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

Pamela Bond
Pamela Bond Subscriber
Jul 28, 2011 03:01 PM
Great blog post. Couldn't agree more with Mr. Miller - stick to a basic, unbiased approach.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jul 31, 2011 07:50 PM
The environmental ignorance of the right is truly overwhelming, but it wouldn't be so worrisome if it weren't equally matched by the ignorance of the left.

A recent study of undergraduate science majors showed a strong belief in the "balance of nature", a concept discredited two decades ago and no longer taught in Environmental science classes. http://www.miller-mccune.com/[…]/ When the system that educates our science majors and educators is teaching such things how is the public to understand concepts like global warming. I wonder if John Miller understands that the idea of a happy balance of predator and prey is a fallacy. Do you?

Nature left to it's own devices, doesn't always balance itself, that goes for large infusions of CO2 or a reintroduced predator. The left can understand the concept in one instance but not the other.

I only hope that Maryland ran it's program by an Environmental Scientist before foisting it on the students.
John Miller
John Miller
Aug 04, 2011 05:05 PM
I'm not sure where Mr. Cadwell gets the idea of a "happy balance" of nature from the piece by Marian as being a component of environmental education. No where in the text or curriculum that I use is the word happy used when discussing ecosystem dynamics. However a strong case is made for ecosystem sustainability through the roles (niches) that the many organisms fit into whether it be predator, prey, detritivore, decomposer, etc. Is the system kept in a state of equilibrium (balance) as a result of interactions between these organisms? Studies that have been conducted on various ecosystems over a period of time do indeed show that when the population of a certain species is severely depleted there are then impacts to the system. Case in point - there is fairly strong evidence now that shows a positive correlation between wolf removal from Yellowstone National Park resulting in a depletion of willows, aspen, and cottonwoods due to browsing by an increase in ungulates, primarily elk. Is it wrong then to say that a system may become "out of balance" when a certain key species is depleted?
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 05, 2011 04:28 PM
It's simple, Ms Kirst gives examples of environmental ignorance of the right, I say the ignorance is widespread and not only of the right, I use the discredited "balance of nature" as a widely held but wrong cultural concept. You provide a great example of what I was talking about.

Your textbooks don't use the term "balance of nature" because no doubt they are reviewed for accuracy by a scientist to meet national standards. Yes it is wrong to say nature is out of balance, nature is naturally out of balance and constantly in flux, and anyone with basic ecologic literacy knows it.

Those of us on the left love to laugh at ignorance about global warming on the right, but we don’t laugh as hard when we use the mirror on ourselves.

A takeaway quote from the article I linked is,

“The first step in solving this problem, the authors of the study contend, is educating the educators — specifically, middle-school and high-school teachers, many of whom are currently spreading misinformation.”

I’d recommend a peek at the article, and maybe even some googling, it might provide you a different way to look at wolves, elk, and willows.
John Miller
John Miller
Aug 05, 2011 04:58 PM
Mr. Cadwell,
    As an educator I appreciate your feedback. Challenges to one's thinking are important if we are to grow. I mention this to my students on a frequent basis. I did read the article you made mention of. Perhaps before we go much further with this discussion we need to come up with an operational definition of the word "balance" as it pertains to ecosystems. Certainly ecosystems are dynamic systems suggesting that they are in a constant state of flux. We can get caught up in semantics but I have always viewed "balance" in ecosystems in the context of sustainability as I mentioned in my first comment blog. The article mentions the possibility that predators may cause the extinction of their prey species. Doesn't the 10 percent rule as it applies to the energy biomass pyramid suggest otherwise? I'm trying to think of an example where a predator species (humans not included) did cause the extinction of their prey.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 06, 2011 06:36 PM
Mr. Miller,
The predator caused extinctions that spring immediately to mind are those caused by the invasive house cat. Worldwide they've caused dozens of extinctions and in the US 75 documented local extinctions. http://issuu.com/the-wildlife-professional/docs/feralcats Predators usually have many more than one prey species, so they can hunt what is easy when they can find it, and if not they can exist on more difficult prey. Species have been evolving and going extinct over time uncounted. I'd think any extinction, local or otherwise, occurs with more than one predator and more than one contributing factor other than predators, such as weather, pathogens, etc.

The balance of nature is a widely held, now discredited, theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balance_of_nature Now whenever I read the word “balance” alarm bells start ringing in my head, because usually a reference to that theory is being made, especially in predator prey relationships. Often the word “balance” is used when what is meant is that a change is or isn’t to the speakers liking, and balance is often a word misused by those of us on the non Red State side of things.

But none of this is what put the bee in my bonnet. I’ve no breath left for laughing at some blogger or climate denier at red state when we have so much work to do ourselves. Despite the poke at China for pangolin imbibing they are quickly surpassing us by most measures science and by many environmental. Solar panels and windmills, engineering degrees and patents. While we snicker at their traditional medicine they are bypassing the internal combustion engine, and generating a CO2 footprint a tiny fraction of the average American Environmentalist. Good for Maryland, good for students who pass their requirements for environmental literacy.(off soapbox for now)