Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Capitalism and biology class

Last spring I was approached by a very enthusiastic history teacher about collaborating on a short essay questioning whether capitalism can be used to "save" the environment.

"Capitalism" is one of those words that evoke as much emotion as sense, and the word limit precluded us from adequately defining capitalism, but if (a huge if) you think that the sign of a healthy economy is an ever-increasing gross domestic product, and this growth is dependent on expanding use of natural resources, well, then maintaining a healthy environment is a pipe dream.

An aside: the concept of GDP was developed by Simon Kuznets in the 1930's; it was not designed to be used as a measure of economic health:
Even Mr. Kuznets, the inventor of the GDP, forewarned the U.S. Congress in the 1930s of the inherent flaws and weaknesses of GDP figures. Among other things, he stated that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income as defined by the GDP."

My part in the paper was simply to acknowledge that the land base has a limit of sustainable extraction.

Now I happen to like Adam Smith, but what we call "free market" today represents Smith the way Gitmo represents the Constitution. When Adam Smith talked about the "invisible hand," he didn't mean dumping waste in the dead of night.

So what does this have to do with teaching science?

Ultimately anything of real va
lue to humans depends on biology, and more specifically on the land. You can't eat gold, and oil is just a delayed gratification version of photosynthesis.

Splicing genes is cool, fun, and economically lucrative, but ultimately eve
n the super-duper efficient plant produced depends on sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide.

When we wrote the piece together, I had a tiny bit of trepidation--too many people confuse an economic philosophy (capitalism) with our form of government, a republic.

Not espousing capitalism (in its practiced form here) is not tantamount to espousing communism. (A pre-1940s es
sentially agrarian economy worked in the past--call it agrarian capitalism if it makes you twitch less.)

We talk about Thomas Malthus in biology class--understanding Malthus helps us grasp Darwin. As it turns out, industrialized populations do not continue to expand in population, but our use of natural resources appears insatiable.

The result? Take a look around.

I do not want to frighten our students into numb complacency--we have Madison Avenue for that.

What do I want?

Sun + dirt + water + carbon dioxide = food.

Plants serve as the intermediaries, of course, but once you get the connections, you realize you have a vested interest in the pieces.

Global economics is all about controlling the dirt and the water.

Got to give the global capitalists credit, though--we got more carbon dioxide than we know what to do with.
(And, of course, any of us participating in the economy plays a role.)

Our school has nearly 2000 students from all walks of life, with families from all over the globe. (One of our problems with the NCLB is that no matter how fine our institution might be, a child who arrived from Greece 2 months ago is not going to ace a test written in English.)

But even a child who has just a rudimentary grasp of English is connected to the earth. At some level we all know this.

Basic science lets a child believe what he already knows in a culture that rewards people for believing otherwise.

Did I mention that this history teacher happens to have an Arabic name? It's nice when folks
at least a generation younger than me show me
how to behave.

Photos: coral reef from the NOAA, the Adam Smith drawing floating around all over the place, the Constitution, well, no one is going to bother me about that. And credit Wendell Berry for agrarianism. If you believe in prophets, and even if you don't, Wendell Berry is the closest thing to a living prophet we have in this hemisphere.


Clay Burell said...

Michael, if you haven't discovered Bill Farren's Education for Well-Being, this post makes me think you'd be happy to head over there. It's one of the best sites going for issues like this.

Enjoyed it, as usual, oh tinfoil hat sage.

doyle said...

I stumbled on it about a week ago, possibly through your blog.

It's wonderful and rational, a rare thing these days.

I have been reviewing the videos--good stuff. I hope to use at least one early in the year.

Tough to put the pieces together when your day is broken up into 48 minute blocks.

Not impossible, though.