Category Archives: education

Too much inconvenient truth

Inconvenient Truth posterThe National Post reports on an Ontario student who says he’s been subjected to An Inconvenient Truth in four different classes.

“I really don’t understand why they keep showing it,” says McKenzie (his parents asked that his last name not be used). “I’ve spoken to the principal about it, and he said that teachers are instructed to present it as a debate. But every time we’ve seen it, well, one teacher said this is basically a two-sided debate, but this movie really gives you the best idea of what’s going on.”

McKenzie says he has educated himself enough about both sides of the climate-change controversy to know that the Al Gore movie is too one-sided to be taught as fact.

Which is certainly true. An Inconvenient Truth is an essay with an argument to make, not a purely educational film that acknowledges a lot of weaknesses and unknowns. You can make a strong case for showing the film in schools, but not without context, and certainly not four times to the same kid.

Unfortunately, McKenzie’s argument goes a bit downhill from there.

His teachers are not much more discerning [than some of McKenzie’s classmates]. “They don’t know there’s another side to the argument,” he says. McKenzie’s mother was outraged to find out that Mr. Gore’s film was being presented as fact in her son’s classroom. “This is just being poured into kids’ brains instead of letting them know there’s a debate going on,” she says. “An educational system falls down when they start taking one side.”

This is awfully close to proposing that schools “teach the controversy,” the approach that anti-evolutionists propose for “balance” between the theory of evolution and “creation science” in public schools. Indeed, the Post digs up some people a little later on who propose to send copies of The Great Global Warming Swindle (the British documentary that interviews just about every scientist and pseudo-scientist in the world who dissents from the broad principles of climate-change science) to every school in the country, to balance An Inconvenient Truth.

The situation is awkward, and those who agree with the broad strokes of Gore’s film — as I do — do themselves no favours by treating the movie as though it were the gospel truth. It isn’t. It’s a good and important film, but it’s got flaws, and most importantly, it’s not even nominally impartial.

This comes via Treehugger, where a commenter points out a Washington Post story about the U.S. National Science Teachers Association declining 50,000 copies of the film on the grounds that if they accepted, they’d have a hard time turning down similar offers from other interest groups with video tracts to distribute.

Consider, for instance, if such an offer came from the Center for Scientific Creation. What they promote isn’t necessarily 100-per-cent hooey — there are gaps in the scientific understanding of the earth’s geologic and biologic histories, even if you can’t reasonably conclude from them that the theory of evolution is bogus — so why should their work be beyond the pale of public-school education while Gore’s imperfect film isn’t? Where would the line be?

A shortage of students for environment-management programs

The Toronto Star‘s magazine-like Sunday issue has a lot of coverage of green subjects today, mostly fairly routine — gas prices are really high, we’re not sure we can trust food that comes from China, here’s a zero-footprint commune — but there’s one story that brought me up short:

Canadian students haven’t been signing up for forestry and related environment-management subjects in universities and colleges:

This year there were 124 undergraduates in the Faculty of Forestry and Forest Environment at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Twenty years ago, there was nearly four times that.

At the venerable Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, there were nearly 300 graduates in traditional agriculture yearly through the 1970s. More recently there have been only about 75.

In Vancouver, the B.C. Institute of Technology’s two forestry programs are closing because of declining enrolment.

At the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management has about 180 students but is equipped to handle twice that many.

Part of the problem seems to have been that the programs in question have genuinely been behind the times, losing students to programs explicitly in environmental sciences and policy. Part of it’s optics — after you major in forestry, people assume, you go to work for a company that cuts down every tree it can get a chainsaw into.

It’s not mentioned in the story, but I’d add that most programs in agriculture, forestry and so on are not at schools that are otherwise particularly prestigious; if you go to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay for forestry and discover that forestry isn’t your thing, you’re kind of stuck, whereas if you go to UBC for botany and can’t stand the thought of xylem and phloem after freshman year, you’ve got alternatives you can sell to Mom and Dad.

The Star reports that there are signs of a turnaround for some of these programs, but we’re clearly running behind any politician’s plan to make Canada a leader in environmental science and thought for the 21st century.

