Resources and Annotated Bibliography
1. Experience and Meaning
When I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980's, I experienced the relationship of environment to population increase and crisis in culture very directly and immediately. At the time I went the Hong Kong harbor was 80% oxgenated. At the time of leaving it suddenly dropped to 20%. The water became not merely deadly for fish but toxic for humans. All the beaches were closed to the public for two years while the government put in temporary emergency sewerage treatment plants. Previously the tides had been able to carry the sewerage out into the ocean. The quantity of sewerage per day, however, had continuously increased year by year with increasing density of population until it reached a critical mass. Suddenly the whole tidal system for washing out the waste from the harbor collapsed. The government had been warned twenty years earlier of the probability of this happening. It saved money in the short term by ignoring the problem but suddenly was faced with a multi-billion dollar crisis and a social crisis. The half-million people per square mile in the industrial areas used these beaches to get away from the sweltering humid summer heat of the city streets. A single high-rise apartment building could be home to three thousand people. The government was paranoid about loss of social control at the best of times. Could the loss of beaches in this coastal city be the precipitating crisis of social breakdown and violence that was feared in the best of times? Fortunately the government had an unusually large surplus of money in its banks to finance both clean up and the construction of the technological machinery needed to solve the problem. Also the forces for social cohesion and the Chinese tradition of patience proved strong enough to carry the masses through the misery of loss of a significant outlet for 'pressure cooker' stress come from living in that over fast paced and over densely populated city.
In the above story, catastrophe was avoided, but in another city with little financial surplus and a less motivated entrepreneurial population the outcome might well have been different. More fundamentally though, the problem of Hong Kong's harbor is but a metaphor for what the whole human population is faced with in the coming years. Populations in cities and countryside around the world are incrementally putting stresses and strains on the ability of the environment to support life (apart from bacteria). At what point will it give way and collapse?
We can create ecosystems in the classroom to model how these crises happen locally and more profoundly on a global scale. Using the 'Sim-earth' program one can simulate more complex feedback systems of inter-relationships. One can model the consequences of change in climate due to changes in temperature and humidity of the air that are consequences of loss of vegetation and loss of phytoplankton. These are predominantly cyanobacteria that produce 70% of the atmospheric oxygen and dimethyl sulphide that triggers cloud formation for holding moisture and reducing temperature. The same cyanobacteria are very sensitive to ultraviolet radiation. Loss of blue-green algae increases with loss of ozone coverage.
Simultaneously one could model what happens when there is a net decrease in forests and leaf coverage and a massive increase in levels of carbon dioxide and other gases due to burning fossil fuels. The net effect of these factors is to increase average temperature due to the 'greenhouse' effect. Furthermore one can factor in what happens when there is a significant reduction in stocks of available drinking water and loss of usable soil for farming. Topsoil is lost from cutting down trees for farming, cooking, the construction and paper industries. Another factor to model is the effect of toxic levels of animal waste that occurs with increased farming to support increased human population. On top of these factors, one must factor in the upsurge in size and number of cities that have the effect of removing a multiplicity of complex ecosystems that drives up the removal of animal and plant habitats essential to global food chains.
Like the sudden inability of tides to wash out the sewerage of Hong Kong's harbor, can one make predictions when incremental changes, working in tandem, and in parallel systems, will become sudden breakdowns or run-away catastrophes? How about speculating on unforeseeable events like production of new chemicals that are released into the environment without testing for their effects on non-human populations, such as progressive reduction in sperm count? Can one calculate risk factors to uncontrolled chemical production?
The particulars, the probabilities and how to attach significance to different factors can be debated but what cannot be debated is that we are playing dice with the future. The above intellectual activity is in one sense like a game, but like war games, the outcomes can be deadly. The objective of these exercises is to draw the students emotionally into the 'game' so that it is their deadly game, their future, their lives and the lives of billions of people that is at stake.
2. Experimenting and modeling
Hopefully the first lesson above taught us that though we can ignore population growth for a time, a day will come when ecosystems will precipitate a crisis that may have extraordinary impacts such that only extraordinary responses will save the day. We can pay attention now and live within the supporting limits of our local or global ecosystem or we can ignore it now and wait for devastation to hit us the ostrich response.
Once the problem is accepted as serious and real, we can do something about it. The next step, the purpose of this lesson, is not action but calming down and carefully describing the situation as it is. We will examine the causes behind these effects, model these relationships and hypothesize consequences in demographics. We will assume that culture(s) will continue to operate as past history leads us to expect that they would.
