Thursday, February 18, 2010

Long-term Problems; Short-term Brains

Tom Friedman has a way with words, choosing pithy combinations to describes equally pithy phenomena. Not only is the world as he describes it hot, flat, and crowded, but we're now suffering from the best possible term for our current climate situation: Global Weirding.

In his column in yesterday's New York Times (reprinted today in the Daily Poop), Friedman describes the logical dysfunction attached to "discussions" about climate change (the current record snowfalls prove that we're being hoodwinked by scientists and their political hacks about global warming) as one of the "festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics."

Amen, Brother.

America's greatest failing, despite its self-description as a visionary country that sees its future wrapped in manifest destiny, is that we are, as a population, the most myopic nation in the modern world. And it's getting worse, because once upon a time our collective brain operated on a four-year cycle; now, however, it's turned into a two-year cycle and is grounded not in carefully thought-through policy, but turn-on-a-dime popular sentiment as measure in polls.

Whereas climatic cycles work on a very long, intricate global scale, American "thinking" about important issues that affect everyone on the planet operates on a short-attention span that's often only as large as one's household, and seldom larger than one's state. If it's snowing outside my front door (or in my town, or somewhere else in Texas), the world's temperature can't possibly be rising, and we need to harvest the oil in the Barnett Shale or we're all gonna die next week, or the economy is going to collapse, or (around here, anyway) the Second Coming is nigh.

At the same time, we're mired in an educational system that talks a great deal about improving science education while harping about how Intelligent Design needs to be taught in our public schools because "Darwinism" (apparently a religion that worships evolution) is "only a theory"--and thus only as stable as any opinion. Don't teach kids anything scientific about sex, either, because sex education is the purview of parents. Schools need to teach them to wait until marriage, but that's it--and, of course, Texas ends up at the top of teen pregnancy rates and toward the bottom of SAT scores.

I know that this amounts to a very simplistic analysis, but given what my students know about science (very little) and how many of them already have children (no, I haven't polled them, but the most common excuse for missing class is child-related), I'm thinking that science and sex ed are bound together in Texas in some significant manner. Wouldn't good, comprehensive biology programs, for example, clue the kids in that 1 + 1 often equals more than two?

What I love best about Friedman's article is his call for a colloquium of climate scientists (although, one letter-writer to the Daily Poop a while back claimed that there's no such thing as "climate science") that would produce a simple paper describing "What We Know." His coining of "Global Weirding" is particularly apropos, because "what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous." And it snows for two days in north Texas, causing the fossil fuel lobby to jump up and shout that we need to dig that shale or carve up Alaska or else.

The saddest thing about this whole mess is that our students--the very ones we're failing to educate on how to solve scientific problems--are the ones who will begin to suffer most from our lack of foresight. I'll be long gone before the worst of it all begins to manifest itself, but my children's cohort and their offspring, and all those babies our kids are popping out in Texas will have to figure out how to live on an increasingly weird planet.

Image credits: NASA Arctic Temperature Change 1981-2007; Thomas Friedman in 2003 by Charles Haynes. Both from Wikimedia Commons.