Bias doesn't belong in environmental education


Dear HCN,

I read with great interest the cover article titled "Teach the children well" in the March 26 issue of High Country News. This subject is near and dear to me, as for many years I directed the water education program for the Utah Division of Water Resources. I was troubled, though, by what appeared to be an underlying message that we should distrust and disregard any information received from corporations. Even the subtitle itself ("Corporations, environmentalists vie for students’ minds") prepares the reader for an exposé of "bad vs. good," or "lies vs. truth."

The bitter conflict between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot beginning in the last part of the 19th century certainly continues today. Initially, though, the disciples of each seemed to be a little more honest: those of Muir had no reservations about calling themselves preservationists, while those of Pinchot openly promoted increased use (albeit with the qualifier "wise") of the resources. Now both are struggling for sole possession of the label conservationist.

For better or worse, environmental education is controversial. Most would agree that the purpose of environmental education is to inform people of the facts so that better decisions can be made. But ecology is not an exact science; ecosystems are too complex and changes too slow to permit verification of predictions with what would normally be considered acceptable certainty. And decisions about development of natural resources must be made, whether or not we have all the facts we would like. Enter the hidden agenda of values.

Though most of us would like to think we’re objective, we all have ideas about what is "good." But because, " ‘good’ is in the eyes of the beholder," it’s very difficult to prove to others that our particular concept of "good" is the right one. Where the definition of "good" can have serious effects on something we hold dear (as when a wood-products company proposes clear-cutting a particular stand of timber), we often resort to obfuscating the issue by stating as fact what we in our hearts know to be speculation. (Like insisting that stand of timber is essential for the survival of a particular species. Or vice versa: opposing wilderness designation because it would "destroy" the local economy.)

I’m not particularly troubled when a layman takes this approach (often it just reflects ignorance), but I feel a professional must be held to a higher standard: The public has reason to trust him. Consequently, there would be nothing wrong with John Borowski lecturing to his class about the necessity of protecting "ancient forests," but he certainly owes it to them to state how much of this is personal opinion, and how much is backed up by hard data. Of course, professionals expounding wise use (often the corporations) should be held to the same standard.

So what is the unsuspecting student to do? The older he/she is, the more he/she should be capable of winnowing fact from fancy. Because the environment is such a controversial subject, college students should be encouraged to take everything about that subject with a grain of salt, whether the information comes from Exxon or the Sierra Club. As for the younger students (particularly in elementary and junior high schools), they’re helpless. And that’s why it’s so important for professionals to put their personal biases behind them and stick to the facts. It may take a little longer, but truth will win out in the end.

Barry C. Saunders
Salt Lake City, Utah