There are many ways to describe the situation as it is. Tracking demographics of any city, region or country in the world over the last one hundred years when plotted on a graph and projected with existing trends into the next century will give ample food for thought. Local, regional and global history offers the causes behind the effects. Knowing this history may well suggest ways in which communities and nations will respond to the population growth in the future.
The most dramatic representation of the change in demographics is to look at a graph of total human population growth, plotting billions of humans against time. In 250 million years Homo sapiens expanded its population to 2 billion. Sixty years later i.e. today the population rose to 5 billion. At existing rates of population growth the population will double to 10 billion in 30 years from now.
To model this growth and look at basic causes one can study the population growth of bacteria, algae or insects in the class room. There are experiments in which one can readily plot growth in bacteria population to model these global changes in human population. After an initial lag, the population of bacteria grows exponentially. It reaches a climax at which point the population is stable and then suddenly the population crashes in the final death phase. A similar experiment can be carried out with fruit flies in a bottle with a suitable food source. One can begin with one male and one female fly and count the change in numbers, and the numbers of generations until the population reaches its maximum and collapses in a final death phase. Using 'fast' plant seeds, one can also record similar figures by counting the numbers of offspring for each generation as the same patch of ground is seeded again and again from the previous generation without replenishment in a closed environment.
The above experiments model the growth and collapse of populations where ecosystem resources are simple and the adaptability of the species minimal. In complex ecosystems and developed mammals such as humans, adaptability and social enemies are novel features. Also the global ecosystem is almost immeasurable for any variable. However it is basic to Gaia theory that the issue is one of systems breakdown, essentially non quantifiable but as in chaos theory, nonetheless having its laws and limits. The experiments are thus suggestive or analogical.
One could then go to the next level of observation in population explosion. What happens when one puts a variety of species together into a single ecosystem where there is competition for the same resources? Placing a variety of populations of protists in a small beaker and observing population changes with time will lead to similar consequences. Here population collapse will depend upon the relative ability of the differing species to survive under the changing abiotic conditions in the beaker.
The purpose of the above experiment is to model what happens in cultural competition for resources. History suggests that those cultures best adapted to survival in the environment continue and replace those cultures least well adapted. The critical factor tends to be technology and social organization but not necessarily. Students interested in independent study could usefully research such trends in particular periods in history. Immigration is a typical cause of war and cultural invasion.
An examination of existing trends in migration and survival (in terms of demographics) of differing cultures is suggestive of what is likely to happen in the future, making the assumption that humans continue to act as they typically have in history. One can describe the disappearance of Native American tribes and indigenous tribes globally. One can describe existing starvation and subsistence in poverished cultures around the world that lack advanced technology and dominance in economic markets. One can describe cultural responses to these crises in differing parts of the world, such as Islamic Fundamentalism as a response to extreme poverty in the Middle East. Equally one can see the cultural response of the rich and powerful cultures to immigrants, such as Christian Fundamentalism as a means to justify and protect dominance.
At the very least, the data will demonstrate that population growth is exponential and that in the competition for resources, the cultures best adapted technologically will become dominant with the poor cultures becoming poorer to the point of extinction. If history gives us precedents, as the scramble for resources intensifies, competing cultures are likely to war over survival issues like fishing rights, control over mineral and energy reserves and of course, drinkable water and land.
3. Data and Measuring
After students have described population increases and identified particular causes at a local, regional and global level in recent history and using the Malthusian biological models suggested above, they will be in a situation to go to the next lesson which is to propose practical ways to limit human population to a comfortable and sustainable level. The lesson is entitled 'Data and Measuring" because it has one overwhelming challenge to it. What exactly are we measuring and how is it to be measured?
How exactly are we to measure a sustainable level? How is this to be defined? What data is needed? How do we find it? Do we make calculations based on existing technology or on technology that seems to be in the pipe-line? Can we presume that nano technology (the ultimate in microtechnology), biochips, nuclear fusion, or biotechnology can bring about a revolution in availability of energy and renewable resources so that the basis for measuring sustainable levels is always a moving target? Are we to presume that the latest data on resistance by bacteria to antibiotics and pesticides means that we are at the limit of medical miracle cures and agricultural productivity? Will the promised miracle in vaccines to protect animals and humans in Africa from parasites be available any time soon? Will this do any more than give humans more time to find cultural adaptations to the ability of the environment to support existing population levels?
