Monday, April 5, 2010

More Teachable Moments in Understanding Global Warming

A review of a new book in this Sunday's New York Times --“Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution” (Scribner, 272 pages, $26) points out how gullible we are when it comes to companies trying to sell us on how green they are.

The author Heather Rogers asserts that "green capitalism is actually undermining ecological progress.. She says corporate America has led us into thinking that we can save the earth mainly by buying things like compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid gas-electric cars and carbon offsets. “The new green wave, typified by the phrase ‘lazy environmentalism,’ is geared toward the masses that aren’t willing to sacrifice,” Ms. Rogers complains. “This brand of armchair activism actualizes itself most fully in the realm of consumer goods; through buying the right products we can usher our economic system into the environmental age.”

The point has been made by many people before and noted in this blog that believing you are acting "green" and doing something worthwhile for the planet are often two different things. So here is an assignment for middle and high school students--distingush between authentic and real claims that companies make and see to what extent they are part of their "green washing" campaigns and to what extent they will do anything significant to reduce our carbon fuel dependencies and help cool down the planet.

Here is a more advanced exercise--to explore leading environmentalist Chris Goodall's contention (writing in the Guardian in 2008 ) that we don't need to find hi-tech solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

"Many of these are expensive and may create as many problems as they solve. Nuclear power is a good example. But it may be cheaper and more effective to look for simple solutions that reduce emissions, or even extract existing carbon dioxide from the air. There are many viable proposals to do this cheaply around the world, which also often help feed the world's poorest people. One outstanding example is to use a substance known as biochar to sequester carbon and increase food yields at the same time.

Biochar is an astonishing idea. Burning agricultural wastes in the absence of air leaves a charcoal composed of almost pure carbon, which can then be crushed and dug into the soil. Biochar is extremely stable and the carbon will stay in the soil unchanged for hundreds of years.

Never heard of biochar? Nor have I but the following link might be helpful for those who want to explore its potential--

Having thoroughly investigated a variety of claims students might conclude as Rogers seems to that we simply need to reduce our consumption.

“Around the world, many politicians, the conventional energy sector and manufacturers of all kinds oppose any major reduction in consumption,” Ms. Rogers writes. “If people start using less, then economies based on consumption — such as that of the United States, where buying goods and services comprises 70 percent of all economic activity — will be forced to undergo a colossal transformation.”

Can we live with this conclusion? At least we need to give our students an opportunity to reach this insight themselves and make their own choices for their futures. It sounds to me like both an ethical and educational thing to do. What do you think dear reader?

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