Post-Holocene Education?

Tonight, Prof. Ben Ramsey of the UNCG Religious Studies Department gave the University’s inaugural Future of Learning lecture. I attended. I feel like I’ve been ambushed and beaten up, intellectually speaking. This was not the “bright new horizons in pedagogy” talk I’d expected. Ramsey’s title was “After Learning: Education on a Hot Planet,” which merely hints at his considered, complex, provocative, and deeply distressing message.

I am still processing what I heard, and my memory for detail (as opposed to gist) is not the best. I need to review a video of the lecture; what follows is certainly a clumsy and oversimplified summary.

Ramsey’s delivery was simple and passionate. He displayed only one slide, and spoke naturally and forcefully to the audence with only an occasional glance at his notes. At the outset, he revealed that his sister was in the very final stages of a long battle with colon cancer, and he clearly brought some of that emotion to the urgency of his speech.

Ramsey’s first point was that we are now living in the post-holocene epoch, which some call the “anthropocene”: the geologic era in which humanity, due to the scale of its population and the power of its technology, alters the planetary climate and ecology. Citing the sudden and permanent disappearance of the cod ecosystem off the coast of Maine, he pointed out that the collapse of an ecosystem is not a pleasant thing. Although we tend to think of ourselves as separate from nature, he argued that we must begin thinking of ourselves and nature tightly and inextricably intertwined.

The term “hot planet” in his title refers to more than just global climate change. He also meant it to represent the social, political, and economic stresses and consequent crises arising from a socio-cultural-ecological system pushed past its limits, and he painted a vivid portrait of this system: Foxconn factories enmeshed in suicide-prevention nets to stop workers from leaping to their deaths, rural Indian farmers walking out into their fields at night and drinking pesticide to quietly end their lives when drought and rising costs bankruped them, “exceptional” storms becoming the norm. He read an extended excerpt from Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth claiming that we no longer inhabit the generally comfortable planet so ideally suited to life that we’ve lived on for our last 10,000 years. We’ve pushed our socio-cultural-ecosystem over the edge and changed it, and now we find ourselves on a different, less friendly planet with melting ice caps, growing deserts, acidifying oceans, disappearing species, growing numbers of hungry people, and a “hollowing out” of the middle class. Ramsey declared that the species humanity now most resembles in its collective behavior is “global locusts in an extended plague phase.”

The planet can’t be fixed by clever engineering or technology or political action, because it isn’t broken. It’s different. We don’t have a problem, we have a predicament. Predicaments aren’t solved; you just land more or less softly.

How did we get here? Ramsey argued that twice in our history — once at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 80s — we let business “escape from the household” and run amok. He drew a very careful distinction between “economics” and “chrematistics.” He claimed that Aristotle’s definition of economics connoted “management of the household”, whereas chrematistics means the short-term pursuit of financial gain (“mammon”). In recent decades, we have returned to the excesses of the robber barons and prioritized near-term material profit over sound management of our collective household.

He specifically attacked “economic growth” as a false god of our age, something we unquestioningly pursue and look to as a solution to our problem. He labeled growth a mirage, arguing that we cannot continue to extract resources and expel by-products at 1.5 times the rate that the planet can regenerate and absorb. Nevertheless, worldwide economic policies establish growth as their explicit goal, and as the solution to economic ailments.

This mind-set taints education, too. It sees people as “human capital”, and the goal of education as producing more human capital to fuel economic growth through production and consumption (a perspective recently voiced by our aggressive new governor). A curriculum focused on employable skills, on analytic thinking, and on “linear” problem solving serves only to perpetuate the problem.

Ultimately, Ramsey’s argument is that we desperately need to take an economic, rather than a chrematistic, perspective on education. We need to teach future citizens how to manage our house, not how to be human capital in the pursuit of growth. He’s not sure exactly what that kind of an education would look like, but it needs to develop other kinds of thinking beyond the analytic and linear — metaphorical, dialectical, synthetic — thinking that can help us cope with (not fix) incredibly complex, nonlinear systems. It needs to make us spend some time living under big overarching ideas like “the holocene is over” and “the Earth is full,” not arguing about them but finding out where our thinking takes us as we absorb them.

