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