Our Response to the Sierra Club Attack on Environmental Education

Letters to the Editor
85 Second Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-3441

Dear Editor:

Bruce Selcraig (“Reading, ‘Riting, and Ravaging,” Sierra May/June 1998) knowingly distorts the serious work of the Independent Commission on Environmental Education by branding it a corporate funded enterprise unsympathetic to the interests of education. I say knowingly because we have had this argument before with Mr. Selcraig’s organization, The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education(CCFPE), and it is inconceivable that he would be unaware of the true nature of the Commission’s and the Marshall Institute’s funding – private foundation grants only with no support from any corporations. But as there seems to be no way to get CCFPE or the Sierra Club to let go of this false claim, perhaps others are willing to discuss substantive issues surrounding the future of environmental education.

Here it seems there are two Sierra Clubs. One, represented by Mr. Selcraig, sees environmental education as a vehicle for persuading children that the earth’s ecosystem is in eminent peril and for recruiting them in political action to save the environment. The other, represented by Sierra Club publications such as The Great Yellowstone Fire, see environmental education as a way to teach children about the environment and to use the outdoors as a way to bring learning alive for youngsters.

There is a strong push within some circles to use environmental education as a way to change student’s behavior so that it conforms to a certain predetermined political course of action. Both environmental groups and corporations follow this course of action when they produce classroom materials that are poorly disguised propaganda pieces of absolutely no use to a teacher actually interested in educating students about the interesting scientific, economic, political, and social themes that spring from a serious look at the environment. We therefore share Mr. Selcraig’s outrage when corporations use the classroom for their own narrow self-interest. Unlike Mr. Selcraig, however, we object to replacing one form of propaganda with another. It’s using children we object to, no matter from what source.

The destructive consequences of the behavior modification approach to environmental education was demonstrated just last month in Denver, Colorado when the Sierra Club organized a rally against Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and used some 50 elementary students and their teachers as participants in its denunciation of the Senator’s record on endangered species. The school’s principal told the local newspaper that she was misled by the Sierra Club, which had said the students would attend an educational Earth Day event. Instead of education, however, the children were used as a backdrop for the Club’s anti-Campbell political rally.

The Rocky Mountain News editorialized against this rally noting that “very few fourth-graders know enough about the issues facing the Senate to form their own opinions, and they shouldn’t be pressed into service in support of anyone else’s opinions.”

Just so. Still the Sierra Club defended its actions as legitimate. And yet, most parents would see this not as environmental education, but a reprehensible use of children for political gain.

The Independent Commission noted that “environmental education can make, and in many cases is making, an important contribution to primary and secondary education.” We join that part of the Sierra Club interested in teaching children about the environment in the effort to arm the next generation with knowledge not prejudice.


Jeffrey Salmon
Executive Director

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