I’ve just finished reading a Q&A in Yale Environment 360 in which an expert contends that our educational system is a significant cause of “green failure,” ie. the inability of society to come to grips with climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Here’s the nut of the argument:
The environment is often seen as a political issue and pushed to the margins of school curricula by administrators and parents, note [Charles] Saylan and Daniel Blumstein, a biology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, in The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). But at its core, the authors contend, environmental responsibility is a broadly held, nonpartisan value, much like respect for the law. As such, they believe, it deserves a central place in public education, with lessons on the environment permeating every student’s day.
I’m all for better education. I’m sure the co-author being questioned, Saylan, who’s co-founder and executive director of the California-based Ocean Conservation Society, is a smart and decent man. I consider the author/questioner in this piece, Michelle Nijhuis, to be an extraordinarily talented journalist. But the goo-goo argument I just summarized seems, to me, a very unfortunate example of preaching to the choir of environmental true-believers while, simultaneously, playing into the deepest fears conservatives love to spread about environmentalists and liberals. The belief that liberals control the academy and are corrupting our youth by pushing their ideology on them at school is central to the conservative catechism. What environmentalists might see as commonsense and noncontroversial — incorporating environmental responsibility into school curriculums — will be easily and effectively characterized/caricatured by the right as yet more of the leftist, nanny-statist, environmentally extreme social engineering that has killed the economy and saddled the nation with multitrillion-dollar debts and …. blad-dee-dah. Yes, it’s simplistic misleading nonsense, but it’s politically effective nonsense, and it seems that Saylan and his co-author are pitching right into the conservative big-government-is-bad wheelhouse. (I say “seems” because I’m judging from this one interview; I hope to get and read the book and will revise my opinion if necessary.)
By all means let us teach true scientific facts to our schoolkids. But climate change is a clear and present danger — the most serious threat the world faces — and a couple of generations of wrangling over environmental education policy is exactly the wrong way to address it. I don’t claim to possess a lock on wisdom about conveying the climate change message so public attitudes change in the direction of accepting scientific fact and rejecting know-nothing political rhetoric and energy industry obsfucation. But I do believe that the large environmental nonprofits — the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon and others — need to take some of their huge income streams and devote significant chunks of money directly to the task of making climate change uncool and stupid, in the way that cigarette smoking has been made dumb and unhip.
Congress won’t aggressively act on climate change until public attitudes strongly support action. The ability of advertising — funny, smart, hip, multi-platform advertising — to change attitudes, and particularly political attitudes, has been proven, over and over again. Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth did their part to start the climate-change marketing effort. It’s time for the environmental lobby to pull money out of Washington and put it into a major, long-term, brilliant ad campaign focused on the most conceited, mean, greedy and uncool kid in school: Carlyle Dioxide.