Prawns, Porritt and the Science of Hope

Every few weeks I get an email from Bernie, cheerfully pointing out that it’s my turn to blog. This always concerns me, as Bern is an experienced blogger with big things to say, whereas I always have to think “err…what’s happened this week then?”

So I warn you, this will be a bit of a ramble.

So, this week a couple of things have happened that might be of interest. Firstly, I attended something called the PEDRIO conference at Plymouth University and although I can’t remember what the daft acronym stands for now, it was about teaching and learning in Higher Education. The second event was the TED-ex session at Exeter University, about which I’ll return to in a bit.

At the PEDRIO conference, I attended a seminar session in the morning on education for sustainability. A number of people gave fairly brief reviews of their work. One that I thought was quite intriguing was on promoting what the presenter called ‘energy literacy’ amongst students. A big survey had been carried out (big as in around 1000 respondents) and showed that by and large students appeared to see the University as leaking energy all over the place (rooms too hot, lights never turned off, PC’s on standby etc) but nevertheless, there remained a need to improve energy literacy. One novel way of doing this was being carried out by the Art School through a project on ‘carbon visualisation’. The graphic shown was of a two-storey house with cube frame around it and purported to show what one tonne of CO2 might look like.

At this point I began to shift uneasily in my seat. Err…actually a house weighs significantly more than a tonne, so OK that’s not the point. A tonne of CO2 would have the volume equivalent to a house. Err…no, not necessarily, if I remember the Gas Laws from school that rather depends on things like pressure and temperature. In fact in its gaseous form CO2 may have a variable volume, a tonne is a measure of mass. A tonne of CO2 may be the size of a family car, or the size of the London Olympic Stadium, so I was at a bit of a loss at this point.

I’ve often found that to understand energy consumption in large institutions such as universities requires one to venture into the murky world of economics as well. Most producers and suppliers in the UK have different tariffs for energy usage, the more you use, the cheaper the unit cost. However, this is not necessarily a sliding scale. In my last place of employment, there was a famous occasion one Spring when all the heating was on full blast and the teaching rooms and labs were at temperatures normally associated with the core of Jupiter! We opened all the windows and probably stuck atmospheric temperatures up by about 5 degrees. The caretakers explained that the college needed to use more energy for a day or so to get onto the cheaper tariff!

Sorry I digress. Anyway, improving student’s energy literacy was generally seen as a good thing. Having agreed that we all spilled out to the buffet lunch.

Mmm…what was for lunch? Well you may ask. Having spent the morning talking about energy literacy, the buffet consisted of bloody great buckets (genuinely – bowls the size of buckets) of king prawns! Presumably flown in from former mangroves in SE Asia! For the healthy option there were enormous fruit bowls adorned with fresh strawberries. Mmm….strawberries, err…in April…err… in the UK? Talk about visualising carbon. A PEDRIO buffet represents several thousand tonnes! Why bother with a house? One of those ‘out of season’ strawberries alone in terms of its production and transport probably represents a tonne!

Despite pointing this out, I was rather ignored. People were too busy eating prawns.

Well, the next thing was TED-ex at Exeter University. I like TED talks (I was mildly addicted to them at one time) and use a few in my teaching. You have to be a bit careful with them, as they somehow give the presenter a curious ‘power’ of authority and rarely do you get to hear any critical responses other than the ‘comments’ section on the site. That aside, I think it’s a great idea and quite a few have made me really think and laugh.

The one at Exeter took sustainability as its theme. So it has been quite a ‘sustainability’ week for me.

Just like the TED website there was a really good mix of social, arts and science presentations, but the one that was most intriguing was given at the end by Jonathon Porritt.

If you are reading this outside of the UK you have probably not heard of him, but a couple of decades ago he was the youthful and articulate leader of the Green Movement in the Britain. I think (and I may be wrong) he was one of the founder members of the Green Party. A really interesting guy, who I won’t go on about (look him up) but despite a lower profile these days, still writes and campaigns on environmental issues. I must say, I’ve always really rated his books and articles.

He talked about how 20 years ago he was very ‘ecocentric’ in his views. However, in recent years, he had changed his mind. The way sustainable technologies had progressed (and were progressing) gave him real hope for the future. He gave an example of micro-filters that could purify the most fetid water that are being developed so that they could fit into children’s drinking straws. He also talked about energy (see the link?) pointing out that the cost of solar technologies had fallen so rapidly that electricity produced from solar energy was now approximating that produced from fossil fuels and as a result new solar power stations were now under construction in the Middle East.

In fact new ‘sustainable’ technologies in renewable energy, food production, communications, biomedicine give real and genuine hope for the future. It’s good to hear hope, science and the future being spoken about again, especially by such a renowned environmentalist.

On that basis, here is something to think about. I’d suggest that what we really need is scientific literacy. We need to be able to understand science better to stop seeing it as a threat at every turn. We need science literacy to dispel the rumours and myths. Perhaps ‘energy literacy’ is something of worth, but a scientific literacy offers more. The former seems to be constrained by only having one direction or outcome, namely to promote a reduction in consumption (could it ever promote an increase?) Science literacy on the other hand can take us in all sorts of directions and presents us with all sorts of possibilities.

I think Byron said something about hope being easily wiped away by truth. Well, it seems to me that actually in this case truth gives us hope. It’s myths and worries and pictures of CO2 and houses that promotes despair!

Pass the shrimps.