Defusing Environmental Education: An evaluation of the critique of the environmental education movement


Gregory A. Smith


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


April 25, 2000




DefusingEnvironmental Education:

An evaluation of the critique ofthe environmental education movement

Gregory A. Smith

Lewis & Clark College

April 25, 2000


Executive Summary

Since the mid-1990s, environmental education has gained the attention of anumber of critics. Most prominent among these have been Michael Sanera and JaneShaw, whose 1996 book, Facts, Not Fear: A Parents’ Guide to TeachingChildren About the Environment, has gone through numerous printings. Sanerahas also played a major role in raising challenges to state-level environmentaleducation programs. Central to Sanera and Shaw’s criticism is the assertionthat the most widely available environmental education materials are factuallyinaccurate and one-sided, favoring the catastrophic version of environmentalissues and disregarding research that suggests that problems are less seriousor non-existent. Drawing solely upon their review of textual materials, theyalso assert that many environmental educators are engaged in a process ofmisrepresentation and indoctrination.

Sanera and Shaw propose a three-part solution to the problems they identify:(1) the presentation in school textbooks of multiple science-based perspectivesregarding environmental topics, (2) a more detailed exploration of the costsand benefits of strategies aimed at dealing with environmental problems, and(3) an avoidance of any effort to encourage students to become environmentaladvocates. From their perspective, environmental educators should focus on thescience and economics of environmental issues and avoid any reference toconnections that exist between environmental problems and broader social orcultural factors.

The critiques of the environmental education movement, however, appear to bebiased by their funding sources: ideologically-based foundations supported byindustries that are deeply involved in manufacturing and extraction and theconsequent pollution those industries cause. Moreover, the studies on whichthose critiques are founded do not appear to stand up to scholarly scrutiny.They make assertions about what students are taught without any evidence ofclassroom observation, instead relying solely on textbook analysis. Finally,the critics’ efforts to seek legislation weakening state environmentaleducation mandates and programs have had mixed results.


Since the 1970s, teachers at all levels of the U.S. educational system haveincorporated environmental issues into the curriculum. Children in elementaryschools learn about endangered species or the benefits of recycling; in middleschools, cross-disciplinary instruction often focuses on local environmentaltopics; many high school teachers are using a new Advanced Placementenvironmental studies course that links science to social studies; and oncollege campuses, majors in environmental studies have become increasinglypopular. Although this curricular trend has not brought about a correspondingincrease in Americans’ knowledge about environmental topics,[1] environmental education has become a distinguishable enough featureof contemporary schools to attract the attention of critics who are nowchallenging its premises and its practices. In a survey of 50 different mediasources between 1995 and 1996, the National Environmental Education AdvancementProjected collected 60 articles that criticized educational efforts in thisarea. [2]

By and large, the critics claim that environmental education is alarmist,anti-business, catastrophic, and at bottom, unscientific. They also charge thatmost educators are ill-prepared to present environmental topics to students ina manner that reflects the complexity of the issues involved. Some of thesecharges are justified. Only a few states require all future teachers to takecourses in environmental topics in the way they are required to study literacyacquisition or multicultural education. And environmental educators themselveshave raised concerns about offering a diet of environmental problems to youngchildren before they have had a chance to develop a sense of being at home inthe world. [3] Much of thecriticism, however, appears aimed at diminishing legitimate concerns aboutissues such as global climate change, acid rain, or species extinction byfocusing on the alleged failure of environmental educators to presentconflicting scientific evidence, a failure linked to their avowed desire toturn their students into environmental activists. The critics offer no evidencebased upon classroom observation for these charges. While it is possible thatsome teachers present a partisan position to their students, the critics assertthat the great majority of educators who consider environmental topics areguilty of this kind of bias.

Among the leading critics are Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw. Published in1996, their volume, Facts, Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching ChildrenAbout the Environment, has gone through several printings. [4] When Facts, Not Fear waspublished, Sanera, a former political science professor at Northern ArizonaUniversity, directed the Center for Environmental Education Research of theClaremont Institute, a conservative think tank founded in 1979 in Claremont,Calif.; he now directs the Center for Environmental Education Research, aproject of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Shawis a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), aMontana-based think tank whose board of directors includes Adam Meyerson, vicepresident of the Heritage Foundation. [5] Another significant document critiquing environmental education,"Are We Building Environmental Literacy?" was published in 1997 bythe Independent Commission on Environmental Education. [6] The Commission, itself, was founded by the George C. MarshallInstitute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that has played a major role inquestioning the reality or threat of ozone depletion and global warming. [7]

The effort to challenge environmental education has not been limited to thewriting and distribution of books and reports. Sanera was instrumental ingutting a previously strong environmental education mandate in the state ofArizona. More recently, Sanera and his allies have taken their criticism ofenvironmental education to other states including Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa,Minnesota, Mississippi, and Washington with varying results. Most significanthas been the degree to which this organized critique of environmental educationhas put environmental education supporters on the defensive and divertedlimited resources and energy away from the development of meaningful andeffective educational programs.

