Well, the astrophysicist and I finally managed to write something together. More than a year and a half ago when I moved to Scienceblogs I promised that Eric would be my sometime- collaborator. I promise I did not realize was a total lie. You see, the way we’ve managed over the years to raise four kids, run a farm and work several jobs is that we trade off responsibilities – when I’m working in front of the computer, he’s with the kids or working the farm. When he’s at work teaching, I’m home doing the same. Yes, we do have evenings together after the kids go to bed, but what we found is that if we’re not too tired to do anything but sit and read, well, we can think of more fun things to do than write blog posts together.
We finally did manage to write something together, though – a Peak Oil Review Commentary – about the challenges of teaching the issues raised by material limits, peak oil and resource depletion. This is a subject near and dear to both our hearts,
and one that I’ve been working with ASPO-USA to start bringing to the forefront.
Both of us find that students (and indeed nearly everyone) also have radically inflated assumptions about the merits of renewable energies, and no implicit grasp of EROEI, either as a concept or of its mathematics. This cannot be chalked up only to poor mathematical education (although it would only be helpful to have a population where everyone understands calculus, if we can’t express our ideas without higher mathematics, the movement to address Peak Oil is doomed) – it is the very concept of energy return over investment that most students have not had presented to them. Once students “get” EROEI, they are often excited and astonished that no one ever proposed this to them before.
Again, EROEI concepts are not only the territory of physicists, mathematicians and geologists. The idea that a society with a declining resource base needs to think hard about returns applies across the board. This is a natural concept for business students, and I know more than one historian analyzing collapsed societies through the lens of the return they got from their investments in complexity. Seen through an EROEI-educated lens, the arts, in which human creativity transcends the base materials in which they work, whether the athletic human body (dance, theater), paper and pen (writing), the plastic arts, etc…begin to look awfully good again. Agricultural education is obviously a natural setting as well to begin see the possibilities for wealth of the biological kind that can emerge from an EROEI-educated society.
The value of these and other basic concepts does not begin at the college level. Both simplified EROEI calculations and the conceptual framework that a lower energy life does not mean certain doom are things that could be taught to students at much earlier ages than the college level – once these ideas are intuitive to a critical mass of the population, it becomes much easier to convey them. Indeed, we know many teachers who are attempting to bring these issues up to high school, middle school and even elementary aged students. As homeschoolers to three of our boys, ranging in age from nine to five, we have found that the basic intellectual grounding of these concepts is accessible as soon as you master single digit arithmetic, in the case of EROEI, or as soon as you can begin logic exercise like “Well, you could eat the cookie or give it to your friend if you only have one cookie…but what’s a third choice? What else could you do?”
The biggest difficulty for most of us who teach these issues – and we know many others working in many fields and across disciplines and with students of all ages – is that so many of us are operating in isolation, attempting to invent something that does not wholly exist yet. That so many people are doing so admirable a job is remarkable – but it also doesn’t have to be this way.
At this point, there simply is no resource for teachers working on these issues to share experiences. ASPO is going to step up and take a lead here, helping those of us birthing a nascent discipline to come together and organized our work. If you teach or study these issues and would like to participate in a discussion list, and perhaps eventually in the first-ever Peak Oil Student and Teacher Conference this year in Washington DC, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you join the discussion!