Sunday, October 11, 2009

The World is Going to End in 2012! Uh...Random Thoughts for Earth Science Week

"But most archaeologists, astronomers and Maya say the only thing likely to hit Earth is a meteor shower of New Age philosophy, pop astronomy, Internet doomsday rumors and TV specials..."

This was my second favorite quote from this story on the Mayan calendar ending in 2012. My favorite is that of a Mayan Indian elder, Apolinario Chile Pixtun: "I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this stuff."

The problem, of course is that someone gets it in their head that a Nostrodamus prediction, or some scriptural prophecy is about to come true, and there are always armies of gullible people anxious to lap it up. There is a web site, the Rapture Index, that rates world events in reference to the end of days. You can find it yourself, but if you are curious, today's rating is 164, which in their terms, means "fasten your seatbelt". I watch this kind of thinking, and shake my head.

It is a lot easier to think "I am one of the elected few" and that I won't have to deal with hard problems because I'm going to be taken away, and those "left behind" can just suffer. Or that it will be over with quickly, whatever the disaster is to be, whether it is California falling into the sea in one massive earthquake (and NBC, you didn't help things at all with that execrable movie "10 1/2"), or massive asteroid impacts that destroy all life on the planet (unless Bruce Willis can blow up an atomic bomb "exactly 100 meters" down or something like that). Unfortunately a recent climate change movie (Day After Tomorrow) had to take a granule of truth and speed it up by a factor of thousands so they could destroy New York in a massive immediate ice age (although I liked the irony in the movie of having millions of Americans trying to get into Mexico).

The sad truth is that there are really big problems we face as a species, and they are not getting the attention they must have. The problems are interrelated: the end of the oil economy, climate change, soil erosion and drought, rising sea level. The people who have the real power in the world are invested in the status quo, and in most cases have little or no understanding of the science involved in the dire predictions for the next few decades. In fact, they can see no farther than the next election, so they are invested in making sure we don't think about these things. Nobody wants to elect a "downer" politician who calls for national sacrifice. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who made one of the finest speeches on what was needed to face the energy future in 1977, and who was repudiated at the polls in 1979. The men who beat him set us back decades in energy independence. We ended up fighting a war over oil in 1990-91, and oil factored in the war we are mired in now. And we import more than ever. And the seas rise, the droughts intensify, and we choose to worry more about Michael Jackson, and toilet flushing internet cats. Because our problems are hard.

And we have the embarrassment of having a sitting U.S. senator, James Inhofe, who has in all likelihood never sat through a science course in his life, heading to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December to tell several thousand climatologists that they are all wrong about climate change. Scientific debate is critically important; putting ideological values above science is appalling.

And so I begin Earth Science Week with a certain feeling of despair. But it is only temporary. What can a few thousand teachers and educators do in the face of intractable and difficult problems? We can do a lot, actually. Education is a powerful weapon! Education drove the movement that resulted in the National Park System. Education drove the environmental movement in the 1970's that cleaned our air and water. Education resulted in the effort to reduce freon in the atmosphere. Education is making Californians safer in the face of future large earthquakes. So go for it! With all the knowledge you can share. We need it.

And if I am wrong, and the world ends in 2012, wherever we end up, I invite you to say "I told you so".
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