In a Bay Area elementary school, just as she’s done in dozens of California public schools, the guest speaker talks with hundreds of eyes fixed upon her, students and teachers alike hanging on every word.
She captivates her audience with her story and claims like, “This is a paper cup that destroyed a forest somewhere.”
Children gasp, later calling Julia “Butterfly” Hill an inspiration, a hero, and clamoring for autographs.
In an auditorium outside of Santa Cruz , another invited speaker wraps up his talk about watershed restoration. Audience members clamor toward him after his talk, waving fists and calling him a murderer.
Why the difference?
Both speakers were talking about environmental issues near and dear to them. One was deemed credible by virtue of having lived in a tree for two years. The other was vilified as an industry mouthpiece despite multiple college degrees, a state license and 20 years of experience in a working forest.
Is it because perception is reality?
Is it because when it comes to the environment, emotion draws response and alarmist cries of deforestation get headlines? Is it because we really shouldn’t cut down any trees, anywhere?
Environmental science perception and reality can be miles apart. And while it may be “irresponsible and troubling” in the words of Dr. Patrick Moore, who co-founded but has since left Greenpeace, for activists to advance unfounded perceptions in the media, it’s dangerous for unsubstantiated claims to enter our schools and be presented as fact.
The way environmental science is taught in our schools leaves a lasting impression on children, like the impression that humans are intruders in natural areas, that we’re wiping out America’s forests, or as one text book asserts, that “the sixth mass extinction is happening now.”
The misinformation and bias that I see in classrooms helped end my career as a teacher. It motivates me as the Education Director for The Forest Foundation. I may not be able to get every student out to the forest, but I can help get accurate, science-based, balanced information into the classroom and show children what is real. I can help teach them how forests affect their everyday lives and how professionals regenerate and care for forests even as they harvest trees.
Bias can be as subtle as teachers failing to differentiate between good and bad natural resource management practices, or as obvious as textbooks claiming “many of our country’s few remaining old forests are being cut down at an alarming rate.” It can be the tone set by omitting from resource management discussions the positive aspects of forest regeneration, watershed restoration, or home construction.
Some measure of critical thinking should be applied to what is taught in schools to avoid perpetuating myths or crossing the advocacy line. Specific environmental science standards for California’s schools could help, but any panel convened to develop standards should be broad-based and include representatives from industrial agriculture. On one panel I recently participated in, vocal activists wanted one “principle” to assert that logging unequivocally causes deforestation and massive erosion. To say that today is misinformed, misleading, or malicious.
Schools, teachers and parents should also scrutinize materials brought into the classroom. Julia Butterfly’s “Legacy of Luna” curriculum, for example, is prefaced with anti-forestry sentiments and includes blatant misinformation on redwood environments. In a Rainforest Action Network video, “grandfather” tree calls humans villains that “killed Uncle Douglas and cousin Selva.” Dog-Eared Publications’ game about salmon life cycles sends players back to start due to erosion from logging and kills them because hatchery fish cause disease!
Natural resource issues are too frequently couched in simplistic ideas with no discussion of how to meet the needs of a growing population. Most high school students I talk to, for instance, don’t know that replanting is part of the tree-harvesting process. Many will never see the thriving forests they are told are being wiped out.
There are no easy answers, so we must teach the complexities of resource management, where almost every decision involves risks and trade-offs that must be weighed. Children should understand that properly managed natural resources can provide wonderful scenery, diverse habitat, and everyday essentials like wood and medicines.
Balanced, accurate information should form the foundation of our children’s education, just as it should form the foundation on which adults and policymakers base decisions on how our resources are to be used.
At the same time, consumers of that information should understand that a media spotlight, impressive budget, or emotional cause should not buy credibility any more than a career in natural resource management should preclude it.
As one University of California forestry department head put it, “let science prevail.” (Editor’s Note: Lisa Perry is the education director for The Forest Foundation (www.calforestfoundation.org) and a credentialed teacher. This essay originally appeared in the winter 2005 issue of California Forests magazine.)