Although my own children have long outgrown picture books, I still have nephews and nieces young enough to enjoy them. So I buy them from time to time. I also buy books on energy. Perhaps it was that combination that prompted Amazon to recommend What’s So Bad About Gasoline? by Anne Rockwell, engagingly illustrated by Paul Meisel.
Curious about what is so bad about gasoline that it was necessary to warn children, I bought it and found myself in an alternative universe of dreary ecological disasters. This was a far cry from the world of the classic picture books, such as what is undoubtedly today considered the criminally polluting tale of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Nor did it resemble the brightly colored and fantastic world in the books I read to my kids in the early 1990s. Even more depressing, when I dug further it turned out that What’s So Bad About Gasoline? is part of a series of “science” books aimed at elementary school kids that tell a tale of ecological catastrophe. These include Oil Spill! by Melvin Berger and Where Does the Garbage Go? by Paul Showers.
If these books are what kids grow up with today, we should hope they spend their time on video games instead of reading. The books are troubling because by ignoring economics and by focusing on eco-politics, they get the solutions to environmental problems wrong.
Worse, in the world these books present things don’t get better. We must always do more to repent for our environmental sins. As economist Robert Nelson observes, environmentalism in America has evolved into “environmental Calvinism.” Even worse, Nelson notes, it is “Calvinism without God,” as bleak a vision as one can imagine since we’re left only with an impersonal environment as the object of veneration. (Nelson’s The New Holy Wars: Economic vs. Environmental Religion is a great read.) Presenting consumption as ecological sin without showing the vast improvements in people’s lives produced by growing wealth ignores the great success of market economies and entrepreneurs.
Finally, the vision of the world these books present lacks human agency as anything other than motivating the mindless consumption that leads to ecological catastrophes. Not only is this a world missing entrepreneurs and inventors, there’s also no excitement to its vision of the future. Although I am still waiting for my personal jetpack, the world of the The Jetsons promised a future of excitement and fun rather than a grim time in which we merely replace our cars with hybrids. The optimism that prompted Julian Simon to term humanity “the ultimate resource” is missing from this literature.
Oil Spill! was first published after the Exxon Valdez event. It opens with a dramatic scene of the tanker hitting the reef in Prince William Sound. Missing from the story are the broken sonar system that should have alerted the crew to the impending collision, the overtired third mate in the wheelhouse because the union-protected captain was sleeping off a drinking binge, and the lack of sufficient crew. The spill just happens. Indeed, humans are a minor presence in the book—appearing on just eight of 29 pages of illustrations, only as a cleanup crew hosing down a beach, a family on a beach, people using energy, and a child writing her congressman. Oil Spill!’s solution to the devastation of nature is political action.
Kids reading Oil Spill! aren’t likely to be ready for a fact-heavy discussion of oil-transportation risks versus the benefits of energy consumption, the natural underwater oil seeps that could be reduced by offshore drilling, or whether using less electricity will really reduce oil spills, as the book suggests (oil-fueled sources account for under 2 percent of U.S. electrical generation).
Children do not learn that the profit motive is what drives inventors and manufacturers to improve products to reduce energy consumption. The U.S. economy has steadily become more energy-efficient: Per dollar of real GDP, energy use dropped by more than a third from the late 1970s to 2000. Compared to 1900 each unit of energy input in 2000 could provide four times as much useful heat, move a person 550 times farther, provide 50 times more illumination, and produce 12 times as much electricity. Moreover, oil spills like the Exxon Valdez or the BP disaster are exceptions rather than the rule and are more likely due to failures in regulatory schemes than to a lack of laws.
Where Does the Garbage Go? isn’t a new book, first appearing in 1974. Comparing the 1974 and 1994 editions reveals an interesting shift in environmental thinking. Originally, Where Does the Garbage Go? centered on a girl who went through her own trash to see what her family threw away. She found worn sneakers, potato peels, cans, bottles, and her old yoyo. She then visited her uncle on a farm, discovering that food scraps could be fed to pigs. The book generalized to the collection of garbage and its disposal in the ocean (showing children swimming in a polluted ocean), incinerators (children grimacing and rubbing their eyes from the smoke), and dumps (“a dirty place,” “a great big mess” with rats and “millions of flies”). After explaining recycling and showing crowds making more trash, the 1974 book concluded with the child narrator asking what the reader thought “we should do” about trash as she took her old yoyo from the trash and fixed it.
