Great Books, Grand Challenges: Energy Education in the 21st Century

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By Andrew Hamilton, Honors College

BBC News maintains a web feature called ‘The World at Seven Billion’, with a thought-provoking feature: tell it your birthday and it will tell you approximately where you sit in the sequence of persons. I was the 3,809,767,193rd person alive when I was born, and the 78,017,472,949th to ever walk the Earth. Readers of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might see shades of the Total Perspective Vortex in this. (The TPV destroys its victims by showing them their true place in the universe. To be subjected to this information is to be humbled to death.)

There’s more humility to come. The United Nations is projecting that another billion people will have joined us by 2025. There are already nearly twice as many people on the planet as there were when President Nixon made his historic visit to China. Paul and Anne Ehrlich raised concern over mass starvation caused by overpopulation in 1968’s The Population Bomb. That was two billion people ago. Their dire predictions turned out to be wrong, but perhaps we can see why they thought we should pay attention: the population has more than tripled in their lifetimes.

Population growth is news by itself, but it brings with it a host of further considerations. What will all these new people do? Where will they live? Where will they obtain sufficient energy, food, and water? How will they access education and healthcare? And how will we and they transform our cultural, civic, and biological landscapes?

A thorough transformation—and I mean that in its most full-throated sense — is already underway. In the US, city dwellers have been a majority for a little more than a century. This is not news in Houston, which grows by more than 30,000 people each year. Despite its reputation nationally, Texas is not a rural state: nearly three quarters of our population lives in the triangle described by I-35 on the west, I-45 on the east, and I-10 on the south. Urbanization is news globally, however. The world became majority urban on the 23rd of May, 2007, according to researchers at North Carolina State University.

This is definitely news: for the first time in human history, most of us live in cities. The vast majority of the next billion people will also live in cities (in Asia, India, and Africa, specifically). We are living differently than we used to, which points to grand challenges.

For all of our history, population growth has meant increased energy consumption. The bigger we get, the more energy we burn and the more waste we produce. Maybe this can go on forever—the population will likely level off at 10 billion. Perhaps necessity will not demand that our population growth is supported in new ways, but many of our current challenges will still become more acute, and it’s likely that many more of us will be asking for solutions. If not managed carefully, changes in the climate, the energy economy, the culture, and the biosphere will not express the better angels of our nature. Instead they will reinforce and exacerbate current divides on how to grow sensibly, rationally, and equitably.

We’ve never been very good at this kind of careful management, as our environmental track record and highly polarized and often irrational public conversation about the relationship between energy and everything else demonstrates. Our students have grown up in an era in which political party is a very strong predictor of belief in anthropogenic global warming and they are rightly shocked to hear that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 passed unanimously in the senate.

One reason our public conversation has its current form is that colleges and universities generally don’t address growth, urbanization, and the connection between city size and resource consumption in their curricula or programming. While we have majors and minors that address these challenges directly, including the minor in Energy and Sustainability here at the University of Houston, most college students regularly graduate with no—or next to no—understanding of even the fundamentals of consumption in relation to scarcity. We insist on numerical literacy as well as on facility with reading, writing, and reasoning, but not on the most basic familiarity with the forces that shape our world.

What if we addressed the grand challenges of population growth and increased energy demand as central to our educational core? What would the national debate then look like? How would we describe and address the human situation? What if our highest aspirations for teaching and learning in the arts, social sciences, and natural sciences—core requirements at most universities—included serious attention to energy and what it means for our relationships to each other and the environment?

This is not a new set of questions. Environmentalist David Orr argued in the early 1990s that the world had changed so much since the formation of the liberal arts core that we should rethink the curriculum. “No student,” he said, “should graduate without a basic comprehension” of such principles as environmental carrying capacity and the law of thermodynamics, along with an appreciation of environmental ethics and the limits of technology.

There is a case to be made that the pace of change has increased over the past years. Yet, what and how we teach have not changed much. We continue to emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, and a store of facts, but not in a 21stcentury context. This isn’t all bad news; the intellectual skills we need are those we’ve needed since the Enlightenment. The challenges to which we turn these skills, however, could use updating.

Today the 7,305,284,331st person on Earth has been born. It’s probably time to take Orr’s advice, and include serious thinking about what’s next for energy, urban living, and a deeper study of our civic duties to each other as part of the core training of undergraduate students in our colleges and universities. There’s no better place to start than at the University of Houston—the energy university in the energy city.

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