Review: The Age of Missing Information

No Stone Unturned

In his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben seeks answers to what constitutes real information in our age of increasingly accessible images, print, audio, and video.  He watched all that cable TV had to offer in a 24-hour span, comparing the sedentary experience to 24-hours in an unfettered natural place, a mountaintop overlooking his home in the Champlain Valley of upstate New York.

Of course, now its 2012, and the information that is published and created through the internet is a gazillion times more overwhelming than cable TV in 1992, but the lessons from the book still apply.  Perhaps they apply even more.

McKibben points out several problems with constant, uncritical media consumption: degeneration of fundamental skills, the fostering of a skewed view of history, the gospel of economic growth, and a destructive misunderstanding of humanity’s place in the universe.

Largely due to the constant leisure and distraction that media affords us, fundamental skills are pushed aside.  By fundamental skills, McKibben means an understanding and ability of how to grow or hunt food, build things, and many other skills mastered over long apprenticeships.  Think about what you would have to know and do if you wanted to make a hamburger one hundred years ago.  Hypothetically, you might have to know how to build a barn, raise a cow, feed it, care for it, butcher it, and so on and so forth. 

In the modern age, leisure and convenience inundates and shelter us from the process and necessary skills to do just about anything related to survival.  The more we are detached from fundamental skills, the more we are removed from the production of vitally important things, leading to general apathy or implicit support for industrial means.  Perhaps no industry wants to blind us from production more than agribusiness. 

I find pleasure in practicing fundamental skills, and its nice to know where things come from.  So I huntI cook.  I recently started brewing beer.  I try to renovate my house.  I like to build fires in the fire pit in my backyard.  I like to grow things.  Just because we don’t have to do these things, doesn’t mean we should write them off in favor of leisure and convenience.  As McKibben states, in our modern economy “money supplants skill; its possession allows us to become happily stupid.”  Strong words, but true to a large degree.

With regards to history, it repeats itself over and over again in the TV era.  McKibben writes, “The brightness surrounding the last forty years blinds us to all that preceded it—and forty years is a very short, even to an individual.”  Famous images captured by video get regurgitated over and over on anniversary dates and at other times. 

Understanding history in depth requires one to read, to talk to people, to do more than seeing reruns of the man standing in front of the tank in Tihanamen Square, the Berlin Wall crumbling, Martin Luther King’s Speech, grainy video of Kennedy’s assassination, or The Beatles delighting screaming and squealing teenagers on the Ed Sullivan show.  The internet, admittedly, offers us amazing archives and resources regarding history, but the casual consumer doesn’t go out of his or her way to understand a more in-depth view of history.  I wonder if McKibben would rephrase his theory with regards of the potential to explore history though the internet.

The gospel of consumerism and non-stop economic growth is the highest goal of our country, and it’s still a heretical view to proclaim that economic growth is an unworthy goal. “People acquire more money, and buy more things with it, and the economy grows, creating more jobs and more prosperity, and so has been since at least the Industrial Revolution,” McKibben writes about the explicit and implicit messages in TV.   Think about the messages we receive on TV about economic news.  I’ve never heard a single political or economic “authority” state, well, we shouldn’t be talking about economic growth anymore, because if people in expanding global economies lived like us, there will be nothing left on earth.  TV and media reinforce the message to buy, buy, buy, and consume, consume, consume, consume, but this message is illogical and potentially destructive.

If you’re really out in nature, you can’t buy anything.  For many of us, this is incredibly unsettling.  There’s no way to drive somewhere to buy things.  If you’re really outside, you might get dirty.  Contrast this with the bombardment of advertisements for cleaning solutions, dirt removers, lint rollers, and detergents.  It’s as if soil is evil.  Should I bring hand sanitizer, wipes, and 409 cleaning solution when I go deer hunting?  Of course not.   Have we forgotten that just about everything comes from soil?   “If you spend time on a mountaintop, you get dirty—you slip and soil sticks to your sweat, or you climb out of the tent at night to pee and the soles of your feet are in actual contact with the forest floor.  Such exposure reminds you that dirt, after all, is not disease, or filth, or ordure, but simply the stuff of the planet,” McKibben points out.