By 1994, however, the narrator was gone and the story was now presented as a school lesson. Dumps and ocean dumping were history. But, just as in 1974, “Waste never stops piling up.” Recycling and waste-to-energy plants could handle some of our trash, but “we must do more. We must stop throwing so many things away.” By the end children are depicted walking home from the grocery store holding string bags that “we never throw away” and use “over and over again.”
Set aside whether or not recycling makes economic sense, particularly in the forms advocated in Where Does the Garbage Go? No second-grader wants to read a cost-benefit analysis of curbside recycling programs. Let’s even forget whether there is a market for recycled products large enough to absorb our trash. The big problem in this book—and in the others as well—is the focus on making people feel bad about consuming goods because it creates “waste.”
Consumption isn’t bad—it is how we are made better off by the goods and services we purchase. The great success of market societies is precisely that they make it possible for virtually everyone in them to consume at a rate greater than even kings and emperors did in even the recent past. It was Boris Yeltsin’s 1989 visit to a Houston supermarket, not a visit to a recycling center, that convinced him of the superiority of free markets.
Moreover, the bounty of a market economy is a relatively recent discovery. There was little change in consumption of calories anywhere in the world until about 1800 in western Europe. Only after the Industrial Revolution did the human condition experience a dramatic change for the better. The world’s most pressing problem is that there is too little consumption not too much. People living in poverty in societies that lack basic market institutions across the developing world need to increase their consumption not reduce it.
Simultaneously the worst and best thing about What’s So Bad About Gasoline? and its ilk is that they are excruciatingly boring. Boring is bad because energy isn’t a boring topic, and making it boring turns kids off to thinking about science and technology. To their credit the book’s author and illustrator try hard to make it interesting. The pictures are lively: glaciers melt and houses tumble into the ocean. But they aren’t enough because the eco-catastrophist version of energy is one in which people are passive and events inevitable.
That’s not how the world actually works, of course. Energy isn’t boring even for elementary school kids because it is crammed full of interesting discoveries, larger-than-life characters, and exciting events. The transformation of gasoline from a waste product into a valuable commodity is a series of exciting discoveries made by entrepreneurs and scientists who raised our standards of living and health. In transforming oil into gasoline, scientists repeatedly accomplished tasks no one believed they could—turning crude oil into hundreds of different products. Brilliant and interesting characters abound.
Unfortunately What’s So Bad About Gasoline? misses all this. There are no individuals in the story. A cast of anonymous people from the Middle East to China to the United States finds things to do with petroleum and gasoline, and then bad things happen because we’re using too much carbon-based fuel.
Presumably HarperCollins publishes books like Where Does the Garbage Go?, Oil Spill!, and What’s So Bad About Gasoline? because earnest parents want their kids to grow up with green values. They are just a small part of a large series from one publisher, and my search for these books soon had Amazon recommending dozens of other similar titles. Worse, it is not just in these books that a future of ecological gloom and doom is being taught. Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw’s Facts Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment documented the extent of the problem of teaching children to fear the future environmental catastrophe. For kids between kindergarten and 12th grade the dominant message in schools is: “The earth is badly polluted, the rain forest is about to disappear, and global warming will submerge New York City with floods—to name a few of the imminent catastrophes,” all problems caused by their parents, who “have brought the earth to the edge of doom.” Scientists and engineers are not problem solvers who make life better but evil exploiters of the environment. Congressmen solve problems.
How do people who believe humanity is indeed the ultimate resource rescue the future? We’ve got two key advantages over the prophets of doom. First, our stories are more interesting. Free societies have room for people to do things—to discover new ideas and invent new products. Children are engaged in a process of discovery about the world around them and the narrative of discovery is more exciting than one of catastrophes. Active beats passive for almost everyone, and free markets are active. Freedom and free enterprise are just much more interesting than the alternatives.
Second, “environmental Calvinism” is even less fun than the original Swiss version. Given a choice, kids’ dreams are not going to be about sorting trash into recycling bins but about personal jetpacks. Because we’ve got a more interesting story, we’ve got a chance to capture young people’s attention. If you spot a neighbor’s or relative’s young kids glumly reading Oil Spill!, slip them a life of Thomas Edison or a even Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (still in print!) and most will opt for the excitement of markets, invention, and action over the gloom of environmental pessimism. If parents read stories of action, invention, and excitement, they might even think twice about their own gloomy outlooks.