Schools Teaching Tree-Hugging 101

Published February 7, 2011

One of the hottest K-12 public school educational trends today is operating environmental academies within school districts.

At first glance, these academies sound like a terrific idea—complex environmental problems confront mankind, and it will take highly educated scientists to fix them. So it’s a good thing, one would think, our schools are turning out such individuals.

But a closer look shows many of these schools are really just teaching nature appreciation and conservation, not true environmental science.

There’s nothing wrong with learning to appreciate nature, but it’s misleading to call it “environmental education” or even “environmental science,” which is what some K-12 environmental schools are doing. Such courses of study are so soft on science they are often viewed as a “frill,” and some colleges requiring three years of lab science won’t count them toward science credits, according to the Harvard Education Letter.

Dazzling Toys, Hateful Propaganda
Many of the schools have dazzling environmental toys: School-owned forests, property with lake frontage, greenhouses, and wind and solar energy projects. Several are alternative schools, designed to serve only nontraditional learners, students who would rather be outdoors and who do not want to learn from textbooks. One even teaches something called “ecofeminism,” which alleges women share with nature a history of oppression by men.

The most common theme in many academies, though, is most of human interaction with the environment is bad and results in environmental harm.

By avoiding traditional science, however, these academies fail to enable students to distinguish between which human impacts are not harmful to the environment and which are—and what to do about them. This is primarily a matter to be determined by the physical and biological sciences.

The risk, then, is these academies are turning out environmental amateurs who think they are experts. And these are amateurs who are not equipped to distinguish between junk science and legitimate science but are trained in community organizing techniques—how to mobilize public opinion and change human behavior. They often go on to major in similar programs at the college level.

Pumping Out Demagogues
Professionals and academics involved in real science on issues affecting the environment are chemists, geologists, hydrogeologists, physicists, astrophysicists, botanists, and zoologists, to name just a few. Many of these scientists have advanced, highly specialized academic degrees. Without such educational backgrounds, students who graduate from environmental academies will be ill-equipped to devise ways to actually protect the environment from humans. Their futures will be limited to environmental demagoguery.

The soft science curriculum in environmental academies is no accident. In 1990, Congress passed the National Environmental Education Act, which stated environmental threats are “increasingly complex.” It established an environmental education office within EPA to foster scientific education in engineering and science to develop and apply scientific and technical solutions to protect the air, water, and soils, and methods to assess and control pollution. This was a worthy endeavor.

However, EPA hijacked this broad technical and scientific authorization into an educational agenda limited to “environmental sustainability, stewardship, and climate change,” connecting students and the public with nature, and motivating citizen participation and behavior change.

EPA has handed out about $3 million in grants under this program, but more importantly it has developed model curricula and teacher education programs, which schools across the country have adopted.

Real Science Needed
There is nothing wrong with loving nature and wanting to keep it as pristine as possible. But those who are committed to doing so have to be equipped with intense scientific knowledge.

We have come a long way in the past five decades. In the 1970s, companies generating hazardous chemical waste were required by state environmental authorities to put the waste in tidy drums and bury them in the earth in landfills. How dumb was that? The metal drums corroded, the chemicals leaked, drinking water was tainted with toxins, and the federal Superfund program was created. We are still trying to eradicate such landfills—which were created by government command, it should be stressed.

Fixing such landfills is called “remediation.” Some call it “clean-up,” but that’s a misnomer. Scientists do not know how to render harmful chemicals harmless. So what government requires, even to this day, is disposal of chemical waste in specialized landfills.

These landfills are essentially excavated areas lined with double layers of plastic film where chemical waste is placed. These landfills are surrounded by monitoring wells to sample groundwater to ensure the plastic liners are not leaking. The hazardous chemicals never leave and never biodegrade. They are there forever.

This is obviously a crude system, but it’s the best scientists can do right now. This country needs scientists to perform research on how to deconstruct toxic chemicals into benign ones.

But it’s not happening, at least as a formal movement.

Instead, tree-hugging 101 is coming soon to a school near you.

Maureen Martin, J.D. ([email protected]) has practiced environmental law for25 years. She is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.

For More Information:

Hood, Lucy, “The Greening of Environmental Ed: Teachers focus on complexity, evidence, and letting students draw their own conclusions,” Harvard Education Letter, January/February 2011:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Education,”