The education system: Please reboot

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Whilst assessing the year ahead and weighing up a possible move back to the UK, a surprising realisation hit me; that as a recent graduate it seemed easier to get a job by starting an organisation rather than joining an existing one.

On an individual level, this is in part down to my having spent the last few years embarking on similar endeavours, but the increasing number of graduates who I’ve seen reaching a similar conclusion suggests there are systemic issues too. Basically, unless you have experience, contacts or in-demand specific skillsets it’s very hard to find work in the current economic climate – and young graduates fresh in to the world of work are the ones who suffer the most because of this. Unfortunately, the current educational system is doing a woefully inadequate job of fulfilling its primary role; to prepare young people for the world of work. Degrees don’t count for much to employers given that nearly everyone seems to have one, and a degree simply teaches you how to write about stuff, not actually do stuff.

It does seem somewhat farcical that we spend 3 years and £30,000 learning mostly how to write essays or exams about our field of interest, rather than actually practice in it. If you were to design a new education system from scratch, it would little resemble the current one. These faults are hardly surprising, given that the free, compulsory system of education was designed originally for the industrial age in the 19th century. Governments are notoriously slow at updating existing systems, and are far more inclined towards minor incremental changes over large whole-scale change, even though the latter is sometimes needed. For example, the curriculum in Australia recently went through a considerable review and re-design, and the very conservative outcome was largely seen as an enormous missed opportunity to bring it up to date by those within the sector.

I know that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment due to the world’s faltering economic system, but it doesn’t feel right that graduates are unfairly penalised by the existing systems. I grew up with so many outstanding young people who would bring value to any organisation, but now can’t find paid work having had their creativity and open-mindedness beaten out of them by an education system that values sitting in the library over getting out in to the working world. Personally, I’d have found a 3 year internship in various working environments a more valuable use of my student debt and time than my degree was. Heck, the world, and consequently the job market, are changing so fast that many of us will end up working jobs that don’t even exist yet (think about the impact of the computer revolution). Surely time spent learning a broad range of real-world skills would be better suited to that future than time spent on one narrow discipline.

And this is, after all, the generation who is about to inherit a world buried under a mountain of debt, waste, and facing a plethora of considerable environmental issues. It’s a generation we need to invest heavily in; let’s actually make the most of the tremendous potential locked within our youngest and brightest. An education system that fosters real-world skills and knowledge would be a good start.

 

 

The genius that is Sir Ken Robinson vocalises this debate far better and more elaborately than I ever could here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded

If you’ve never watched an RSA video before then you’re in for a treat!

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Growth: a uniquely human pursuit?

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I was reflecting this morning on the ‘growth-collapse’ paradigm of human behaviour I wrote about recently. It’s hard to understand why we have developed such a transfixion on the concept of endless growth, when history (and present circumstances) suggest that it doesn’t serve us so well.

 

It seems somewhat maladaptive that by and large we are unable to within our environmental limits. Past civilizations (with a few notable exceptions) expand until they go beyond their limits, and consequently collapse. A much more adaptive response would surely be to live in equilibrium with the environment.

 

This is what has me fascinated with some of the indigenous peoples around the globe. Take the Australian aboriginals, for whom the land and environment is not something to be consumed and exhausted, but rather a gift to be thankful for. They view themselves as custodians and protectors of their environment, rather than consumers of it. Whether it is due to genes or other factors, they have developed a certain equilibrium with their surrounds that has allowed them to survive for 60,000 years whilst countless great civilizations around the world have risen and fallen. For me, this makes them a wiser and more emotionally evolved culture than the modern industrialized culture. But cultures like that of the Aboriginals are the exception, rather than the rule. Some island cultures (like Tikopia and Tonga) have come close to a clash with environmental limitations, and responded by implementing measures of population control and more sustainable agricultural techniques that have enabled them to live in equilibrium with their environment. Imagine, instead of dedicating excess resources towards growth, those resources could instead be diverted towards prosperity and wellbeing.

 

Whether this constant drive for growth is a uniquely human trait is uncertain. It is possible that other species would grow and grow if they were not subject to normal population limiting factors such as predators and disease. In fact, there are examples in which this has happened. When European settlers moved to Australia, they introduced a number of foreign species to make the environment more familiar. This proved an incredibly naïve and devastating error of judgement.