It comes up a lot about water, this idea that Canada ought to be a world leader in water management, monitoring and control, building expertise we can share with the more parched parts of the world. Which makes me question: why? We have, for now, more water than we know what to do with, to the point where there are essentially no consequences for wasting it. Why would we expect to be notably good at managing a commodity we have in gross abundance?

Saudi Arabia, or Chad, or Algeria — that’s who you’d expect to be good at managing water.

A permanent problem in a land of plenty.

Inconvenient rigour

Inconvenient Truth posterAn Inconvenient Truth is an excellent film, but it’s not an educational movie, per se. It has a very strong point of view and case to make, and not only about climate change — also about what an excellent fellow former vice-president Al Gore is.

Decent (all the Gores are, really, having gotten out of the tobacco business before getting out of tobacco was fashionable), modest (Al schleps his own stuff through the airport, where he stands in line like everyone else), thoughtful (gosh, but doesn’t he have the most extraordinary insights standing by a stream running through the old Gore land in Tennessee), and so on.

So it makes eminent sense to hold off on showing it in schools till it’s been properly vetted for curricular appropriateness, just like anything else. Heather Stilwell, an admittedly goofy school trustee in Surrey, B.C., is insisting that it be — probably for political rather than pedagogical reasons, but she’s right all the same.

Bright green capitalism

Hazel Henderson wrote some confusing things about capitalism and the environment on WorldChanging today. She begins:

The mantra of economists, central bankers, the World Bank, the IMF and others advising developing countries calls for , above all, market reform. Un-packing the jargon, they mean de-regulation, free trade, privatization, convertible currencies, export and debt-led growth and flexible labor markets – summarized as the “Washington Consensus.” Today, the call for market reform is morphing into demands for reforming markets and capitalism itself.

Today, this one-size-fits-all conventional recipe for economic growth is being challenged not only on social and environmental grounds — because it is widely seen as failing. Corporate CEOs at Davos worried about global climate chaos and their US-CAP group urged mandatory caps on their own carbon emissions. Soul-searching continues on the failure of WTO trade talks, the growing gap between rich and poor, the effects globalization and offshoring of blue and increasingly, white-collar jobs. There is little to reassure American[s] that any serious policy re-think is afoot.

She proceeds to write about the many ways in which serious policy re-thinks are afoot. But before we get there, I want to take issue with the premise Henderson is setting up here — that deregulation and privatization and convertible currencies and whatnot are somehow in tension with caring about the environment or addressing the gap between rich and poor.

You can’t wish yourself prosperous, either as a person or as a nation. You have to make something or provide some service that other people want to buy. That’s the only way that wealth is created in this world. At the moment, the money is in places like the United States and Canada, though the balance is, as Henderson writes, starting to shift elsewhere in the world, largely because India’s and China’s skilled workers are willing to work for less money than skilled workers in North America. But if you’re a dirt-poor African country that’s tired of being dirt-poor, you need to produce something other people want, and most of the time that means getting those other people to show you how.

If you’ve got a perfect climate for soybeans, and you want to sell soybeans to America (or China, or France, doesn’t matter), your soybeans have to meet America’s standards. The best way to learn how to produce soybeans that do is to get some Americans in to give you lessons. But they’re not going to bother if your soybean fields are controlled by your government and your government has a policy of, say, shooting at foreigners or taxing them into the ground or shaking them down for heavy bribes at the airport. If you want help — not a handout, but actual usable advice and investment — it has to be worth their while.

Henderson approvingly mentions Muhammad Yunus, renowned for his microcredit Grameen Bank. If he weren’t free to lend money, or his government taxed his microscopic profit margins by half, he wouldn’t — couldn’t — do what he does.

Now take the troubled WTO trade talks Henderson mentions. The reason we can’t seem to strike a new global trade deal is primarily that First World countries like the United States and Canada aren’t prepared to live by their own “Washington Consensus” rules. We want access to developing countries’ markets without giving them access to ours, and above all we want to keep subsidizing our domestic agriculture when food is what the developing world most wants to sell us. Of course that’s not going to work out, but more importantly it’s not right. It’s not living by our own rhetoric.

