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Making the Grade
A new book argues that it’s time to stop teaching environmentalism as a partisan issue and start teaching it as an important value. 

The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)
By Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Press, 247 pages, $24.95

 

Most of us with an affinity for the natural world are, in one way or another, products of environmental education. I remember a third-grade homework assignment to spend an hour outside, alone, with no books or toys to pass the time. Dubiously, I grabbed a stick and started poking around in a pile of wet leaves. Before I knew it I was covered with mud, and the hour was up.

As an environmental journalist, I now spend much of my time poking around in nature, and my career choices can be traced back, in part, to that unexpectedly interesting hour in my backyard. Many of the scientists and activists I interview have similar stories: of inspiring teachers, life-changing camping expeditions and museum trips, or just memorable farm and garden chores.

But no matter how powerful these early experiences are, environmental degradation far outpaces their influence. The only cure for disappearing habitat and other worsening planetary ills, authors Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein argue, is a rapid and decided change in our behavior. One important way to accomplish that shift is through education—an enormous task that, to date, has failed. In their new book, The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It), Saylan and Blumstein offer a thoughtful, vigorous critique of environmental education as we know it today, and hatch ideas for its improvement.

In many cases, it’s an optional subject. Often viewed with suspicion by parents, teachers, and administrators, it is either ignored or wedged into a few spare hours in science or gym classes. Even California, so often at the forefront of environmental policy making, does not require that its students learn about such basic concepts as biodiversity loss and energy consumption.

We all breathe air, drink water, and eat food grown in soil, and we would like our descendants to be able to do the same. So how did the environment fall so far down our list of educational priorities?

Saylan, the executive director of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Blumstein, a biology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, say that one basic problem is political polarization: Environmentalism is widely considered a political label rather than an obligation shared by all citizens. Its politicization, say Saylan and Blumstein, began in earnest with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring and the vitriolic industry attacks on its claims. In the decades that followed, as activists battled industry laws and regulations, both sides contributed to the widening ideological divide. The cause came to be seen not as a common interest of all but as the special interest of a few.

Saylan and Blumstein say it’s time to restore the true meaning. “Environmentalism is not an option like choosing one’s religion or political affiliation,” they write. “It is a responsibility and fundamental aspect of cohesive society.”

While schools should not prescribe politics, and many aspects of moral education are and should be left to families, the authors point out that educators don’t hesitate to teach broadly held values such as respect for law and order and the importance of voting. So, too, should schools teach respect for the life-support system known as the natural world, and for its inherent limits.

Messing around in wet leaves is not enough. Everyone must also understand essential scientific concepts such as the complexity of ecological relationships. And that’s not all. “Without our appreciation of beauty, the dormant poetry in our surroundings goes unnoticed,” they write. “Students, and indeed all citizens, need the capacity to see intangible value in things: forests simply for the sake of the forest; the expanse of wilderness simply because it is alive, primal, and fiercely beautiful.”

Easier said than done, of course. Saylan and Blumstein emphasize that this far-reaching job extends beyond underpaid, standardized-test-constrained educators to parents and communities. They recommend top-down reforms, such as adding new standards into curriculum, but in the end most of their solutions are both humbler and more ambitious: Students should learn the theory and practice of environmental citizenship in large and small ways throughout their school days, and the rest of their daily lives. Teachers and parents can and should push for institutional changes while finding ways to engage students in the wonder of the world and the magnitude of the problems it faces.

Saylan and Blumstein point to innovative projects such as Food from the ’Hood, which began as a Los Angeles school garden and eventually became a student-run company that donated a quarter of its produce to the needy and provided more than $250,000 in student scholarships. Students at other Los Angeles schools have spoken at city councils in support of plastic-bag bans, organized and managed neighborhood gardens, and helped community members save energy and money by weatherizing their homes. Such experiences, Saylan and Blumstein say, teach that environmental responsibility requires broad knowledge, diverse skills, and a healthy sense of adventure.

Their solutions, they concede, may sound utopian, and the scope and ambition of their proposals could intimidate even the most energetic teacher or parent. Nonetheless, their vision is inspiring: environmental education freed from partisan squabbling, and made creative, flexible, and powerful enough to reach citizens of all abilities and interests. This former muddy third grader likes the sounds of that.

