We recently looked at Coal Cares, a parody site that imagines what it would look like if Peabody Energy—the world's largest private coal company—launched a pro-coal website for kids (Bieber-themed inhalers for everyone!). But the coal industry's actual marketing for kids is much more insidious, and markedly less funny.
Friends of the Earth launched a campaign this week asking Scholastic to "stop selling elementary school students on coal." What exactly is Scholastic doing? The American Coal Foundation recently hired the company to produce The United States of Energy, a set of pro-coal materials intended to teach fourth-grade kids about the different energy sources used to power the U.S. The materials were distributed to classrooms around the country.
At first glance, the coal-sponsored worksheets seem benign enough. But the materials fail to mention any of the disadvantages of coal—like the fact, for example, that coal burning is linked to numerous health problems, including asthma and bronchitis. Take a look at the map below (larger PDF here). This would be fine for coal marketing materials. It's less acceptable when it's what we're teaching our kids as fact. The map seemingly runs through all the benefits of different energy sources. But Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, reads between the lines (PDF):
The map’s subtext is that we’d be lost without coal: "Coal is produced in half of the 50 states, and America has 27 percent of the world’s coal resources. In fact, America has more coal than any nation has any single energy resource... Coal is the source of half of the electricity produced in the United States..." The only solar icon on the map is in the Mojave Desert, implying that solar may work in deserts, but the rest of us need to rely on more conventional sources of power, like burning coal. The mapping exercise treats all sources of energy as fundamentally equal: One is as good as another, except that coal is a lot better, students will infer, because we have so much of it.
The Related Resources section of the United States of Energy website is even more blatant, recommending that teachers supplement their curriculum with information from the American Coal Foundation, Women in Mining, the Colorado School of Mines, and the American Coal Council, among other similar sites.
It's not surprising that the coal industry would attempt to spawn a generation of coal-cheerleading kids, but why is Scholastic getting on board? The company emailed us a statement explaining that it works with a number of non-profits, government agencies, and corporations on supplemental educational materials; a program with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, teaches teens about the science of drug addiction. Which would be comparable if it taught them that all drugs, from aspirin to heroin, were roughly the same.
As for the ultra-simplified explanation of the coal industry in the United States of Energy, Scholastic says:
Since the program is designed for elementary schoolchildren, the materials do not attempt to cover all of the complex issues around the sourcing and consumption of energy. Rather, they focus on grade-appropriate information about the geography of energy sources in the U.S. and provide links to additional resources, including those provided by the federal government, for teachers who want to pursue a deeper, more complex discussion about energy.
Kyle Good, Scholastic's Vice President of Corporate Communications, tells us that there are no plans to repeat the program. But in a blog post from late last year, Alma Hale Paty, Executive Director, American Coal Foundation, seems enthusiastic about the prospect of turning kids pro-coal through educational materials: "We are in the third year of our commitment to the partnership with Scholastic. Our success is the result of taking significant risk to substantially increase our outreach—to reach that 'critical mass' of teachers." This success includes an increase in traffic to the American Coal Foundation website from about 8,000 visits per month before 2008 to over 24,000 visits in late 2010. Paty's post suggests that this is the result of its partnership with Scholastic.
The Scholastic program is probably not the last we'll see of the coal industry attempting to preach the wonders of its toxic product to kids. Can we at least have the Bieber inhalers instead?
Update: Scholastic offered up another statement today admitting that it wasn't "vigilant enough" when thinking about the potential effects of the sponsorship:
"Scholastic's children's books, magazines, reading programs and website content are used in most American classrooms - a responsibility and trust that we built through painstaking work through 90 years of service to teachers and schools. A tiny percentage of this material is produced with sponsors, including government agencies, non-profit associations and some corporations. This week, Scholastic came under criticism for an 11" x 16" poster map which displays different sources of energy—coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind and natural gas—not so much for the content of the poster but primarily its sponsorship by the American Coal Foundation. We acknowledge that the mere fact of sponsorship may call into question the authenticity of the information, and therefore conclude that we were not vigilant enough as to the effect of sponsorship in this instance. We have no plans to further distribute this particular program. Because we have always been guided by our belief that we can do better, we are undertaking a thorough review of our policy and editorial procedures on sponsored content, and we will publish only those materials which are worthy of our reputation as 'the most trusted name in learning.'"
[Image: Flickr user TimothyJ]