Similarly, most of the horror stories of international capitalism run amok involved countries or companies not playing by the rules they espoused — propping up dictators who offered them exclusive business deals, for instance, running roughshod over both democracy and competition theory. Not only is this a reprehensible way to behave, it’s anti-capitalist.

Speaking of which:

China has long rejected the Washington Consensus model and modified it to create its path of a social market economy where markets are seen as “good servants but bad masters.”

China is an example to follow? China arrests people who criticize the government, violently persecutes Falun Gong practitioners, suppresses even the Catholic Church, and it seems you can’t open a business without paying 17 bribes and maybe you end up in jail even so for forgetting to grease the right palm. Markets make bad masters but bureaucrats with guns are worse.

Henderson goes on to itemize the various ways that capitalist instruments, applied with the proper planning horizon, are doing good in the world. In many cases, it’s through First World investment in the developing world, which requires … trade liberalization, convertible currencies, fewer restrictions on foreign ownership, and all the other failing mechanisms of the Washington Consensus.

She concludes by misunderstanding Adam Smith:

Would Adam Smith be surprised? Probably not, since he lauded the dynamism of capitalism… The new values and ethical concerns driving the further evolution of capitalism reflect the new imperatives of the 21st century on our small, endangered planet. Smith’s famous “invisible hand” turned out to be our own…not some metaphysical force.

… which is exactly what Smith said it was. Smith’s “invisible hand” was just a rhetorical device (one he didn’t even use much), the point being that by acting in our own interest, as informed by reason, we all become more prosperous. The butcher gets rich by selling good-quality meat at a price people are willing to pay, and the people who buy it eat it and are well-fed and healthy and go out to do some work and make some money, which they turn around and spend on other things they want, in turn making the people who produce those things wealthier, and on and on it goes. It’s just individuals looking out for themselves, but somehow the world works as if guided by an invisible hand toward mutual improvement, Smith argued.

Greed, as Gordon Gekko says in Wall Street, is good. As long as it’s enlightened greed, greed that plays by the rules, greed that behaves decently. Gekko, in the movie, betrays his protegé, the young hero played by Charlie Sheen, who ultimately turns to the system and testifies against his former mentor. It’s a movie, not history, but you can read it as either a critique of capitalism or as a critique of capitalism gone wrong. It’s not like Charlie Sheen is wearing a Che T-shirt by the end of it.

Point is, Smith’s “invisible hand” was never “some metaphysical force.” It was always us and our own selfish desire to live better. It’s just that we’re increasingly understanding how long a view we have to take to achieve that.

Talking to Sam Shaw

The Citizen‘s editorial board had a sit-down today with Sam Shaw, the president of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, an Edmonton institution that produces thousands of skilled workers for the oilpatch and its spinoffs (among other industries).

You can hear the recording for yourself here (and ones with David Suzuki and Stéphane Dion and Elizabeth May, too).

Shaw had a couple of interesting things to say that are relevant here. We asked him about the state of environmental engineering and technology education in Canada these days — where they’re doing particularly interesting research, and so on. Naturally he cited his own school, but he also observed that environmental and ethical considerations are decreasingly seen as niches, and increasingly integrated into the regular curriculum. So you’re not, as you might think, getting oilpatch engineers who are trained exclusively to drag up as much bitumen as possible and forget everything else, going head-to-head in regulatory processes with other engineers who’d rather they didn’t do any exploitation at all.

I don’t know that I buy that this is universal, but it’s a positive development that a guy like Shaw thinks it’s really important.

We also got him off on a bit of a tangent about the practicality of fuel cells (this starts around the 53-minute mark of the MP3), in which he pointed out that we as a culture are very likely to rethink our business and distribution models to incorporate green technology. So for instance, one of the many things holding back fuel-cell cars is that hardly anybody’s prepared to sell hydrogen at the roadside to power them (the West Coast’s “Hydrogen Highway” being the only even nominal exception). But maybe the technology for mass-market cars that run on rechargeable fuel cells will involve plugging them in at home to recharge rather than refilling them with “charged” hydrogen at a pump — maybe the gas-station model is entirely the wrong one to consider.