How do we define a comfortable level? An Australian or Texan definition is different form a Yankee or Hong Kong Chinese definition. Half the world's population at present lives under conditions that Western Europeans and Northern Americans would consider miserable. What is the misery index?
What are the limits of enforcement of policies? Can we place a limit on building roads so as to protect more encroachment on the wild? How do we enforce limits on human reproductive capacity once the definition of a limit has been defined by government? Do the last gorillas in Africa have greater value than the starving farmers that want more land for their farms? To what lengths can government go to enforce environmental rights? Should poachers be fired at? Are African babies as valuable as American babies are? Do we have one standard for the rich countries and another one for the poor?
For the purposes of this lesson, it is surely best to let students decide for themselves what the reference points should be for measuring and defining data as well as the parameters for enforcement. The teacher's role is essentially one of assisting students with accessing information, clarification of concepts and pointing out problems that students have not noticed.
The scoring rubric described below provides a structure for problem solving and a way for students to evaluate their own work and those of their classmates.
4. Conclusions and Meta-issues
When making evaluations, it is useful to have measurements and numbers. Hence in the previous class, the task was to determine criteria and data that could be measured so as to calculate effectiveness of policies. We were looking for empirical criteria as a way to measure containment of population within safe sustainable environmental constraints. Unfortunately all numbers are merely subjective nonsense unless what they signify is agreed upon as determining real or valid entities. What constitutes 'real' is a cultural construct and is non-empirical. The truth of cultural construction of reality becomes only obvious when one works in cross cultural contexts. There is no such thing as common sense only cultural perceptions of reality that judges sense as sensible or nonsense. Regardless of the reader's agreement as to this rejection of the foundations of British Empiricism, what will be presented here is an intentionally provocative approach to what is popularly known as 'meta issues', i.e. to those truths that cannot be settled by appeal to empirical data yet are critical in determining social policy as it relates to the environment.
Are African babies as valuable as American babies? The answer is obvious but its truth is rejected implicitly by most Americans. The value of a baby is secondary to individual responsibility. Since Americans believe there is such an entity as the nation state and individual responsibility, the African baby carries less value than the American baby in terms of empirical expenditure of national dollars. The existence of both nation state and individual responsibility are so important to Americans that they are expected to live and die for this truth. Freedom, God, self, community and life itself is presumed to be existent yet none are empirical and none believed in by even a majority of cultures. For some life is a soul that is attached to the body like static electricity or the life force of the cosmos. For others it is just the organization of chemicals based upon an evolving ordering and reordering of nucleotides.
What Deweyan philosophy demands, however, is that these meta-issues in culture must be in adaptive to survival in the environment and as such must be pragmatic. For the purposes of this lesson, the most all-encompassing paradigm that meets Dewey's criteria for validity is the concept of Gaia and as such will thus be used as a 'metaphysical' yardstick - the ultimate referent point by which to judge culture. It is only in this way that the empirical data that is needed in the evaluation of adaptability of culture will gain broad consensus. The following 'meta-issues' are examples that students need to critically use in constructing an overall strategy for cultural change to take culture from crisis to 'reality' i.e. to become responsive to the real world.
It is important to note that though the following are written propositionally, they are not at all meant to be dogmatic assertions or in any sense true. They are meant to be controversial and are perhaps nonsensical in contemporary culture. The propositions are intended to be rather like the Bill of Rights and to have the same effect as they did within feudal societies in the eighteenth century. The earliest democrats were drowned, burned alive or banished. Culture is always shaped by the past sense of what is real and possible. It does not easily adapt to a profound crisis under its nose because it may neither have the means to see the crisis as real nor recognize the solutions as real - hence the need for this unit. Unless the fundamental sense of 'common sense' is addressed in education, (the realm of the 'real' or meta-issues), then the needed change may well not occur, or occur too late or too slowly, to avoid social collapse. That is the contention here. These propositions may of course, be wrong by any definition but they are surely useful as propositions from which to start a debate.
Catchy debate titles are to be found in the resources and readings for each of the groups - see below. Students can make up their own titles. The following propositions are therefore to be read as provocative ideas for students to think about and react for or against in their group discussions along with their assigned readings. They provide the ideas behind the debate. One photocopy of the source readings for the debates will be needed for each group participant. Alternatively, one student could present the main ideas/information from one of the books or articles assigned to the group to assist in discussion of questions and issues. Each group will need to have their discussions, presentations and work scheduled through the marking periods with the assistance of the teacher so that by the time of the debate, students will have had ample time to understand, explore and develop their own ideas on issues.