Michele Nijhuis wrote “Balance of Power,” in the March-April 2010 issue.

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EDITORS’ CHOICE

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them
By Donovan Hohn
Viking, 416 pages, $27.95

Some of the best books take as their subject small or mundane things and, through them, connect readers to the world at large. In Moby-Duck, journalist and former English teacher Donovan Hohn traces the oceanic migrations of thousands of bath toys washed off a container ship in the North Pacific. Alerted to the incident by a student essay, Hohn embarks on a hemisphere-spanning quest to unravel the mystery of bleached castaways littering beaches from Washington to Massachusetts. With each outing, the erudite duckie hunter untangles new strands in the web of science and the global economy. Along the way, he encounters Chinese toy manufacturers, Arctic sea ice researchers, and the “Ahab of plastic hunters,” and goes snorkeling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a “purgatorial eddy” of trash the size of Texas. Following the story’s dark undercurrents, Hohn learns that plastic flotsam binds industrial toxins from the ocean’s surface. Broken down by the elements, synthetic polymers pollute the food chain. In an ironic twist, icons of childhood innocence thus threaten albatrosses—hundreds of plastic pieces were found in a single bird’s stomach. Though fatalism could have easily sunk this yarn, Hohn stays the course with humor and curiosity.—Michael Engelhard
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Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea
By Kennedy Warne
Island Press, 190 pages, $25.95

Shrimp are among the world’s most popular seafoods. But every time you dip one of these plump crustaceans into that cocktail sauce you may be contributing to the destruction of one of the planet’s most magnificent and least appreciated ecosystems. Mangroves—vast areas of snaking roots and twisted trunks that take up valuable coastline—have long been seen as worthless. As a result, they are being cleared to make way for shrimp farming, from Ecuador to Thailand, as well as for coastal development. In Let Them Eat Shrimp, Kennedy Warne takes readers into these mysterious ecosystems, revealing the vital roles they play (see “Stepping Out”). They’re natural storm barriers that a variety of species—including “forty-eight birds, fourteen reptiles, one amphibian, and six mammals”—depend on for survival. At the same time they are among the world’s most rapidly disappearing ecosystems, and up to one-half of all mangroves have been destroyed in the past 40 years. Warne goes so far as to put a price tag on the loss, given that scientists estimate that, preserved, mangroves are worth $10,000 per hectare, per year: “Thus a 100-hectare shrimp farm constructed by clearing mangroves incurs an annual environmental deficit of $1 million—a cost that, if it were included in the price of the product, would take farmed shrimp off the fast-food menu.”—Alisa Opar
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Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
By Melissa Milgrom
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 285 pages, $25

Skinning a squirrel may incite the gag reflex; reading about it is another matter. In Still Life, Melissa Milgrom’s page-turner, she ventures into the zany field of taxidermy, whose acolytes’ obsessive fastidiousness and determination fuel a common desire to preserve the dead as if they were alive. Weaving historical accounts of early efforts to mount animals with years of her own intimate observation in museums, taxidermy competitions, and studios—in one workshop, she even mounts her own rodent—Milgrom reveals how taxidermy has evolved in technique and utility. She ultimately discovers that what many probably perceive as a macabre sideshow is a skilled craft where art and science collide. Committed to anatomical accuracy, the best practitioners pore over research studies and photographs in pursuit of perfection, a drive that can verge on the fanatical. Taxidermist Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History is just one of many characters Milgrom profiles—he literally died for his work, succumbing to malaria and sheer exhaustion on an expedition in search of prime specimens for the dioramas in his famous Hall of African Mammals. “The most gifted taxidermists are an almost comically disparate group who argue about everything except this: nothing is either as loved or as hated as taxidermy,” she writes. Regardless of your tastes, after reading Still Life, you won’t view a stuffed squirrel in the same way again.—Julie Leibach
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The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment
By Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter
Oxford University Press, 223 pages, $27.95

