Thursday, October 23, 2014

MOOC reflections

I'm three weeks into David Archer's Coursera course Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change. There were several reasons I signed up for the course:
  • I'm interested in understanding climate science better, and this seemed a better way to get a first-shot overview than diving straight into a textbook like Pierrehumbert's Principles of Planetary Climate or Kaper and Engler's Mathematics and Climate.
  • I wanted to see whether there were ideas (both in terms of content and of teaching methods) that I could borrow for my Mathematics for Sustainability course next semester.
  • And, I had never taken part in a MOOC (massive online open course) and I was interested to see what the experience is like.
 So, three weeks in, how is it going?  A few thoughts.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Speed Kills

Fascinating article by Mark Taylor, chair of the department of religion at Columbia, in the Chronicle today.  It's titled "Speed Kills".  It takes a metaphorical cue from two-year-old op-ed in teh New York Times by Jared Bernstein, former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.  The op-ed, entitled "Raise the Economy's Speed Limit", makes an analogy between the rate of GDP growth and the "speed limit" for the economy.  In other words, it confuses velocity with acceleration.

Taylor takes issue with the resultant vision of endlessly accelerating churn and what it does to human community.   Here are a couple of quotes:

In the past 50 years, two economies that operate at two different speeds have emerged. In one, wealth is created by selling labor or stuff; in the other, by trading signs that are signs of other signs. The virtual assets scale at a speed much greater than the real assets. A worker can produce only so many motorcycles, a teacher can teach only so many students, and a doctor can see only so many patients a day. In high-speed markets, by contrast, billions of dollars are won or lost in billionths of a second. In this new world, wealth begets wealth at an unprecedented rate. No matter how many new jobs are created in the real economy, the wealth gap created by the speed gap will never be closed. It will continue to widen at an ever-faster rate until there is a fundamental change in values.
and the final paragraph

Within the long arc of history, it becomes clear that the obsession with speed is a recent development that reflects values that have become destructive. Not all reality is virtual, and the quick might not inherit the earth. Complex systems are not infinitely adaptive, and when they collapse, it happens suddenly and usually unexpectedly. Time is quickly running out.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo by Kevin Kasper.  Public  Domain/Creative Commons License

Friday, October 10, 2014

"The Kingdom of God as a Steady State Economy"

Brian Czech
I wanted to give a shout-out to this article by Brian Czech at CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy).

He begins:
I’ll never forget the privilege, maybe five years ago, of addressing a small, interdenominational group of faith leaders in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to talk about limits to economic growth and to give a synopsis of the steady state economy as an alternative to growth. We then went around the group, perhaps eight in all, and discussed the issues. One pastor, deep in thought, summarily theologized, “The steady state economy; now that’s the Kingdom of God.” I can hear it like it was yesterday.
 He goes on to reflect on an ecological interpretation of Isaiah's "all flesh is grass", and the trophic levels in the human economy analogous to those in the natural economy.  Good stuff.

But then he writes, in a couple of paragraphs devoted to population issues at the end of the article, "My theology is amateurish at best, but isn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to lead to the final Kingdom of Heaven? It would seem that, at some stage, after life on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to its fruition of souls..."

I don't really understand what is intended here, although I don't think that using "heaven" to relativize "earth" is good environmental theology.  But I'm not writing this post to criticize Czech's article but to say how interesting it is to see the folks at CASSE explicitly making such a theological connection.  Someone should take it further!

Article link

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

We're in the Daily Collegian!

The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper, ran an article on "Math for Sustainability" yesterday (coincidentally, my birthday).

I am hopeful that this will help get the word out about this course and encourage students to sign up.  (Anybody reading this who is interested is welcome to contact me directly.)

Here's the start of the article:  "A new math class at Penn State will focus on sustainability.  This spring a new math class titled MATH 033: “Mathematics for Sustainability” will be offered at University Park, Professor John Roe said. The class has a focus in economic and environmental sustainability."

Read the rest

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I am a MOOCer!

As I get ready for the anticipated launch of "Mathematics for Sustainability" next semester, I am very interested in what other people are teaching along similar lines.