Ramsey’s talk struck me as deeply pessimistic, but he tempered that by saying that if he didn’t believe in the power of education to help us navigate the future, he wouldn’t be here giving this talk.

So where does that leave me? Damned if I know. Ramsey’s lecture was either prophetic or a raving mania of fear and cynicism. It would be far more comfortable to write it off as the second, but I’m not finding that easy to do. Ramsey framed his talk as being about intellectual honesty, not about being right or engaging in arguments. Intellectual honesty compels me to take his perspective seriously.

On my walk home, I found myself briefly jealous that I teach physics, instead of some more relevant discipline wherein I could engage students in deep thinking about such important topics as economics vs. chrematistics and our future on an increasingly hostile planet. And then, I thought that perhaps physics was not so irrelevant after all, if framed as an arena for learning to understand complex interconnected systems. Perhaps learning how to model and understand the physical universe, from the quantum level to the cosmological, is a suitable warm-up for coming to terms with our socio-cultural-ecological system’s new dynamics?

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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7 Responses to Post-Holocene Education?

  1. Steve Maier says:

    I think just about any course can be made relevant. In particular, though, it may need to be the general education courses that should receive the most attention/thought on the matter. Those are the courses that “serve the masses” and help form conceptions of ‘science’ among future voters and policy makers. Art Hobson has spoken on this topic several times.

    In my Earth & Space gen ed course I teach, I get the best response from students when I point to them and say “It’s you this course is for, and your children. Because you’ll be in office or on a city council someday–needing to know what you need to do to make informed decisions.” With the recent boom in oil & gas via hydraulic fracturing in our area, and former superfund site in our state, some take the message to heart.

    • Ian says:

      Amen. Ed Prather, at the University of Arizona, argues that large-enrollment general education astronomy and physics classes are the most important courses we teach, because they’re our last chance to shape how future politicians, business leaders, and voters think about science.

  2. Josh Foster says:

    Well, since I deal with these sorts of talks nearly daily–I think there are messengers and actors. Messengers can tell the pessimistic story as a warning (Ben Ramsey) ie the Town Crier role–no shortage of these folks, while actors might have a sense of how we might fix some of these problems. Bill McKibben is a good example of both–he gave an excellent speech to this effect at OSU last year–but even he’s realistic. I recommend McKibben’s book Eaarth as it’s both realistic (pessimistic) and hopeful. We just gotta have some faith in the resilience of humanity to act when events trigger the need and hopefully do some preparing in advance with all the knowledge we’ve accumulated, but life in the future is going to be different from what we have today in ways both better and worse than we expect…and when it comes down to it–it’s really human belief and behavior that’s most difficult to change…but that’s the job of folks like Dedra and you…;-)

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Josh. Long time no packets.

      I’ll have McKibben’s book in a day or two, thanks to the wonder of Amazon Prime. (Um, is that perhaps part of the problem?)

      I wish I had more faith in our ability to make collective decisions. That seems to be something that our species is incredibly bad at.

  3. Josh Foster says:

    Interesting, you should say that, Ian. In Eaarth, McKibben advocates solutions that depend primarily on local action, organization, and living (making collective choices in small groups) coupled with dependence on the internet for our broader and global interactions (so continuing the ol’ “think globally, act locally” but with a modern twist…ie it’s impossible to put the internet cat back in the bag, so to speak. So eat locally, produce energy locally, manufacture locally, make decisions locally but entertain, educate, and enrich ourselves and “travel” via the web…not perfect or perhaps entirely feasible but one vision, and with some truth and reality in it…

    • Ian says:

      And if only 5% of those “local” communities make wise long-term decisions, and the rest optimize on short-term gain and advantage over others? It’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large…

  4. Cora Conway says:

    Ultimately, Ramsey’s argument is that we desperately need to take an economic, rather than a chrematistic, perspective on education. We need to teach future citizens how to manage our house, not how to be human capital in the pursuit of growth. He’s not sure exactly what that kind of an education would look like, but it needs to develop other kinds of thinking beyond the analytic and linear — metaphorical, dialectical, synthetic — thinking that can help us cope with (not fix) incredibly complex, nonlinear systems. It needs to make us spend some time living under big overarching ideas like “the holocene is over” and “the Earth is full,” not arguing about them but finding out where our thinking takes us as we absorb them.

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