The history of American pollution tends to be rooted in industry’s predilection for research over regulation and deceit over disclosure. Or “spill, study, and stall,” as Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter put it in The Polluters. In their exhaustively detailed book, the two environmental scientists survey the century since U.S. chemists began synthesizing explosives, fuels, and pesticides. They reveal how the steel industry shirked blame for the deadly air that in 1948 killed 20 people in Donora, Pennsylvania, and why American apples sold at home were originally held to laxer pesticide limits than those shipped overseas. The profit motive drove pollution, they write, and industry-friendly agencies and scientists allowed the poisons to flow freely into the air and water. And while industry repeatedly called for research in order to avoid action when public health concerns cropped up, they were careful to dodge data that would self-incriminate—or were quick to cover them up. For example, a study of diseases afflicting coal miners looked only at active miners, thus diluting the results by excluding the sickest workers. These tales are tragically timeless and have been retold through recent oil and mining disasters, and the global warming deniers. The writers do point to growing, albeit halting, progress since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in the 1960s: “The world has come to better recognize the malignant spirits set loose by the chemical industry’s wizardry.” But, they add, we still have a long way to go to quiet those demons.—Lynne Peeples
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The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living
By Mark Boyle
Oneworld Publications, 206 pages, $22.95

Money doesn’t make Mark Boyle’s world go round, and he’s out to prove that it’s possible to survive comfortably without it. This self-deprivation, he argues in The Moneyless Man, actually reconnects people to protecting the earth. “If we all had to grow our own food, we wouldn’t waste 40 percent of it (as is done now in the U.S.),” he writes. “If we could see the condition in which a pig is slaughtered, it would put most of us off our BLT.” Boyle tests his hypothesis by vowing not to spend a cent for 365 days. Instead he barters for or grows what he needs and depends on the kindness of friends, family, and strangers. His narrative delivers stomach-turning excitement as he prepares for his experiment. There is despair when a flood destroys his carefully tended vegetable crops and relief when he earns more than 30 falafel sandwiches for five hours’ work supplying snacks to grocery stores. Boyle admits a fully moneyless world is impractical, yet during his 12 months, he saw no shortage of generosity, from people giving him a landfill-bound trailer to driving him across the United Kingdom for free. “If I can live this way, many people also could,” Boyle writes. “As long as the will to do it is in there somewhere, the rest is a matter of education and practice.”—Michele Wilson
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For Kids

The BLUES Go Birding Across America
By Carol L. Malnor and Sandy F. Fuller/Illustrated by Louise Schroeder
Dawn Publications, 36 pages, $16.95 (Ages 5–9)

Kids indifferent to birds won’t be once they meet Bing, Lulu, Uno, Eggbert, and Sammi, adorable bluebird siblings that thrive on adventure. In The BLUES Go Birding Across America, the first of a series, the feathered family travels coast to coast in search of a new sound for an upcoming singing performance. In Alaska a majestic bald eagle with a penetrating stare awes them, but its cacophonous kak-kak-kak call won’t work for their tune. Neither will a mockingbird’s mimicry. “Let’s not copy a copycat,” says Bing. Throughout the trip, the tubby siblings—each dons a trademark color—quip in thought-bubble form, while also updating a notebook with observations about their talent search. “Mother Mallard was very protective,” writes Sammi about waterfowl swimming in the Charles River’s dark waters. “She was mostly brown, so she and [her] babies could easily hide, or be camouflaged, when on land.” Additional field guide–worthy information on every other page offers more bird facts to educate young readers swept up on the journey. Eventually the family finds its avian American Idol—a robin—and puts on a smashing performance. Kids will look forward to the encore: book two, when the BLUES fly off in Roger Tory Peterson’s footsteps.—Julie Leibach
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Art of the Wild

Small architectural marvels were hidden in storage for decades at the California Academy of Sciences until 2007, when artist Sharon Beals began unearthing them from cardboard boxes and wooden cabinets. She wanted to photograph nature’s miniature masterpieces—birds’ nests—which had been collected over the course of a century from a variety of species. Her images first appeared in Audubon’s March-April 2008 issue and on its cover; they soar again in her elegant new book, Nests (Chronicle Books, $29.95). One by one, the structures appear in stark relief on a black background, exposing their exquisite intricacies—colored thread in an Altamira oriole’s creation, seashells in a Caspian tern’s—and, often, intact eggs. On facing pages, an illustration of the builder perches above companion text describing the species’ nesting habits and construction methods. “Each nest is a scientific treasure trove,” write the academy’s Jack Dumbacher and Maureen Flannery in the foreword. “Each nest is also an amazing work of art.” So is Beals’s book.—Julie Leibach
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