Facts, Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment by Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw

School Textbooks Are Misinforming Young People about Environmental Issues

Regnery Publishing • 1996 • 300 pages • $14.95 paperback

Mr. Rehmke is director of educational programs at the Free Enterprise Institute in Houston.

In Facts, Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment, Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw cover a wide spectrum of environmental issues and contrast the research of leading scientists and economists with assertions found in textbooks and environmental books for children.

This task is especially challenging because the parents who are the target audience hold their own environmental beliefs. Since reporting on environmental issues is often tilted, it is difficult to provide a balanced overview without sounding tilted the other way. People—and particularly parents—are naturally wary of books that seem extreme.

So as I read Facts, Not Fear, I tried to read not only for my own information about environmental issues and textbook teachings, but also with friends and relatives in mind who have children in school. Did an argument seem oversimplified? A conclusion overstated? Was an environmentalist’s position presented fairly? My conclusion is that Facts, Not Fear does a good job of mainstreaming its message. It succeeds in explaining environmental issues in straightforward and uncomplicated language. Sections on population, natural resources, rain forests, and wildlife all begin with quotations from school textbooks and then calmly compare gloomy textbook perspectives on these topics with the research of leading scholars. Facts, Not Fear demonstrates convincingly that school textbooks are misinforming young people about environmental issues.

The authors maintain an even and careful tone while pointing out the disparity between what textbooks try to teach children, and what scientific and economic research suggests should be taught. In the beginning of the book, the established experts that have reviewed each of the chapters on environmental topics are listed along with their academic affiliations. Leading economists reviewed sections on population, natural resources, and water, and a variety of scientists reviewed sections on forests, wildlife, greenhouse warming, the ozone layer, acid rain, and pesticides. Detailed notes and references for each chapter make it easy for skeptical readers to check out key sources themselves.

The chapter on natural resources makes clear that much misinformation is a consequence of textbook authors not understanding economics. You may face mineral shortages in your lifetime writes the author of one textbook. At the current rate of consumption, some scientists estimate that the world’s known supplies of oil, tin, copper, and aluminum will be used up within your lifetime, says another. Well, yes, lots of things might happen in a student’s lifetime. An asteroid might hit the earth, aliens might invade, or the moon might fall out of the sky. But future resource shortages are far more likely to be the consequence of government price controls than any future inability to locate, extract, and deliver resources to consumers.

These fears of a coming resource shortage come from comparing proven world resource reserves with annual world consumption rates. This is misleading. As Sanera and Shaw explain, proven reserves are the reserves of a mineral that companies currently know about, and thus they depend on how much effort and technology companies have so far invested in looking. This, in turn, depends on the expected price of a resource. If prices begin to rise or if new technologies allow companies to search less expensively for reserves, then more reserves are likely to be discovered—and proven reserves increase.

In addition, it is useful to realize that today’s natural resources are yesterday’s rocks and rubble. Until entrepreneurs and engineers discovered how to make use of the stuff of the world, peat, bogs, coal deposits, oil, natural gas, and all manner of ores were of little use to mankind. Oil, the authors point out, was a liability to farmers, lowering the value of their land and harming crops and pasture until the technology was developed in 1859 to distill it. Entrepreneurs and inventors search to make today’s sand and rubble into tomorrow’s valuable natural resources. Textbook statements that we are running low on key minerals are wrong or at least misleading, and the implication that resource shortages might cripple the economic future of our children is indefensible.

Sanera and Shaw detail the fascinating U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) figures of ultimate reserves—the amount of recoverable resources estimated to be in the top-half mile of the Earth’s crust and the total amounts of particular minerals thought to be in the entire Earth’s crust. These are big numbers and show how absurd textbook predictions of shortages are. Consider the aluminum that many textbook authors say may run out. Instead of the 23 years that textbooks come up with by dividing known reserves by annual consumption, the USGS estimates, by dividing ultimate recoverable resources by annual consumption, that aluminum will last for the next 68 thousand years!

Future technologies will increase even this number by searching deeper in the Earth’s crust for minerals. How much total aluminum is there in the Earth’s crust? According to the USGS, enough for 38.5 billion years! Perhaps pessimists will still complain, But what will we do then? But for most people a few thousand years is enough of a cushion, and is a far cry from the 23-year deadline textbooks give children for aluminum (and 45 years for copper, 21 years for zinc, and so on).

In chapter after chapter, Sanera and Shaw steadily cut through textbook misstatements and misinformation. In addition to replacing fears with facts about the environment, the authors suggest at the end of each chapter exercises and activities that parents might use to engage their children in thinking about this more realistic and upbeat view of the future.

Perhaps the first few chapters will be hardest for skeptical readers. The authors begin the book with their critique of the way environmental ideas are taught in schools and lay out the basics of free-market environmentalism. Perspectives and conclusions are presented without having room to include the full analysis presented later in the book (readers are many times referred to later chapters). The alternative would have been to just launch into the chapters on specific environmental issues. Perhaps in recommending Facts, Not Fear to someone skeptical of market-oriented ideas it would be best to point them first to chapters on particular environmental issues.

This is a book worth buying for ourselves, and worth buying to share with friends and relatives who have children in school. I know of no better step-by-step economic and scientific critique of the standard doom and gloom environmental world view. In countering environmental beliefs found in textbooks and taught to children, Sanera and Shaw address a disturbing consequence of the environmental movement—the filling of young minds with a deep and pervasive pessimism about their own future.