American environmental educators are adopting new teaching standards to deflect complaints that they are biased and dogmatic.
Most of the modifications have so far been voluntary as the result of pressure from right-wingers and industry. But as the pace of the complaints picks up, one state's legislature has repealed its environmental education requirement. Arizona lawmakers said they were convinced that students were being brainwashed into "eco-cultism".
"There is a small number of critics who are extremely vocal and very skilled at working with the media," said Edward McCrea, director of the North American Association for Environmental Education.
The association has adopted its first-ever guidelines for reviewing education materials and is setting teaching standards that stress objectivity and fairness.
"A lot of the materials out there have pushed them to that 'save the environment' mentality, politicising kids and changing personal behaviour. But the other side of the issue is rarely presented," said Michael Sanera, director of the conservative Centre for Environmental Education Research and co-author of a book called Facts, not fear: a parent's guide to teaching children about the environment.
There seems little chance that the subject of environmental education will be scrapped; in a survey by the National Environmental Training Foundation, 97 per cent of American parents said they were in favour of it being taught in schools.
But after reading 130 science, environmental science, geography and health textbooks as part of his research, Dr Sanera contends that students are being taught only one side of the controversies over issues such as acid rain, recycling, global warming, overpopulation and pesticide use.
"What is shocking is the degree of bias," he said. "They assume that global warming is occurring and that we've got to take action, when many scientists say the opposite. And the economics of recycling is rarely mentioned. It's a mantra of mindless recycling. It's not presented as an objective issue. "
Some Arizona legislators were outraged to hear that children were being taught to dance to wolf howls and whale sounds. In Massachusetts, a group was set up to rewrite environmental education standards after a high-school teacher staged a trial in which students dressed as animals prosecuted humans for destroying the environment.
Mr McCrea said these cases are exceptions: "Our role is to help people acquire the facts, become aware of problems and make intelligent decisions," he said.