Very stinky progress traps

by Yule Heibel on May 6, 2005

We’re doomed as a species, I sometimes think. A few days ago I heard Bill Gates (that Bill, the one of Microsoft) on the radio. He was admonishing Americans to ramp up high school math and science skills because right now, the Chinese are outpacing Americans in those areas. He said that for every computer programming job advertised in China, thousands (yup, he said thousands) of highly qualified (again, that’s a quote, verbatim) candidates apply. Mr. Gates seemed to suggest that at this rate, all computer programming jobs, along with the entire field of computer science, will soon be in Chinese hands — unless Americans can suddenly step up to the plate and provide their own thousands of highly qualified applicants for every job advertised here, too.

I have a problem with this: why is it desirable to equate quantity with …well, with what? Quality? I’m sure the quality of the applicants is very high, but what exactly is it a quality of? Math and science ability? But then, what qualities are these math and science abilities in the service of? And why do we think that having a surfeit of applicants (thousands for every job advertised) is desirable?

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that kids aren’t learning about ethics or morals, aren’t learning enough history, and aren’t reading widely or deeply. That is, the critical thinking skills are left hanging in favour of eternal rounds of standardised testing, which typically test for fact-learning, but not for understanding. Worse, in exacerbating a panic mentality regarding our poor math and science scores by invoking the visually frightening idea of thousands of highly qualified applicants in line for one job opening, applicants who are culturally different from “us” westerners (hey, they must like math and science — geez, what’s up with that?) and who will work for far less pay, Gates isn’t exactly doing the humanities and critical thinking any favours. In the wake of that rhetoric, take a guess where the voters/ parents/ taxpayers will demand to see action: in the English classroom or in the math classroom?

But how will they want to see action taken? What we forget of course, is that if the Chinese are better at math and science, it’s because they have elementary school teachers who are actually mathematicians and scientists, vs. the Jack-of-all-trades-Master-of-none elementary teachers favoured by the West. That is, the Chinese pupil learns math differently and more deeply because he or she has expert teachers (see Liping Ma’s book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, subtitled “Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States”…). Then again, the humanities angle is already in a shambles and couldn’t be made any worse by a mad rush to math & science. I still feel like weeping (with rage) when I recall the response I got not too long ago from a local high school humanities teacher whom I asked why the Shoah isn’t part of the BC curriculum until grade 12 History (which incidentally is an elective): he said (quote, verbatim), “we have a secular curriculum, which is why we don’t teach topics dealing with religion.” Well, there goes the neighbourhood, I guess: the weasels have taken over, and they’re weaseling their way out of every moral and ethical issue.

This month’s Focus (a local magazine, always just chock full of good stuff) includes a Briony Penn interview with her fellow Salt Spring Islander, Ronald Wright, author of among other books A Short History of Progress. Wright asserts that all civilisations eventually fall into “progress traps,” which begin as “good things,” but end in disaster. Wright notes that in the past, civilisations were self-contained entities that didn’t drag everyone on the planet into disaster when they failed. But today, we’re all interdependent and interconnected, which makes the situation far more dangerous. Penn asks, “You attribute the problem to the fact that our cultural evolution has outstripped our physical evolution. What do you mean?” Wright responds:

Biological change is slow. We have not changed physically, either in our skeletal structure or in the size of our brain, for at least 50,000 years. We evolved as ice-age hunters. The change in our ways of life since then is through the growth of culture, and the ability to pass on the growing complexity of knowledge from generation to generation. You could say that culture is our “software.” So we are running 21st century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago. That’s part of our trouble. We are smart enough to get ourselves into trouble, but not smart enough to get ourselves out of it.

Culture is accelerating. The amount of cultural change in a decade now is far more than the change of a lifetime two centuries ago. We can’t see far enough ahead to control or even foresee the consequences of what we are doing.

What really worries me, and is at the heart of this book, is the idea that change is running out of control. We no longer have control over our technologies, or our population. We keep inventing new technologies, such as genetic engineering, or before that, atomic weapons and power, whose consequences we can neither control nor foresee. We have a hard time giving up our toys.

From there, Wright launches into depressing detail about the eco-health of our civilisation and our pathways along the progress trap.

What struck me, reading this shortly after listening to Bill Gates, was how uncritically Gates is buying into the “toys” mentality: we need those math and science majors so we can do …what, exactly? Build better technologies, better toys? Better genetic engineering? Better atomic technologies? We need those kids so we can go faster …to where? The shopping mall?

But in the meantime, while we’re all incredibly busy and geared up to go faster and faster, we can rehearse further weasel strategies: in my local daily paper (there’s an online version that disappears quickly), I read that:

The TBuck Suzuki Environmental Foundation says the Capital Regional District‘s blue-ribbon panel to review ocean dumping of untreated sewage is “another smokescreen.”

The panel will only review the existing liquid waste management plan, said Jim McIsaac, clean water director of the foundation, a watchdog on salmon and fisheries habitat issues.

