Dirty Plate

Money Raised From Environmental License Plates Funds Anti-Environmental Education.

THE AMERICAN Heritage Dictionary defines environmentalism as "advocacy for or work toward protecting the environment from destruction or pollution." That doesn't seem to be the dictionary the State of Arizona uses, judging from its curious use of funds raised from environmental license plates.

Seventeen dollars from each Arizona plate emblazoned "Protect the Environment" should go "directly towards promoting balanced environmental education for Arizona Children," to quote the literature. The state's interpretation of the word "balanced," though, could put true environmental education on the endangered species list.

The Arizona Council on Environmental Education governs this educational program. Its 10-member board includes not a single environmentalist, but does seat Larry McBiles of the Arizona Mining Association, John Semmens of the Laissez Faire Institute and Bruce Whiting of Kaibab Industries.

The council does not act autonomously. The Arizona Legislature has been hammering out the language that drives this program for years. The Legislature established the Environmental Plate Fund in 1990 and mandated that it be used to support environmental education.

Originally the law required that environmental education curricula "develop positive attitudes and values toward the environment and encourage civic and social responsibility toward environmental issues." This wording seemed to reflect the universally held understanding of the word "environmentalism."

Who could argue with that mandate? The Arizona Legislature itself, for one. By 1994 it had deleted such language in favor of requiring that all programs "be designed to help students develop an understanding of the scientific and economic concepts which impact on environmental and natural resource issues."

By 1995, the mandate to teach environmental education to grades K-12 was repealed. The school districts that still opted to do so were then required to present a discussion of "economic and social issues as related to the state and its citizens."

The Legislature delivered the coup de grace in 1997 with its seemingly innocuous addition of the word "balanced," as in, all programs must be "conducted in a balanced manner."

What does this mean, exactly? Only that every industry and agency with a thumb in the political pie should be rewarded with regular free advertising.

Our lawmakers created a world in which credible studies revealing negative environmental impact must, by law, be "balanced" with an upside.

For the 1999-2000 school year, the Arizona Council on Environmental Education sponsored and financed a slew of grants and research papers for school children. Among these are funds for an Opposing Viewpoints Environmental Books series and a three-to-five-day residential program at Phelps Dodge Morenci.

The book series comes in two sets. The Junior Series for fourth through eighth grades consists of five books including The Environment: Distinguishing between Fact and Opinion, Forests: Identifying Propaganda Technique and Garbage: Identifying Words in Context. The series is described as presenting "the different sides of today's most important issues." Point of fact: No serious environmentalist considers these titles an embodiment of today's most important issues.

"This is yet another sham laid upon us by the conservative Republican legislature," says Pam Hyde-Nakai, director of the Sonoran Herbal Institute. "The unsuspecting citizen is being duped again in this devious effort to brainwash our children by presenting anti-environmental fluff in the guise of scientific fact."

The Opposing Viewpoints Anthology Series for middle and high school students addresses such questions as:

· "What policies would best protect the world's fisheries?" (What about the endangered fish species?)

· "Does global warming pose a serious threat?" (The jury is already in, and the only questions is how serious?)

· "Should endangered species take priority over jobs, development and property rights? Are humans an endangered species?" (By their own actions?)

· "How effective is the Environmental Protection Agency?" (When will it be given teeth?)

· "Do animals have rights? Does wildlife need to be protected? Is ecological conservation bad for the environment? Should the environment be protected?" (That's a debate?)

The questions for this series are written to give credence to ideas designed to maintain the status quo. They embody as much scientific validity as creationism. This is an ersatz meal devoid of sustenance like the new indigestible butter, salted with free-market fervor, short-term tunnel vision and a singular economic purpose that has little to do with seeking truth.

These books are simply a vehicle for inculcating ideas that support the continued degradation of earth, air and water.

Another approved program for environmental education has been put together by Phelps Dodge Morenci. To quote its literature, the three-to-five-day program "exposes the high school and junior high school student to environmental issues including, but not limited to, reclamation processes and research, hazardous waste management, ground water monitoring, and recycling."

After this industry-driven seminar, students "will be allowed to come to conclusions based on what they have seen and participated in. ... There will also be some discussion of careers in the field." Can you say "captive audience"?

The Legislature has proven itself to be farseeing in at least one aspect. It understands the impressionability of the young and realizes the next generation must be prepared to support the power structure when their time comes. Never too early.

It must be admitted that in the annals of dirty tricks, the environmental special plate, with its own modest effort to affect this corner of the desert, surely rides along the top as Arizona land swindles go. Spread the word.

John C. Rogers developed and teaches a course in desert ecology at the Fred G. Acosta Job Corps in Tucson.