Archive for April, 2007

Educationally Challenged

I recently saw an interview with Melinda Gates who is attempting to bring attention to the poor state of the American educational system. The good news is that our system is just broken in contrast to many countries where education is non-existent. But, whether we are considering the United States or a developing nation, I think the key to addressing the education challenge can be summed up in one phrase: maximize our resources by focusing on the educational mission. And, what is that mission? In my mind it is to empower people to realize their individual potential by providing them the basic tools to inform and educate themselves. And, by resources I am referring to time, talent and money.

Time is our most precious resource — especially when considering the attention span of children. Imagine if the educational mission could be accomplished in just four hours a day. This could increase attendance, better utilize short attention spans and save money. I believe it can be accomplished by designing an efficient and comprehensive curriculum that maximizes time via complementary learning and by focusing on an essential core curriculum of math, science, language and history. By complementary learning I mean that each class supports what is being taught in their other subjects. People say that if you want to learn a new word or remember someone’s name it’s helpful to use it at least three times. A complimentary curriculum would utilize the same technique on a daily basis. There is history and language to our math and science and there is literature to our history. By classes reinforcing each other’s lessons that are grounded in our practical world, I believe we can increase learning retention and understanding.

Both teachers and students make up the talent base and I fear that both are underutilized. First, I personally believe the American grading system is a societal cop-out. Students either know the material adequately or don’t. To say that one student is more familiar with material or not, but pass them on to the next level reflects our society’s failure to prepare them. Maybe it is naïve of me, but I truly believe we each have the capacity to learn. The challenge is to frame the message in such a way that the individual can relate to and comprehend it. We each have different learning styles and teaching methods need to take this into account. It seems to me that a mentoring system would best utilize the available talent. A teacher can present the lesson in the first part of the class. The second half should focus on insuring that everyone “gets it.” In every class there is a spectrum of comprehension. The brightest students should tutor what we might now consider “C” achievers and the teacher can focus of the stragglers.

In the United States we seem to think the solution to every problem is to throw money at it. If money were the solution, why are children in India better educated than American children? A major expense in America is the textbook that is bulky, expensive and constantly out of date. Our investment in this resource does little more than support the corporations that manufacture them. Lessons can easily be printed in inexpensive newsprint booklets that can be updated each year. Better yet, a standard curriculum should be available free over the internet. Computers are here to stay and affordable laptops would be a better investment in skills building and curriculum distribution. I looked on the US Department of Education website for a k-12 curriculum, but couldn’t find one.

I raised some of these ideas to friends who are educators. They commented that such ideals are not practical. While it would be great to have a four-hour class day, most parents have to work. I agree that they may not be practical now, but I find these “thought-exercises” in ideals useful in pointing out contemporary systemic failures. So what is the bigger picture here? The primary source of our education comes from our parents. To be blunt, our resource-intense economic system is pulling families apart with benefit neither to our society nor our environment. While the socio-economic puzzle can seem mind-bogglingly complex, many of our modern social problems stem from the fundamental flaw of a consumption-based, economic structure.

Education is a global issue and is the key to addressing many of the problems that plague our world such as over-population, environmental pollution, discrimination and ineffective government to mention a few. If we ever want to achieve the ideals of social equity and justice, I continue to believe that only a true democracy can lead us there and that requires an informed and educated public.

On the Web

One Laptop Per Child

Gates Foundation Takes on Education

MIT OpenCourseWare

April 30, 2007 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

The Rising Tide of 5 Billion Others

This past week I attended the 6th Annual Municipal Green Building Conference & Expo in Los Angeles. While much of the material presented was not surprising as it is a reflection of a market response to the environmental problems we face, there were a few notable comments. In his keynote address, Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the US Green Building Council warned of dire problems facing the world because of rising industrialization and consumer demand around the world, especially in India and China. He seemed to recognize the limitations of a consumer-based market response to this rising crisis.

While counter-intuitive to the realities of our modern world, the quickest and most direct way of addressing humanity’s continued contribution to the environmental problems that plague us is to change our consumption patterns. The global warming crisis offers us a unique opportunity to redefine this fundamental economic pattern, especially in the 5 billion “others” that do not share in its fruits. In fact, I believe it is morally incumbent upon those who possess the technical “know-how” to offer a common-interest solution for those who live hand to mouth, especially when the luxury of such knowledge is beyond their reach.