The rest of this report discusses in more detail central points raised bythe critics, strategies that have been pursued in different states to weakenenvironmental education programs, backers of these efforts, and the response ofenvironmental educators.

The Critique

Sanera and Shaw’s critique has been based upon a review of middle and highschool geography, health, and science textbooks, environmental books found inselected school libraries, and texts used to prepare environmental educationteachers. These materials were scrutinized with an eye to the degree to whichtheir authors presented balanced information about major environmental issuessuch as ozone depletion, rates of species extinction, deforestation, globalwarming, and acid rain. Central to Sanera and Shaw’s criticism is the assertionthat the most widely available materials are one-sided, favoring thecatastrophic version of environmental issues and disregarding research thatsuggests that problems are less serious or non-existent. They strive to correctthis situation by citing evidence that suggests these problems are notworrisome.

For example, with regard to rates of deforestation in the United States,they argue that through the reversion of farmland to forests, the planting ofextensive tree farms, and fire suppression, there is actually more forestedland now than in 1920. They go on to suggest that old growth forests are notsuperior to second-growth forests, and that the latter usually display agreater variety of trees and plant life because more sunlight reaches theforest floor. [8]These pointsobscure the fact that when most private and public forest lands areintentionally replanted, the result is not the rich variety of vegetation of avirgin forest but monocultures composed of trees with commercial value. Alsoobscured is the damaging effect of clearcutting on forest ecosystems and thewildlife that depends on them. Habitat destruction tied to conventional loggingpractices in the Pacific Northwest, for example, is one of the contributingfactors to the dramatic decline in salmon populations over the past halfcentury. [9]

In discussing global warming, Shaw and Sanera use a similar technique. Theyacknowledge that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased sincethe beginning of the industrial age and that global temperatures areapproximately 0.5 to 1.0 degree Fahrenheit warmer than a century ago. Theysuggest, however, that the link between human activities and atmospheric warmingremains speculative, and that the degree of warming experienced so far shouldnot trouble us. Ignored completely is the work of the 2,500 scientists whoserve on the United Nations-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeand their carefully considered statement that human activity almost certainlyis linked to atmospheric warming and that the consequences of increased warmingare likely to be problematic. [10]Sanera and Shaw go on to fault imperfect climate models as the primary sourceof scientific and public concern, and dismiss these because of their apparentfailure to accurately predict the increases in global temperature we haveactually seen. [11] Neglectedin their account is any acknowledgement of the increased accuracy of morecurrent models or the now widely observable phenomena predicted by thesemodels: rapidly melting glaciers, shrinking polar pack ice, and a steadyincrease in average global temperatures. [12] Instead, they discount land-based measurements that clearly show awarming trend by citing measurements taken by a NASA satellite that showed nowarming between 1979 and 1996. [13]After their book was published, this evidence was shown to be inaccuratebecause the data had not been adjusted for the satellite’s orbital decay. [14] In many respects, their selectivepresentation of data about global warming and other issues mirrors the problemthey identify in environmental texts.

Sanera and Shaw appear to have chosen to include facts that minimize theproblems they discuss. This does not stop them from arguing that the one-sidednature of available texts leads most environmental educators to indoctrinatestudents rather than teach them. They assert that a significant gap existsbetween the intention of environmental education leaders to assure thatteachers present students with multiple perspectives regarding critical environmentaltopics--as spelled out in Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines forExcellence  [15] --andactual classroom practice.

Their critique, however, is based on a selective use of the NAAEEguidelines, whose effectiveness is tied to a careful consideration of sixcriteria: fairness and accuracy, depth, emphasis on skills building, actionorientation, instructional soundness, and usability. [16] The first criterion, fairness and accuracy, specifically calls forfactual accuracy, balanced presentation of differing viewpoints and theories,openness to inquiry, and reflection of diversity. Taking all of these criteriainto consideration, a thoughtful educator might decide that other values in atext outweigh minor failings in one area, failings that could be acknowledgedduring class discussions.