Lastly, All implicit and explicit messages on TV relate to the idea that you are the center of the universe.  Therefore, your choices about what product to buy, what shows or lifestyles to endorse take precedent over reaching the understanding (that you do in nature) that us humans are really insignificant, part of a greater whole.   Like the disintegration of fundamental skills in society, this mindset drives us away from an understanding of who we are, and where we come from, in addition to the environmental impact out decisions make. 

Are McKibben’s lessons more or less pressing with regards to the internet?  How does the fact that many of us use the internet more than we watch cable TV change his argument?  How much does the internet contribute to the idea that you are the center of the universe?   Is it OK for so many of our skills to reside in the digital realm? 


To the Presidential Candidates: Q & A’s We Should Hear

No Stone Unturned

I cringe when I watch the Presidential debates.  My heart rate elevates slightly.   I keep waiting for questions and answers that nobody wants to hear, questions and answers that we should hear, but they never come.  Below, I imagine some questions and answers that, unfortunately, we’ll never see or hear:

While the 20th Century provided seemingly limitless opportunities for economic growth, resource extraction, and technological development, it seems we need to shift the paradigm–I care about the future, and I wonder how you can justify pushing for a reckless economic growth model?

“Thanks for the question.  I get it, and I don’t justify it.  It’s absurd that we both talk about how to grow the economy in a no-holds barred free market sense, because it simply isn’t sustainable.  Look at world population trends.   Look at emerging economies in Asia, a rising middle-class in China.  Look at increased meat consumption across the world and it’s environmental impact.  We all need to shift gears, and understand that in the 21st Century, progress shouldn’t mean more cars, more gadgets, and more consumption.  I think about 100 years down the road, and any sane politician or citizen should admit to you that there simply isn’t enough land, water, and fossil fuels to continue on our current course.  We need to continue to embrace a global economy, but we also need to shift back to more regional and local economic models–especially in the area of food and energy production–in order to create more jobs and a healthy dependence on our neighbors and immediate locales.”

With Frankenstorm bearing down on the East Coast, what do you say to those who deny that Climate Change is a real threat?

“Thank you for finally bringing up Climate Change in a debate!  First of all, it’s absurd to continue to play Russian Roulette with our collective future by denying the impact humans have on the environment.  We can either continue to deny and pay the consequences, or we can take major action to try and mitigate the ongoing threat that man-influenced weather events will continue to have on our lives.”

Some people say our schools and teachers are failing.  What say you?

“Thank you for providing an opportunity to respond to this crucial topic.  Schools and teachers are not failing.  Society, and most strikingly, parents, are failing our youth.  Think about the number of single-parent homes.  I’ve talked to many school teachers who exclaim how often parents blame schools and teachers for their students’ troubles, rather than working through issues at home.

Think about the constant media barrage that our young people ingest every day.  Popular culture is not helping.   Where is school and knowledge being emphasized?

What are your feelings about Super PACS?  Should uber-wealthy partisan groups have such influence on the airways?

“By the time I answer your question, millions of Americans will be bombarded by negative campaign ads by Super PACs from both parties.  Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case v. FEC,  corporations and individuals no longer are limited by $5,000 dollar contributions to PACs, which gave more power to folks like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, to give over 50 million dollars! to conservative Super PACS in 2012.  That’s an incredible amount of money.  Imagine if that money was given to charity or invested in local enterprise.  I don’t like the influence of big money in this election.  Quite frankly, it seems antithetical to democracy to allow so much money to pour into elections, and we need major campaign finance reform.”

It’s deeply troubling to continue to see violence around the world seemingly spawned by hatred of American Values.  What do you say to those who find American/Western values to be so problematic and incendiary?

“Tough question.  Let me make it clear that I understand that Freedom in some places, due to historic and religious traditions dating back thousands of years, is not a universal value.  I will not impose American values on places, and there’s no doubt we will continue to see difficult and lengthy transitions to democratic institutions in the Middle East and around the world.  It may never work.  That said,  I’m not about moral relativism.  There are certain cultures and attitudes that are better for humanity and the stability of our modern world.  To kill people because of a cheap YouTube video is beyond pathetic, as is the judgement the film’s producer made in exercising his first amendment rights to a reckless degree.”

