Recycle or Die

Kids who hate Earth Day dogma.

A Slate colleague has a daughter who is searching for what you might call the Eco-Grinch—a creature with a lopsided grin who will collect all the recycling bins and “Ban Styrofoam!” signs and drive them off a cliff. Although she’s only 6, she’s tired of the preachy drumbeat of save-the-planet anxiety. Not just during this week in April but all the livelong year, and not just in school but also at Girl Scouts and on the Disney channel and Noggin and in the kids’ magazines she gets at home. Even at church, the lesson is about keeping the Earth healthy. (OK, she goes to a Unitarian service.) “It’s inescapable and 24/7,” her father reports, “and she is cranky and pissed off about it.” Yet, she can’t throw off her Earth-centric shackles. “At the same time, she’ll get anxious if she sees an aluminum can go into the waste basket instead of the recycling,” her dad says. “Her brain is rebelling, but it’s also captive.”

Such are the perils of stuffing kids full of lessons that are both didactic and scary. The concept of Earth Day isn’t the problem. Nor of course is the gentle reminder that our dear, fragile climate is helped when you remember to turn off the lights or the water (especially if it’s hot). Also entirely unobjectionable is the beginner’s science lesson about why a warmer planet wouldn’t be a great thing. The problem is overkill, and discussions or curricula that don’t pay enough attention to what real 6-year-olds (or 9- or 12-year-olds) can take in and grapple with. This is when green becomes the color of propaganda.

I’m an odd person to complain about this. As a teenager, I sanctimoniously prodded my family into carrying around sacks of plastic and glass bottles if we’d traveled to a place that didn’t recycle. But parent-to-kid, scolding like that either gets you nowhere or too far. They either tune you out or they become little zealots, and then watch out when you’re the one chucking the plastic water bottle into the regular trash.

Yet the temptation to harangue is strong, as I am reminded by a couple of green-and-doom Web sites. To teach kids about polluted runoff—not really the most child-friendly phrase, for starters—the Environmental Protection Agency has come up with Darby Duck, the Aquatic Crusader. Darby’s lesson starts out innocuously enough, explaining that “ducks keep their feathers waterproof by spreading oil from a special gland onto their feathers” and that excess oil in the water they swim in can hurt them. Then it unmerrily continues, “You have probably heard of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

Well, actually, no. How many kids willing to listen to Darby Duck were alive for Exxon Valdez? Answer: none, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the 1989 accident. At the time, we needed to see all the awful pictures. Now, I wonder if the pendulum has swung and climate change threatens to become for kids today what nuclear proliferation was for kids of my generation in the 1970s and ‘80s: a source of existential despair. I think back to maudlin and manipulative TV movies like The Day After, which aired in 1983, and I hope no one is making the ozone-hole equivalent.

Back to Darby, who wants kids to know that when birds get oily, they die. This is fair enough, I suppose, since they do. But I really don’t like the next line: “The only way to save the oil covered birds is to scrub them with detergent, like you might scrub a greasy pan.” This is followed by a how-to lesson on cleaning up an oil spill. And then, inevitably, with the “extension” activities of coming up with five things you can do to reduce your own personal pollutants and scouring your local stream for signs of pollution.

If kids notice trash in the water, or scum on a pond, and ask on their own about what it’s doing there, that’s one thing. But marching them out to focus on the junk in the water rather than the rocks they can throw in or the trees they can climb? No thanks. I’ll also pass on this slideshow from EEK!, an e-magazine for kids in grades four through eight from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which teaches kids how to detect ozone injury in leaves. I suppose that age group can handle the bad news. But I’d rather use environmental education in general and Earth Day in particular to help them see the still-present beauty of nature rather than all the flesh wounds.

And, in fact, when I call up the Earth Day Network to ask an expert’s take, that’s what they’re advocating, too. “It’s true that the message on climate change for kids can be doom and gloom, and a lot of the movement has portrayed it that way,” Education Director Sean Miller says. His recommendation for greening little kids: Take them outside. The network supports a campaign called No Child Left Inside, legislation that passed the House last fall. It’s for teacher training for outdoor and environmental education. This is the first I’ve heard of the bill, but I do like the name because the number of kids with little or no access to the outdoors should be cause for some real adult despair.

Miller’s other suggestion for the small fry: Take a look at their art supplies with them. See if the classroom’s paints and crayons, or the ones you have at home, are made with lead or mercury or cadmium, which are not good for kids. Enlist them in finding nontoxic alternatives. “And then you can paint an eco-message,” Miller suggests.

I wonder what my colleague’s 6-year-old daughter would make of this idea. It’s not entirely free-thinking to tell kids what to paint. On the other hand, maybe one afternoon with paints would be welcome if it replaced many other days of misguided preaching. A teaspoon of green, yes—the Eco-Grinch can leave the paints behind. And then send everyone outside for recess.

This piece also appears in Double X.