters of environmental education to locate and e-mail their members of Congress to preserve the $14 million in funding. It also provisions for passing the information on to friends, and talking points for dealing with skeptics. The campaign is fighting against a rising tide of ignorance, and it"s vital that it succeeds.


Campaign for Environmental L