Sanera and Shaw's research, furthermore, includes no observations in classeswhere environmental issues are being taught to determine how materials areactually incorporated into lessons. Much of their critique, in fact, has reliedupon anecdotes drawn from the popular press that focus on student fears oractivism apparently triggered by the work of environmental educators. [17] Interviews with individuals involvedin these incidents, however, have revealed that Sanera and Shaw’s analysesoften misrepresent the reported events. [18]

Sanera and Shaw offer three proposals to solve the problems they identify:(1) the presentation in school textbooks of multiple science-based perspectivesregarding environmental topics, (2) a more detailed exploration of the costsand benefits of strategies aimed at dealing with environmental problems, and (3)an avoidance of any effort to encourage students to become environmentaladvocates. From their perspective, environmental educators should focus on thescience and economics of environmental issues and refrain from referring toconnections that exist between environmental problems and broader social orcultural factors. [19]

The 1997 report of the Independent Commission on Environmental Education,"Are We Building Environmental Literacy?", uses methods similar tothose of Sanera and Shaw and comes to similar conclusions. The commission wasestablished not by any government agency but rather under the leadership of theGeorge C. Marshall Foundation. The foundation, established and financed bycorporate donors, took the lead in denying widely accepted scientific data onglobal climate changes, and in promoting benign interpretations of that data.The ten Commission members include three individuals who also served as scienceadvisors to Sanera and Shaw in their examination of materials discussed in Facts,Not Fear. Reviewing 71 documents, the ICEE assessed the treatment of acidrain, ecology and biodiversity, economic analysis, energy and naturalresources, forests, global warming, population, risk analysis, and wastemanagement. [20] The volumes underthe Commission’s review are themselves diverse. They include environmentalscience textbooks published by the Lawrence Hall of Science and the WorldWildlife Fund, trade books such as Going Green: A Kids’ Handbook to Savingthe Planet, [21] andchildren’s stories such as The Great Kapok Tree. [22] The text of the report focuses on the strengths and weaknesses ofspecific volumes, but offers no summary data regarding the way the volumescollectively present information about each of these topics. The impression thereport leaves is that while some of the reviewed materials are in factbalanced, many contain misleading or inaccurate information. Whereas Facts,Not Fear suggests that most if not all environmental educators strive tofrighten children into becoming eco-activists, the Commission’s report achievesa more objective tone. Among the Commission’s findings are the following:

  • Study of the environment is imporntant for K-12 students.
  • Teachers are key to successful environmental education, but supporting materials are inadequate.
  • Environmental education is not environmental science, but the promotion of environmental literacy depends on materials that include the best available science.
  • Scope and sequence are lacking in environmental education materials.
  • Environmental education has become unnecessarily controversial.
  • Environmental education materials do not prepare students to deal with environmental controversies.
  • Environmental education fails to help students understand the tradeoffs involved in addressing environmental issues.
  • Factual errors are common in environmental education materials. [23]

These findings led the Commission to make the following recommendations:

  • Environmental educators should stress the acquisition of knowledge.
  • Elementary school students should begin the study of science with a study of the natural world; in middle schools, environmental education should be presented as a multidisciplinary capstone course.
  • Environmental education materials should contain more substantive scientific information.
  • Environmental educators require substantial preparation in the fields of science, economics, and mathematics.
  • Environmental education curricula should be regularly evaluated by an independent panel of experts. [24]

Although presented in neutral terms, these findings and recommendations wellmatch the unsettling trends identified by Jo Kwong in her 1995 article writtenunder the auspices of the Center for the Study of American Business,"Environmental Education: Getting Beyond Advocacy." Kwong assertsthat:

"EE is often based on emotionalism, myths, and misinformation.
"EE is often issue-driven rather than information-driven.
"EE typically fails to teach children about basic economics or basicdecision-making processes, relying instead on mindless slogans.
"EE often fails to take advantage of lessons from nature, and insteadpreaches socially or politically correct lessons.
"EE is unabashedly devoted to activism and politics, rather than knowledgeand understanding.
"EE teachers an anti-anthropocentric philosophy [that] man is an intrusionon the earth and, at times, an evil." [25]

