EARTH Day events will involve millions of school-age children this week. They'll gather to plant trees and to clean up shorelines and nature trails. The smaller ones will dress up as their favorite critter for "all species" parades around the country. Many of these youngsters will be the main reason their parents think at all about what has become an annual event focusing on protecting the environment.
America is growing a generation of "green" kids, thanks to the steady increase in environmental-education programs. In classrooms everywhere and at levels they can understand, children are learning about biodiversity, global climate, population growth, and mankind's impact on nature.
Government agencies from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to small-town parks departments are providing direct support. Corporations are becoming involved - often with a sense that the next generation of consumers will be holding them environmentally accountable. And environmental organizations are a big influence here as well.
Increasingly, environmental education is permeating all disciplines (rather than being taught as a separate subject). "This is the thread that links the quilt of education all together," says Bradley Smith, a biologist and former teacher who heads the EPA's office of environmental education.
Tim Brandy's fourth and fifth graders in Ashland, Ore., for example, are learning math and English skills as well as biology and other scientific subjects as part of their "xeriscaping" project. (See story below.)
But teaching about the environment is far from a universally welcomed trend and for one main reason: It posits "problems" that must be met with "solutions." And this in turn involves values and a high likelihood of activism, both of which spell political controversy.
"Environmental education should engage learners in values- clarification, problem-solving, planning, and decision-making processes," states the official environmental-education guidelines for Washington State. "This must prepare them for dealing with environmental problems that affect both individual life styles and societal goals."
Or as EPA's Dr. Smith puts it: "Environmental education is applied, not theoretical. It's trying to make things better."
These can be fighting words for those who question the science behind some of the teaching about such issues as global warming and acid rain. In his recent book, "Eco-Scam," Ronald Bailey warns of "a new generation of doomsters ... flooding our schools and universities with more dire predictions of imminent global disaster."
Jonathan Adler, an environmental-policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, charges that much of environmental education amounts to "curricula of half-truths and political advocacy."
While the relative seriousness of, say, the loss of habitat and the rate of species extinction can be debated, it is often major environmental groups that provide classroom materials to education departments. The National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club are among those producing materials used in schools.
In some cases, conservation groups themselves are doing the educating. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Silver Spring, Md., for example, runs programs involving some 34,000 students a year. It recently has begun training programs for teachers as well.
Still, most environmental educators are careful to separate teaching from what Mr. Adler calls "political indoctrination," by which he means students being urged to "sign petitions, endorse political agendas, or write pleading letters to the president."
The "mission statement" of the North American Association for Environmental Education in Washington says the organization "is deeply committed to environmental education, but it is not a partisan advocacy organization."
"Its approach to promoting environmental education is neither confrontational nor adversarial," it says.
"What we put our logo on will be sound stuff," asserts EPA environmental education director Smith. The agency has developed partnerships with such companies as General Motors and Dow Chemical as well environmental groups.
Under the federal Environmental Education Act (signed into law in 1990 by former President George Bush), the EPA last year awarded 219 grants totaling $2.4 million to schools, states, and nonprofit organizations. The EPA has formed a consortium headed by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to develop curricula and teacher training. The agency also works with other federal government departments to develop programs like "SWOOPE" (Students Watching Over Our Planet Earth), an educational pilot project i nvolving the Energy Department.
But most of the work in environmental education is done at the local level: Like Dan Murphy's class at the Harry P. Anderson Middle School in Omaha, Neb., which developed an arboretum and nature trail recently recognized in a nationwide contest sponsored by Newsweek magazine and the Amway Corporation. Or the "Cleanup & Greenup" tree-planting and recycling program at seven elementary schools in Pasco and Pinellas counties in Florida. Or the 10 Virginia schools recently signed on to the "Earth Link" video- computer research program sponsored by Turner Broadcasting and IBM.
And there is little doubt that many school children do see themselves as more than students when it comes to environmental education. Asked why his class was raising money and lobbying local officials to establish a natural park in Jacksonville, Ore., fifth-grader John Robert Manes explained to a local reporter that "it's our duty to save the woods."