We are standing on the edge of a rapidly eroding sea-cliff. Battered by pounding waves it crashes into the ocean piece by piece, chunk by chunk. The danger of us falling into the churning water is there but it dimly registers in our minds…we think “all we need to do is take a step back” and thus avoid the tumble. Every day for decades we have been told that the cliff is unstable and that it will only get worse unless we shore it up; instead we built houses and restaurants on it because everyone agreed the view was spectacular.
The first few collapses were scary, but it seemed obvious that the whole thing wasn’t going to come down all at once. Now however, the cliff collapse is accelerating, and we have all taken so many steps back from the edge that when we turned around to run away we faced a wall. We can’t walk backwards from that edge; so we are now forced to face the sea and the inevitable drop into the darkness.
The changes currently happening on Earth in relation to the global climate are subtle, too subtle for most people in the developed world to even notice. It’s hard not to sympathize with the average middle-class American who is struggling to feed their kids, pay their mortgage, pay their insurance and keep a semblance of a high standard of living. How can that person give the time and energy needed to even think about some small island chain in Micronesia that is disappearing under the rising ocean? How do they have time to worry about the delicate balance of melting permafrost (permafrost, what’s that?) in the Arctic? How can they comprehend the significance in the parts per million of an invisible gas in the atmosphere and how it dictates what happens to the weather in Guadalajara and Far Rockaway? Without knowledge itself, they will never really invest that time. Without relating it to their day to day lives, they will never actually care.
The vast majority of Americans have a very basic understanding of science. They’re seriously interested and invested in the results of science, but not the thought patterns and processes of what constitutes science. The hunger for understanding is out there. You can find in children asking questions of their parents about why is the sky blue, or what happened to the dinosaurs, or why does the moon shine at night? Most parents would tell their kids to ask their teachers, (or worse, that God did it) as opposed to looking up the answer themselves. Systemic coordination of information and dissemination of that information is the biggest issue confronting society today. If you don’t understand, how can you make a decision?
The major media news outlets are owned in whole by major corporations with a serious injection of self-interest and protection of their bottom lines. Global warming is anathema to leaders in the two major political parties, with one of them, the Republican Party, completely aligned against the basics of climate science. The people of this nation look to their leaders for leadership, when those very same leaders look to their political benefactors for directions. Exxon, ARCO, Gulf, Shell and ConocoPhillips all supply the anti-warming agenda and purposefully obfuscate proposals for renewable energy. In some states there is active legislation to tax solar power and penalize individuals who contribute energy back into their local power grids! What is the motivation behind this? The obvious answer about protecting profits doesn’t seem to be sufficient when any of these enormously powerful companies could spend a weeks’ worth of gasoline profits to R&D supremely efficient solar cells, or a month’s worth of profits to build orbiting microwave power stations to beam energy to anywhere on Earth.
Which titan of industry wants to be seen as a leader in powering the world cleanly, safely, and above all, cheaply? The sun is free ladies and gentlemen; all it takes is money to make money.
Television programming is entertainment focused. Coming home from work, exhausted and ready to take your mind off of the work-a-day world, the last thing you want to watch is programming that requires you to think more than absolutely necessary. Shows about rapists, voyeuristic reality shows about rich semi-celebrities, game shows were people humiliate themselves for cash and prizes, and corporate news media focusing on pre-digested stories with a feel good spin…that’s what’s on the TV. Shows about science are out there, but are few and far between. The average content on networks like the Learning Channel and the Science Channel (home of “World’s Strangest Explosions”) rarely offer actual information pertaining to real, hard science. You can learn by osmosis through shows like “Myth Busters” and “Through the Wormhole” about certain properties of mathematics and physics, but not the meat and bones of trial and error research and the application of certain fundamentals of investigative thought. What is a hypothesis? How do you test a theory? What constitutes a chemical reaction? These things are easily taught and can be done in an engaging way-which has been accomplished by science educators like Bill Nye for children. Adults can be marketed to and can be reached on a bedrock level to inculcate them with a way to understand these basics.
Once the basics have been met, you can then start to apply the more complex components on top of that primary layer. Now that we know what elements are, and now that we know what a chemical reaction is, we can then explain the how internal combustion works. From that you can easily extrapolate what the waste products would be from said combustion. Illustrating that carbon dioxide is a waste product not just of car engines and power plants, but also of animal respiration, connects people to what otherwise might be considered an esoteric concept. There is joy in gaining new knowledge, especially if that knowledge is gained painlessly. The video game industry has grown to equal the profits of the motion picture industry, creating immersive products with the ability to put the player into the story, the best games allowing for an experience exceeding cinema in its emotional gravity. Games already employ physics as a mechanic of play, and most games rely on science fiction themes to project current issues into player’s homes. Games that would focus on teaching basic science concepts without appearing to be designed for children, would allow teenagers and adults to learn while playing.
Dr. Carl Sagan was one of the leading lights of science popularization. He was first and foremost a scientist, researcher and educator. He taught his students to be critical thinkers and to use the scientific method coupled with our ability to filter out extraneous noise to find answers. He was a speaker with the ability to use the ideas as a canvas, his words as a brush painting poetic images of a cosmos bound together through atoms and time and space. Here he is quoted answering a question regarding the value of explaining science to the public at large (from a Q and A session at the CSICOP conference in Seattle, June 26, 1994):
“I think one, perhaps, is to present science as it is, as something dazzling, as something tremendously exciting, as something eliciting feelings of reverence and awe, as something that our lives depend on. If it isn’t presented that way, if it’s presented in very dull textbook fashion, then of course people will be turned off. If the chemistry teacher is the basketball coach, if the school boards are unable to get support for the new school bond issue, if teachers’ salaries, especially in science, are very low, if very little is demanded of our students in terms of homework and original class time, if virtually every newspaper in the country has a daily astrology column and hardly any of them has a weekly science column, if the Sunday morning pundit shows never discuss science, if every one of the commercial television networks has somebody designated as a science reporter but he (it’s always he) never presents any science, it’s all technology and medicine, if an intelligent remark on science has never been uttered in living memory by a President of the United States, if in all of television there are no action-adventure series in which the hero or heroine is someone devoted to finding out how the universe works, if spiffy jackets attractive to the opposite sex are given to students who do well in football, basketball, and baseball but none in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, if we do all of that, then it is not surprising that a lot of people come out of the American educational system turned off, or having never experienced science“
“Never having experienced science,” think about that. How sad it is to think that people have been denied the opportunity to see the mechanics of the universe; to literally be able to know how things work without resorting to hand waving or religious soliloquies. He was concerned with our dependence on fossil fuels and the obvious evidence for global warming well before the mainstream.
To be a soothsayer is to be ignored.
Once the power of knowledge is in the hands and minds of the people- then things can begin to change. Once interest in the world outside an individual’s home is piqued- then things can begin to change. The massive, anthropogenic proliferation of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere lines up with all of the models, it lines up with the changes in ice coverage in the Arctic, it lines up with the acidification of the oceans and algal blooms, the rising ocean levels threatening to wipe out low lying island chains, and extreme weather events and massive forest fires ringing the world from Australia to California.
The cliff we stand on is collapsing, but with education and determination, united as a civilization- we can work together to arrest the decay and prevent the final ignominious plunge.
For you see, if we don’t, we will all drown together.