What is striking about the nature of the critique that has been leveled atenvironmental education is that it is based on virtually no classroomobservations or formal interviews with environmental educators. The review ofmaterials is helpful and needed -- inaccurate facts and failures to presentlegitimate, and contrasting scientific perspectives about environmental topicsshould be identified and corrected. This research, however, provides limitedinsight into what actually transpires in EE classrooms. Not pursued by Saneraand Shaw or the members of the ICEE, for example, is the possibility thatteachers may well encourage their students to examine and critique these textsin an effort to enhance their critical capacities. Salem, Oregon environmentaleducator John Borowski, for example, makes a point of pairing curriculummaterials produced by corporations and environmental advocacy groups toencourage students to examine the arguments and make up their own minds about particulartopics. [26] There is no room forteachers like Borowski in Sanera and Shaw's analysis. They simply assume thatteachers are uncritical and minimally informed consumers of materials developedby others. This may or may not be the case, but EE critics provide no evidenceupon which to make a judgment. The challenge that they are raising againstenvironmental education is based on little more than what they imagine ishappening in environmental education classrooms. They present no systematicallygathered information regarding what this might be.

The irony about much of this critique is that dollar-strapped schools oftenhave few resources to devote to the purchase of new environmental educationmaterials. [27] Teachersare instead forced to rely upon a burgeoning selection of industry-developedand distributed materials that suggest, for example, that gasoline is really aform of solar power (a premise -- advanced in Exxon's "Aquarium WithoutWalls" -- that obviously pushes the definition of solar power to absurdlimits), [28] orthat increasing levels of atmospheric carbon will enhance plant growth (from anactivity book distributed by the American Coal Foundation). [29]

While both statements contain some degree of fact, they mask the gravity ofthe problems they present to students. While it is true that fossil fuels arethe product of solar energy collected by plants during the Paleozoic era, thisstatement sidesteps the fact that unlike efforts to tap the sun’s currentoutput, the use of coal, oil, and gasoline cannot be sustained indefinitely andthat their combustion is increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.Similarly, some plants, including the great majority of those used for humanconsumption, are likely to produce higher yields, especially if growth ischanneled into seeds; many weeds, however, are also likely to become more aggressive.Of even more significance, however, are the climate disruptions that couldaccompany increased atmospheric warming and the agricultural failures andincreased human hunger this would induce. [30] Such materials have become increasingly common in schools. Exxon'svideo, After the Spill, was sent to 10,000 classrooms; it presents thecorporation’s clean-up efforts following the Valdez oil spill as a"triumph of pollution control." [31] Bruce Selcraig, writing in Sierra Magazine, estimates thatindustry groups ". . . from the insurance industry to chlorinemanufacturers to the Aseptic Packaging Council which pushes those waxydrink-boxes kids love for lunch" distribute their materials to 2 millionteachers. [32] Thevery popular Project Learning Tree, sponsored by the American ForestFoundation, has been used by approximately 25 million students in the U.S., itsTrust Territories, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. [ 33] These materials presentconventional forestry practices uncritically, emphasizing the importance of thewood products industry as both a supplier of goods and jobs. [34] Corporate-sponsored curriculum is ubiquitousand becoming more so.

Efforts to Weaken State-Level Environmental Education Programs

Industry groups and their intellectual allies have not been not satisfiedwith their capacity to flood classrooms with curricular materials or to gainwidespread public attention for critiques based solely upon a review of textsrather than observations of EE classrooms. After castigating one of thestrongest environmental education teacher preparation programs in the countryat the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, [35] Michael Sanera attempted to persuade state legislators to reducesupport for this effort set in motion in 1985 under the leadership of formerWisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. According to Randall Champeau, director of EEat UW-Stevens Point, continuing strong political support for environmentaleducation in Wisconsin deflected this effort. [36] Efforts in Colorado to eliminate the state-level environmentaleducation position in the Department of Education were initially moresuccessful until they were quashed by then-Governor Roy Roemer. [37], [38]

Sanera also played a principal role in weakening Arizona’s environmentaleducation mandate. A 1990 bill had required all school districts in the stateto teach environmental education, supporting this effort by revenues generatedthrough the sale of environmental-theme license plates. In 1995, ArizonaRepresentative Rusty Bowers introduced Arizona Bill 2274 that removed themandate and rerouted revenues from license plate sales away from the EducationDepartment to the state’s Land Department, where decisions about environmentaleducation would be made by a new advisory council filled with politicalappointees and representatives from extraction industries. Among thosepresenting testimony during hearings about Arizona Bill 2274 was MichaelSanera. Arizona Senator Chris Cummisky observed that Sanera ". . . was theringleader and presented information that showed that environmental educationwas creating green eyed monsters, teaching respect for the earth." [39] As in Facts, Not Fear, much ofthe testimony presented during these hearings was based on incidents unrelatedto the actions of environmental educators or anecdotes taken out of context. [40]