What questions and answers do you wish you would hear from the candidates?

Why $100,000 Teacher Salaries Make Sense

No Stone Unturned

Many American educators–myself included–often remind ourselves and others that we didn’t enter education for the money.  I certainly don’t teach to become wealthy, but as I see outstanding educator colleagues and friends leave the classroom for higher-paying, often lower-stress jobs in education, I wonder what it would take to increase the tenure of experienced, skilled teachers.

And I wonder how long I will last, with increased financial responsibility coming with marriage and my own family down the line.

So what would it take to start attracting more talent into the teaching pool in the States?  It might boil down to greenbacks.  According to Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence Director Stu Silberman, dramatically increasing compensation could eventually lead to dramatically improved schools.

How about a starting salary for teachers of  $100,000?

Those numbers might seem ridiculous, especially for first-year professionals with a wild range of educational attainment and ability, yet Silberman argues that the idea is feasible in a recent blog post at Education Week:

…if the entry-level salary is $100,000 (this is possible within current budgets), what could we expect to happen? First, many top students who want to teach but now choose a different profession for financial reasons would bring their skills into the classroom for the benefit of our students. The appeal of higher salaries would allow universities to become more selective about the candidates they allow into their teacher preparation programs. As stronger talent entered the teaching workforce, student achievement would rise. The Center for Public Education reports, “There is research that has shown that students of teachers who have greater academic ability–be it measured through SAT or ACT scores, GPA, IQ, tests of verbal ability, or selectivity of the college attended–perform better.” As achievement levels rise, we would have a stronger pool of future educators, thus continuing the upward spiral.

I agree with Silberman’s general premise, but I doubt we have the political will to undergo such a dramatic transformation of the profession.

And it is true that the talent pool of teacher candidates is currently diluted.  According to numbers released by Education Testing Services (ETS), education majors score well below average on the GRE compared to students in other fields.  The exception is secondary education majors, who score slightly above average.  American schools aren’t going to dramatically improve with–let’s face it–such a wild range of abilities standing in front of 30 tired, eager, excited, or belligerent students in schools across the land.  Test scores aren’t everything, but the numbers are a strong indicator of where teaching falls on a career prestige scale.

Speaking of prestige, Finland’s education system has recently received a bounty of praise, and it’s no surprise that the best and brightest there desire to become educators.  What do we have?  A glut of Teach for America applicants from our top colleges and universities, but many of these students aren’t looking into education long-term.  Just look at retention rates.

It’s a tough sell to drastically increase teacher salaries and increase qualification requirements.  But I’m sick and tired of politicians and citizens lamenting the fact that our public schools are a mess, when recruiting, training, and compensation systems are not set up to create and retain widespread teacher excellence.

Big challenges require bold solutions.  What do you think?

Balloons, Climate Change, and the Future

No Stone Unturned

What would it take for people to see their impact on the environment, in relation to climate change?  After a few moments of deliberation, my friend and mentor Rowan Claypool said Balloons.

Imagine that for all of your activity responsible for CO2 emissions, large ugly balloons filled with CO2 trailed you wherever you traveled. 

If you bought a couple of Big Macs, balloons would appear.  If you went joyriding in your Saab Wagon on a Sunday morning, balloons would appear.  If you flew to New Orleans for a Teaching Conference–which I am actually en route to now–you’d arrive in the Big Easy with hundreds more balloons attached to your carry-on bag.  The more you consumed, traveled, and  purchased, you would see a tangible sign of your impact on the environment.

Image from the Boston Globe online. Biodegradable balloons in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I don’t understand how the science of climate change is disputable.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, CO2 levels have increased from under 320 ppm in the late 1950’s to over 395 ppm now.  That seems to be an indisputable fact.  It’s also a fact that the number has been on a steady rise.  The more CO2, the more climate variability and extremes we endure.  Have you recently experienced a drought, heat wave, flood, or other event?  If you live in the United States, chances are the answer is a resounding Yes.

