Change is measured by the passing of time. Whether transformation is personal, organizational, social, regional, or global, change is always a measurement of “something different” on one axis, and “time” on the other. I write almost exclusively about education; I try to know my readers and most of them don’t care much about my worldview outside of our shared interest in the importance of great education. Once in a while the boundaries of “great education” stretch, and so must we. This blog is about the world, but at the end there is an easy challenge for educators to take on…now!
When I studied geology I was never very good at crystal structures, the physics of natural forces, or the detailed structure and chemistry of rocks. But I can see (some things) in four dimensions. The fourth dimension is time, and when I look at a range of mountains, the Grand Canyon, or a scrubby desert vista, I can see how each got to its particular shape and set of relationships though a confluence of events that took place over time, more often than not, over millions of years.
I have just finished reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is the kind of book that should be required reading by all educators as it deals with the single grand thematic challenge that is facing this, and every future generation, of humankind. There have been five massive global-wide extinction events during the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. Four of the five were rather slow-moving in human terms; the fossil record suggest they actually took place over many thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. Even a multi-generational set of observers would not have noticed. The fifth was the asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula about 63 million years ago which caused global extinctions in a matter of years or decades at the most.
There should be no argument whatsoever that we are in the middle of the sixth global extinction event, and that the cause is human kind. The evidence on three points is utterly overwhelming. First, it is being caused by human interactions with the environment, only one of which is global climate change. Second, the impacts are more intensive and happening faster than any of the other five extinctions except for the asteroid strike. Other than that bad day 63 million years ago when a rock the size of Manhattan hit the earth, what humans are doing to the planet is the only point in the entire 4.5 billion years of earth’s history that is happening on a time scale that will very much impact generations that are alive today. Third, the negative impacts will be enormous. Over geologic time our planet will heal. But unless we change direction in serious ways, things are going to get very ugly for people and many, many other species over the next couple of centuries.
I won’t reprise all of the evidence. I will say that people who believe this evidence is inconclusive are just flat out wrong. Even if the evidence is imperfect, as all science is, not doing absolutely everything possible to reverse or slow these impacts is the most myopic, selfish act of one generation towards future generations imaginable. And that is not what educators are about. We are about giving the next generation the tools they need to live better lives, not worse, than we have in the past. At the very least we can deeply embed these themes of biodiversity, climate impacts, rates of changes, and social and political economics into what our students learn. Most of the impacts are not the result of evil intent; they are the result of ignorance.
This is not about left and right wing politics or political correctness. Former Vice President Richard Chaney, whose world view could not be more opposite from my own, once famously said that “if there is a 1% chance” that terrorists could get ahold of a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction, that anything we do to prevent it is legitimized. I don’t agree with that, but I do agree with the philosophy: on some points you just have to err big time on the side of prudence. If there is even a 1% chance (and virtually every objective scientist in the entire world believes that the chance is much, much greater) that reversible human actions are midway to causing the second fastest Armageddon in the history of the world, it seems like it ought to get a lot more of our attention as we try to prepare our next generations to deal with it. I won’t be around to see it, at least not in this lifetime, but that is a pretty selfish excuse.
So, easy challenge: How might we embed apolitical themes of human global impacts and solutions into our P-12 learning experience across all subjects and grade levels? How might we better prepare our students to deal with the biggest challenges they will face, not the smallest?