During 1999, well-established environmental education programs in Washingtonstate became the object of Sanera’s scrutiny. Washington is one of eight statestargeted as part of an initiative by the Competitive Enterprise Institute inWashington to examine environmental curricula for potential bias. [41] In conjunction with the EvergreenFreedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank that regularly attacks publiceducation and the Washington Education Association, Sanera published a 23-pagereport card about environmental education. In it he argued that Washington’svague guidelines for environmental studies left room for wide interpretationand teacher bias. [42] Like Facts,Not Fear, this study focused on textual analyses rather than interviewswith educators or environmentalists, or any observation of classrooms. Much ofthe report is a rehash of themes set out in his and Shaw’s book, with onlyeight pages devoted to a review of Washington’s state guidelines forenvironmental education. Darin Saul, director of the Center for EnvironmentalStudies at Washington State University in Pullman, observed that rather thanpresenting a single point of view, as Sanera claimed, Washington environmentalprograms typically strive to bring people from industry, agriculture, andenvironmental advocacy groups together to work on common projects. [43] Saul noted, however, that criticismdoes not have to be legitimate to create its desired effect. Headlines inTacoma’s October 21, 1999 News Tribune provide evidence of this point.In large bold letters, the reader is confronted with the statement that"Schools flunk environmental education, conservative group says." Thestate supervisor of environmental education’s rebuttal -- "It’sfabrication based on thin air" -- is printed in much smaller letters. [44]

In conjunction with this attack, there was talk in late 1999 among someelected representatives in Washington State of directing environmentaleducators to focus only on science and economic issues, essentiallyeviscerating efforts over several years to teach EE from the standpoint ofmultiple disciplines. [45] Thislegislation parallels Sanera’s call for the "depoliticization" ofenvironmental education, a call that is questionable given his own strongpolitical roots. Jennifer Lamson of the Washington Environmental Media Servicesin Seattle responded: "[Sanera] comes from an ideological background thatsupports unimpeded free enterprise and unfettered property rights. He’s not[here] to improve public education; instead, he tries to tear it down as he didin Arizona." [46] Washington State environmentalists fear that Sanera intends toerode public support for the 1990 law that requires the teaching ofenvironmental education in K-12 schools. Looking at Sanera’s efforts elsewhere,Kathy Becker, a program officer at Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation--anorganization led by the 1970 Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, observes:"It’s clear we’re next." [47]

Attacks on environmental education in other states have followed Sanera’slead. Jim Motavalli reports in the September/October 1999 volume of E-Magazinethat religious fundamentalists in Texas are objecting to environmental sciencetextbooks on the grounds that they are too negative to industrial society.Concerned that children were receiving an unbalanced impression aboutenvironmental issues, Texas officials sponsored a 1997 seminar where leadingoil and chemical corporations were invited to present their positions. Noenvironmental organizations were asked to participate in this event. [48] In New Hampshire, the AmericanLegislative Exchange Council, a Washington, D.C.-based organization ofconservative state legislators, sought to gain public approval of a ParentalRights Amendment that would require children to gain parental permission beforelearning anything about nuclear war, nuclear policy , globalism, populationcontrol, and organic evolution, including Darwin’s theory. [49]

Supporters of the Anti-Environmental Education Backlash

The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, a San Francisco educators’and prents’ group critiquing the use of commercial advertising materials indaily school interaction with children, has provided a systematic review of theorganizations responsible for this campaign to challenge and reformenvironmental education. [50] Itsleaders include the previously mentioned Claremont Institute, CompetitiveEnterprise Institute, and George C. Marshall Institute; and the PoliticalEconomy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. Each of the preceding organizationssends representatives to the Environmental Education Working Group (EEWG),where they are joined by individuals from the Alabama Family Alliance, inBirmingham; the Alaska Council on Economic Education, in Anchorage; the ArizonaInstitute for Public Policy Research, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation,and the Heartland Institute, of Palatine, Ill. The Claremont Institute, under whoseauspices Sanera initially wrote Facts, Not Fear, is a network member ofthe Heritage Foundation, as is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, theorganization that now supports Sanera’s research efforts. The CEI also is amember of Alliance for America and Get Government Off Our Backs. The CEI wasresponsible for publishing The True State of the Planet, [51] a volume that seeks to discredit manyenvironmentalist claims, presenting itself as a counter-balance to theWorldwatch Institute’s influential annual reports, The State of the World.In addition, a wide range of other conservative organizations have beeninvolved in anti-environmental education campaigns. These include the AmericanEnterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, both in Washington, D.C.; Citizensfor Excellence in Education, in Costa Mesa, Calif.; the Hoover Institution atSanford University; the Hudson Institute, Indianapolis; the Pacific ResearchInstitute for Public Policy, San Francisco; the Reason Foundation, Los Angeles;Resources for the Future, in Washington, D.C.; and the Wisconsin PolicyResearch Institute, Thiensville, Wis. [52], [53]

