When proselytizing goes too far

Published February 1, 2002

The other day I decided to take my two daughters, ages one and three, on a nature walk. My girls love animals, and I truly enjoy communing with nature.

On this occasion, rather than visiting my favorite Florida state park, we went on a more structured nature walk. The walk is designed with children in mind, with a guide leading small groups of visitors along a trail of various natural mini-environments interspersed with various hands-on animal stations. The walk is very popular with elementary school field trips, and I trusted my daughters would be similarly excited to see the many plants and animals that make up our environment.

My daughters were fascinated by all the plants and animals. Equally blessed with my daughters’ attention was our guide, a young woman who clearly loved nature and who was very happy to share her nature walk with young children.

As our guide pointed out the various plants, turtles, raccoons, armadillos, waterfowl, alligators, and just about everything else that makes its home in Florida, my daughters hung on her every word in unmistakable hero-worship. Truly, I told myself, I chose well to bring my daughters here.

Welcome back to the real world

About midway through our walk, however, I was jolted back into the world of political reality.

While pointing out some mangrove trees, our guide made a truly startling statement. “The reason why we are having a drought in Florida is because too many people have cut down trees to build houses,” she said with a straight face. She then gave a sanctimonious speech about how trees “put water into the air at night,” and this can’t happen anymore now that man is cutting down all the trees.

Forget the glaring scientific fiction of our guide’s drought rationale. Her argument had clear logical flaws, even if she was ignorant of the science.

Although central Florida has suffered drought conditions during much of the past few years, 2001 was a year of normal rainfall. Did the trees suddenly detach themselves from peoples’ homes and replant themselves that January?

Moreover, the drought conditions of the past few years were preceded by an extended period of above-average rainfall. How could we have had such longstanding, above-average rainfall if clearing land for houses prevents rain from falling? Surely, only a small percentage of the state’s homes were built after 1997.

As I pondered whether to ask our guide about such obvious logical flaws in her enviro-political assertions, she floored me with another one.

“Worst thing that ever happened”

“The worst thing that ever happened to Florida was the invention of pesticides and air conditioning. Now people enjoy living here.”

“Of course,” I sarcastically thought to myself, “Florida was such a veritable paradise when malaria ravaged all who came here.”

As I watched my girls hanging on our guide’s every word, it saddened me very much that they will be taught people are the worst thing to ever happen. People are a part of nature, not nature’s opponent.

Eliminating malaria, maintaining homes at something less than 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity, and putting at least a reasonable check on Florida’s frog-sized cockroaches aren’t the worst things to ever happen to Florida. Florida is still primarily in its natural state, and even its few major cities harbor uncountable alligators, wetlands, and native species of wildlife. People and nature can and do coexist.

I recalled how a similar occurrence affected a good friend of mine.

A free-market environmentalist for a Washington, DC think tank, my friend has a child who is the primary focus of his life. One day, the seven-year-old boy came home from school, handed his father a hand-written note telling him that he was ashamed to have him for a father, and then ran to his bedroom in tears.

As it turned out, his teacher at school had been preaching the same anti-people, anti-free market principles espoused by the guide at my local nature walk. When the teacher learned who the child’s father was, she told him it was people like his father who were ruining the world. She then assisted the child in voicing his newfound shame and anger in the form of his hand-written note.

Although I can exercise personal discretion over where I take my children on nature walks, I have little-to-no discretion over my children’s public schools.

Will I someday have my daughter come home from school and tell me how ashamed she is to have me as a father? Is it really desirable for elementary school teachers to preach personal politics rather than objective knowledge and moral (rather than political) values?

Is it any wonder so many parents choose to forego free public education and either homeschool their children or send them to expensive private schools?