Humane Education: The Most Important Root Crop

A recent “Freakonomics” podcast revealed interesting discrepancies between assumption and actuality. It chronicled California’s Santa Barbara county, which grows $1.2 billion of produce each year and teems with farmers markets. If anywhere is ground-zero for the locavore movement, this would seem to be it. But even with all the strawberries, artichokes, and olives growing there, just 5 percent of food consumed in the county is “local.” That said, 99 percent of its locally grown food is exported!
 
Based on this shocking inefficiency, researchers performed a “food miles” study on this county and found something else surprising: even if they were to eat entirely local produce, the county would only reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) by 1 percent. This is because, they rationalize, transportation only accounts for 7 percent of food production energy.
 
They went on to argue that, while eating local seems like a good gesture, it has far less impact than cutting back on resource-intensive foods like beef – producing one pound of this requires about 2,000 gallons of water and 15 pounds of grain (see sustainabletable.org for more about beef’s impact) – or certainly, than living in free-standing mega mansions. (One party interviewed mentioned that while Michelle Obama’s garden project was nice, she would achieve far more greenhouse gas reductions if she shifted her campaign to the efficacy of living in high-rise apartments.)
 
This research raises a significant paradigm: sometimes what we ingrain to be important masks something more important, but overlooked. Buying organic carrots, using a cloth bag, bike commuting on sunny days – these are all fine and good – but these alone are not enough. So, while “eat locally” makes the ubiquitous lists of “five easy things you can do to save the planet” – and such lists have their place as tangible actions that can be done by anyone – it’s pragmatic to recognize the actions that really effect the changes we have to make.
 
This is how humane education can be so important: it cultivates the kind of compassion that runs deeper than lists, and encourages mindsets needed for living on this tough new planet. It transforms statistics into solutions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, there are few key players in GGE: electricity production (33.3%), transportation (27.5%) and industry (20.2%). To humane education students learning about the world they will inherit, these numbers translate into career opportunities. Go ahead – take these stats and ask students what those jobs might be.
 
If they think, say, about this “electricity production” and what forms it takes, they will see careers in urban planning, green building, and conservation. They will question why the average U.S. house has nearly doubled in size since 1970 – from 1,400 to 2,700 square feet, and they will learn that high-rise living in cities like New York has residents producing less than half the national average of GGE. If they think about transportation, they will question how 77 percent of people in the U.S. still commute in their own cars; they will look at urban gridlock around the world, and cull the solutions that can work locally as they see futures in public transport advocacy or alternative energy. And, when they consider the role of “industry” and the snarled chain of cheaper, faster, and more fleeting consumption, they will wrestle with how to “sell” the notion of living richer lives with less stuff. Amid our current economic model of expansion and election cycles, this notion of conservation is perhaps the biggest appeal for students’ creative solutions.
 
Yes, we are leaving some low-hanging fruit behind – it ripens earlier than it did, its genetics have changed, it may come from the other side of the world, and it may not even be eaten before discarded. We have also left bigger and deeper challenges that require whole new world views.
 
Leading the way on energy efficiency, clean energy, and conservation offers students a chance to restore our moral authority. Effective humane education, then, can transform learning from inheriting information to doing something with it. If the many gradation speakers are right who say that school is best when it encourages further thinking, then it’s our job to shape minds that see beyond the simple lists and into the deeper root causes.
 
“You Eat What Your Are: Part Two,” from Freakonomics Radio
 
Photo Credit: Flickr/ Bonita Sarita

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