Illustration: Erin McPhee
Lately Earth Day has become the new Christmas, an annual holiday celebrated with zeal at schools across the country. During a spring assembly at my daughter’s Calgary elementary school, children performed skits celebrating the Earth and bemoaning humanity’s impact on the planet. It was the school’s way of sharing what the students had been learning about the environment. Now, I like to think that we, as a family, respect nature by recycling, donating used clothes and toys, occasionally buying organic and visiting national parks. But the intensity of this performance completely caught me off guard. Classes sang about switching to energy-efficient light bulbs and stopping car pollution. Children dressed as bees danced around the gym before falling down one by one to symbolize bee colony collapse. Kids donned masks of various Canadian animals—a fox, a bear, a wolf—and pleaded with the audience to save their habitats.
“I am the great loon!” boomed a student. “Don’t drill for oil on my land!”
At the end of each skit, the kids looked pointedly at the parents in attendance and asked in unison, “What are you going to do about your environmental footprint?”
On the way home, my husband—who was working as an oil and gas geologist at the time, and therefore was partially to blame for the great loon’s distress—attempted to answer this question. He opted for an ironic response, as is his wont when things annoy him: “Gee, maybe we should sell our house and car, move into a mud hut and walk to the village well for water.” A look of devastation crossed then eight-year-old Avery’s face.
“But Daddy, they made me sing!”
Our daughter didn’t understand the subtext of the performance: that we adult humans were being called out for killing bees, turning Canada’s national bird into a refugee and otherwise wrecking the planet. The spring concert bugged other parents, too—many Calgary families work in the oil patch, and they get enough flak about the industry from environmentalists without having to hear it from their own children.
Of course the students were just enacting what they’d been taught in school. Kids this age are literalists and, like Avery, were going along with songs and skits that represented what a few teachers must have deemed the environmental calamities of the year. But it seemed to me that the environmental message had gone overboard. It had veered from basic education and encouraging kids to act locally to help out Mother Earth (which I fully support) into attempting to address a whole range of complicated and politically charged global environmental issues (bee colony collapse, oil and gas exploration) that are out of depth for most kids in elementary school.
What’s more, my daughter was focusing on some strange take-aways. For example, she started making a funny face and saying, “Yuck!” every time she saw a big “polluting” bus—never mind the fact that one polluting bus is better than everyone on that bus driving their own polluting cars. And for a while she was almost afraid to fart, convinced that passing gas contributes to global warming.
I think it’s great that the students pick up trash in the schoolyard on Earth Day, and I love that they’re learning about recycling, composting and growing vegetables in the nearby community garden. Last year, Avery’s grade four class even built a replica landfill to demonstrate how pollutants such as gasoline and paint can seep into the groundwater if they’re not disposed of properly. It really bothers me, though, when elementary schools preach a larger brand of social justice and attempt to indoctrinate learners as guardians of a planet under siege by industries that employ their parents (and, in Alberta anyway, help pay the taxes that fund teacher salaries). That kind of moral education is best saved for junior high or high school, when they’ll have the emotional maturity to tackle environmental politics and form their own opinions.
Avery, now 10, is old enough to understand that mass transit is a good thing and that farting won’t melt the polar ice cap. She might not be able to save the bees, but she helps animals by volunteering at the Humane Society. Our family will continue to reduce, reuse and recycle. We’ll teach Avery and her little brother to respect the planet we share, while explaining that its problems can’t be resolved with a skit and a song.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue with the headline “I hate Earth Day,” p. 37.
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