America’s Need for Eco-Education

Today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Dena Sholk.

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded Thomas Friedman illustrates, in painstaking detail, the political, economic, and environmental realities of climate change and the revolution required to “avoid the unmanageable, and manage the unavoidable.”  Mr. Friedman’s solution of developing “a renewable energy ecosystem for innovation, generating, and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity, and conservation,” is spot-on.  He recognizes that economics determines the greening of America, consumers’ dollar votes choose the most efficient and least “disruptive technologies,” and the creation of a green global marketplace will be the hallmark of the Energy-Climate Era.

There is one major obstacles to a green revolution that is not addressed in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and that is that the American public is stupid. When we live in a nation that is as all-inclusive, as democratic, and as responsive to the voice of the people as the United States of America, we need the American population to be educated citizens, informed consumers, and adaptable workers in a world that is hot, flat, and crowded.

Americans are environmentally illiterate, and what little they think they know is probably sponsored by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, which as Mr. Friedman points out, waged a “$35 million campaign…to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change” (Friedman 376).  In the three-ring circus called American Mass Media, in which the Rush Limbaugh’s, the Bill O’Reilly’s, and the Oprah Winfrey’s educate Americans on the environment, there is a lot of confusing and conflicting information.  When we the people are not educated, we easily believe false myths and outdated beliefs, are ignorant of the actions of our policy makers, and lose our ability to adapt, as a national workforce, to changes in the marketplace. According to a 2005 publication by The National Environment Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) paper, “Environmental Literacy in America,” 45 million Americans believe the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million Americans believe that hydropower is America’s top energy source when it constitutes 10% of the total.[1] It is no surprise that when asked where they receive most of their news on the environment, 63% of American adults in 2001 said the TV. It is estimated that 80% of Americans subscribe to incorrect or outdated environmental myths. It is unacceptable that you can walk into almost any high school in the United States and find classes on woodshop, cooking, sewing, and home economics, but you cannot find a class on “the Arctic ice shelf,” “food security,” “water conservation,” or “energy.”  Just as American students learn how to use the computer, they should learn about environmentally friendly behavior, ecosystems, climates, plant and animal species and natural processes. According to the NEETF, there is a positive correlation between the level of environmental knowledge, and the amount of pro-environment behavior. Environmentally literate people are 10% more likely to conserve energy at home, 50% more likely to recycle, 10% more likely to purchase environmentally safe products, and 50% more likely to avoid using chemical products in garden and yard care. An individual who is more knowledgeable about the environment is more cognizant of their personal conduct, and any modification in personal behavior is likely to translate economically. According to Coyle,

A person who is well-versed on specific personal conduct knowledge is anywhere from 5% to 50% more likely to engage in related environmentally-friendly actions, based on a rough compilation of the many studies cited earlier in this chapter. Even at the lower end of this range, a 5% increase in environmental activities would yield an immediate $75 billion improvement in saved energy, water, and reduced health care costs.

In order to institute a successful green revolution, where private companies invest in R&D and produce innovative solutions, there needs to be a $20 billion market, according to GE’s Jeffrey Immelt (Friedman 256). An educated public will favor the more efficient, cost-effective technologies.  An educated public will put political pressure on members of Congress to enact legislation that provides tax incentives to jumpstart investment in solar, wind, wave, geothermal, and biomass energy.  An educated public is a robust workforce- including residents of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee- that will provide technology firms engineers and scientists.  An educated public will create a lean, mean, green, money-making machine that will savor innovations in technology, thereby guaranteeing the $20 billion green market that is so desperately needed to guide the Energy-Climate Era, in a world that is hot, flat, and crowded.

I began reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded on a thirteen hour plane ride to Beijing. This was my maiden voyage to China and what I discovered, is that there is one, and only one, China.  And this China is tightly controlled by the Communist party.  I worked for a Chinese organization, Weland International, teaching Chinese students (ages 14-17), cross-cultural communication and Model UN.  One day, I asked the students to compare Grant Wood’s American Gothic to a traditional Chinese Wall Scroll Painting by Ma Lin, and explain how each image was a manifestation of each culture’s values.  In American Gothic, the people are at the forefront of the image, thereby representing the American emphasis on the individual and the material world.  In Ma Lin’s painting, the atmosphere of the painting dominates the image, as the sole man is overwhelmed by the natural surroundings.  This painting demonstrates the Chinese value that humans should not only live in harmony with nature, but they should not overpower the natural world.  Once we established this, I asked the students, “Well if a traditional Chinese value is that humans should not overpower nature, then why does China have such a pollution problem?”  As shocked as they were that I dared to ask such a question, I was even more taken aback that they all gave the same response, “China is a developing country with a large population and we need to industrialize in order to become a developed country like the United States.  Once China is developed, we can worry about the environment.”  When I asked them if there was any way to reconcile the difference between their cultural values and improving the economy, they all said no.  The reality is that China is a nation of obedient students who know only what the Communist Party tells them.  Of course all 1.5 billion Chinese people fully support industrialization, because that is all they know.  China, unlike America, is united.

China’s government has instituted green policies, as Mr. Friedman details in Part IV, China, in the book.  But China is, as Friedman admits quoting Elizabeth C. Economy and Kenneth Lieberman, “a veritable unstoppable growth machine.”  And no matter how outdated the Dirty Fuels system is, China continues to engage in an aggressive bidding war for the development of overland pipeline routes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into China.  Friedman overlooks the fact that in 2007 China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) pledged to invest $2.2 billion in a natural gas pipeline that would run from Turkmenistan, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, into China.[2] The pipeline would feed China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, which recently gained international attention for violent clashes between Muslim Uighurs and the Chinese government.  If China can economically help the Uighurs, then there is no reason America cannot help re-power coal-mining towns.  Furthermore, in August 2008, Turkmenistan and China signed a 30-year supply agreement for the gas that would fill the newly-constructed pipeline.  CNPC is also looking at developing additional pipelines from Xinjiang Province into other areas of China.  It is estimated that the total cost of the project is $7.31 billion. China has invested a lot of money into securing its energy future.  China just invested in the wrong kind of energy.  Russia is also planning on building a pipeline to China.  And recently, China secured an agreement with Ecuador for sixty-nine million barrels of oil over the next two years. [3]

While Americans are divided over the issue of climate change, ignorant of legislative blocks of environmentally-friendly policies, and environmentally illiterate, China is a 1.5 billion-strong financial force.  Americans need to change, and unite. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is an eloquent and well-researched tome, but unless every person living in the United States reads it, realizes that we are in the midst of a cataclysmic crisis unprecedented in history, and acts, its meaningful message will likely fall on deaf ears.


[1] Coyle, Kevin. “Environmental Literacy in America.” The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation. September 2005. Online.  Internet.  <http://www.neefusa.org/pdf/ELR2005.pdf>  18 August 2009.

[2] “Kazakhstan: Natural Gas.” Energy Information Administration. February 2008. Online. Internet. <http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/Kazakhstan/NaturalGas.html&gt; 18 August 2009.

[3] Mapstone, Naomi. “Ecuador in $1bn Oil Deal with China.” Financial Times. August 17, 2009. Online. Internet. <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/577ac3ca-8b61-11de-9f50-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2F577ac3ca-8b61-11de-9f50-00144feabdc0.html&_i_referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fworld> 18 August 2009.

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One Response

  1. Just want to say your article is striking. The clarity in your post is simply striking and i can take for granted you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the ac complished work. Excuse my poor English. English is not my mother tongue.

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