“The CRD will provide the only input and will focus it to show that they are meeting the terms of the current LWMP [Liquid Waste Management Plan],” he said.


“They (CRD) know the sewage plume hits the surface eight months a year.”

Sports fishermen, boaters, windsurfers and others are out on those waters.

“In a country like ours there’s no way we should put our tourists at risk like that,” McIsaac said.

Tourism is worth $1.1 billion a year to the Victoria area and another boycott such as the one mounted by Washington state in 1992-93 is inevitable, he said.

Only a promise that in a decade, the CRD would have sewage treatment defused that situation, he said.

If the stench from that article hasn’t turned your stomach completely, check out this recent (April 13, 2005) Georgia Strait Alliance press release:

Documents recently obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request show that Joyce Murray, then BC Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection (WLAP) ignored overwhelming evidence on the harmful effects of dumping raw sewage into the ocean when she approved Victoria’s Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP). The approved LWMP allows Victoria to continue pumping over 40 billion litres a year of raw sewage into waters just off Victoria harbour for at least the next 25 years. [More…]

The article then goes on to cite 13 points of evidence presented to (and ignored by) the Minister — read it and weep. It concludes:

“The province has ignored years of evidence showing harm to the marine ecosystem,” says Jim McIsaac of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. “They have bought the CRD’s ridiculous argument that Victoria has the only benign sewage in the world. The province must put its foot down, refuse to accept any further nonsense from the CRD and insist that they move ahead with sewage treatment immediately.”

“The citizens of Victoria should be very concerned that the CRD has known all along about the impacts dumping raw sewage was having on local waters”,” says Christianne Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance. “They cannot be allowed to continue manipulating information and putting pressure on other levels of government in order to maintain the status quo at all costs.”

The CRD pumps over 120 million litres a day of raw sewage into local waters. This sewage contains pathogens, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants like PBDEs (flame retardants) and PCBs, many are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and reproductive toxins. [More…]

According to the documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, Minister Murray ignored not just the evidence, but also federal laws. How can this happen? Morals and ethics, anyone? No thanks, I guess there isn’t much call for it around here — that would create a problem, after all. It’s so much easier to flush “problems” down the toilet instead.


melanie May 7, 2005 at 7:41 am

I don’t think it’s fair to equate progress with the type of modernity we have, i.e., with technological change that uses people rather than the other way around. Real progress would be something that incorporated reason, ethics and a substantial (rather than formal) democracy in the way forward.

melanie May 7, 2005 at 7:44 am

I don’t think it’s fair to equate progress with the type of modernity we have, i.e., with technological change that uses people rather than the other way around. Real progress would be something that incorporated reason, ethics and a substantial (rather than formal) democracy in the way forward.

brian moffatt May 15, 2005 at 10:13 am

Well…needless to say I have much to say on this. And I will. I just stopped by to say Hi and what do I get, a whole whack of food for thought. Damn you!

Quick story: Last year there was a push on at work. China was the big threat. ‘Thousands’ of applicants applying for our jobs. Our site manager – a very decent man, and unusally bright about people for a professioanl engineer, and how people populate processes etc. – said something that went along these lines: “We (North American manufacturers) are going to lose this game. China has thousands of applicants…pretty much exactly the same words Gates used, certainly exactly the same idea. Our site manager then added “and these people that are competing for your jobs are all professional engineers.”

I can’t remember what I said at that point but it cracked the room up. Something nasty about professional engineers being forced to work with the processes of other professional engineers.

So, yeah there are three reactions to this sort of fear mongering. And I’m afraid the ‘trendy reaction’ will run the way you’ve outlined it Yule.

Oh and thanks for the link to the Ma book. I’ve been trying to figure that one out all my life. My high school was 66% Chinese. Most new immigrants at the time. I could never figure out why they had such an advantage. And any student was capable of teaching the class, our high school math teacher(s) were pathetic. I’m particularly bitter about this. Until grade eight I was an A math student and then boom, saddled with the phys ed teacher in grade 9. By grade ten my math mark was 19%.

And, of course, I see with my kids that the trend continues and is much worse. And not only with Math. Soon, here in Canada, Education will be synonymous with Avoidance. If that’s not the case now. “Character Education”. I cringe.

stavrosthewonderchicken May 18, 2005 at 3:54 am

I can’t speak with any certainty about China, but the reason Korean students consistently score high in math and science is a possibly-positive side effect of the fact that from age 12 to 18 most of them, if they are being pushed to go to university (and most are), go to school at 7am, finish at 9 or 10pm, and then go to private cramschools until midnight or 1am. Every day of their lives, except on Saturday, when school is only a half-day, and Sunday, when they collapse from exhaustion. I do not exaggerate. The system creates good workers, and has for the last 3 decades and more, but it destroys them as humans, to put it floridly. If my wife and I have children, they will not be educated in Korea, for this reason amongst many.

Poor bastards.

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