In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes vignettes, a dejected Calvin is standing at a booth in his yard where he is trying to sell swift
kicks in the rear for a dollar. When Hobbes the tiger asks how business is going, a nonplused Calvin replies that it’s terrible, adding indignantly,
“I don’t understand it. Everyone I know needs what I’m selling!”
As a teacher, I receive reams of teaching materials on the environment. Far too often, these materials adopt Calvin’s tone-the tone of a salesman
who already knows what “everyone needs.” But I’m not a salesman; I’m a parent and a teacher. What I really want in the classroom are lessons that ask
students to consider the issues; decide for themselves whether an “issue” is a genuine problem; gauge the magnitude of the problem; and evaluate
alternative courses of action.
Yes, I want my students to care about the environment, but I want them to go beyond caring to consider whether they are willing to bear the cost of
having the environment they care about. Few teaching materials on the environment meet my criteria. To fill the void, I propose analyzing
environmental problems and solutions through economic reasoning.
We live in a world of limits, but within those limits we have, as individuals, extraordinary power. The first principle of economic reasoning-I
choose-is a powerful one. The implications of internalizing and accepting “I choose” are both personal and social, and they have a direct bearing on
education in general and environmental education in particular.
A fundamental aspect of choice is opportunity cost: Choosing one thing means giving up another. When a choice has been narrowed to the final
two alternatives, one must be forgone. Paradoxically, recognition of this reality is liberating rather than frustrating. Choosing means giving up
what is less important in favor of what is more important. At the very least, careful choosing enables me to refuse the worst-no matter how rotten the
alternatives that face me. For those who feel powerless, it can be a first step in building self-confidence.
A student’s recognition of his or her own power to choose is also a first step in affirming the ability and the right of others to make choices.
Students learn that people act in their self-interest, whether that interest be generous or miserly, selfless or greedy, and also that people usually
have good reasons for the choices they make. Students learn that just as their choices are valid, other people’s choices have merit in their
situations and circumstances. Others’ reasons for choosing-their values, beliefs, and perceptions-are not inherently inferior to our own.
Understanding scarcity, choice, and cost also mandates consideration of consequences. We can help students learn that not only do our personal
decisions have consequences but so do decisions we make as members of societies and governments, including those that affect our environment.
For many of us, teaching about the environment is daunting. The Earth is our home; we feel for it more than we think about it, and it is our
feelings-fear on the one hand and self-righteous indignation on the other- that threaten the classroom journey into environmental studies. The Scylla
of environmental education is a moral certitude that undermines students’ ability to assess the complexity of environmental problems, leading them to
dismiss them as the legacy of bad people. The Charybdis is the possibility that they may be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of environmental problems
that they abandon hope for the future.
Economic reasoning is an alternative to the scare-them-silly or the you-can-save-the-Earth approaches. Economic reasoning helps students avoid
feelings of powerlessness and restrains the tendency to blame problems on bad people or insufficient willingness to spend money. It allows teachers to
incorporate the best science in defining the problems, and it allows us to look at solutions with our heads as well as our hearts.
I don’t want exercises in programmed learning; I want experiential activities, with supplemental background readings and data, in which students
must process information and observations and draw and support conclusions.
Give me a case study of an identifiable Amazon basin family making the choice between slash-and-burn agriculture and letting the rainforest
remain as it is. Or present an interview with a Brazilian rancher deciding between clearing timber for grazing land and letting the rainforest
remain. Give me the history of an African village where crops are destroyed by elephants and poachers can be put to death. I want to be able to ask
“Tell me about scarcity here. What are the limits, the constraints faced by these people?”
“What alternatives do they (not you!) have? When you narrow their choices to the best two, what are they?”
“What benefits do they give up by choosing one alternative over the other?”
In the process of considering these questions in their specific context, students learn that the benefits and costs of choices are experienced
by real people and that costs and benefits are rarely shared equally. It’s important to ask, “Who benefits and how much?” and “Who bears the cost
and how?” Only after we’ve answered these questions can we consider whether the benefits are worth the costs.
Students can also learn from real-world examples that environmental decisions aren’t fundamentally different from the personal decisions they
make daily. Most of our choices aren’t black and white, between the clearly good and the clearly bad. They’re not usually of the “Do you want a
treat or a punch in the nose?” variety but, rather, of the “Do you want an ice cream cone or a candy bar?” kind. The same is true of environmental
Nor are environmental decisions “all-or-nothing” decisions. Economic reasoning recognizes the key importance of the margin, the additional,
the next unit. A family’s choice is less likely to be “Should we buy a car or have no car?” than it is “Should we spend a little more money on
the car or a little less?”
Similarly, the question is not “Should we have clean air or dirty air?” but, rather, “Should we reduce air pollution an additional 2 percent
or leave it as it is?” And the appropriate answer to this question is another series of questions:
“What are the costs and benefits of the 2 percent reduction?”
“Who bears the costs?”
“Who reaps the benefits?”
“Could the money to accomplish the goal be used for something else?”
“What are the costs and benefits of the something else-and who benefits or bears the costs?”
In our zeal to protect the environment we love, we have to resist the tendency to portray environmental solutions as if they had no cost, or
as if the costs aren’t worth considering, or as if someone much wiser than we are has already dismissed them as negligible or unworthy of
Economic reasoning also reminds us of what the youngest child on the playground knows-the fact that the rules of the game make a difference to
the players. Suppose governments subsidize the clearing of rainforest. Will eating Rainforest Crunch ice cream and wearing “Save the Rainforest”
T-shirts stop it? Suppose the government subsidizes the delivery of low-priced water to arid farmland in southern California. Will letters to
the editor of the local paper cause the rice farmers to close the sluice gates? Common sense tells us no.
Rather, students can learn that the systems of rules that are in place may put people in the position of choosing between their own well-being
(or that of their families) and some larger environmental goals. Students can begin to understand and even anticipate the dilemmas that legislation
and rules-even if they’re well intentioned -can create for individuals. As students learn to identify the incentives that are affecting people’s
choices, they gain a powerful tool for understanding human behavior. They also have a basis for criticizing systems that undermine environmental
goals and for constructing systems that work.
While it’s true that we all may need a swift kick from time to time to get our attention, the reality is that our students are already paying
attention. Concern for environmental quality is deep and widespread. Given the intensity of student interest, environmental education can be an
exceptional vehicle for developing skills of analysis and evaluation. When we use economic reasoning as a foundation, we elevate study of these
issues above the level of a rhetorical exercise in trading opinions to a disciplined examination of cause and effect. And we empower students.
Kathryn Ratte is a high school teacher with the Jefferson County District, Golden, Colorado. This excerpt is taken from A Blueprint
for , edited by Jane S. Shaw, which PERC has just published.