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Is Enviro Education Less Divisive Than Activism?

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

"No divisiveness please" arguments are just codewords for: "I am afraid to do activism, and I am afraid to say so". What passes for friction-avoidance "education" is generally just teaching children to accept environmental degradation. Doing effective activism or education in rural or urban areas always causes some friction; but doing effective environmental education is invariably more controversial than activism, not less. Posted to an Audubon list 07/00.


Recently an Audubon Chapter made an argument on an email list that since rural areas are more conservative than urban areas they prefer doing education to doing activism because it causes less friction in the local community. This essay takes a closer look at the fallacies in this argument.

Steve said:

"Generally speaking, focusing on activism will cause more friction than focusing on education. Everyone can find common ground on education. We all agree that education is important."

Doing effective education usually causes more friction and divisiveness than effective activism. The question is what does "doing education" mean. For example:

Earlier this year some of my activist friends tabled at the Florida conference for 13,000 High School science teachers. (A table cost two thousand dollars.) ALL the other "enviro" tables were from forest products industries and various High school forest/science education programs now used in thousands of high schools that are basically corporate propaganda, like "Project Learning Tree (PLT)" which teaches children that clearcuts are good for kids and little bunny rabbits. PLT claims to have trained millions of children and reached over a hundred thousand teachers. It is corporate propaganda masquerading as "education".

Audubon, like all the other nationals had NO exhibit, and never has had an exhibit there, yet this is the front line of the battleground over environmental education. Our activists tried to counter, with better information, the massive invasion of corporate disinformation and misinformation provided gratis as science curriculum kits for school science classes. I would expect to see the "educationally oriented" chapters leading the criticism and correcting the bogus pseudo-science curriculums and countering wise use environmental propaganda masquerading as "good science". That is my idea of really "doing education".

On the other hand I have seen so called enviro "education programs" for kids (not done by our chapter) which taught kids to replant trees and do riparian restoration work in watersheds trashed because of earlier clearcuts on the river. That would seem to be "doing education". But on the day they went out to plant seedlings, the same company who had earlier trashed the forest and caused the damage in the first place - began new clearcuts right above where they were doing their "restoration."

Teaching kids to restore a watershed while the same bad guys that trashed it are doing the exact same thing in the very same watershed or over in the next watershed is not "doing education". Fixing trashed watersheds, and picking up after other people's messes while the same practices are still occurring is simply what alcoholics counselors call being an "enabler".

Steve also said:

"Many of the chapters in Washington, especially in Eastern Washington, exist in an extremely 'conservative' environment. Development and extraction have ruled for decades."

Wrong. Development and extraction have ruled everywhere in America not just in "conservative environments" and not just "for decades", but since the country started. It is just that some people understand it and some people are oblivious to it. Moreover, ANYWHERE you try to stop clearcutting or stop development and sprawl immediately becomes a hostile environment. Whether it is in a rural conservative area like mine or in a big city. This is because every single time you stop a big bad destructive project anywhere, you take millions out of some developer's or corporation's pocket and they get VERY hostile. So since preserving natural resources anywhere (as opposed to preserving historic or architectural places) always creates a hostile environment, the only way a chapter can avoid being "divisive" is to never to do any effective activism (or any effective education either).

Steve went on to say:

"Activism in our geographical area only serves to fracture the chapter and widen the gap between Audubon and the majority of citizens and legislators. Education, on the other hand, provides a bridge between Audubon, developers and legislators. The focus towards understanding human's role in the environment is paramount and easily embraced by far more people then the focus of removing dams and drastically altering millions of people's lives."

Go back and read the above paragraph again. You have seen this argument before. Where? It is a perfect restatement of what every Southern Congressman, Senator, governor, elected official and school board in the south told Eisenhower to try to persuade him not to send troops to Little Rock to integrate the schools. The question for us as it was for Ike, is not how to avoid divisions, or fracturing, or how to build bridges, but whether we will enforce our laws. In our case, laws allowing animals to live in peace and to survive. If Ike had chosen the "understanding" and non-divisiveness route, blacks would probably still be segregated in the south.

I have written an essay about the history of this seductive but pernicious argument in America: Is it really unimaginable to enforce federal Laws upon the Unwilling?

So it is just not true that education is a higher, noble, and more effective path to solutions when laws are being trampled on and where strong humans are oppressing weak humans or destroying the habitat of defenseless animals. Now I can understand anyone saying he is afraid to do activism, I am afraid sometimes myself. but many times when you hear the "no divisiveness please" argument, what people are actually saying is: "I am afraid to do activism, and I am afraid to say it, but I need to find something to say to preserve my concept of myself as a good person."

The effective activists I know are also involved in doing real education where real kids learn real skills to protect and defend real animals against real bad guys. Environmental-Action and education-action are fungible and inseparable.

And talk about divisive: really doing any effective biological scientific education in a lot of states would run you head on into creationists and I have not heard of any of our "educationally minded" chapters taking them on. And if they did, it would be activists" who would be the wimps, because most activists are afraid to take on "creationists" and the Jesus cults.

For an essay on the inroads Creationists are making into and the problems with biological education today, see: http://britell.com/use/use20.html

The book "An Enemy of the People" by Ibsen (1882) is about a town where a doctor finds the local spa upon which the town depends for its livelihood has become contaminated. The book is about the conflict caused when you advocate for the environment and all your town comes to hate you for it. It is relevant to this issue.

I have written an essay which proposes many specific and simple educational programs that Audubon chapters can do with kids. It can be found at:

http://britell.com/use/use17.html Practical, hands-on projects suitable for community groups and students that will educate and motivate people to solve the most important environmental problems facing their communities...

Actually our chapter has not yet started any of the programs described above because we are merely a hardcore activist chapter and so generally avoid the tough, controversial stuff like "effective education". Also we have not yet found a program chair tough enough to conduct them. So we sometimes avoid controversy and "divisiveness too, but not because we think we will be ineffective to cause divisiveness, but simply because we are afraid to do these programs.

In the difference between can't, and won't, lies ALL the difference.

©2000 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.


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