 

Australia’s ecosystem is quite unlike many of the others in the world (it has a startlingly high percentage of species unique to the continent – link http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/flora_and_fauna.html) and is delicately balanced. When European rabbits were introduced to the country it was a disaster. They had no natural predators in Australia, and were not controlled by natural disease. And after all, rabbits do mate like…

 

Rabbit population growth boomed uncontrollably and aspects of the environment were damaged beyond repair. I recall from reading Bryson’s book Down Under, that much of the delicate inland vegetation was lost forever to the hungry stomachs of unstoppable rabbits. It was only human intervention through scientifically designed diseases that brought the population back under some sort of control.

 

Perhaps it is simply that this drive for species growth is inherent within all species, but it is the mastery humans have developed over their environment and other species that has enabled them to overcome population limiting factors. Our science and technology means that we are not under threat from predators, and we have been able to eradicate an extraordinary number of lethal diseases.

 

There’s also the point that our brains have evolved to be hardwired to tackling immediate, short-term problems that we are faced with. We are not so tuned in to complex, longer-term challenges. I’d suggest that the challenges presented by growth, unsustainable living and bumping in to limitations build up over time and until we reach tipping points, they fall in to the category of long-term challenges. Past societies only have typically only responded when lack of sustainability becomes an immediate problem (usually food shortages). So in a sense, our mastery of the environment means that we now bump in to problems that we haven’t evolved to know how to tackle – the limitations of our environment.

 

Only, this would be the first time we bump in to global limitations, rather than local limitations like past civilizations have done. What the consequences of this would be, we really have no idea. This is a unique period in human history.

 

The challenges may seem scary, but it’s a very exciting time to be around.

Denial of limits: A fatal human flaw?

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This current sustainability issues that we are faced with will be a fascinating turning point for mankind. It has the potential to markedly change human behavior.

 

Our current unsustainable trajectory is not a consequence of specific environmental factors, but rather a consequence of human behaviour. All throughout history, human civilizations have collapsed due to being incapable of living in harmony with their environment – they extend themselves too far. They have consumed and consumed, until they find themselves living beyond their limits and the result is collapse (for those interested take a look at Jared Diamond’s TED talk. I’ve also just started his book, which is fantastic). However, I will be writing soon about my understanding that if collapse happened today it will be significantly different to any other example in history.

 

For whatever reason, unlike the majority of species on our planet, we are unable to form a sustainable relationship with our environment and surrounds. We grow rapidly and thus consume more rapidly. Perhaps it is our mastery of the environment (tools like medicine and technology) that enables us to escape some of the population limiting factors that other species are subject to such as disease and predators.

 

You have to wonder what this means for us in the long-term. In time, will we learn how to live within our means, or will we continue to repeat our growth-collapse paradigm? And that’s why I am so curious to see how this situation pans out. There are a few scenarios I can see in this context.

 

Scenario One: We radically change our consumptive habits and lifestyles such that we can live sustainably and within the limits of our planet (perhaps learning from certain indigenous peoples who have managed this). A transition is made (not without considerable bumps along the way) and we move away from the nature of past human societies that have caused their own downfall. Basically, we learn.

 

Scenario Two: We fail to address the environmental, economic and energy challenges we currently face and experience a collapse like past human civilizations have (albeit far more dramatic and global). The suffering and loss that follow drills home the lesson that living beyond our limits is unsustainable, as it always has been, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly. Prosperity, rather than growth, becomes the goal.

 

Scenario Three: As above, but as we learn how to utilize our (now rather more limited) resources again and there is growth, we again wind up living beyond our means. The lesson is lost and human behaviour does not change as we continue to be insatiable consumers.

 

If one were to take a Darwinian view of this, then perhaps those humans who have evolved to live within the limits of the planet will be the ones that survive and flourish. I am interested in some of the indigenous peoples (such as the Australian aboriginals) who have survived for many millennia, and for whom living in equilibrium with their environment is a fundamental part of their culture. By comparison, modern civilization fuelled by science and technology is only a few hundred years old. Is the inclination towards the growth-collapse paradigm one that makes us fundamentally flawed as a species? An obsession with growth will always cause problems in a finite world (unless you’re an economist).

 

However this all plays out, there’s no doubt that we are living through a fascinating period in human history. Our TV culture makes it easy to miss, but dig a little deeper and you realize that we are living through the greatest financial crisis (in scale) in human history, are approaching the limits of nonrenewable energy sources that we have relied on for so long. These are challenges that we have no experience of, which may sound scary, but we do all have the opportunity to shape how our future plays out – it’s just a matter of whether we choose to take that opportunity.

