Tricky business for young ecologists

13th April 2007 at 01:00
China Mieville is a science fantasy novelist

One of the best arguments for engaging pupils with ecological arguments is how unhappy it makes big business. In his 1971 book The Lorax, Dr Seuss has the melancholy titular Lorax beg the Once-ler to stop chopping down trees to make useless objects. Eventually, the forest disappears, leaving only one seed, which is in the reader's hands. Get it? Big Timber certainly did.

In 1989, a California school district was lobbied to withdraw the book from a required reading list as it "criminalises the foresting industry".

Some years later, perhaps mindful that censorship looked crude, business tried to control messages to young readers. Terri Birkett, an "active member of the hardwood flooring industry", wrote Truax, a children's book distributed with teachers' guide and lesson plan, by a national wood flooring manufacturers' association.

In Truax, a kindly logger talks to a shrill eco-spirit who, after some scare-mongering, is persuaded by the timber industry's position. The forest spirit makes peace with the claim, for example, that extinction can be nothing to worry about. "How far will we go? How much will we pay To keep a few minnows from dying away?"

Firms are keen to set the agenda, providing teaching materials, funding "educational" projects and so on. It is crucial to demand a vigorous, independent and politically critical ecological curriculum. And this goes beyond lesson plans. There is a culture war and it is inevitable and desirable that art and fiction for young readers will increasingly investigate ecological concerns. But crude didacticism is a disaster. It's no Truax, but still the heart sinks to read of a recent book in which the heroine "uses recycling to vanquish the monster that her garbage has turned into".

It is often a regrettably depoliticised "environmentalism" that informs such hectoring. A battle is on for the ecosystem, but also for the soul of ecological politics. Despite greener-than-thou corporations, 70 tonnes of industrial waste are produced for every consumer tonne, so pupils will be rightly sceptical of ministers insisting they "do their bit" by sorting bottles.

Schools can be spaces to foster such laudable scepticism. The growth of "garbage imperialism" and neo-liberalism's international trade in rubbish, for example, are topics that might bring an ecological focus into economics and politics lessons. Ecology is always political, and young people know it.

China Mieville's debut children's novel, Un Lun Dun, has just been published by Macmillan Children's Books

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