Somehow, special interest groups have successfully muddled the information to a great extent. 

Challenging the Altar of Economic Growth and Material Consumption is inextricably linked to acknowledging climate change and human impact on the environment.  For some, acknowledging this connection in our modern world is akin to challenging religious belief systems.  For others, acknowledging this connection means more government regulation and less “freedom.”  God forbid individuals are discouraged or fined for making decisions that impact everybody for the worse (sarcasm).

Unfortunately, I imagine individuals, communities, states, countries, and the world economy continuing the barrel along at a reckless pace.

I imagine a migration of folks out of the Southwestern United States due to a lack of water and ridiculous energy prices to cool homes and cars.  I imaging India, China, and other economies continuing to grow, extracting and using fossil fuels like the United States did to grow during the 20th Century.  I imagine returning to New England some day and having a similar growing season to what I currently experience in Kentucky.  I imagine obscenely rich people, no matter where they live, insulating themselves or using money to continue consuming at unsustainable rates.  I imagine science and technology putting a tiny dent in our environmental problems, but hardly providing long-term fixes.

The bottom line is, I’m not sure  most people on both sides of the debate are currently willing to make lifestyle changes and sacrifices that someday may be mandatory or necessary for more many more generations of humans to thrive.

And unlike many who deny the human impact on climate change, I hope my stance is wrong and that this post is far more gloom and doom than it should be.

The Myth of Progress–What Can Nature Teach Us?

No Stone Unturned

If you plant too much in a small space, competition for soil, water, and sunlight will result in diminished garden productivity.  Something will lose out on the aforementioned energy resources.

My experiment with grape vines has proven poor planning on my part–rapid growth, root system, and large leaves have overtaken a small strip of garden running adjacent to my deck.  It was somewhat exciting to train the vines to take over the deck rail, harvest grapes (the chickens love them), and almost see something growing by the minute.  Grapes grow really fast.  But I didn’t account for several years of pruning and growth in the given space.  Nor did I account for my desire to plant as much as I can in small spaces.  I tried to cut the vines this past winter, but they are shooting out new vines.

When done well, crops can compliment each other so they both thrive.  It takes careful planning, experimentation, and care.  I’ve recently planted some tomatoes near some greens–spinach and lettuce varieties–so that as the summer heat envelops Kentucky, the tomatoes will thrive and also provide shade for the greens so that they’ll continue to grow.

A young tomato plant that will eventually provide shade for the spinach.

I planted garlic at the base of my peach and nectarine trees, as I’ve had trouble with peach scab and other fungus on the leaves.  Garlic builds up sulfur, which I read is a natural fungicide.  So far this season, the trees look better.  But it’s still far from harvest time.

A well-maintained and thoughtfully planned out garden serves as a model for a more sustainable economy.  The Myth of Progress by Tom Wessels decries the current global economic model based on competition and growth, a model completely out of synch with resilient and complimentary natural systems.  He argues that because the current economic paradigm is so out of synch with nature, it is not a matter of if it’ll fail, but a matter of when.

He writes about coral reefs, forests, and other complex ecosystems.  Over time, species will coevolve and coexist in order to maximize their chances of survival and increase energy efficiency.  For example, chickadees and nuthatches have evolved to reduce their competition by learning to forage on different parts of a tree.  Wessels writes:

Competition in nature is quite a bit different than competition in human endeavors.  In the natural world, species don’t seek competition and more importantly, no  winners emerge from it’s struggles.  Although an individual or species may prevail from a competitive interaction, they lose energy during the competition.

The natural world and the business world are at odds, of course, but what has a longer track record of success?

If you measure economic health on the availability of cheap material goods, then of course we’re doing well.  If you measure economic vitality by winners and losers in the name of resources, markets, and landscapes, then what is happening in a lot of places is a colossal failure.

I don’t want any one crop to overtake a section of my garden, just as I don’t want any one corporation to take over massive tracks of land, shopping developments, or energy supplies.  I don’t want to grow only one type of tomato, just as I don’t want to have a limited choice of consumer goods or products due to massive corporate growth or consolidation.