Education must focus efforts on ecological literacy, Matt Henderson says
We simply do not know enough about the natural world to contemplate the ecological crisis that is upon us
Our species has just reached a new high.
The average temperature in the northern hemisphere reached two degrees Celsius above normal for the first time on March 3 — a milestone long held to be a dangerous level of warming. In fact, the Paris Agreement on the environment adopted by 195 countries in December works to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. While media outlets like Democracy Now, the Boston Globe and Slate acknowledged the milestone, most mainstream outlets paid little attention. In my global issues class, as my high school students and I conducted our daily routine of sifting through the headlines, our jaws dropped when we heard this news. We were equally astonished that this news was buried if not forgotten among headlines of Trump, Clinton and NHL outdoor games.
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Two fundamental gaps are apparent in our society and our media. First, there is a knowledge gap. We simply do not know enough about the natural world to contemplate the ecological crisis that is upon us. Second, there appears to be a knowledge-action gap — a gap in our ability to take meaningful action when we do gain scientific knowledge. My hope is that education is the mechanism for closing these gaps. I would also argue that the kindergarten to Grade 12 system and post-secondary institutions need to repurpose themselves to educating learners about the ecological crisis and providing them with the skills to mitigate it and create sustainable communities.
But first, a story …
Matt Damon gets it in Martian
In a rare and tranquil moment recently in my house, I was able to watch a movie. While the kids were tucked in their beds, I opted to take in the new Matt Damon film Martian. Like many parents, I fell asleep halfway through — not a reflection of the film, but more of our inability to stay conscious past 9 p.m. I was, however, alert enough to see Damon's character clearly understood the first law of thermodynamics: Energy cannot be created or destroyed.
Damon was abandoned by his crew on Mars and he was forced to figure out how he could survive until his rescue. He realized quickly that in order to sustain his life, he would need to channel the energy of the sun into growing food. As such, he employed the feces of his former crewmates to grow potatoes. There is energy in our poop which, for the most part, is a result of photosynthesis and energy from the sun.
Damon was able to grow enough food to survive — or so I think, as I succumbed to sleep. (I also have faith in Hollywood moviemakers' ability to ensure a happy ending.) But his botanical skills demonstrated to me just how miraculous, precious and rare life is.
Critical nugget of knowledge
The laws of thermodynamics are a critical nugget of knowledge that David Orr, the creator of the term ecological literacy and a renowned scholar, suggests all students should have when they graduate. Other skills and knowledge include understanding of local flora and fauna, environmental ethics, carrying capacity, energetics, basic principles of ecology and sustainable agriculture.
Are our students in Manitoba graduating with this knowledge? Are they ecologically literate when they leave the K-12 system? Are our engineering, journalism and commerce grads ecologically literate? I suspect not, given the size of vehicles on our street, our increased consumption of fossil fuels and the inattention paid to major ecological milestones.
In the most recent federal election, many candidates were chastised and ridiculed for agreeing with scientific evidence that clearly suggests most fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground if we wish to avoid catastrophic temperature changes and the subsequent fallout.
The gaps between our scientific knowledge of the ecological crisis and/or our ability to properly react to it seemed to be widening.
Opponents, pundits, tweeters, comment trolls and even mainstream media mocked those who referenced scientific evidence and who tried to communicate information about energetics and the laws of thermodynamics. The lashing out by critics demonstrated a genuine lack of ecological literacy in our society. At the time — the summer of 2015 — I was frustrated by either the complete disregard of the science on carbon emissions or the reckless behaviour and willful blindness we were displaying. The gaps between our scientific knowledge of the ecological crisis and/or our ability to properly react to it seemed to be widening.
But in December 2015 at COP21 in Paris, we witnessed a collective and global understanding and political will to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. While many of the same pundits who mocked politicians during the federal election rolled their eyes at the consensus reached in Paris, for the first time in history, mainstream politicians and bureaucrats recognized that if you dig fossils up from the ground and burn them, there are consequences.
In the same vein, mainstream media has also begun to recognize the Orwellian-esque doublethink of those who suggest we can cut greenhouse gas emissions while still extracting resources from the ground and burning them. In a recent article in Maclean's magazine, Bruce Cheadle asked how Canada's current government might reduce carbon emissions while at the same time supporting the development of more fossil fuels. Cheadle argues that Mark Carney and Barrack Obama have even suggested that most of the fossil fuel sources must remain in the ground and that this new literacy is "simply stating 2015's middle-of-the-road orthodoxy."
Revolutionary rethinking of progress
Whether it is middle-of-the-road or other, the scientific fact is that burning more fossil fuels will create greater carbon emissions. The position that most fossil fuels on the planet will have to remain in the ground should not be controversial. Over the past few months, we have witnessed perhaps a revolutionary societal and governmental rethinking of how we wish to progress in the next few decades. It appears, on paper and through dialogue, that we are indeed developing a greater ecological literacy. The question remains whether this will translate into significant action.
Education needs to do two things. First, it needs to make ecological literacy the primary goal. When students leave the K-12 system, they must be ecologically literate. They must be able to think in systems and they must be able to predict unintended consequences of human behaviour. Second, post-secondary education also must repurpose itself. Our institutions must be key partners in creating sustainable communities by making ecological literacy a key pillar and to extend the learning continuum from the K-12 system. This would require both branches of education to speak to each other more often and with stated curricular-alignment goals.
Educators and curricula are currently inundated with requests for 21st century skills, financial literacy, makerspaces and the like. Perhaps now is the time, in the face of the greatest challenge our species has ever faced, to focus on a new literacy. An ecological one. To not do this might jeopardize the future of our children and grandchildren. To do otherwise would be unethical and reckless. Paris seems to provide a glimmer of hope, but we need to act now.
Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. He ran for the NDP in the 2015 Canadian federal election.