Financial support for the attack on environmental education can be linked toa number of the largest funders of politically conservative causes in the U.S.The Claremont Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute receivefunding from such organizations as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, theJacquelin Hume Foundation, the Koch Family Foundations, the Scaife FamilyFoundations, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. The Earhart Foundation andthe Jacquelin Hume Foundation provided initial financial support for thepublishing of Facts, Not Fear. The AMOCO Foundation, the BechtelFoundation, the Adolph Coors Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and theWeyerhaeuser Foundation provide funds for other central players in thiscampaign, including the the Heritage Foundation, the Political Economy ResearchCenter, and Resources for the Future. Also among the supporters of a number ofthe preceding organizations are the ARCO Foundation, the Eli Lilly and CompanyFoundation, and the Lilly Endowment, groups whose funding practices are moreeclectic. [54]

Response of the Environmental Education Community

The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has takenthe challenges raised by EE critics seriously and, with its state affiliates,been in the forefront of efforts to respond to Sanera and Shaw as well as otherreports and articles. Deborah Simmons, past president of NAAEE, has questionedthe scholarly rigor of the criticism itself. In a 1998 article in the CanadianJournal of Environmental Education , she charges that the study uponwhich Facts, Not Fear is based provides no guarantee against researcherbias. She raises the concerns mentioned earlier that Sanera and Shaw usematerials guidelines developed by the National Project for Excellence inEnvironmental Education out of context and in a way they were never intended tobe applied. She suggests that ". . . arbitrarily choos[ing] which of thekey characteristics and guidelines are to be scrutinized violates both thespirit and the intent of the Guidelines. Focusing one’s attention onlyon factual accuracy (or any one of the key characteristics for that matter) islimiting." [55] She laterstates that Sanera’s application of the Guidelines fails to recognizethat educators make judgments about the materials they use and that they do notuse materials in a vacuum . [56]Although some materials may not include diverse perspectives, this does notmean that an environmental educator should discard them. Another response wouldbe to work them into a lesson that ". . . explores different viewpointsand helps learners discern opinion and bias in individual presentations on theissue." [57]

The same argument can certainly be made for including industry materials,which used with adequate context can prove useful in environmental educationclassrooms, as the experience of teacher John Borowski previously discussedshows. The difficulty is that, in times of budget constraints, many teachersmay not have the resources to get a fully representative sample of the range ofEE curricular material. The current attack on environmental education texts mayfurther discourage some wary school boards or administrators from investing insuch material. The industry-sponsored materials, meanwhile, are provided forfree to teachers who may lack the time and background to provide a systematicanalysis and critique of them. It is not unreasonable to worry, then, thatthere is a very real risk that one-sided, industry-sponsored material may insome districts end up filling a vacuum, creating the very lack of balance thatenvironmental education’s critics decry from the opposing vantage point.

Four years ago, while still president of NAAEE, Simmons urged members of herorganization to respond quickly to criticism of EE by providing examples ofgood quality programs and teachers. She suggested that environmental educatorsdraw upon research and their professional credentials to challenge the critics,noting that part of this process might well involve pointing out occasions whenEE critics themselves blur the lines between advocacy and education. To assistNAAEE members, the National Environmental Education Advancement Project (NEEAP)developed an information kit aimed at helping state and local EE people tostrengthen their programs and provide positive information about environmentaleducation. [58]

Such efforts on the national level continue. In December of 1999, EEproponents concerned about continuing challenges to environmental education metin San Francisco. Staff in the Environmental Education Program at UW-StevensPoint have taken the lead in coordinating responses to new reports fromconservative organizations as well as political efforts to weaken EE programsat the state level. The San Francisco-based Tides Foundation is currentlyfunding two projects aimed at grappling with this effort to defuseenvironmental education. The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education hastaken an active role in collecting and distributing information about thiscampaign. [59]

