Educating for Democracy: Climate Change and 'Denihilism'

11/30/2010 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the new Congress about to take over in the new year and the likelihood that any serious attempts to deal with climate change on the Federal level will not go forward for at least the next two years, it's encouraging to find out that at least in California, the voters seem to be better informed about scientific evidence to show that our environment is in trouble. By a 61 to 39 percent margin they defeated a proposition to suspend their carbon emissions regulations until the unemployment rate fell below 5.5 percent as if nature will patiently wait until the economy improves before the environment continues to decline. How is it, however, that the new Republican members of the House seem to be so convinced, at least some of them, that there is not sufficient evidence that climate change is affected by "man-made pollution" to agree to such programs as "Cap and Trade" and further measures to slow the decline in our environmental health?

I would call their attitude typical of that of many Americans who supposedly received some scientific education in high school, if not college where a solid science course or program is difficult to teach effectively to non-majors. Some good teaching strategies were revealed in an article last April by Elizabeth Pain: "Teaching Science to non-Science Majors," in Science, but good practices are often slow to be adopted widely, especially in a country in which half the population doesn't accept Evolution.

Having investigated methods of improving science teaching with several of my colleagues -- as an English professor concerned with education I have a variety of interests outside of literature -- I was dismayed to discover that relatively few of the science majors at the school at which I taught for 37 years actually graduated with a degree in the sciences. According to one of my colleagues, the attrition rate was 90 percent! This reflects a national problem since educators seem to be finding it more difficult to produce high-quality American educated students in the STEM (Science Technology Education Math) fields as much as we need them. In fact, our situation in the science community depends to a great deal on foreign students and researchers coming to the United States. In a recent conversation I had with an Israeli journalist who covers such issues, he stated that the United States is no longer the center for scientific inquiry but it has shifted to Europe and after possibly China. We will soon be unable to rely on foreign talent to make up for the shortfall in American scientists since they will be going to where "the latest" research will be centered outside our borders.

Even in the recent past, when the United States was unquestionably the leading country in scientific research, its willingness to take in refugees from Europe such as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi enriched our nation with their contributions. Now, it seems, the doors are closing to talented immigrants as the fear of terrorism has taken over common sense. But that still doesn't explain the distrust that many people seem to have toward science, enough to get politicians elected to important public office holding the conviction that what happens to the future of this planet is "God's plan." I would call it "Denihilism."

I believe that it is not simply a failure in our educational system that has caused this resistance to the need for taking measures to retard the deterioration of our environment. I believe that denying its existence is a form of "nihilism," a conviction that whatever happens is out of our hands so why bother to do anything to, as they perceive it, hurt the economy of today since there won't be any economy in the future? Often, the objection to the imposition of regulations on industrial pollution is phrased as a "jobs killer." That it is more vital to the interests of this country to think in the short term and let the long term take care of itself. Which means basically writing off the future of the human race for the benefit of the present generation.

What needs to be done in our educational programs is to teach for the future rather than live in the present as if it's the going to remain the same as the past. That means teaching young learners that we can't simply "grow out of economic downturns" when unchecked growth will cause the ultimate downturn. That means giving young students healthy alternatives to consumerism as an end in itself. For a nation that prides itself on being the most religiously observant in the industrialized world, it seems paradoxical that it is also the most materialistic. Unless we as a nation "grow up" emotionally and intellectually and deal with our serious problems rather than through "denihilism," future generations will look back at us and curse us for our ignorance.