My Catastrophe is Bigger than Your Catastrophe

Kim Kastens
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published Dec 16, 2009

A week ago, in my journalism seminar we did a student-produced case study on loss of biodiversity: "The Sixth Extinction." Last week, the lunchtime seminar in my research division at Lamont was a report from the annual conference from the [link Association for the Study of Peak Oil.] The newspaper this week is full of the United National Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

I feel as though the scientific community is pulling itself apart, with biologists drawn to to biodiversity loss, geologists drawn to peak oil, chemists and physicists drawn to climate change. Each faction is trying to draw attention of politicians, the public, and media to their favorite impending disaster. A blogger whose writings I respect on peak oil and energy descent recently posted a scathing attack on efforts to combat climate change. Last week, a widely respected ecologist wrote that climate change is really all about biodiversity loss. Over the weekend, I heard a coherent and thoughtful presentation by a scientist whose work is associated with climate change, but in the Q&A session he dismissed peak oil as a non-issue.

Cynics and skeptics would say this is because each faction wants more money for their own research agenda.

A more charitable view would be that experts with deep insights into a particular aspect of the earth/human system can see with great clarity how that part of the system might fail, and thus feel a sense of urgency for humanity to get on with solving that particular problem.

I don't think this attitude of "my catastrophe is bigger than your catastrophe" is helping to get any problems solved at all. Each group is trying to climb its own staircase out of its own gravity well, as in the famous Escher print.

But in fact to my eye, biodiversity loss, peak oil, climate change (and economic crisis) look to be different facets of the same problem: limits to growth on a finite planet.

Is there any way that we in geoscience education can nudge scientists or future scientists towards working together rather than squabbling over which discipline is addressing the most deserving set of problems?

I met recently with a group of high school earth science teachers who are trying to establish a ninth grade science course, to be taken by all student in their school, called "Earth, Life & Limits." Maybe this would be a start. What else?

Revision note: Edited Feb 15, 2010 to provide link to Escher print "Relativity."

My Catastrophe is Bigger than Your Catastrophe --Discussion  

This post was editted by Jacob Cohen on Jun, 28th
Here is another teacher's approach. Dan Allen, a high school chemistry teacher in New Jersey, has written an "Open Letter to Teenagers," whom he calls "Generation Limits," and posted his letter on the Energy Bulletin website at: His letter addresses resource limitations, climate change, and species loss, with descriptions of the problems and some suggestions for individual and collective action.

His description of the reaction he tends to get to this message:
"Overall, my part-gloomy/part-hopeful message has mixed success with the kids. Some of them couldn't care less. Some of them don't want to hear it at all. But some of them respond with a sincere concern. And this sincere concern sometimes even blossoms into constructive thought and concrete action to address our predicament. So I think I'm having at least some net positive effect. Maybe..."


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I've been transformed by the book and series of videos from Greg Craven, a Chem teacher in Oregon:

He argues that if the worst of global climate destabilization comes to pass, all other catastrophes will pale by comparison. You can see his humorous statement of this in the first of about 7 hours of videos on YouTube:
Look around 7:06, but the whole video sets up the series. We really should be talking about risk management and what is the most prudent course of action. Whether or not we experience the worst of climate change, a Manhattan Project-style push towards energy independence will solve more problems than it creates.

When students ask me about it, I tell them my reasoning, but Craven has done such an excellent job on his videos that often I just play important arguments from the videos in class. My Department Head has a geology background, and unfortunately, he's stuck on the idea that this is probably just a natural cycle -- why do anything about it? The point is: We're in a position to try to and possibly succeed in stabilizing the climate so that we don't have to change our economies to function in a completely different way. Our civilization is based on the current climate, and the wholesale movements of hundreds of millions of climate-change refugees is something that no one need have to deal with.

And as Craven points out -- there are scientists who study these connections and feedback mechanisms all the time. Why are WE trying to decide what course of action to take? Leave it to the experts! They aren't part of advocacy groups -- they are part of prestigious scientific organizations, and when those organizations make a policy pronouncement and are joined by dozens of industries wanting to cap their own industries, you KNOW that something is important. Even the Pentagon has released a report about security problems in a changed-climate world which might not be able to support as many people as it currently does.


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Hi Steve,

Thanks so much for your comments, and especially for the pointers to the work of Greg Craven, which I was not familiar with. I really enjoyed the video and will be sure to read the book. His combination of humor and facts speaks to an audience that wouldn't pay attention to the typical scientists' or politicians' sober pronouncements.

But I don't agree that societal decisions about mitigation of or adaption to global climate change should be made by experts, scientists who are "part of prestigious scientific organizations." I say that as someone employed by a prestigious scientific organization and surrounded by "scientists who study these connections and feedback mechanisms all the time." I think that scientists need to be at the table and their evidence needs to be taken seriously, but the decisions about trade-offs and priorities are not pure scientific questions. I think that a much larger fraction of the population needs to be involved in the decision-making process--which is why teachers who can help students understanding connections and feedback mechanisms are so important.


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Oh, that is certainly true: scientists should not be the decision-makers. They are only the reporters who have research-based evidence. The problem is that the decision-makers usually have little experience in scientific methods, and media reporters feel a necessity to show both sides equally, even when the preponderance of good evidence is on one side. No wonder the public can be confused. Whom do they believe? Unfortunately, there are few Carl Sagans and Steven J. Goulds "out there".


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