Amid Concerns, Bill Promotes 'Scientifically Sound' Environmentalism

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - "Our children must be taught about the environment in a balanced and unbiased manner," said the Republican co-sponsor of a bipartisan measure that promotes "objective and environmentally-sound" environmental education for American schoolchildren.

The bill, introduced Monday by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would provide federal grants and seed money to encourage primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, and non-profit groups to educate young people about environmental issues.

The bill would continue "Presidential Environmental Youth Awards" for students in grades K-12; and it would create an awards program for teachers who demonstrate excellence in advancing environmental education at the grade-school level.

"The goal is to encourage educators to provide students with all the relevant facts and information and not engage in issue or policy advocacy," said Sen. Inhofe.

According to Sen. Clinton, "Encouraging the next generation's innate curiosity about the world around them is an investment that will pay off down the road by helping all of us achieve a deeper understanding of our environment."

The bill, named after the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), requires environmental information disseminated by the federal government "to be of the highest quality and objectivity," and it says all efforts funded by the legislation "are to be based on the best available science."

Other Senators signing onto the legislation include Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I); Bob Smith (R-N.H.); John Warner (R-Va.); Harry Reid (D-Nev.); and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Warning bells

In some American communities, environmental education is a thorny issue. Port Huron, Michigan is now wrangling with a seemingly innocuous environmental education program called Earthkeepers, which is geared to fourth graders.

The program includes an annual three-day field trip, in which students are invited to learn about conservation and to enjoy nature. The activities include sitting in an assigned "magic spot" - under a tree, for instance - to quietly observe one's surroundings and later write about the experience in a diary.

Some parents in Port Huron object to the word "magic." They say an even bigger concern is the man who designed the Earthkeepers program.

Deep Ecology

Steven Van Matre heads the Institute for Earth Education, the Earthkeepers umbrella organization. He subscribes to a philosophy called "Deep Ecology," which some believe has its roots in Wiccan culture.

Deep Ecology holds that humans are no more important than plants or animals in the web of life.

According to the Deep Ecology philosophy, we are all part of the earth rather than apart and separate from it. We are all connected and we are all made from the same four elements: energy, water, earth, and air.

In other words, when you pinch yourself, it's the same thing as pinching a dinosaur - we're all the same. This is what the children learn at Earthkeepers.

Children also learn that the air they breathe may be the same air that Marco Polo breathed. The water they drink today may be the same water that Cleopatra once drank. Statements like these are offered as cool facts, without any objective, scientific basis.

Earthkeepers volunteers - who teach the three-day program -- call this a "fun way" of approaching science. They say their well-scripted program is designed to teach basic environmental concepts to children and to promote an appreciation for nature.

No beakers in science lab

The controversy over Port Huron's Earthkeepers program began when Dr. Kimberly Clark-Paul, a local cancer surgeon, attended the first full day of the program with her daughter and felt uncomfortable with what she saw.

She said the day began with children seated in a darkened garage, lit by candles - a place called E.M.'s laboratory. In a subsequent slide show, E.M. was described as a mysterious wizard of the woods who would be revealed to children as the program progressed. (By the end of the program, children discovered that E.M. stands for "energy and materials," "my experience" and ME, which is E.M. spelled backwards).

"My initial reaction was that this garage did not look like a laboratory at all, and I began to question why words like 'specks' were used instead of molecules," said Clark-Paul. "I knew that this was not science, but if it is not science, then what is it?"

Clark-Paul said she eventually found links between Wicca and the Earthkeepers curriculum. "They are doing things that are very much like things in pagan religions and telling us it doesn't mean anything," says Clark-Paul.

"Is it just coincidence that E.M.'s lab looks like a Witch's cove, coincidence that the specks taught in Earthkeepers are the same as the elements of witchcraft, coincidence that the magic spots are similar to pagan meditation?" she wondered.

"If they were going to the woods for three days to learn about nature, that's fine. I might question it, but wouldn't give it a second glance," Clark-Paul said. "But the fact that they are having my fourth grade daughter memorize the first principle of Wicca [we are all connected - plants, humans, animals], and having to recite in a dark garage that is supposed to be a wizard's laboratory, and telling her that it is a secret, there's a problem."

Kimberly Clark-Paul said Port Huron is home to a number of Wiccans. A local Wicca group meets each week at Port Huron's public library.

Pagan link denied

Emily Wallace, the head of the Earthkeepers program, said her staff's efforts are directed toward educating children about the world around them. The lessons are not derived from paganism or Wicca - or any religion at all, she said.

"This is an environmental program for kids that teaches them about how they can take care of the earth, where their food comes from, and what kind of personal actions they can take to improve the environment," said Wallace.

Wallace contends that the group's ties to Van Matre and his endorsement of deep ecology do not mean that Earthkeepers teaches the philosophy, even though the creator of the curriculum holds those beliefs personally.

She noted that parents have the option of keeping their children home, rather than sending them to the three-day program.

Re-evaluating Earthkeepers

Martin Prout, the special projects director of the Port Huron school district, heads a 13-member advisory committee that is currently re-evaluating the Earthkeepers program. He said educators are focusing on the academic merits of the program - whether it is age-appropriate and whether it meets current curriculum guidelines.

However, Prout said neither the committee nor the superintendent is overlooking the religious aspect of the controversy. "In all fairness, there were some concerns in the superintendent's eyes about some of the possible symbolism and imagery allegations that were brought out," Prout said.

His 13-member committee is expected to vote later this month on whether to continue allowing four-graders to participate in the annual three-day field trip sponsored by Earthkeepers.

( staff writer Jason Pierce attended an Earthkeepers program in early May. See his full story: Wicca, Ecology Debated in Michigan School Controversy. Morning Editor Susan Jones contributed to this report.)