Education is the solution to climate change, Syrian refugees and ISIS

The Fragility of Civilization

Fresno Bee, April 2, 2016

  • Climate change, religious extremism are related challenges
  • Recent events expose fragility of civilization
  • Education is needed to preserve civilization, history

The archeological record is reassuring. We build things that last thousands of years. The Parthenon and the Coliseum provide consolation for our mortality and give us reason to hope.

fiala2(2)But malice and indifference could destroy much of what we take for granted. The rising seas of a warmer world could inundate major cities, leaving them lost, like Atlantis beneath the waves. And human destructiveness has already been unleashed against the monuments of ancient civilization themselves, as we’ve seen in Syria.

The climate news is ominous. NASA reports that Greenland and Antarctica are losing billions of tons of ice per year. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is at 403 ppm and rising. That level of CO2 last appeared 2.5 million years ago, when Earth was warmer by 3 degrees Celsius and sea level was 5 meters higher.

Climate scientist James Hansen warns that climate change may be faster and more severe than previously predicted. Rapidly melting ice could raise the sea level by several meters within 50 to 150 years. Superstorms may be generated by permanent changes in ocean currents.

In a recent paper, Hansen and co-authors warn, “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” In a video explaining his conclusions, Hansen warns that his predictions may mean “the loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s largest cities, and all of their history.”

The human toll of superstorms and flooding coasts is difficult to imagine. The loss in terms of human history when coastal cities are inundated will be incalculable. Cities like New Orleans may be forever lost beneath the tides.

The human dislocations of a warmer, wetter world will be significant. Poor people in developing countries will have difficulty adapting. Environmental refugees will flood our borders, looking for sanctuary. Some argue that Middle Eastern refugees inundating Europe are fleeing drought, as well as political persecution.

Even if we overcome apathy about climate change and avoid the deluge, malice remains a threat. The fragility of civilization was exposed recently when Syrian forces recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the Syrian war. In Palmyra, ISIS’ sinister ideology turned against the archaeological record.

Statues and reliefs were smashed. Monuments were toppled. The Roman Arch of Triumph was blown up. Torturing and beheading human beings is evil. Iconoclastic attacks on historical artifacts expose a sinister strand of nihilistic extremism.

Somehow all of this is interconnected. The oil economy is part of the history of colonialism and militarism. This has created backlash and religious extremism. Globalization gives us global capitalism, global terrorism and global warming.

Some wise pundits may connect these dots in more detail. But beneath all of this is a flaw in human nature. We are not rational. Nor are we good. We fail to plan for the long term. We succumb to stupid ideologies and get-rich-quick schemes. We singlemindedly pursue our agendas, indifferent to the consequences. Power, profit and political inertia prevent us from doing what is right for each other and for Earth.

The solution is as obvious as our fatal flaw. Education is the cure for the twin diseases of indifference and wickedness. Indeed, education is an act of preservation and conservation. We need to learn more about science, history, politics, religion, art and ethics. We need to criticize greed, hatred and indifference. And we need to understand the fragility of civilization.

It is difficult to imagine civilization crumbling. Our achievements seem permanent. But historical and geological education reminds us that none of this will last forever. Civilizations rise and fall.

If we don’t take care to preserve the accomplishments of civilization, they will fall faster, brought down by stupidity, arrogance and selfishness. Of course, human beings will adapt. Life will go on – albeit in a different form – once ISIS is destroyed and the oceans rise. Our grandchildren will remember New Orleans and Palmyra as lost gems. But they will rightly blame us for failing to protect and preserve what our own ancestors so painstakingly created.

Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Fresno Bee, January 28, 2012

People are becoming less cruel and more humane.  This is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s optimistic new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker, a Harvard Psychologist, provides extensive data to support his conclusion, citing a variety of developments from low homicide rates to the demise of dueling and the abolition of slavery and torture.

He attributes some of our improvement to the fact that people are getting smarter.  He notes that rising IQ scores during the past century bode well for a more peaceful world, since smarter people are less violent.  He notes, for example, that smarter people tend to commit fewer violent crimes. He concludes, “people with more sophisticated reasoning abilities are more cooperative, have larger moral circles, and are less sympathetic to violence.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of any straightforward attempt to link intelligence with virtue.  Individuals with low IQ’s can be compassionate and kind; and some psychopaths are exceedingly clever.  But Pinker does provide some reasons to think that better education produces gentler people.

One causal mechanism for this sort of progress is literature.  Pinker thinks that representations of cruelty can change our attitudes toward violence.  And he argues that reading is a useful tool for developing empathy.  Reading demands that we imagine our way into another person’s point of view.  Widespread literacy—made possible by printing technologies and mandatory schooling—may well be a major cause of moral progress.

One sign of this progress is that fact that warfare has become less cruel.  Pinker thinks it is significant that despite the horrors that are still occasionally unleashed in war, we have self-consciously refrained from using our worst and most deadly weapons.  He suggests that nuclear warfare has become “too dangerous to contemplate, and leaders are scared straight.”

This conclusion hinges on the intelligence of our leaders.  Indeed, Pinker claims that there is a correlation between Presidential IQ and deaths in war.  According to Pinker, smarter presidents wage fewer wars and produce fewer wartime casualties.

Such a blithe conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, since it assumes that presidents wage war in a vacuum without the input of the military or the cooperation of foreign allies.  And such a conclusion ignores the fact that our representatives in the Congress have some control over how wars are fought.

This points toward a central question: do wise and virtuous leaders cause moral improvement?  The Greek philosopher Plato thought so.  Plato rejected democracy as rule of the uneducated and unvirtuous masses.  He thought we would do better under the watchful eye of a wise and benevolent ruler who would protect us from our own vicious and ignorant ways.

We are no longer sympathetic to this idea.  Instead, we tend to believe that we are smart enough and good enough to govern ourselves. Pinker’s analysis gives us reason to trust this democratic impulse.  It is our modern democratic state and its educational system that has made us smarter and better.  Most of the moral progress that we’ve made during the past millennia has occurred under democratic government and has been facilitated by the expansion of literacy and education.

People are not born smart or good.  We are born with the capacity to learn and with a basic capacity for empathy.  But we must learn all of the specifics, including how to control our own violent impulses.  Education is essential for understanding the complex moral and political problems that confront us in our globalized world.  Intelligence and virtue develop as a result of the sustained effort of parents, teachers, and a supporting social environment.  And our moral and intellectual skills develop further, as we exercise our own capacities for self-government.

It is amazing how much moral progress we have made.  We no longer allow slavery or torturous punishments.  Women have been liberated. And we recognize that our most destructive weapons are immoral.  Good for us for figuring this out!

These moral developments were not imposed upon us by philosopher-kings.  Rather, they resulted from democratic procedures and were produced by our system of education.  The key to future progress is to trust ourselves and to continue to believe that democracy and education can make us both smarter and better.