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Several weeks ago I was contacted by Laurie David and her surrogates at the Natural Resources Defense Council regarding the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) refusal to distribute 50,000 free "An Inconvenient Truth" DVDs on climate change. Lacking fluency in Hollywood environmental circles led me to ask, "Who is Laurie David?" For years, as a grassroots activist, I have written about the corporate landslide of dishonest education materials in our needy public schools. We at the Native Forest Council here in Eugene, Oregon have tried to engage the "Big Green" environmental groups to attend NSTA conferences to combat industry’s propaganda machine, or help us fight the battle through funding: on both accounts, I have failed. A phone call from Laurie David was manna from heaven: finally, the Big Greens were waking up to the manipulation of children and reaching out to us "little folks" who fight environmental battles daily. Seemingly my jubilation was premature and sheepishly I may have been just a "means to an end."
When asked, grassroots groups do what grassroots group’s do: we help, immediately. When I was first contacted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), I was told that Laurie David was penning a piece for the Washington Post on the issue we have fought long and hard to expose. The Post needed egregious examples of industry’s most blatant "miseducation" tools for numbing children to environmental concerns. I shipped out coloring books from the coal industry showing coal being "cleaned", glossy brochures from Exxon that would put a happy face on the Valdez catastrophe, and the American Petroleum Institute’s "hip hop" petroleum love-fest. I learned of Laurie David’s dedication to fighting climate change and that she is married to a Hollywood mogul. She has access to the public’s eye we could have never imagined. Her "high profile" account of the NSTA’s colossal error to distribute Al Gore’s revolutionary tale of impending climate havoc would literally blow the lid of this critical expose of industry’s quest to teach children lies. While never made privy to the private conversations between NSTA’s Executive Director Gerald Wheeler and Ms. David, my job was to provide the NRDC and Ms. David with as much historical information I had collected over the last ten years.
A promising phone call and a sour email
The Washington Post piece was published on 12/2/06 and I followed up the next day with my own take on the issue in Commondreams.org and Truthout.org with a follow-up piece on 12/13/06 in Truthout.org. Grassroots’ activists depend on two conduits to environmental successes: getting the word out and inspiring "common folks" to join the fray. The outpouring of emails from angered teachers and dismayed parents jamming my computer has been breathtaking. Hundreds of individuals emailed Gerald Wheeler imploring and chiding him to sever his ties with ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Weyerhaeuser and Monsanto. Requests for curriculum ideas and lasting words of encouragement have kept me up for hours each night: a Grassroots’ response means a personal letter with a gracious words of thanks and "if you need any help let me know" protocol.
Having received numerous follow-up letters meant the story was now a wild fire and we at the Native Forest Council could raise the money to attend the NSTA’s conference in March 2007 in St. Louis. Ms. David’s stature and high profile piece in the Post graciously included references to our efforts and seemingly was bringing years of toil to expose dishonest corporate curriculum to fruition.
Not only was the story getting covered in papers, blogs and websites across the country, I had a commitment to attend the NSTA from a new and unlikely friend. Early in this whole drama, Laurie David called my home. She spoke passionately of fighting the NSTA’s ties to those who actually downplay climate change like ExxonMobil and heaped praise on my efforts over the years. Using terms like "hero" she referred to the importance of my work. The call culminated with her promise of a "date" at the NSTA conference in St. Louis and I told her that I would be honored. Finally, the Big Green machine would ride shotgun with grassroots activists who fight day in and day out. I could engage the 12,000 plus teachers who will attend the St. Louis conference and supply them with the truth about corporate lesson plans but more importantly provide them with curriculum ideas about climate change. My wife, Trish, told me that she admired my preference to "stay on the sidelines," but urged me to take a more visible role. My role, I explained was to get climate change materials into the hands of millions of students and I neither wanted my name in lights or acclaim. I wrote emails to the NRDC and Ms. David outlining what we would need to make a splash at the NSTA conference. An abrupt and coldly worded email from Laurie David ended our "foray" to the NSTA without explanation yet, it was unambiguously clear:
"John I have been as open and clear as possibleI am not interested in sending you to the convention or supporting it in any way."
