Do parents in Minnesota want their children learning about climate change from the American Petroleum Institute (a powerful coalition of oil, gas and energy interests who favor increased fossil fuel use) or getting information about complex forest issues from Project Learning Tree (funded by the most notorious “clear cutters” on the planet Earth)? If the answer is no, they should read on with great interest! Increasingly, timber, oil, chemical and other powerful corporate interests have become sophisticated and clandestine providers of dubious, if not downright fallacious, environmental curriculum in Minnesota and across the nation. Corporate America and its Madison Avenue honed propaganda machine knows the power of “message,” be it cute General Electric commercials with a “jogging piece of coal” to push increased fossil fuel dependence or the juggernaut of ads that push increased consumption of everything from plastic to timber products. An average child in the U.S. will see a million commercials before age 18! Early in the 1970s, corporate interests decided to invade our society’s least commercialized spaces: our schools. That foray has turned into a PR tsunami with corporate logos now found everywhere—in textbooks, soda pop contracts, and dubious environmental curriculums that is guilty of the worst sin: omission.
Environmental issues have emerged as the world’s most paramount challenge: economically, socially and scientifically. Our “hard wiring” to nature is given, yet usually our innate love of nature is fostered by a caring parent or friend who takes us into the natural world. Most often though, a set of classroom experiences overseen by one of children’s most valued and trusted mentors, the classroom teacher, is that catalyst. Most science educators lack intense “environmental science education” preparation; even the best biology or chemistry teacher may lack training in the most complex of sciences: ecology? Powerful extractive industries recognized this, along with the sad fact that teachers are woefully funded and often dip into their own pockets for lab materials and supplies.
Minnesota has seen its timber harvest increase by 60% since 1980 and vast tracts of forest are now cut to be pulped and replaced by tree farms. How will science teachers in Minnesota address this issue? Many will turn to Project Learning Tree, a timber-funded program of the American Forest Foundation. Funded by the likes of Weyerhaeuser, the American Petroleum Institute and Plum Creek Timber Company, Project Learning Tree’s materials have many sound curriculum tools. These lengthy manuals with their numerous lessons and cookbook approach are a godsend for the overworked or young, inexperienced educator. The looming question is this: are the teachers who receive this curriculum well-versed enough in forest education to notice its glaring omissions? For example, where are the lessons on the downside of large clear cuts? And where is the scientific data that shows that monocultures of trees replanted after a clear-cut are not forests, but crops susceptible to disease, lacking wildlife habitat and are nothing more than fiber farms? Where is the data on the substitutes for wood from hemp to kenaf? Most importantly, will Minnesota’s PLT office (part of Minnesota DNR) provide the data Minnesota’s children really need to be fluent decision makers? Project Learning Tree is the poster child for the fastest growing type of “environmental educational materials” in our nation: friendly to corporate polluters, beautifully packaged and often free! Project Learning Tree’s energy module “Billy B and Me” is a fossil fuel lovefest with the topic of climate change basically missing in action.
Parents, when your children return to school this fall, ask their teachers to give them the best education in ecological issues possible. Ask the teachers if they use a corporate-sponsored curriculum and whether they provide a balance in the classroom. How do schools screen these curriculum materials? Should kids see this corporate PR? Indeed, they should see all sides of ecological issues; if they are given real scientific facts as an addendum, they will see right through the “educational veneer” of the glossy productions of Project Learning Tree or the American Petroleum Institute. If you are a teacher, invite students to participate; have them compare and contrast different information on environmental topics. Focus on incentives and credibility; what would the source gain by distributing misleading information? What are the qualifications of the source providing the information?
Children care, and they expect us as adults to lead, to represent their best interests, to protect them from exploitative commercial influences. To make America safe for childhood again is a battle worth fighting.
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Mariner Books, 2002.
A Sand County Almanac: Outdoor Essays and Reflections, Aldo Leopold, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Biodiversity (Papers from the 1st National Forum on Biodiversity), Edward O. Wilson and Frances Peter (eds.), National Academy of Sciences, 1988.
Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, G. Tyler Miller, Brooks Cole, 2004.