Volume 23, Number 4 October 1994


[The following article is the first installment of a paper presented at the Rio Followup Conference on Science Education in Global Change, held in Eger, Hungary, 22-27 August 1994. It will be published in the Proceedings of that conference, and is reprinted here by permission. Two more installments will appear in later issues.]

Education In Global Change

I like to interact as much as I can with my students, even in my 200-student lectures. One way is by "brainstorming." As an example, let's develop a list of today's most important global issues. Somebody name one, and I'll write it down.

[With the help of the audience, a list was developed. ]

Fine. Our list includes the usual suspects: global warming and overpopulation and all the rest. I've brainstormed this question with many different groups, and the list is always similar. Perhaps there is a message in that fact.

It's an imposing list. Look it over and ask: To what extent is each item related to science and technology?

--Global warming? Obviously. Crime? Not so obvious, but aren't the weapons, the drugs, the pollution, and the war zones in our inner cities (in America, at least) related to technology? Voila! We have just demonstrated an important principle of education in global change:

1. To participate in global issues, people must learn science. By the same token, science must be taught in a manner that is relevant to global issues.

I would like to develop several more general principles that might guide us in the new educational endeavor we are discussing at this meeting: education in global change.

At this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, David Pimentel, an ecologist, presented a study of humankind's condition in the year 2100 (1,2). The study finds that Earth's energy resources, water, and cropland are disappearing so rapidly that population must be slashed to 2 billion by that year if we are to have worldwide prosperity. Up to two billion could be supported at something like the current industrialized standard of living, provided we make wiser use of energy and other natural resources. But we're already at three times that number, and will reach 12 billion by 2100 with current trends. The continuation of current trends, says Pimentel, will create an apocalyptic worldwide scene of "absolute misery, poverty, disease and starvation," and a U.S. standard of living slightly better than in present-day China.

It is clear that we are at a jumping-off point.

2. Humankind now faces a decision: Will we achieve world prosperity, or enter a new dark age?

Is it too dramatic to speak of a "new dark age?" Think of Rwanda, or AIDS, or today's violent religious fanatics.

My own discussions with American students persuade me that they are not optimistic about our future. They sense a new dark age. Please, tell them that the dark side is only one possibility. We are capable of world prosperity, and I will argue below that we can achieve it surprisingly easily.

Ask your students: Who will decide between prosperity and a new dark age? Will it be the government? Big business? Science? Lead them to the answer that they will decide. You, John Smith, and you, Jane Jones, you will decide by your awareness, and by the way you live your life.

Our second principle is practically a scientific consensus. The Union of Concerned Scientists has developed a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," signed by 1600 of the world's leading scientists including 104 Nobel laureates--a majority of the living recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences. The lengthy statement is summarized in the following "Warning":

"We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

This Warning is an example of another principle:

3. Science education must include a global perspective.

We must take the large view not only in space, but also in time. Lead your students to see Earth in its 4.6 billion year perspective. They should understand the radioactive and other procedures that inform us of our ancestral roots: Where did we come from, and when? The "cosmic clock" helps put it into perspective (Figure 1). On a noon-to-midnight scale, the earliest humans evolve at 40 seconds before midnight, agriculture is invented at 0.1 second before midnight, and the modern scientific age--which I date from Copernicus--begins at 0.005 seconds before midnight! The changes in this last blink of an eyelash are stunning.

Think, for example, of the population explosion (Figure 2). All the graphs look like this: land use, species destruction, energy resource use, you name it: they're all exponential, or faster. --And please do teach "exponential growth."

Figure 1. The cosmic clock: The history of Earth, in perspective.

Figure 2. The population explosion. The long view gives us global insight. Biological evolution is slow, and science moves fast. Human instincts developed during millions of years, and science changed everything during 500 years--everything, that is, except our ways of thinking. We face high-tech problems using stone-age brains. It's no wonder we're having a hard time.

For example, our instinct to procreate served us well when the lifespan was 30 years. But science has changed all that. Our acceptance of medicine, without accepting sufficient controls on the ancient urge to bear children, give us the population explosion. Such contradictions are symptomatic of the scientific age:

4. Many global issues stem from contradictions between ancient behaviors and new science-related realities. [To be continued.]

Art Hobson 1. D. Pimentel et al, "Natural resources and an optimum human population, " Population and Environment, May 1994, pp. 347-369. 2. H. W. Kendall and D. Pimentel, "Constraints on the expansion of the global food supply," Ambio, May 1994, pp. 198-205.