Recently I sent an e-mail to a couple of local high school teachers who are involved with creating a new online class. One is a history teacher, the other teaches science. They wanted to teach students about “Problems of the 21st Century,” ostensibly to help prepare the next generation for what’s ahead.
I’m sure they considered climate change one of the “Problems of the 21st Century,” but I thought it would be a good idea to whisper in their ear and encourage them to take on the whole enchilada: climate change, resource depletion, economic instability. If you’re going to deliver the bad news, after all, maybe it’s best to get it all at once.
Imagine what might happen if we stopped continuing the myth that an ivy league college education — or maybe even any college education — is the answer for our kids? Or that the years ahead will mean big houses, trips abroad, shiny new gadgets, lots of money, great jobs, and an endless horizon of good times?
No candy coating
What if we told them the truth about the challenges they’ll be facing as the planet runs out of oil, water quality is severely compromised, top soil depletion affects food production, and the weather wrecks havoc on everything?
So I sent that e-mail. You can feel free to steal my idea, sending a copy to your local community college, university or even high school, with tweaks for your area. It goes like this:
Dear Mr. Oddo and Mr. Walker,
I was excited to read in the paper about your new online course.
Online and experiential learning is a great way to go. As a lifelong learner, I’ve participated in many classes via the Internet over the years. So I was particularly intrigued when I saw your proposed class title, “Problems of the 21st Century.”
It just so happens that during my adult learning process, I’ve been exposed to what I believe is the biggest predicament of the 21st century and I’m not sure our kids will be prepared to deal with it, even if they take your fine class.
Truth be told, we’re in quite a pickle.
It’s beyond a “problem.” Problems have solutions. But predicaments, they’re nearly permanent; therefore no immediate solution is readily available. And we’re going to have to find intelligent responses to the predicaments we’re facing.
I’m referring to the triple whammy of climate change, peak oil and economic instability. These complex, interconnected issues are already the top predicament we’re facing right now, but most people haven’t woken up to this yet.
Centuries of a flawed economic model have left us addicted to growth, yet we’re coming up against finite resources. Many people warned about this, producing profound works, such as The Limits To Growth, to help our society apply the brakes and rejigger our direction. But all to no avail. Now everything’s coming to a head at once, just at the moment when we’re most dependent on the flawed paradigm, and least equipped to change tack.
This is a recipe for collapse on many levels.
Hey, it’s not just me saying this
There are many interesting voices out there writing, speaking and blogging about this predicament.
Mike Ruppert and James Howard Kunstler present a fairly doomsday take on the whole mess. They might really rattle your students and grab their attention. Both these guys have many books, videos and movies that could be useful as your class explores 21st century “problems.”
Kunstler is a fascinating, snarky writer who believes that suburbia, being wholly dependent on the car culture, and therefore on cheap, readily available fuel, is especially doomed. His books, The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, would give students new ways to look at their suburban surroundings. It would also help explain to them how economic crisis has already made good portions of suburbia slip into decline. They might discuss why more and more strip malls are losing tenants, why there’s less mowing of median strips and why so many houses are for sale but not selling.
The documentary The End of Suburbia features Kunstler in fine form, laying out the predicament in no uncertain terms. Your students would love it. He’s also written two novels, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron that take place in a post-fossil fuel Hudson Valley. This could be great for dealing with the predicament through fiction. Kids love that imaginative approach!
I read his Monday morning blog, Clusterfuck Nation each week. It’s a little harsher rehash of current events than The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but can be amusing, and definitely might give the kids the feeling that they’re in the adult world now. He also posts a podcast every Thursday — the Kunstlercast —which is always a great listen. Some entertainingly good homework opportunities there.
Mike Ruppert makes Kunstler seem cheery.
A former cop, Ruppert’s got a more ominous edge and has a bit of an ego when it comes to just how well he’s nailing all the predictions about our predicament, only some of which have been dead on. But he’s been pretty much on target about things in general.
Ruppert used to have a pretty thrashy blog called From the Wilderness, which was chock full of provocative takes on the government, 9/11 and the industrial economy. He’s since moved into a more dynamic form with Collapse.Net, where multiple posters offer their insights. You’d have to subscribe there, but it’s worth it if you want an unvarnished and very thorough run down on the specifics of these converging crises and how they’re bearing down on us even now.
He was in a movie, too. Collapse was screened at our local theater last year to a full house. It’s edgy and would give your students much material to debate.
On the upside
There’s a more hopeful, reasonable approach that can be found in the Transition Towns movement. They say that relocalization is the way to buffer the worst in our predicament, suggesting local economies, local currencies, local manufacturing and food production as ways to empower people, strengthen communities, and take action now rather than waiting for Big Government to step in with a technocratic solution it probably can’t deliver on. Transition US is a great resource and has online trainings. Learning about them could make for a great research paper.
Researchers like Richard Heinberg and others at the Post Carbon Institute are not as alarmist as Ruppert and Kunstler, and offer smart responses. They’ve created some useful short videos to get their points across and have used Youtube to deliver them. The kids love that! You can see “300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds” for the energy situation, and “Who Killed Economic Growth” to help understand why the economy has gone south, probably for good.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote about the Transition Towns movement in his book Eaarth. He compared it to Captain Sully Sullenberger famously landing that plane in the Hudson. That’s where we are right now, he explains. We’ve got some birds clogging up the engines, there will be no easy landing, and it will take skill and teamwork to keep from crashing and burning.
Waking the sleeping masses
But most people are continuing on with business as usual, imagining that as soon as Washington or Wall Street “straighten out these messes” we’ll be fine. Opportunity for one and all, and every generation able to look forward to a better standard of living!
I feel its important to stop lying to our kids. A pricey college education will not enable them to be happy and successful in the world their parents enjoyed. And if they get that pricey education, future economic predictions suggest they’ll hardly be able to pay it back. If they’re not aware of the converging predicaments, how can they make the kind of choices that will best position them for tomorrow’s economy, energy situation, and environment?
Your course could be pivotal in opening their minds to making the best choices.
It might be cool to run the course on a parallel track with our local school district’s adult education program or in Westchester Community College’s continuing education department. Collaborating with adult education will help everyone to see the key issues and work with them productively. This could also help fund it in years to come. I have no doubts that the Chappaqua school district will continue to have bigger and bigger money problems. We are not immune to this collapse in our cozy community, and we might even be hit harder since we are currently unaware of the predicament and wholly dependent on the current paradigm.
I’m part of a group called Transition Westchester — a chapter of the Transition Town movement I mentioned. I’ve been active on this front for a few years now, ever since I realized that our food system was deeply dependent on fossil fuels and broken beyond repair. Right now we burn 10 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food we produce. Combine that with climate change and it’s easy to see that food will be a concern as this predicament increases.
If you’re interested in more info, I’m here to help in any way I can.
–Dr. Susan Rubin, Transition Voice