For the record, I asked for $10,000-15,000 to attend the NSTA convention. Mind you, a 10′ by 10′ space (you must rent everything: from chairs to table covers) alone is several thousand dollars. What we lacked in economic prowess would be overcome by the current blitz of publicity and the boundless energy we would bring to this convention. Right in the belly of the beast amongst Weyerhaeuser and Monsanto mega-displays we could provide a simple truth: you cannot deny climate change science and by all means, we are not going to allow you to lie to our students and go unchallenged. With the backing of Ms. David and the NRDC, we imagined that "common folks" who read the story would be compelled to act. And act they have: we have received offers for free housing in St. Louis and promises of small checks. Yet, we find ourselves in a quandary, unless those small checks come in by the hundreds, some would let this story fade. In March the purveyors of dubious curriculum will peddle their "Madison Avenue style lessons" as teachers fill their bags with industries’ freebies and bring them back to implement as "science" back at their schools. Some times numbers put issues into perspective. A $15,000 request from the NRDC is a pittance. Their operating budget for FY 2005 was over $65 million! To spearhead this trip would cost a mere 0.025% of their war chest. Spokespeople for Ms. David told me that the NSTA story was over and it was time to move on to "bigger issues." How could the education of 55 million students be a "done story" and with millions of those students at or near the cusp of voting age, this is the most influential generation of decision makers that will or will not prevent a climate change tipping point. Simply put, if Laurie David had a change of heart: why not just say so? There is an old east coast practice: don’t think too much about the "possibilities" if so, you might hex yourself. Some old beliefs die-hard and I can’t say I wasn’t hurt by Ms. David’s email.
Did I fail the "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me you" rule?
Raised in a blue-collar town in New Jersey, minutes away from the bowels of the most industrialized stretch of earth on the planet, I was ingratiated into the rules of life by simple and loving people. I was taught the cardinal rule of reaching out where you never use the mantra, "you owe me." You do for people, because it is the right thing to do. Grassroots environmentalists are akin to the blue-collar types I worked with as a young man doing ironwork. They give without hesitation and prefer the "support role" rather than the limelight.
With a young family in tow, we moved to Oregon (1990) quickly finding ourselves immersed in the Ancient Forest battles. Here I learned the dichotomy and hierarchy between grassroots and the established Big Greens like the Audubon Society or the National Wildlife Federation. I testified in the United States Senate on behalf of protecting Opal Creek, a magnificent old growth forest that purifies Salem Oregon’s water and is one of the few, protected success stories in the battle to rescue forests in the Pacific Northwest. My ticket to Washington D.C., cost over $900, and no Big Green organization would help offset the cost, but my wife gave me the okay to pay with "plastic." Thank goodness a local activist dipped into his bank account so I could tell my story in front of the Senate. I befriended a forest activist named Michael Donnelly and he summed up for me the strange divide between Big Greens and the grassroots:
"My best first-hand experience of it all as former VP of the ONRC (Oregon Natural Resources Council) was when we tried for years to get the Big Greens to help with the plight of Northwest ancient forests. They told us, we would like to help, but, it is a regional issue; not a national one.’ So, we increased our efforts and worked to nationalize the issue. Once we did that, around 1988, the Big Greens showed up in force. What we got was: getting rudely pushed aside and then surrender of the famous Injunction (Judge Dwyer’s ruling to protect millions of acres of Spotted Owl habitat) that had stopped ancient forest logging. In a complete capitulation to President Clinton, the Big Greens sat back as political compromise called Option 9 resumed logging: 40 % of the protected native, old growth forests. The Big Greens called that our greatest victory.’ Maybe for them anyway-for fund raising potential and for applying a slick coat of green wash for the Clinton/Gore Administration."
You see, once before, a phone call said one thing and meant another. The National Audubon has been bamboozled by corporate education. They endorse Project Learning Tree, funded by their pimp daddy organization, the American Forest Foundation (a list of the worst clearcutters on earth). Not content with their forest education by omission (ignore lessons on clearcuts, the fragmentation of habitat, short rotation forestry) PLT would later conspire with the American Petroleum Institute. And teach what you ask: they would teach the merits of petroleum based products and simply ignore any substantive discussions on climate change.