How are they communicating scientific concepts without getting sunk by advanced mathematics?

How to manage online course materials (I am intending to have a significant blogging requirement in MATH 033)?

And I'm just excited to connect with other faculty who are see sustainability education as an important task across the disciplinary "silos" of the modern university.

These thoughts encouraged me to become a MOOC student in a course taught by David Archer at the University of Chicago.  It starts tomorrow so there is still time to sign up if you want to! 

The course, called Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change, is available through the Coursera platform.  According to the course web site, "This course assumes no scientific knowledge and is geared toward a general audience. The problem sets require high-school-level algebra."

That may be of interest to some other readers of this blog, as well as to me. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the starting line for MATH 033

After a series of setbacks (bureaucracy... cancer... my own dilatoriness, probably) we are finally ready to do with "Mathematics of Sustainability" for next semester.

For any Penn State students reading this,  the course will be MATH 033 at 2:30 on MWF... sign up now!  (I attended an event organized by Penn State Net Impact this evening, and they will circulate info about the course, but all students with an interest in sustainability should consider it.)

Here's the official announcement and link to the course web site.  Preliminary versions of the course materials are available at the web site and I'd welcome comments or suggestions.

A new course, MATH 033 - Mathematics for Sustainability, will be introduced at University Park this spring.  This course meets GQ requirements and is designed primarily for students not in scientific and technical majors (which is also the case with MATH 034, MATH 035, and MATH 036).  Its key mathematical ideas of measurement, change, risk and connectivity are integrated around the central theme of environmental sustainability.   Students completing the course will gain the quantitative skills needed for informed participation in discussion of sustainability at the local, national and global levels.  More information can be found at the course website:

Image by Peter Griffin from Public Domain Pictures.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Paul Krugman's Despair

A couple of important economic reports this week lay out the argument that climate mitigation measures such as a cap and trade or carbon taxation would not accrue nearly such high short-term costs as might at first be expected.  One of these is from the International Monetary Fund ("Carbon Pricing: Good for You, Good for the Planet") and the other, the New Climate Economy Report, is authored by a blue ribbon panel advised by top economists.  The message from both reports is that when one accurately counts even the short term benefits of carbon pricing measures (e.g. reductions in mercury pollution from coal burning) they will outweigh the short term costs.

Over at the New York Times, star economist Paul Krugman uses these reports to argue against the "dangerous" doctrine of what he calls "climate despair": that the "only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth."  As he points out, this assertion can cut two ways: on the right, to claim that since growth must continue at all costs, we cannot afford climate policies that might reduce it; or on the left, to argue that physical constraints will sooner or later bring growth to an end, and that we should start planning for that era now.

It's the second of these positions that seems particularly baffling to Krugman.  With astonishment, he acknowledges that even some hard scientists argue that economic growth is physically constrained - according to Krugman, because "...they don't understand what economic growth means.  They think of it as a crude, physical thing..."

Apparently, if those like UCSD physicist Tom Murphy truly appreciated the non-physical (a.k.a. spiritual, what else should we call it?) aspect of economic growth, they would understand how it could float free of those pesky laws of thermodynamics!

In their book How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky demonstrate that from Adam Smith to Keynes and beyond, economists treated "growth" (they would probably have said "improvement") as a short-lived phase through which they hoped societies would pass until they reached the stage of "enough", the point where all their citizens could enjoy the resources needed for a good life.   It is only recently that "growth" has become detached from the objects that it was sought in order to attain, and has become regarded as an end in itself.

From this perspective, and whatever the short-term costs and benefits analyzed in the two reports I mentioned (and all can agree that the news in them seems good), the environmental limits revealed by climate change are important news, an euaggelion, not a message of despair: a message that calls humanity back to what really matters.

Message to Krugman: Crying "More" for ever is not what really matters.  Growth is an idol.  And bowing down to an idol is the true despair.

Image of Paul Krugman from the New York Times, believed to be fair use.
EDITED: Response to Krugman by Paul Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute here.