Children, science and climate change
Clearing out earlier this year, I came across my daughter’s old revision guide-books. These were produced by a company called CGP to condense the basic biology, chemistry and physics needed for her to pass Key Stage Three, and subsequently Core, Higher and Advanced science GCSE.
Unlike my daughter and son, I did not learn much science at school, being very much an “arts” student, and my ignorance is a source of some embarrassment, so I decided to read these and try to repair a few of the gaps in my knowledge of the world. (Project for 2021 onwards…)
So far I’ve reached Homeostasis in GCSE Biology section 2(2).
This does not mean I have retained the knowledge of what the liver, kidneys and pancreas do, or the different EM rays between radio waves and gamma. Please do not send in quiz questions!
It’s been an entertaining and useful project, however. Since these books (produced 1998-2006) are intended for teenagers, they contain humorous pictures and jokes, ranging from the wry-smile-able to the appalling. I also have to remember that they are intended for revision, not basic teaching, so not everything is explained. For example we are given a list of substances called the Reactivity Series, but no explanation as to whether it is in any way a complete list, and how any elements that aren’t on it fit in. Telling me that (I quote) “the oxides of non-metals have a pH below 7. This means they’re acidic. So non-metal oxides will react with a base to make salts and water,” is not helpful if you haven’t yet defined and explained pH, acid, or for that matter “salts.”
But I now know the difference between conduction, convection and radiation, and that respiration does not mean breathing.
What made me want to write about these nice books however, was another thought. It has probably not escaped your attention that we are having a major summit to discuss the problem of climate change. I can’t find it now, but I’m sure I’ve heard or read that schools should be teaching more about this.
I thought they already were.
The CGP books, presumably following the official curriculum at the time, are careful to say that human-caused global warming is a “theory,” (2006, remember.) Nonetheless, issues of the environment/global warming/running out of fossil fuels/sources of renewable energy and the like are covered very very thoroughly.
In GCSE Core Science, environmental issues are dealt with on pages 32-5 (Biology). 50-52 (Chemistry) and 79-84 (Physics.) I think this is quite a high proportion, considering they’ve also got to tell you what energy is and the component parts of a cell.
At the bottom of each page is a brief summary-to-encourage-you-to-revise.
Key Stage Three page 61: “It’s all about how the world’s going to end and it’ll be our own fault. Nothing like a bit of worry mixed with guilt to start your day…” GCSE Core Science page 32: “Well, I feel guilty, I don’t know about you. First we kill off loads of animals by hunting them, then we try to manipulate their DNA, and now we’re destroying the land they live on.” Page 34: “We humans have created some big environmental problems for ourselves. Many people, and some governments, think we ought to start cleaning up the mess. Scientists can help, mainly in understanding the problems and suggesting solutions, but it’s society as a whole that has to do something.”
Now I’m not saying I disagree with these comments, nor am I saying that today’s youth shouldn’t be told these things. But it’s not very cheery.
When I was a child, we were all scared of nuclear war. (“Mutual Assured Destruction” was supposed to be the reason that no superpower would start a nuclear war. A pleasant expression.)
CS Lewis wrote a paper in 1948 to answer the question someone had apparently asked him, “How are we to live in an atomic age?” He said robustly, “Why, as you would have lived… when the plague visited London every year, or… when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night, or indeed as you are already living in an age of cancer, in an age of syphilis…(etc.)” (Reproduced in Present Concerns, edited by Walter Hooper, 1986.)
He makes a good point, but nonetheless there is a difference between saying “horrible things happen frequently, and may happen to you any day, as you can see,” and saying “we are probably destroying the planet.”
In addition, people/children in an earlier age held this scary knowledge within their religious worldview. Their religious institutions and doctrines may (sometimes or often) have been corrupt or cruel, but they gave a certain level of stability, and for many surely some hope.
This kind of stability and hope are not encouraged in most of modern culture. As the CGP book says: “‘How it all began’ is quite a tricky problem. Some religious people say that God created the world. Among scientists, the theory of a ‘big bang’ to get things started is now generally accepted, because that’s what the evidence suggests.” This seems to imply that belief in God is incompatible with belief in the big bang; it could certainly be read that way, and equally certainly doesn’t encourage anyone to seek comfort or help from God.
Nor, as a science textbook, should it, before you write in to complain.
But we’re told that a worryingly high proportion of young people today have mental health issues. When you add all the other problems of the world to climate change, and then covid (and the ease with which any teenager can obtain information and conspiracy theories about them all) – I’m amazed it’s not more.
This kind of (perhaps justified) terror and guilt is what we are giving to our children to equip them for the future. Poor them.
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