Ignorance is blissless


Ever noticed how the loudest, most enraged environmental critics (you know, the ones with the tumescent neck vein that throbs angrily at the slightest mention of endangered species or roadless areas) are usually the people who know the least about environmental issues?

"Global warming? That's BS! Our state had record snowfall this year." "Green energy? Who cares! We get most of our power from hydroelectric anyway." "So what if bees are disappearing? They're at the bottom of the food chain!"

Never mind that 97 percent of the world's scientists say that man-made climate change is real or that bee colony collapse disorder has the potential to disrupt global food supplies, costing the U.S. agricultural economy billions. But skeptics often don't know this. Why? Because many are environmentally illiterate. Indeed, in a 2002 survey of more than 1,500 Americans, the National Environmental Education Foundation found that only 36 percent realize coal generates about half of our country's electricity. In a 1998 survey on environmental knowledge, the same group discovered that only one in five Americans know that run-off (from sources like farms and parking lots) is the most common form of water pollution, the majority thinking, instead, that waste dumping by factories is the biggest culprit.

While some might call environmental literacy, elitist "junk science," the state of Maryland had the nerve to call it requisite. On June 21 it became the first state to require that high school students be environmentally literate before they graduate. Predictably, conservative pundits jumped on the mandate. Here's a sample of the widespread rhetoric, from Redstate.com blogger Daniel Horowitz:

It's not enough that the supercilious limousine liberal greenies mandate the destruction of our economy, loss of jobs, and higher prices for consumers, as a result of their insidious green corporate cronyism.  They will now indoctrinate the next generation into living a regressive life based on fallacious and manipulative "educational" programs.  While the Chinese children are studying real science, equipping them with the requisite tools to become more industrious, our children will learn junk science, equipping them with the tools to live the life of ... a 14th century nomad!

It's interesting that the conservative right, which generally snubs all things foreign, suddenly holds China up as a country worth emulating, especially in science. Practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine, which, in China, is performed regularly alongside Western medicine, believe the ground-up scales of pangolins, highly endangered asian mammals, can "promote lactation" and "unblock menses." Seriously? Also, if you’re going to string adjectives together to make your points, can you at least throw in a few commas?

A well-versed and knowledgeable citizenry willing and able to constructively debate environmental issues (instead of relying on tyrannical pundits) is not a sign that the country is living regressively, but the mark of a confident and educated populace. Environmental education is not a panacea for ignorance, true. But it does rev kids' mental engines and instills in them a foundation of general knowledge, which they can use to filter the facts from mainstream infotainment. This is largely because environmental education is strongly interdisciplinary, incorporating aspects of economics, geology, philosophy, oceanography, government, American history, etc.

Environmental education isn't new to Maryland, which, thanks in part to the state's economic interest in the health of Chesapeake Bay, has infused environmental concepts into its curricula for many years. According to Maryland State Department of Education spokesman, Bill Reinhard, the new regulation "represents something of natural evolution for Maryland." But, warns Reinhard, "programs such as this cannot be developed in a vacuum by a State Department of Education." States have to cooperate with other agencies and programs such as the Department of Natural Resources and the No Child Left Inside Coalition.

For the West, a region that perennially deals with complex and polarizing issues like wolf recovery, coal bed methane production, and wind farm development, environmental literacy programs seem like a no-brainer. Western issues are complex and misinformation can lead to powerful misunderstandings. For example, if people don't know that wind turbines account for fewer than 40,000 bird deaths a year, compared to cats, which kill 100 million, and pesticides, which kill more than 60 million annually, then what are they to make of media attacks that label wind turbines "green killers"?

John Miller is a science instructor who has been teaching biology and environmental science at West High School in Billings, Mont., for 25 years. "A lot of my students are illiterate when it comes to science and what it is and how it works," he says. "They don't understand basic environmental principles even though they've had biology." For example, Miller says, "(the students) love to talk about climate change, but they don't understand it because it's a complex topic. I need to teach them about the specific heat properties of land and water and about ocean currents and The Little Ice Age. The point is, from a geologic standpoint there have been climatic shifts, but we also have to ask why we are so married to fossil fuels."

Miller says that for Maryland-like environmental literacy requirements to have any chance in the West, they must be free of activist messages and focus, instead, on giving kids a solid foundation in basic science, environment and policy issues. Getting them away from television and video games for a few hours each day won't hurt either. After all, in order to understand the natural world, you have to spend time there, or you won't have a vested interest in what happens to it or its resources. What people have to remember, Miller says, is that "science and ecology inform policy."

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

Top image courtesy of flickr user Queen of the Universe under Creative Commons license

Bottom image courtesy of flickr user New York YMCA Camp under Creative Commons license