How can we avoid the tidal wave of consumption and industrialization that is coming? I think the answer lies in some common sense tactics. Most importantly, it should be a “solution in a box” approach. By that I mean the pieces of the sustainable living puzzle should be thought out and organized in such a way that, first, it is easy for an average person to do and, second, it can be done on a massive scale. I believe the characteristics of a solution include the following:

1. Affordable Homes: No one goes out wanting to destroy the planet. Our environmental devastation is a result of people simply trying to fulfill basic needs such as shelter for them and their family. A home that is truly affordable for everyone will have to be based on a simple and easy, owner-built system. To make such a home sustainable on a massive scale, it must also be energy and resource wise. A straw bale construction system would seem to fit this need.

2. Local Communities: The most affordable system to provide social services is to support a strategy that includes strong communities, neighborhoods and local self-government. The Israeli kibbutz offers a practical model. Organized on communal property, the kibbutz sustains itself economically through communal farming and/or business ventures.

3. Internet Based Commerce: Our transportation system is a major contributor to our environmental problems. A sustainable future will rely not on a “brick and mortar” based economy, but on an intellectual economy of ideas and services that can be mostly exchanged over the internet.

4. Education: Perhaps it is naïve to say, but it is possible to change the world in 12 years through education. A sustainable economy mandates 100% literacy so that people can build their own houses, self-govern and conduct business over the internet. The MIT laptop program is a practical program that will support the educational system necessary for a sustainable, internet-based economy. Education is also the key to confronting the challenges of population growth

5. Light Rail Transportation Network: Light rail is a sustainable transportation system in both its use of resources as well as its ability to create corridors of human activity to lessen humanity’s footprint on the environment. The power of such a network is in its unique ability to brings together isolated communities to form “metro-communities” numbering anywhere form a hundred thousand on up. While this is the most expensive piece of the sustainability puzzle, there are several “out-of-the-box” ideas for reducing and funding construction costs that are beyond the scope of this commentary. However, such infrastructure does provides a focus for public resources, especially when governments are looking for specific measures to attack both global warming and poverty.

While this vision may seem distant and unrealizable, there are working examples that exist today. At the Green Building Conference I had the privilege of meeting Ali Sahabi (SE Corporation) who designed and constructed an eco-village in Corona, California. While it is principally a market-based response to our environmental problems, it offers a visible template of practical concepts that can and should be implemented on a massive scale. Several people questioned the green-ness of the concept that requires people to travel to and from the village by car. Mr. Sahabi noted that the master plan includes an easement for light rail, because It is not a question of ‘if’, but ’when’ our economy will mandate the use of public transportation.

While it is good that the green movement is now sexy and has market appeal, the rising tide of consumption mandates immediate and practical solutions to fend off its inevitable impact on the environment. I was surprised to hear comments suggesting we need a revolution to truly address the global warming challenge. While those comments echo my personal thoughts, its doubtful that such a revolution will begin in the developed world because those who feel they have something to lose usually resist change, while those who have nothing to lose welcome it. I believe the meek will inherit the Earth and the 5 billion others can show the rest of us how to live a happier, more fulfilling and sustainable lives.

On The Web

One Laptop Per Child

Ex-generals: Global Warming Threatens U.S. Security

April 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Transportation and Social Equity

What do we know about the sources of poverty? Well, simplistic as it may sound poverty results from systemic failures of the economy. The traditional point of view of poverty stems from our historical past and so do our solutions. The modern response is to create more jobs. However, in our new and global reality this seems to be a catch-22; more jobs create more economic activity resulting in more environmental degradation. I call this solution the “Captain Kirk response” because it reminds me of the Star Trek Captain demanding “more power” to get them out of trouble. As any trekkie knows, sometimes this tactic only resulted in greater problems. What a provocative idea! Maybe if we want to solve the issue of poverty, we need to tackle it differently.

One of the fundamental causes of poverty in the world are the costs of participating in our greater society. In my opinion, a great many of these additional costs stem from our inefficient transportation system. While cars are fun and have even become extensions of our ego and identity, they are probably the most resource intense form of transportation imaginable. This fundamental societal structure necessitates the individual’s need for higher incomes to meet the costs of car ownership. In this way, an entire society needs additional productivity to produce incomes capable of sustaining a transportation system: the cost of automobiles, fuel, insurance as well as the taxes that create and maintain the enormous road infrastructure. The cost of this infrastructure even extends into our private homes in the form of garages and driveways.

