Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Change, Education, and Open Society

Over on the Wikieducator mailing list, there was an interesting discussion. It started out about the teaching of controversy, and migrated (hijacked?) to discussing global warming and specifically the e-mail controversy (starts here and continues here).

Having been in the environmental movement for over thirty years, including times as head of local and state organizations, I have heard these arguments many times. Of course, the topics keep changing over time, but the debates continue.

I have been thinking over this discussion lately and here are my thoughts.

Why is it that climate change is portrayed in the media as being so controversial? Almost all scientists agree that global warming is occurring. There are many, many science issues are much more controversial -- genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear energy are just two examples. Let us not confuse controversy over political issues (including what to about global warming) and with controversy over science issues.

But to me what is more important here are the issues of science education and openness.

Science Education

Many times these types of discussion lead to some important issues in education. Specifically, how do we teach science, the environment, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most people do not understand how scientists actually work. Which I think that in itself tells us that science is not taught correctly (if at all). Many misunderstandings of science are related to not knowing the scientific method or how scientists reach their conclusions.

Scientists come up with ideas, test them, change their ideas, come to conclusions, submit their results to their peers, correct their conclusions, and repeat. We need to teach our students (and many adults, including policy makers) to getting them to think analytically, make observations, take notes, have an open mind, and do more problem solving.

With the increase in technology including the internet, it is somewhat ironic that we are also turning more to quick answers through the web. Often these are unscientific (and sometimes fraudulent) sites, but they are accepted as truth. It is an even more reason to increase science teaching and replace learning by rote.

Open Science and Freedom of Information

The real issue with the leaked e-mails, which has not been addressed by the media (except for the BBC*) is freedom of information and open science/open data. This is especially true since the scientists worked for a public university. Science should be open so that it results can be verified. Maintaining open data, so that others can benefit from the information, is especially important in the case of public issues such as the environment. Also important is that we know what methodology the scientists are using. These issues are especially important where many scientists over the world are working on the same or similar projects.

The public also has a right to know how their money is being used. For publicly sponsored research this right-to-know is especially important where the results affect public policy issues. Freedom of information is the only way in which the public can now what is going on. This applies not only to environment, but to communication technology, agriculture, defense research, etc.

The issues of open science and freedom of information can also be related to science education. If we want our students to understand and apply the scientific method, then we cannot hide scientists work from the public and make it appear as black magic. And as we all know black magic is pseudo-science :).

*Link is to the BBC's Open Secrets blog. There was also a piece on the BBC World Service's Digital Planet program, but I cannot find the web address for it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Agriculture and Environment

It seems all of the action on the environment within the last three or four months has been only on climate change and specifically the convention being held at Copenhagen. But unfortunately that has overshadowed other environmental issues. One important area that has been neglected by the mainstream media is agriculture and related issues such as food security and land use.

About two weeks ago there was the World Summit on Food Security held by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). There was little media attention and, even more disappointing, was that very little was done at the meeting to solve the issue of food security -- even the head of FAO was highly critical of the meeting.

First let us clean up what I feel is a misconception -- the "Green Revolution". The truth is the green revolution was not green. It led to a large increase in the amount of fertilizer and pesticide use. This in turn led to decreases in water quality and other severe environmental problems.


Agriculture and the environment are intrinsically linked. Agriculture affects the environment and the environment affects agriculture. Let us look at some of the ways they are linked.


Irrigated agriculture uses a tremendous amount of water and much of this water comes from underground sources. And most of this irrigated land either is land which should not be used for intensive farming or is used to grow crops for rich supermarkets.

I once traveled through the central valley of California, a semi-desert area, but which was green with vegetables. We stopped in at a restaurant and I remember seeing a sign saying "we only serve water on request, due to the water shortage". What an irony!

But probably the worst case of bad irrigation, was the ex-Soviet Union. Stalin had a brainy idea to grow cotton in the Central Asia desert region. To do so required large scale irrigation, removing water from the rivers which feed the salt lake, the Aral Sea. And now the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, has shrunk to a fraction of its original size.

On the other hand, without water there would be no agriculture. Increased desertification and droughts are causing lost of the ability of people to grow their own food. This has been especially acute in East Africa where rains have failed to come for a number of years.


As mentioned above "modern" agriculture has caused serious pollution problems. A major problem has occurred due to use of nitrate fertilizers. Nitrates in drinking water is not a major problem for adults, but in children it can cause reduction in the amount of oxygen getting into the blood.

Excessive runoff of nutrients from fields into lake and streams has caused algae blooms other eutrophication effects. Lake Victoria has especially had a problem.

Heavy use of pesticides has caused not only them to get into the water cycle, but have also caused problems with poisoning of farmers, and their families, who use the pesticides. Much of this is due to a combination of agriculture companies failing to provide proper labelling and training.

Land Use

We have often heard about clearing of forests to create farm land. This is a major problem, especially when done on a large scale by ranchers and corporate farms. For example, growing soybeans in the Amazon basin.

But we here less of loss of agricultural land due to land development for industry, shopping malls, office buildings, or simply due to the expansion of cities.


One critical aspect of agriculture that is often overlooked is seed management. Its importance can be demonstrated by the increased efficiency of agriculture in Malawi due to a government program providing support for seed purchase.

As I said in a post a while back, it is because of the seed issue that I am concerned about GMO's (the technology itself is not a problem). That is the issue of who owns the seed and whether the farmer has a right to plant the seeds from one crop to grow his next crop.

As the world population increases, the importance of food security increases, and the interplay between agriculture and the environment increase.