I rarely use this space to discuss themes that might be interpreted as political. If the reader interprets this post as political, they are missing the point. This post is about history, knowledge, what we do with knowledge, and the utterly unique role that education plays in that sequence.
In the last week I read two articles about scientific research on coral reefs. One reported that enormous swaths of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died in the last three years. The other reports on a group of scientists who predict that 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050 due to rapidly increasing ocean water temperatures throughout the tropics. I am specifically NOT citing a link to either of these articles because they were in newspapers and I did not read, nor would I be able to authoritatively discern, if the research cited in the articles was of such quality as to be considered “fact”. I am not a marine biologist or a climatologist. There are likely scientists and others who disagree with both the rate of reef die-off and the causes.
I was, back in the day, a marine geologist, and recall well working with and learning from older oceanographers who researched global warming. Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the best research and computer projections indicated that our planet would warm substantially over the coming century. The predictions included melting of ice across Antartica, Greenland, and in mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in average weather and rainfall patterns, and warming sea temperatures. Those predictions have proven both right and wrong. The planet has warmed, with almost all of the projected impacts, only it has all happened much faster than we predicted. The vast majority of scientists and lay people around the world agree that this rapid warming is caused by the parallel increase in human-induced, carbon-based air pollution.
Coral reefs are not just pretty places to visit. They are very much that; I have visited and studied some of the prettiest in the world, but threats to beauty are not existential. Coral reefs are one of the two most diverse, productive ecosystems on the planet (the other are the terrestrial equivalent, rain forests). They are incubator, breeding ground, nursery, and home to enormous webs of life that support the marine food chain, including humans. Losing 90% of coral reefs in thirty years is a global crisis that is already in motion. Hundreds of millions of people rely on food that is supported by living coral reefs. That is a simple fact.
Here is where education comes in. Research can be wrong. We and our students need to have the capacity and mindset to look at research that suggests a global calamity within our lifetimes. What if the die off is slower? What if only 50% of reefs are dead by 2050? Is that a good thing? We have proven throughout human history that we can change our planet, but we can’t change the laws of physics and nature. As educators, it is our moral duty to help students understand the impacts of messing with the laws of physics and nature.
We have arrived at a place in America where somehow the burden of proof is on scientists to prove at a level of 100% that they are right about a future that is almost apocalyptically bad for virtually every human being. Any rational, well-educated person would take the opposite view: that you err on the side of caution; that if there is even a fair chance that something really horrible is going to happen, and you can do something about it, you do it. The bigger the chance it will happen, and the worse the possible outcome, the more vigorously you pursue potential solutions. Then-vice president Dick Cheney, a person with whom I disagreed on almost everything he he ever said, used this logic with his famous “1%” doctrine: That if there were a 1% chance that terrorists were going to acquire a nuclear weapon, then any action to stop them was justified. T
The doctrine applies: Loss of 90% of coral reefs is the equivalent of dozens of nuclear weapons exploding in slow motion. I hate to even think it, but the long-term pain and suffering that will result from loss of 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be vastly greater than a nuclear attack on a major American city. No one on the planet is immune from the changes in store when 90% of coral reefs die in a period of 30 or 40 or even 100 years.
Let me be clear: we did not wake up this week and realize the coral reefs are dying at horrendous rates. We have predicted and known it for decades. If you are an educator, you need to help your students understand the relationship between history, knowledge, and their futures. As educators we want our students to be problem solvers. Well, this is a perfect example of finding the right problem to solve. THE PROBLEM IS NOT CLIMATE CHANGE. THE PROBLEM IS THAT, NEARLY UNIQUELY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, A SEGMENT OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION DOES NOT BELIEVE IN SCIENCE THAT HAS PROVEN TRUE OVER DECADES. That is a problem that educators and students can and must solve.
If you are upset with me because I wrote about something that you think is political, or because I suggested that to disagree with my premise indicates irrationality or a lack of education, then I apologize for your discomfort. You may stop following my blog; or please post a comment that points out the flaws in my logic; or denounce me. Any discomfort among us does not measure up when it comes to problems of this magnitude.
You’ve brought into stark clarity the significant role that educators must play in presenting students with information, facts, counter-facts, and equip them with the tools to discern their own understandings. Educators cannot hide from facts nor ideas. We are here to empower our students, and allow them to become passionate, curious, and empowered to make an impact.
Thanks for this post,
Food for thought – America is in denial, here in New Zealand we are blithely allowing International Companies to remove water from our aquifers – to be neatly packaged in plastic bottles and shipped to places such as China – or our own supermarket shelves to be bought back – all because many of our local councils think we have an abundance of water to give away (yes – to give away), that our dairy farms and power companies use more than could ever be taken. As we need to encourage our students to question and find solutions, so we need to educate them to listen, to read between the lines to find out what is going on so that change may happen. They are our future politicians / decision makers and we have to ensure they have the knowledge and understanding that enable the right decisions.