I joined an email Chat group back in January 2001. Hoping to engage Audubon members to speak out against corporate curriculum, I struck pay dirt on 1/8/02. John Biachi, Director of Communications for Audubon, read an email about Audubon’s aiding and abetting of the timber industry’s agenda and posted a simple email:
"Audubon does not support Project Learning Tree. I’m not sure why there has been multiple postings to the contrary, but they’re wrong. Audubon does not endorse PLT. We recommend against its use in Audubon Centers.""John Bianchi
Besieged by angry emails and embarrassed by the truth, Bianchi went into denial mode and even ignored his own posting. I called him in New York City and he told me that he knew of PLT’s big timber tendencies, yet, he could not alienate paying Audubon members who supported PLT? For some reason, I became the pariah as if I had spoken for Bianchi. Audubon refuses to remove PLT from its list of "credible environmental curriculum" and endorses PLT’s energy module with climate deniers such as the American Petroleum Institute. As for John Bianchi, he denies that he had that conversation with me. Once again, phone conversations that said one thing, apparently mean something else in this new world of "environmental organizational semantics." I confessed to the Executive Director of the Native Forest Council Tim Hermach, that I had been duped again. He asked if I would stop helping people, like Laurie David and I simply stated, "No."
"At some point you must realize that the grassroots need the help of folks like you. I appreciate the work the NSTA issue" (My final response to Ms. David’s email)
Am I mad at Laurie David? I would say, now in retrospect, I am more sad than mad. Her organization is trying to get the "Inconvenient Truth" DVD to teachers. Teachers can apply for a free copy at: http:/www.participate.net/educators/
This is a good thing and I hope many teachers make the request. Apparently, a deal for Al Gore and Ms. David to speak in St. Louis in March (NSTA) fell through. I was never consulted on the inner workings between Mr. Wheeler and Ms. David.
I am thankful for the 200 DVDs her organization finally shipped to me. Trish gave me a fifty- dollar bill to buy a gift for our daughter’s Jill and Jenna gifts, instead, I used it to mail out DVDs to people who have emailed about receiving copies of Gore’s production. My girls’ understanding about the issue was their holiday gift to me.
I forward ed the surrogates of Ms. David some pearls of wisdom as a teacher of 26 years and a common, simple man of some five decades: make sure you write personal notes to people who contact you. I also told them that one DVD is not going to change the climate crisis, but a start. The showing of an "Inconvenient Truth" is still of vital importance. Maybe, Ms. David and former vice-president Gore will fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle?
Critical data that the public needs to see front and center: who will expose the fossil fuel cartel’s slobbering at the trough of taxpayer’s monies? Who will shatter the all too cozy relationship between industry and government? Will we take steps to avert a climate change tipping point? We will enact carbon taxes or even better, carbon allotments? Will the NRDC and Ms. David and her Hollywood ilk hold the fire of environmental concerns to the feet of big name Democrats? Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry ran their presidential bids on a climate change platform. Will high visibility celebrities engage the Big Greens to be bolder? Yes, the NRDC and Ms. David have celebrated Kyoto type legislation like the McCain/Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, a sponsored bill that would start in 2010. Emissions would be capped at 2000 levels; in 2016, the cap would be reduced to 1990 levels. Yet, this is not daring enough: we need a bill that would cut global warming emissions 60 or even 80%. When asked why his group, the Environmental Defense, why wasn’t offering solutions more dramatic than Congress has thought up, Executive Vice-president David Yarnold replied, "Why would you want to lobby for something that can’t get done?" We need the Big Greens to not be politically pragmatic or expedient: we need visionaries like Rachel Carson or David Brower.
And who will go to the NSTA and fan that firestorm of rejecting an Inconvenient Truth? Who will spread sound and real climate curriculum for thousands of teachers while educating them to reject and refuse to use industries’ lies? Grassroots groups like ours toil in anonymonity, tirelessly protecting our children’s forests and the lungs of the earth. These tasks at times seem gargantuan but the human spirit can accomplish miracles, I tell teachers that "you" are changing the planet, one student at a time. Why has environmental education been ignored by almost every big environmental group? That must change, now.
Every penny sent to our Honest Education Campaign will be spent on teachers and their students. Will we raise the needed funds for St. Louis? I will keep you posted and I hope the next piece I can write is about a foray to St. Louis. Who knows, I might even get a call from the Big Greens, asking about what they can give.
John F. Borowski, teacher of 26 years and education advisor to the Native Forest Council can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He thanks citizens nationwide for writing the NSTA. The Native Forest Council will try to attend the NSTA conference in March 2007.