Given the dizzying array of ways that information swirls around us in today’s media-driven culture, it’s often tricky to get the real facts about what’s happening in the world. Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman found this to be the case when his own curiosity and concern about the state of the environment was piqued by his personal observations, and he encountered a plethora of conflicting information in his research. His latest book, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines (Candlewick, Sept.) was born from his experience, and is meant to help teens identify key environmental problems and show them how to navigate and critically evaluate information to discover what’s really going on. PW spoke with him about the project.
Do you consider yourself an environmental activist?
I didn’t when I started the book. I’m not attracted to conflict. Not a joiner. Don’t own a bullhorn. I’m just explaining the situation. But explaining is actually a powerful and political act. Readers who’ve suddenly noticed what’s going on have taken the first and most important step toward action.
Was there a particular incident or moment that served as the catalyst for writing this book?
Noticing the first dead bee on my driveway. Then the second, the 10th, the 40th. Then realizing that I’d stopped seeing swallows during the day. The same for bats at night. Clearly, something was up, but where were the alarm bells? That disconnect is what drove me.
What are the key tools or strategies that teens can use to cut through the noise and misdirection/ misinformation you mention in the book? And are you optimistic that readers will follow through and use them?
The first strategy is to consider the source. Does the speaker have a financial or other interest in the debate? Just as important – and ignored by most adults – is to verify claims before believing. Teens have several motives to use these tools. They let the young unmask the old – and who didn’t love doing that? Then there’s the pleasure of skullduggery. The reports at sourcewatch.org give off a strong whiff of danger and deceit. Most important, these tools give teens something we keep hidden from them but that they want and need: an understanding of how the adult world really works. Parents should keep Eyes Wide Open next to the Kinsey Report on their shelves.
What do you view as some of the most pernicious pieces of misinformation out there about the environment?
Where to begin? How about with “The science isn’t settled,” a reasonable--sounding claim that’s actually a nest of fallacies. I’m just now writing a blog post about it for the website that will accompany the book. Just as damaging is the claim that we don’t have a substitute for fossil fuels – a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from an unrelenting campaign against renewables. Lastly, the paralyzing assumption, more felt than spoken, that there’s no hope of making the transition in time – something no one can know. We’ve only been seriously trying to change course for a decade or so, against tall odds – and yet the ship is starting to turn. What better time to have open eyes?