When I was studying science at university in the 1970s, the realisation had hardly started to dawn on anyone that modern man (and woman) had managed to create a serious problem in relation to nature: the science of ecology was beginning to be taken seriously, and documentaries were being made about heavy-industry polluting rivers and lakes; there was also concern about air quality in major cities, and about pesticide residues making their way up food chains; but, overall, few people questioned the notion that human beings had embarkd on an exponential curve of progress at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and that the answers to most of the problems with which people had grappled over the millennia, such as illness, hunger, and poverty, had been found. It was assumed, even amongst people in the emerging environmental movement, that one more push in the right direction was all that was required to resolve the few problems which remained, allowing everyone to live in relative comfort, and prosperity, without having to do much work.
That vision has become increasingly strained in the intervening years; it has become ever-more apparent that the relationship between people and nature was not just going through a difficult patch – it had completely broken down. Climate change caused by a fossil-fuel-based global economy is, at the moment, the focus of most concern, but mass-extinction of plant and animal species, loss of soil fertility, the accumulation of non-recyclable wastes (some of it radioactive), and air and water pollution, are all now acknowledged to be problems caused by the modern economy that have no obvious solution.
Whilst, on the one hand, it is to be welcomed that these problems have finally been recognised, we ought to be worried that there has been hardly a pause for reflection before scientists, engineers, corporations, and politicians have come up with solutions. We are being asked to believe that there is a simple technological solution to the environmental problems that modern technologies have created. This proposed solution involves spending vast amounts of money rebuilding existing infrastrucure, converting everything to electric, putting complet trust in advanced computer technologies, and, if possible, having everyone living in an urban environment, where their carbon footprint can be monitored and controlled.
No one seems to have considered that, logically, there must always have been a serious flaw in our collective understanding of how nature works, from the start of the Industrial Revolution, for us to have ever been able to do it so much damage; and that maybe we ought to take a step back and re-evaluate what we know, or what we think we know, before blundering on any further.
This is something that is brought home to one quite acutely when one finds oneself in a classroom in front of a group of young people. In our society, children spend less time outdoors, in nature, and more time indoors than ever before. Fear of accidents, and possible litigation, lead teaching staff to eradicate as much potential danger from these controlled indoor environments as possible, and, to compound the problem, children do not live in a world in which their basic needs are met by nature; instead, things that they want come, mysteriously, from shops and from the world of adults.
This creates a disconnection from the natural world, which as well as being detrimental to the physical and emotional development of children, also affects their ability to understand and evaluate what they are being taught. As a teacher, one would prefer that children already knew something about the way in which the world works, before you try to give them explanations of why it works that way, but this is not the case for pupils that have been so over-protected. Children who have no direct experience of nature have no way of telling what is a normal fact of nature (that an oak tree grows from and acorn, for example) and what is fantastical and made up, such as some of the things that they may see in cartoons or on television. Exacerbating the problem, children brought up in a man-made environment will automatically assume that nature behaves in the same way as the world with which they are familiar, and will not understand the difference between a living system, and a static system.
As a teacher, you find that children in this situation react in one of two ways, they either don’t understand what you are talking about, and switch off, and do not do very well in their exams; or else, they do not understand what you are talking about, but, for some reason, want to do well in school, and learn how to answer the exam questions in the expected manner. These latter go on to become the academics and engineers of the future.
Assuming that no one would consciously set about changing the climate of our planet, and that no one would consciously embark on a programme to drive the majority of species on the planet to extinction, it must be the case that these things are all happening by mistake. Which means that the people who built our economies and our institutions did not have the understanding of the natural world that they thought they had. Given the way that we have set up our education system, this should not come as a surprise. Children do not have a chance to find out where they fit in to the world of nature, and become detached from the basic realities of life from a very young age. When they grow up, some of these same children then go on to take up key roles in government, business, and universities, where they suddenly find themselves confronted with world-threatening problems, caused by centuries-old misunderstandings of how nature works, for which they are expected to find rapid solutions. Logically, however, it would make sense for people to recognise that they do not have a method for determining whether what they believe to be true really is true, and what they believe to be false, really is false, and what is even more difficult, to work out to what extent things that they believe to be true, may be only partially true, or may only represent one small part of the truth.