Same All Over??

As readers of this blog know, I have gone on (and on) about the deteriorating condition of education in this country. I have tended to focus on the United States because that is where I live and our system is the one I know best — from reading and from personal experience. But I find that things are not much better in many other parts of the world (except Finland, apparently) and have read timely criticisms from other bloggers in England, Canada, and most recently in India where I read a couple of entries written by a blogger who calls himself “MrUpbeat.” In one of those posts he noted that:

“Our education system is still teaching us how to become clerks and do what [we are] being told to do. Have we become habituated to do what is commanded to us ?”

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist I do wonder aloud if there is a concerted effort being made in this country to keep the young dumb and obedient (“clerks”) so they can do the jobs allotted to them and Heaven forbid they be made to think.  Years ago, In Italy, one of the leading radicals,  Antonio Gramsci, insisted that students be taught the classics that make them think rather than the grunt courses that teach them only how to make widgets and follow orders. Gramsci was convinced that in his day and in his country the wealthy had developed a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Those in power, he noted, propagate their own values and norms so that those values become the common sense values of all and thus maintain the status quo.  Noam Chomsky would agree, as he told us not long ago, referring to America:

“[Officials insist] This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats. But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”

I know my complaints against an obdurate educational system in this country that has serious problems become tiresome. I do apologize. But this is a pattern that is developing around the world and it does not bode well. We need folks who can think and solve problems now more than ever — and in a democracy we need citizens who will elect the wisest leaders (not fools even if they claim to be a “genius”). So many of the complaints we all have and which we air from day-to-day come down to an uneducated electorate that is frustrated and acts on impulse and is finding it increasingly difficult to find its way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In one sense it is reassuring to read blogs from around the world that reinforce one’s own thoughts. But when those thoughts are based on a deep concern for the system of education that is unable to turn out thoughtful young people it is disheartening to hear others around the world share the same concerns.

Good News!

I must confess that when the Sierra Magazine arrives each month I fear to open it because I know it will be filled with news about the latest environmental disaster and just get me all worked up. And, to be sure, this month’s magazine had the usual news about atmospheric CO2 levels in the Arctic reaching 400 parts per million, and the expected news about record high temperatures around the world and the depressing fact that a coal mining company in West Virginia is destroying the mountain tops along with the local economy. But there is good news as well.

First of all, we are told about Jessica Alba, the star of violent movies and also a beauty who graced the cover of Maxim twice, also has “launched the Honest Company ( which makes nontoxic, ecofriendly baby gear.” Jessica is interviewed in the magazine and shows herself to be quite knowledgeable about the uncontrolled spread of deadly chemicals in this country where only 5 of the 80,000 chemicals in this country have been banned, compared with 1,100 in Europe. She has testified before Congress to promote the Safe Chemicals Act.

Then there’s the very good news about the colleges and universities around the country that are taking steps to deal with the deterioration of the planet — ranked by Sierra Club and headed by U.C. Davis where “Lots of time and money go toward a well-rounded set of efforts, including being vigilant about using the school’s purchasing power for good, diverting around 70 percent of its trash from landfills, and offering transportation solutions: on any given day 20,000 bikes roam the campus.” The story also tells about Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford, and The University of Washington where remarkable things are being done by bright and concerned students and faculty to save the planet. The article goes on the detail 10 of the top schools and ranks another 90 in order of impressiveness in the eyes of the editors.

Of special interest is an article on “The Wizard of Oberlin” who “has a big plan for turning little Oberlin College (2,800 students) and the little town of Oberlin (population 8,300) into a model of how our species can live more harmoniously with the rest of nature.” The article spells out in some detail how this man of seemingly boundless energy, “a type A personality — possibly triple A.” is working with the college and the town to create “a laboratory for a new way of life.”

There are other articles of a positive nature as well, including one about Sanjit Roy, a man who has established  the Barefoot College in Tilona, India which “has trained about 250 illiterate and semi-literate women from rural, unelectrified villages in 41 countries to be solar engineers. After six months of training, these women have provided more than 15,500 houses with solar electricity in their home countries. The government of India covers all expenses.” Roy focused on the poor in rural villages because “he got to thinking that the poor were strong enough and proud enough and good enough to raise themselves out of poverty”  (a lesson for us all). He started with men, but they left their villages for higher paying jobs in the larger cities after their six months of training. So Roy concentrated on the women, wondering “why not invest in women, older women, mature women, gutsy women who have roots in the village?” It is a remarkable success story about how a person with energy and imagination can change the world for the better.