A transportation system is the foundation of any economy, however ours has consequences that are rarely discussed. For example, the ability of an individual to go and live wherever that can drive also means that government follows them to provide the services we all expect and demand. Although liberating for the pioneer, it has quietly raised the cost of living for the rest of society who foots the bill for these scarcely utilized roads and services. More importantly, this ability of people to sprawl has had environmental costs in how we continually attempt to change the native landscape according to our whim. And, slightly off topic, but not irrelevant, did you know that 1.2 MILLION people die every year as a result of automobile accidents?

I believe a transportation system based on rail technology and alternative energy sources would help eliminate poverty by eliminating the enormous barriers that the current transportation system incurs upon them. In the same fowl swoop it will also contribute to resolving the environmental issues that stem from it. Of course most modern communities, especially in America, are built around the presumption of the automobile. So how communities are designed and organized would have to be rethought in order to make such a system feasible. However, it does not take a genius to recognize the health dividends of a pedestrian friendly system.

Before we dismiss this proposal, one question we might think about is what’s more important? Tackling the issue in a way that can positively affect billions of people both now and in the future while moving our system to a more sustainable one? Or, maintain a fundamentally flawed system because some of us are already “sitting pretty”? Remember, solutions to problems exist in what we can do, not in what we can’t. While one solution to poverty may seem simplistic just because it can be stated so clearly (i.e., lower the cost of living) that doesn’t discount the elegance of the solution. The problems facing the world can seem overwhelming, and likewise so can the solutions. One thing is certain; the world we hope for will not come about through the will or wishes of any one person, but through the actions of a great many acting in common hope.

April 9, 2007 at 6:18 pm 1 comment

Morality and Our New Reality

Have you ever repeated a word to yourself enough times to the point where it becomes unfamiliar and sounds strange? Well, ever since the election of the current American President the term “morality” has been flung all over the place to the point that I wasn’t sure to what it actually referred. So, what is morality? I went and asked my reliable and impartial friend, the American Heritage Dictionary, who describes morality as “a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.” Makes sense, but then I wondered: does this term that holds a great deal of historical baggage reflect our modern realities?

The world is arguably overpopulated for our current economic system. If the United States needs to consume a quarter of the world’s resources in order to maintain its standard of living in a day and age where that consumption and economic activity itself are the cause of our environmental problems, the end result seems to be an unsustainable system and one with many holes in it to boot. From this perspective, I think it’s fair to ask: is it moral to have more than two children? While no obvious solution to our economic and environmental problems readily presents itself, there are things we each can individually control and do to contribute to the solution; we can limit the size of our families to control future demands. This isn’t to say that we can never grow beyond today’s population, but rather that for now it is prudent to control our demands until we find and implement sustainable solutions.

While addressing family size can resolve issues of future and growing consumption, it does not address the morality of current consumption. This raises the next question: Is it moral to consume more than your share? Just because you can doesn’t mean it is. While most will probably declare that it’s “not my problem,” I can honestly say that on this ship called “Earth” that when I take resources for myself and my family, I am also taking the away from both other people future generations. Resources ARE limited. Just because you choose not to recognize it does not mean that it isn’t so nor does it alter the morality of your consumption.

In my mind those are the “BIG” issues, but the question of morality lurks everywhere. Government, for example, sets laws that become part of our moral determination. One of the underlying themes of our legal tradition is that it is wrong to abuse power. As an example, minors are treated uniquely under the law. Why? Because they lack knowledge and experience that can make them targets of manipulation by more experienced adults. This is a good concept, but is not applied universally. If we look at the American legal and tax codes, both are beyond the comprehension of most Americans. We require specialists to interpret these codes and failure to have competent representation can alter our lives. Isn’t this an abuse of power? It seems that, more and more, language is used to confuse and manipulate. Unless the language of these codes is comprehensible to all they affect, it would seem government’s efforts in these areas are both disingenuous and immoral.

I don’t think the question is whether the tern encompasses our new found reality, but whether people acknowledge our reality and can find the will-power to act in a “moral” way when that direction is counter to the trends of our modern society. Traditionally people have looked to their leaders for guidance, but unfortunately neither wealth nor power are indicators of wisdom. Consumption of goods and resources beyond one’s basic comfort and needs can easily be argued to be immoral, but in a day and age where our leadership addresses economic problems by calling on its citizenry to consume more, any practical resolution of the problems that face the world seems to be doomed from the start :-(

On the Web

How Ethical Is My Baby?

The Optimum Population trust

April 2, 2007 at 6:54 pm Leave a comment

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