The current stretch of warmth seems unconquerable and at times surreal. Even the nights remain above freezing, and we live amidst a sea of mud, wallowing our way from barn to house, in reverse of historical norms. “That’s how they used to do it,” is what the old timers say when I tell them we’re living in the barn while we build the house. I think their tone is one of nostalgia, but I could be wrong: It could be pity.
Last night our friend Michael came over with a sill he’d made for our front door and we worked by headlamp to install the jamb and hang the door. As we worked, the misting rain made a partial turn toward snow, and we moved quickly, our movements made efficient not only by our individual embodied knowledge, but also by a deep familiarity with one another’s habits.
Michael and I have worked together a fair bit over the years, and it occasionally feels to me as if we operate as extensions of one another, each of us anticipating the others’ next move, quick to have the appropriate tool at hand or a measurement at the ready. His skills are greater than mine (he is a full-time builder and logger), but not so much greater that we cannot work as near-equals, and not so much greater that I cannot understand what he’s doing and why. For this reason, I rarely fail to glean some little nugget or another from working with Michael, and this is pleasing to me. So too does the fact that Michael and I do not want for laughter as we work.
Charles wrote a great essay on the fallacy of numbers-based climate accounting; you can find it here. I don’t have much to add, except that while reading it, I was unable to avoid considering the parallels between the ways we talk about and quantify climate and the ways we talk about and quantify education.
Charles writes: … by focusing on a measurable quantity we devalue that which we cannot measure or choose not to measure. Such issues such as mining, biodiversity, toxic pollution, ecosystem disruption, etc. recede in urgency, because after all, unlike global levels of CO2 they do not pose an existential threat. Certainly one can make carbon-based arguments on all these issues, but to do so is to step onto dangerous ground. Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, “OK, we’re going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down.” You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you want to stop the mine — because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.
I am certain we will not “save our planet” (or at least the ecological basis of civilization) by merely being more clever in our deployment of Earth’s “resources”. We will not escape this crisis so long as we see the planet and everything on it as instruments of our utility. The present climate change narrative veers too close to instrumental utilitarian logic — that we should value the earth because of what will happen to us if we don’t. Where did we develop the habit of making choices based on maximizing or minimizing a number? We got it from the money world. We are seeking to apply our numbers games to a new target, CO2 rather than dollars. I don’t think that is a deep enough revolution. We need a revolution in means, not only a revolution in ends.
Our culture’s contemporary model for education is also derived from the money world, which is to say it is engineered to transform children into productive economic units. Whether or not our dominant educational system does this effectively is entirely open to debate, but there is little doubt that creating an employable workforce is its primary objective. Perhaps not its only objective, but certainly the one that prevails above all others.
The problem with measuring a child’s education in numerical terms is the same as the problem with measuring the climate in numerical terms: We can only measure what we know how to measure, and therefore, we are trapped in a vacuum of the quantifiable, in the process devaluing that which exists beyond the vacuum, if we’re even able to acknowledge its existence at all. I suppose that’s just a fancy way of saying we don’t know what we don’t know. Or how about this: We don’t feel what we no longer know is possible to feel. Yes. That, too.
This is one of the reasons I become so frustrated when those who’ve chosen alternative educational paths insist on touting the “success” of their children in the context of that vacuum. It is also one of the reasons that I no longer talk much about our educational choices and experiences: I have come to understand that most people want answers I cannot provide, and frankly am not terribly interested in trying to provide. It is almost as if we speak different languages. No doubt it is as indicative of my close-mindedness that I no longer attempt to speak their language as it is of theirs that they do not attempt to speak mine. But there are only so many hours in the day and many ways to pass them.
There is, of course, a correlation between our numbers-based understanding of education and so-called educational solutions and our numbers-based understanding of climate and so-called climate solutions. They are joined at the hip, and, as I suspect Charles might agree, meaningful change in one is unlikely to occur without meaningful change in the other. As to whether these changes happen consecutively or concurrently, well, your guess is as good as mine. As to whether they happen despite or because of our actions and intentions, again, I have no idea.
But most days I do believe they will happen, and that when they do, we will, as Charles writes … realize the importance of those things that we’d relegated to low priority: the mangrove swamps, the deep aquifers, the sacred sites, the biodiversity hotspots, the virgin forests, the elephants, the whales… all the beings that, in mysterious ways invisible to our numbers, maintain the balance of our living planet. Then will we realize that as we do to any part of nature, so, inescapably, we do to ourselves. The current climate change narrative is but a first step toward that understanding.
And on the days I do not believe these things will happen? That’s simple: I visit the cows.