But most encouraging of all, in my view, was the editorial by Michael Brune who has spoken with politicians on both sides of the aisle and is convinced that there is near-unanimity in Washington that something simply must be done about climate change. As he says, he “keeps meeting people of every political stripe who share the values of justice and responsibility that are the heart of the [Sierra] Club’s work.” Both Republicans (who speak to him “off the record”) and Democrats agree that Congress must address the issue, and soon. “Mike [one prominent Republican said to him] we may not agree on much, but on climate change, there’s not really that much separating us.” As Brune notes, the Union of Concerned Scientists have already adopted “a national renewable-electricity standard that ensured that utilities obtained at least 25 percent of their power from wind, solar, and bioenergy by 2025,” insisting that this would “create 297,000 new jobs, $13.5 billion in income to rural landowners, and $15.3 billion in new local tax revenues.” The irony is that the political parties are so much at each other’s throats that they don’t know how to begin to work together to attain such a goal. Brune ends his editorial with a call for bipartisan cooperation that is not only sensible but absolutely necessary. Let’s hope the call is heard and does not fall on deaf ears. Now that would be good news!

Drill, Baby, Drill!

While President Obama is starting to sound a bit like Sarah Palin in softening his stand on off-shore drilling and the Republicans are screaming “not enough!!” we begin to realize that another election year is upon us. But there seems to be more to this debate than merely higher prices of gasoline at the pumps that have gotten the American public in an uproar and the politicians quick to point fingers at one another. It would appear that we are much more solvent when it comes to energy supplies than we have been led to believe and are even discussing ways to radically change the way we do energy business — from one of the world’s largest importers of foreign oil to a major exporter of domestic oil, natural gas, and coal.

At the center of this controversy is the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast that Obama has given qualified approval to — amid the din from the Republican camp that this is a political ploy to stall for time and appease voters. I sincerely hope so, because of dire predictions such as the following: “A rupture in the Keystone XL pipeline could cause a BP style oil spill in America’s heartland, over the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million people. NASA’s top climate scientist says that fully developing the tar sands in Canada would mean ‘essentially game over’ for the climate.”

Though we already export tons of coal to China  and companies such as Enbridge and Transcanada are busy building natural gas lines to the West coast in order to export more natural gas, the exportation of crude oil to Central America and the East will further alter America’s energy policies. One would think we would want to keep the energy at home as that could lower energy prices here and reduce our dependence on OPEC, just as our national policies have urged us to do for four decades. On occasion, in fact, increased energy independence has been spoken of as a matter of national security. As one on-line source reports, “Reducing demand for oil is the best way to improve our energy security. U.S. demand for oil has been declining since 2007.  New fuel-efficiency standards mean that this trend will continue once the economy gets back on track.” In a word, at a time when we could increase our energy independence, the energy developers in this country are reducing it (and increasing our energy costs) by exporting much of our surplus energy. In doing so, of course, they increase their own profits — which is their only real concern.

As an editorial in the Great Falls Tribune by Professor Emeritus Tom Power of the University of Montana recently pointed out, “Although it is always dangerous to use present trends to forecast the future, the United States appears to be on the verge of shifting its energy demand-supply balance from being the world’s largest energy importer to being one of the world’s more significant energy exporters. . .The justification for this, of course, is that it will create relatively high paid jobs in the United States and help us reduce our trade deficit with the rest of the world. We will export raw materials to the rest of the world and import the goods they manufacture.”  The change in policy, as noted, is to help pay off some of the huge debt we owe to nations such as India and, especially, China. But this comes at the price of increased costs of energy at home while the energy producers watch their profits grow. As Professor Power notes, “Our energy companies seek to kill two domestic energy birds with one stone while increasing their profits.” What a deal!

In any event, this change in US policy flies in the face of the fact that our own clean energy industry is struggling. The US government has been reluctant to get behind that industry (which cannot possibly compete with the major oil companies in political spending) though it threw them a bone recently by imposing tariffs on the import of clean energy technology from China (yes, China), because that country was dumping such things as solar panels in this country at prices we could not match. But this didn’t save such companies as Evergreen Solar which went belly up before the tariffs were imposed. Too little too late.

So, in the end, we have voters worried about increasing energy costs at a time when they should be declining. Meanwhile, at the urging of the energy companies our government shifts its dirty energy policy from import to export and simultaneously continues to discourage America’s clean energy industry, keeping as many as 40,000 jobs hanging in suspense in that industry while insisting upon the Keystone pipeline in order to create an estimated 20,000 jobs.

If I were Alice I would be convinced I was in Wonderland.