 

Can we reverse the habit of a lifetime (of our species) and learn to live in equilibrium with our environment? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out…

Let’s talk about the future

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Futures

 

 

Well, I must begin by wishing you a Happy New Year. I hope it was a refreshing Christmas break, and the first month or so of 2013 has treated you well (and some of those resolutions still remain intact).

 

I have been writing, but not blogging. I have also been thinking. In fact, thinking rather a lot. Again, I am pleasantly reminded of how time and space away from our busy lives enables understanding of life, the universe and everything to come to the surface.

 

So a few things happened whilst I was away travelling around Australia with my parents, and the end result of this is that my direction going in to 2013 is rather different to that which I had originally pictured.

 

In the work I’ve been doing over the last few years, I’ve come across a lot of noble individuals tackling social or environmental issues around the world. Something that is preached across this space, is the need to understand the problem thoroughly before trying to make things better.

 

The thing driving me over the last few years has simply been to try to make the world a little bit better for the people living in it, and that’s generally taken on the form of mental health. But now I experience a desire to understand the world better before I continue trying to contribute to it in a positive way, as mental health feels like a less dominant theme in my life. Whereas last year was largely spent ‘doing’ and busying myself, recently I am more drawn to reading, talking with people and generally learning, or ‘being’. Unfortunately, it’s more straightforward to earn money for doing things, rather than just ‘being’ and learning stuff, so I’m still working this one out.

 

And the problem I need to learn about is the future.

 

What has become apparent to me is that we are facing some monumental challenges in the 21st century. A few things have never sat well with me – a global economic system predicated on exponential growth and debt, exponentially growing nonrenewable resource consumption (resources that are running out), exponential energy use and as yet no global strategy in place to transition over to a world in which we use renewable, clean energy.

 

I read a book whilst travelling in Australia called The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future, which neatly presented data from economy, energy and environment and tied it all together. I’m not going to make any bold predictions here about what’s coming next, only to say that there will be great changes ahead. A way of life which has depended on exponentially growing consumption of nonrenewable resources is simply not sustainable, no matter how you spin it (and there are some very clever ways of spinning it). We face potential shortages in food and water (http://www.earth-policy.org/book_bytes/2013/fpepch1), along with the threat of climate change, to name just a few.

 

These are some considerable challenges facing us. I, for one, am not comfortable sitting around and hoping that it just all works out and that life will continue along as usual. That the decision-makers in power will get us out of this mess, when they got us in to in the first place. I’d like to play some role in the sustainability of our future, and I believe that we all can in one way or another, even if I haven’t figured out what that is yet.

 

It’s tough stuff to come to terms with, as it doesn’t paint the kind of picture we’d like. It’s heavy and depressing. The last month or so my mind has gone through various stages of trying to reject this information, only to then see how clearly it makes sense. I’ve seen it in others I’ve introduced some of this too as well – they know there are some big warning signs, but at the same time they’ve had a desire to turn away from it all and ignore it. It doesn’t help that the crux of the counter-argument comes down to two main themes of ‘human ingenuity will save us’ (human ingenuity got us here in the first place) and ‘technology’ (why aren’t we making use of it?).

 

Since then I’ve been on an information-gathering journey that has touched on the issues I’ve already mentioned, future studies and evolutionary psychology. I’ve been noticing patterns in human behaviour throughout history and looking out for trends that may suggest where we’re headed in the future, as well as trying to understand where we actually are at the moment. If that sounds less interesting to you than the previous topics I’ve been writing about then I do apologise, as the next few entries will mainly be about this kind of stuff.

 

On we go…

 

 

 

For those interested in these global challenges I’ve (painfully briefly) mentioned and what they may mean for the future, I recommend checking out the following for starters. If you’re convinced that everything is just going to carry on as it always has done and that these economic and environmental issues are nothing to be concerned about, then I really really recommend taking a look at the following:

 

Video version of the ‘Crash Course’: http://www.peakprosperity.com/crashcourse

 

Money as Debt video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqvKjsIxT_8

 

Jared Diamond’s TED talk on the collapse of civilizations: http://www.ted.com/talks/jared_diamond_on_why_societies_collapse.html