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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Planetary Quiz

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Kevin Coyle, president of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. The group sponsoring a poll which found that most Americans lacked a basic knowledge of what causes pollution and what we do with our waste.


CURWOOD: Here's a question for you. What's the major cause of pollution in streams, rivers, and oceans? If you say factories, you're not alone. Nearly half the people in a recent Roper-Start survey blamed factories as the major source of water contamination. But they're wrong. The answer, says Kevin Coyle, is tainted surface water running off lawns, streets, and farm fields. Mr. Coyle is president of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, the group sponsoring the study. He says this year's national report card on environmental attitudes and knowledge found that most Americans lacked a basic understanding of what causes pollution and what we do with our waste.

COYLE: We asked 12, what we thought were very simple questions about the environment. And what we found out was that only 1 in 3 actually passed the test and got 9 out of the 12 of those questions correct.

CURWOOD: You're saying 2 out of 3 Americans flunked the environmental test?

COYLE: Two out of 3 Americans flunked. It was quite a disappointment for an organization that's dedicated to environmental education.

CURWOOD: If people don't have a very good understanding of the environment, what are the implications of that?

COYLE: Well, I think there are tremendous implications. Certainly, if we're going to have a public debate, a meaningful public debate over the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, and 3 out of 4 Americans don't know what the main source of water pollution is, that's going to be very difficult, and it's going to be quite confusing, I think, to policy makers and to the public on how to handle that kind of issue. Another finding of the study was that, you know, we have all this discussion going on about global warming, and here we have a finding that only about a third of American know that the main way we produce electricity in this country is by burning coal and oil and gas. Fully half of the people think our electricity is produced by hydropower, water power from dams.

CURWOOD: That's pretty amazing. What's the real number of hydropower?

COYLE: The real number is about 12%, but I think that for some reason Americans have the wrong information. It's not just a question of having an information gap. It's actually having misinformation standing in the way of real learning and real knowledge.

CURWOOD: Where do you think they're getting all this misinformation? For example, where would they get the idea that half of electricity comes from hydropower?

COYLE: I think that misinformation about the environment starts at an early age. For example, in the 1960s rivers were catching on fire and industrial pollution was indeed a major problem. And it's been addressed significantly over the last 30 years. And now we're seeing that those early impressions are lasting. I think the energy issue is a little more complex. We have over the years made dams a very heroic part of our culture, and I think that that's stuck with a lot of people. So when we look at hydroelectric dams, we're looking at a big part of our history, and people tend to think that it's the main form of electricity production today. So there are different answers for different issues, I think.

CURWOOD: Are there any differences in your survey, in your quiz, between men and women?

COYLE: There are very significant differences. When we asked the 12 questions, what we found is that 43% of all men in the country were able to answer 9 or more of those questions correctly, but only 20% of women answered those questions correctly. We're not exactly sure what that is, because the education levels between men and women in the survey are roughly the same. We think what it has to do is science education, and that men, according to the National Science Teachers Association, on about a 2 to 1 basis have more science education than women. And so, we think that's probably what this tracks to.

CURWOOD: In addition to quizzing people, you also ask for their opinions. What issue did they care most about?

COYLE: Well, 60% of all Americans said their number one concern as an environmental issue is pollution.

CURWOOD: And yet your survey shows that less than 1 in 3 average Americans knows, really, where that pollution comes from.

COYLE: That's right. There's a huge disconnect between what people know and what they care about. When we asked questions about do Americans support regulation, protecting wetlands and protecting endangered species, what we find is about 1 in 5 think regulation's gone too far. About 2 in 5 think that regulation's not gone far enough, and the rest think that it's reached the right balance. But when we get to air and water pollution, the 2 issues that people seem to know the least about, what we find is overwhelmingly they support more regulation.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose that is? I mean, the less they know, the more government control they want?

COYLE: I think that is. I think that people assume that someone's got to take care of them. And when they're really worried about what's going to happen to their health, their family's health, I think they make a judgment that the government really has to step in and help take care of them. And the problem with that is that government regulation alone is not the full answer. Really, if you look at water pollution, what you immediately find is it's not factories, it's not municipalities, that are the major source of water pollution. It's the individual out there. It's the person dumping oil down their storm drain in their neighborhood. It's the use of pesticides on the lawns. It's throwing trash in the streets. It's, you know, the leaking car, the farm field that has sediment running off it. There's a variety of individual causes to our environmental problems today. And knowledge is really one of the ways to get at that issue.

CURWOOD: Kevin Coyle is president of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

COYLE: It's been a real pleasure.



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