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An Invisible Solution to the 'Quiet Crisis'

By Eric Roston

The U.S. Senate organizes its work into 20 committees, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs. Health, education, labor, and pensions share one committee, which is known by the acronym "HELP."

That's a message: Americans' requirement for health care, education, labor, and pensions is thought of, at least by inference, as a hand-out, something the state shrugs its shoulders and begrudgingly offers to balance the scales. They are anything but.

These policy areas make up the four corners of human capital investment. In the 21st century, democracies that understand this and invest in their populations will thrive. Other nations will atrophy.

This observation applies most vividly in education. Every nation that can afford it (or that funds it) builds schools so that the youngest generation can acquire the knowledge and skills that allow civilization to perpetuate itself. I think this is incontrovertibly true; what's sad is that the state of our schools is such that the previous sentence is a howling absurdity.

This is not a new problem, but it's a growing one. Every five years or so, it seems like a blue-ribbon commission in Washington issues a fat report decrying the decay of U.S. education. A particularly interesting one came out in February 2001. The U.S. Commission on Natural Security/21st Century, also known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, issued a report that is remembered for diagnosing a number of things. The number one threat the commission found was an Islamist terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Nine months later, that proved tragically prescient. The second most serious threat is largely forgotten: The decline in U.S. science and education, what Shirley Ann Jackson has called "the quiet crisis" -- the ability to think critically and assimilate evidence. The Hart-Rudman report fed a Zeitgeist that would later include Thomas Friedman's books The World is Flat (2005) and Hot, Flat, and Crowded (2008), and the National Academy of Science's 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

Education is expensive and the deliverables – bright, curious young people – don't show up for 15 years. So we've ignored it. A neglected, unskilled citizenry will undermine the engine of U.S. ingenuity and power.

To understate the problem, schools are something less than factories that stamp out builders of Utopia. Look no further than the White House, where a product of Andover, Yale, and Harvard waited until he had broken and bankrupted the country to ask professional historians, "What can I learn from history?" Certainly, a president more comfortable with evidence-based reasoning would have made vastly different mistakes than George W. Bush has – and perhaps fewer of them.

What we can learn from history is a traditional question, and yet one that too many Americans cannot answer. This is troubling, since we now live in an age that must answer this question, too: "What can history learn from science?" Global warming is the rapid acceleration of geological forces on to a human time scale. From the perspective of Earth history, humankind is a meteor strike. This means that from now on, when considering human history, and its future, we best recognize that our history is entwined with Earth history. I've discussed my own answer to this question in the book The Carbon Age, in which I argue that the rock and genomic records have as much to tell us about who we are, how we got here, and where we're going, as the paper record.

In this essay, I actually use the word "education" with some squeamishness. What non-scientist students and professionals need isn't more school, but a new story, a bigger story, one that incorporates episodes and characters that today we do not include in our myopic human history. A western journalist in the 1970s asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French revolution. His response: "It's too soon to tell." The same might be said for the Copernican revolution.

Science education to what end? It's not analogous to "cultural literacy," the name of Edward Hirsch's 1987 book, which came complete with a 50-page list of things you should know if you ever end up seated next to Edward Hirsch at a banquet. Edification is edifying, of course -- I think by definition. Scientific and mathematical thought help people out of jams that have nothing to do with science or math, whether it's fixing a car, or weighing unprocessed WMD intelligence. As important as these uses, education is a climate solution.

"Solutions" to global warming tend to be things that range in (im)practicality from energy efficiency, to wave energy, to Helium-3 nuclear fusion, and beyond. Typical "solutions" are technologies that when deployed would emit less carbon dioxide into the air than a projected baseline of current emissions. In 2004, Princeton scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala introduced the notion of "stabilization wedges" – essentially chunks of the total desired global emissions drop, assigned to sectors of the economy or regions of the world. Under this paradigm, transportation, utilities, energy efficiency, agriculture, etc. all have "wedges" of the problem to address.

Understanding how the Earth works, how global change usually occurs, and how it is occurring now—basic education--cannot reduce carbon emissions. Scientific literacy and education is not a stabilization wedge per se -- it's an "invisible wedge" or an "invisible solution." Yet stabilization wedges might be realized much more quickly with a broader public understanding not only of what we are trying to accomplish here, but the scientific-historical context we are working in. Understanding the pickle we're in might just help prepare our minds and institutions to figure out the next step: How to help.

Eric Roston is a science journalist in Washington, DC, and author of The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat.

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What an excellent piece. Thanks Eric.

I won't express my ideas as well, but if this is 'The Carbon Age', (and I truly think it is, both in the sense of ashes to ashes-carbon, dust to dust-carbon, peak oil-carbon, and lethal air-bourne fossil smoke-carbon) then the greatest investment we can make - into our future - is to become carbon-literate, carbon-numerate, carbon-economic, carbon-conscious, carbon focussed even.

This is not such a big ask. It has been said the "carbon is the new currency" and we sure are good at focusing on money, so it's a straight swop. Accountants can get counting beab-carbon immediately.

It's also said that energy is the only form of currency there ever has been. Whether its in the form of love energy, ideas energy, food energy, all we humans ever do is go around exchanging our energy.

Looked at this way, anything less than a carbon obsession, at this point in history, starts to seem very unhealthy. Whether we are driven by greed, envy, ethics, love, selfishness, or service, a single minded focus on carbon is the way peoples of the world can fare better, over the next 5-20 years.

Collective carbon 'wit' is the way we might just make it through the eye of the storm, and the eye of the needle, into a future. (Any future, if we want to stay living here, at Home planet.

We have a choice. We can keep burning carbon (guzzling fuel in homes, cars and flying) as we are. Or the kids can have a future.

We can't have both.

Posted by: Dave Hampton on 25 Oct 08

I sometimes think that a certain sector of the population rather *like* the decline in the ability to think critically.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 26 Oct 08



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