Important organizing efforts are also emerging at the state level. In thestate of Washington, for example, the Environmental Education Association ofWashington (NAAEE Affiliate) hosted a meeting in the summer of 1999 for itsmembers, the Washington Education Association, and an Environmental Issuesgroup after it had learned of Sanera’s research. A new organization, Citizensfor Environmental Education (CEE), was formed following this meeting withsupport from the Audubon Society and funding from Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation.CEE and a sister organization in Pullman, Groundworks, have been instrumentalin anticipating and responding to Michael Sanera’s report about environmentaleducation in their state. The CEE steering committee includes Washington StateSecretary of State Ralph Munro, State Senator Ken Jacobsen (Seattle-Democrat),naturalist author Robert Michael Pyle, and environmental activist Hazel Wolf. Thework of Washington environmental educators and supporters led to thepublication of an article about Sanera’s study in the Wall Street Journalas well as systematic responses to the Sanera-Evergreen Freedom Foundationreport when it was distributed in mid-October. [60], [61]


Paradoxically, this sustained and concerted challenge to environmentaleducation suggests that the quarter-century effort of environmental educatorshas been more successful than even supporters of the discipline might beprepared to believe. Given the unwillingness of elected officials to grapplewith such serious issues as global climate change or habitat destruction andthe popularity of environmentally destructive products such as sport-utilityvehicles, it is easy to conclude that directing young peoples’ attention toenvironmental concerns has had little influence upon citizen behavior or publiclife. But clearly, environmental education is on someone’s radar screen.

Although far-reaching in its influence, the criticism of EE raised thus farhas been shallow. Much like the questionable science that has been employed toinduce public doubt about global climate change[62] -- all in the name of providing both sides of the issue -- Saneraand Shaw’s as well as the ICEE’s research studies have been small-scale andsuperficial. The Washington State study, for example, was completed on a $3000budget. [63] Among educational researchers,their work would be questioned because of the absence of classroom observationor extensive and systematically conducted interviews. This research, however,is not being directed to the educational research community but to the generalpublic, and for this audience inflammatory anecdotes can potentially undercutyears of successful programming. Relatively small investments on the part of EEcritics and their corporate supporters can result in public distrust ofenvironmental education.

Even so, the results of this campaign have been mixed. A strong mandate forenvironmental education in Arizona has been weakened, but efforts to accomplishthe same end in Wisconsin and Colorado have thus far failed. And in Washingtonstate, EE critics have been unable to bring to the floor of the statelegislature any measure aimed at narrowing the definition and practice ofenvironmental education; all Sanera’s efforts there have accomplished by April2000 is the creation of broad-based support for the state’s exemplary work inEE.[64] That these efforts havegone no further can be largely ascribed to the vigilance of the environmentaleducation community.

Given the persistence Michael Sanera and other EE critics have shown overthe past five to six years, it seems likely that they will continue to raisequestions about the quality and legitimacy of this new curricular component ofAmerican education. Although their scrutiny has made environmental educatorsmore sensitive to the potential bias of their curricular materials, efforts todivorce the study of environmental controversies from public life will illprepare the nation’s future citizens for the difficult decisions they willalmost certainly need to make in coming decades about resource use, habitatloss, and the wastes associated with industrial civilization.

Relying primarily upon the work of scientists who discount such problems andtheir human significance, Sanera and his allies are guilty of their own form ofbias as they create the impression that continuing with business as usual willresult in little harm. Daily news reports and the evidence of our sensessuggest that this may not be the case. The work of environmental education istoo important to leave to the defense of its practitioners alone; as withequity and social justice, it deserves the support of other educators and thebroader community.


1. National Environmental Education andTraining Foundation, The National Report Card on Environmental Knowledge,Atitudes, and Behaviors: The Sixth Annual Survey of Adult Americans.Washington, D.C. 1997

2. National Environmental EducationAdvancement Project, "EE Criticism: Challenge and Opportunity." TheEnvironmental Education Advocate, Fall 1996. Available at:

3. Sobel, David, "Ecophobia." EarthEthics, 6(2), p. 1-ff. 1995

4. Sanera, Michael and Jane Shaw, Facts,Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment.Washington, D.C.: Regnery. 1996

5. Bohart, Barbara, Marianne Manilov, andTamara Schwarz, Endangered Education: How Corporate Polluters are AtackingEnvironmental Education. Oakland, CA: The Center for Commercial-Free PublicEducation. 1997

6. Independent Commission on EnvironmentalEducation, Are We Building Environmental Literacy? Washington, D.C.:George C. Marshall Institute. 1997. Available at:

7. Bohart, 1997, p. 35.

8. Sanera and Shaw, 1996, pp. 96-97

9. Lichatowich, Jim, Salmon WithoutRivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis, Washington, D.C.: IslandPress, 1999

10. Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange, Climate Change 1995 - The Science of Climate Change. Cambridge,England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

11. Sanera and Shaw, 1996, pp. 155-157

12. Gelbspan, Ross, "A Global WarmingCrisis." Yes!, Winter 1999-2000, pp. 12-19.

13. Sanera and Shaw, 1996, p. 153

14. Wentz, F.J. and M. Schabel,"Effects of Orbital Decay on Satellite-Derived Lower-TroposphericTemperature Trends." Nature 394, 1998, p. 661

15. North American Association forEnvironmental Education (NAAEE), Environmental Education Materials:Guidelines for Excellence. Troy, OH: NAAEE, 1996

16. Ibid.

17. Bohart, 1997

18. Ibid.

19. Sanera and Shaw, 1996, pp. 18-24,233-235

20. Independent Commission onEnvironmental Education, 1997

21. Elkington, John et al., Goinggreen: A Kid’s Handbook to Saving the Planet. New York: Puffin Books, 1990

22. Cherry, Lynne, The Great KapokTree. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990

23. Independent Commission onEnvironmental Education, 1997

24. Ibid.

25. Kwong, Jo, "EnvironmentalEducation: Getting Beyond Advocacy." Center for the Study of AmericanBusiness, Contemporary Issues Series 76, December 1995, p. 1

26. Borowski, John, personalcommunication, March, 2000

27. Motavalli, Jim, "The LearningTree: Green Education is Transforming America’s Basic Environmental Literacy.So Why isn’t Everyone Smiling?" E/The Environmental Magazine,September-October 1999, pp. 1-9. Available at:

28. Ibid.

29. Manilov, Marianne, and Tamara Schwarz,"The Assault on Eco-Education," Earth Island Journal, Winter1996-97, p. 37

30. Bunyard, Peter, "A Hungrier World,"The Ecologist, 29:2, March/April 1999, p. 90

31. Selcraig, Bruce, "Reading,Riting, and Ravaging," Sierra Magazine, May/June 1998, pp. 60-65ff.

32. Ibid., p. 63

33. Project Learning Tree web page,

34. Willers, William, "The TimberIndustry’s Assault on Public Education," forthcoming.

35. Sanera, Michael, "EnvironmentalEducation in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach," Wisconsin PolicyResearch Institute Report Vol. 9, No. 5, 1996

36. Champeau, Randall, personalcommunication, June 1998.

37. Chinn, Jack, personal communication,January 2000

38. Jamieson, Robert, "ProfessorBlasts State’s Environmental Education," Seattle Post-Intelligencer,October 25, 1999

39. Bohart, p. 27.

40. Ibid.

41. Zimmerman, Rachel, "ActivistsBrace for the Worst as Green Study is Prepared," Wall Street Journal,September 1, 1999

42. George, Hunter, "Schools FlunkEnvironmental Education, Conservative Groups Say," Tacoma, Wash. NewsTribune, October 21, 1999

43. Jamieson, 1999

44. George, 1999

45. Olson, Robert, personal communication,January 2000

46. In Zhang, Jane, "Green ActivistsBlast Report," Moscow/Pullman Daily News, October 22,1999

47. Zimmerman, 1999

48. Motavalli, 1999

49. Ibid.

50. Bohart, 1997, p. 35.

51. Bailey, Ronald (ed.), The TrueState of the Planet. Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute, 1995

52. Bohart, 1997, pp. 38-45

53. National Environmental EducationAdvancement Project, "EE Criticism in the Media: What They Say, andWhere," The Environmental Education Advocate, Fall.1996. Availableat:

54. Bohart, 1997, pp. 40-47

55. Simmons, Deborah, "Reflections onEnvironmental education: Promise and performance," Canadian Journal ofEnvironmental Education, 3, Spring 1998, pp. 41-47; p. 44

56. Ibid., p. 45

57. Ibid.

58. National Environmental EducationAdvancement Project, "EE Criticism in the Media," 1996, p. 3

59. Bohart, 1997

60. Zimmerman, 1999

61. George, 1999

62. Gelbspan, Ross, The Heat Is On: TheClimate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription. New York: Perseus Books,1998

63. Shaw, Linda, "Groups Gird forReport on Education," The Seattle Times, October 19, 1999

64. Sellen, Jeff, personal communication,April 21, 2000.