08 April 2012

Education in a post carbon world

My local 'newspaper' recently published an opinion piece (Stouffville Tribune, Unions biggest threat to quality education, March 31, 2012) by a Canadian 'business leader' who opines that the reason for a country's success or failure rests with students being well-trained in math, science, and/or technology who can then produce 'intelligent, innovative products', and that the biggest impediment to ensuring students receive the best training are educational unions who resist merit pay

by Steve Bull | Apr 4 2012 by Zero Growth Now! (Canada) in Energy Bulletin | Apr 7 2012

This is not a new opinion but one that does raise its head every once in a while, particularly during any economic contraction. There are so many assumptions built into the writer's conclusion that I am unsure where to start but I'll list a few of the most obvious:

  1. there is the explicit assumption that educational unions are blocking efforts to improve the knowledge necessary for students to be successful through their opposition to merit pay;
  2. countries that do not win the battle to increase such knowledge are "doomed to high unemployment and steadily declining living standards";
  3. success for a country depends upon the creation of 'intelligent, innovative products';
  4. the ability to create such products relies upon a skill set only attained through the sciences, math, and technology;
  5. students are not taking these courses because of parents who don't encourage their children to take them and/or teachers who fail to teach in an engaging manner;
  6. the growing income gap across the world is due to students failing to take these product-producing courses; and,
  7. finally, that unless educational unions stop blocking the attempts to implement merit pay and improve the quality of training, then the Canadian economy will suffer enormously.

An argument based upon so many assumptions is easy to critique. I'll briefly comment on the basic premise that economies fall or rise based upon high-skilled labour that can produce the technological products everybody wants and is only possible through a remuneration system that pays educators based upon student results on standardised tests or exams (I'm assuming pay based on student achievement results here as the author doesn't define which model of merit pay he supports, but many merit pay models base salary compensation on such 'objective' measures). As for the convoluted connection between economic failure and merit pay, as Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff show in This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, contractions or crises are endemic to economic systems, and they began occurring long before any educational personnel were organised into labour unions or teacher federations that are against merit pay (the main critique by unions is that such a plan replaces what should be a highly cooperative learning-teaching culture with competition over the 'brightest' students or 'best' schools).

For the purposes of this site, however, I want to spend more time discussing the overarching assumption that got me thinking: creating more products for consumption is the penultimate arbiter of a country's success, and this is what the education system should be focused upon.

While it may be axiomatic that an economy grows through greater consumption of 'products', either by a domestic or international market, it is not definitive that this describes success; certainly not long-term success. In fact, I would argue that advocating greater consumption of physical 'things' is pushing a leverage point, as Donella Meadows describes in Systems Theory: A Primer, in the wrong direction. She asserts that growth is a significant leverage point that can bring about changes in the complex system that one could term 'global human civilisation'. Meadows goes on to state that the leverage point is not just growth of human populations but growth of the economy, and to remember that "growth has costs as well as benefits, and we typically don’t count the costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction and so on—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! What is needed is much slower growth, very different kinds of growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth. The world leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction …leverage points frequently are not intuitive. Or if they are, we too often use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve."

This view, that we can only be successful through increased consumption of physical items, must be challenged. I believe that there is more than enough evidence to show that this type of consumptive growth has put not only the human species, but the entire planet at risk of a colossal social, fiscal, and environmental collapse. Calling for the increased creation of products for consumptive purposes only hastens this collapse. (For more on possible collapse scenarios I would suggest several texts: Michael Rupert's Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World; Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and, Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies).

And as for growth through consumption saving the economy, Post Carbon Institute Research Fellow Richard Heinberg argues in his book, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, that "the economic crisis that began in 2007-2008 was both foreseeable and inevitable, and it marks a permanent fundamental break from past decades--a period during which most economists adopted the unrealistic view that perpetual economic growth is necessary and also possible to achieve...[and that] pundits general miss factors external to the financial system that make resumption of conventional economic growth a near-impossibility" (italics added).

The impossibility of perpetual growth is brilliantly debunked by Colorado professor Albert Bartlett in a lecture entitled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. Although his focus is on human population growth, the same fundamental principles apply to perpetual economic growth. Quite frankly, both human population and economic growth in perpetuity are a physical and mathematical impossibility. As for such growth saving our global economy, Heinberg goes on to argue quite convincingly that the lack of economic growth we have been experiencing the past few years is a permanent change because economic expansion has collided with three fundamental barriers: resource depletion, negative environmental impacts, and financial disruptions.

Anyone who has filled their tank recently will not be surprised to learn that we have run out of cheap, abundant oil to create gasoline with. That is not to say we have no oil left on the planet and that we won't see up and down oscillations of its price. There is plenty of oil remaining underground, but we have basically exhausted all the low-lying fruit and now have to put billion dollar rigs off shore in treacherous circumstances to reach possible oil reserves; use million of litres of fresh water and natural gas to boil bitumen to get a viscous ooze that can be transported across the continent to get refined; or, contemplate putting rigs in the arctic for more possible reserves. We have depleted our most important energy resource: fossil fuels. (The impact of this is astronomical and I would suggest perusing the websites Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Post-Carbon Institute for more information, or reading Jeff Rubin's Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller).

The lack of winter this past season in Canada may or may not be the result of an increasing global temperature due to human-induced climate change. I believe it is and that we are only beginning to experience the impact of global warming since research indicates there is a lag between the higher concentrations and the impact felt, similar to the delayed onset of cancer caused by smoking. However, we are seeing increasing cases of environmental catastrophes as a result of our continuing expansion of population and the global economy. I can quickly list some significant disasters we have caused directly in our quest for increased energy due to growth: Fukishima, Deepwater Horizon Well, Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. I believe there is little doubt that the negative environmental impact of our species is increasing with each day.

Finally, the global economic situation is looking pretty bleak. Canada has been cushioned so far but this is unlikely to continue. There are some who argue we could be witnessing the demise of the fiat currency system (see Chris Martenson's The Crash Course, James Rickards Currency Wars, or John Mauldin and Jonathan Terpper's End Game:The End of the Debt Supercyle and How It Changes Everything). Regardless of that possibility, the world is becoming increasingly familiar with the sovereign debt crisis and the fraud rampant in the global economic system (search MF Global or Jon Corzine for the latest significant incident, especially on the website zerohedge.com). The fact that the mainstream media is not following the developments in Europe as much as previously is only reflective of its ADHD tendency to focus on a crisis only until a ‘better’ one comes along; the situation in Europe continues to bubble and boil and should the trillion dollar global derivatives bubble burst as a result of a sovereign default, which is looking more and more likely, or some other black swan event, it will be felt virtually everywhere on the planet.

Merit pay is a distraction; it ignores the larger context that should be the focus of debate in education: what curriculum (knowledge and skills) will best prepare students and their families for life in a post-carbon world? If we don't shift our focus to this larger question and begin implementing such changes soon, all other concerns may be moot.

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