Science and Citizenship: Habits of
Mind for Global Understanding
By Grant H. Cornwell, vice president of the
university, dean of academic affairs, and professor
of philosophy, St. Lawrence University
I want to share two short stories about globalization
that illustrate the kind of analytic and problem-solving
skills our students need to engage the world in all
of its complexity. Neither story is unique; there are
hundreds of similar stories that could be told. These
two happen to be set in Kenya because I have just returned
from there and they are still nagging my conscience.
The Elephants of Amboseli
Kenya Semester Program, St.
The first story illustrates scalar thinking, or what
might be called “Google Earth reasoning.”
Google Earth is a Web-based application that uses satellite
imaging technology to provide users with an adjustable
perspective on the earth’s surface. A user begins
with a very large-scale view of the globe, but can zoom
in and out and move to different places. At each scale,
different features and relationships emerge. Zooming
in illuminates detail with great clarity, while zooming
out exposes larger contexts and relationships.
The story is set in Amboseli, a wildlife refuge in
southeast Kenya that is home to some 1,400 elephants,
one of the largest populations in Africa. Conservation
policies and practices have enabled the elephant population
to grow—a good thing if you are an elephant or
a human concerned about wildlife conservation. Some
argue, however, that the elephant population has grown
to about three times the sustainable carrying capacity
of the land. The result has been both deforestation—elephants
knock over acacia trees to eat them—and conflict
with local farmers who are trying to eke out a living
along rivers just outside the reserve.
It would be a mistake to conjure up a Western image
of these farmers. I am talking about very poor people
who lease small, one-acre plots in what is Maasai land
to grow maize, tomatoes, or onions. They till and tend
the land entirely using hand tools, they live in small
huts right on the field, and if they are lucky and there
is no drought, they will yield two harvests a year.
When brought to market, these two harvests might earn
a farmer an annual income of $1,000. This might not
sound like much, and it isn’t. But for perspective,
the minimum wage in Kenya is around $50 a month, or
$600 a year. The poverty level—and over half the
population falls below this—is approximately a
dollar a day, or $360 a year.
Kenya Semester Program, St.
So these are poor farmers and their production is very
small-scale, but they subsist. Except, that is, when
elephants show up. Elephants are wonderful and intelligent
creatures, and wildlife conservation is an important
endeavor, both as science and as policy. But where does
a bull elephant go when hungry? Anywhere he wants. Farmers
tell us that there can be no sign of elephants in an
area, but when a crop is just ripe they might appear
and in one night consume the product of six months’
labor. Farmers try to chase them off, but this can be
dangerous—more Kenyans are killed by elephants
each year than by any other animal. Farmers complain
that there are too many elephants and argue that the
government has yielded to international pressure from
tourist and conservation groups. The government, they
believe, cares more about the survival of the nation’s
elephants than its citizens.
These issues are complex and look very different from
different points of view. Zoom in on elephants, population
dynamics, and habitat conservation, and Amboseli looks
one way. Zoom in on farmers, poverty, and land use,
and it looks very different.
In the Kenya Semester Program at St. Lawrence University,
our students engage these conflicts; they study them
in the classroom and in the field. They live and work
with both the wildlife biologist and the farmer. Their
learning task is to understand the issues at the very
local and specific level, but then to be able to zoom
out to a point where their field of view encompasses
both. Global problem solving calls for this kind of
scalar thinking. It is a kind of intellectual and ethical
agility to be able to go from the local to the global,
the detail to the context, and back again.
What Could Be Wrong with Flowers?
The second story illustrates systemic thinking. It
is in the very nature of global problems that they require
us to bridge the divide between science and the humanities
that C. P. Snow identified almost a half century ago
in The Two Cultures. The problems of globalization—the
problems our students must engage as they make their
way in the world—are an intertextual tangle of
scientific, social-scientific, and humanistic issues.
Driving out of Nairobi one passes massive greenhouses
that stretch for acres. Given the extent of poverty
noted above, one might assume these greenhouses are
used for food production. They are not. These greenhouses
produce cut flowers for the world market. In the 1990s,
the Kenyan government built a water pipe, with world
development dollars, to carry water from the springs
at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro to Nairobi. The springs,
and the two hundred kilometers of arid land the pipe
crosses, are in Maasai land. The Maasai are a pastoralist
people whose lives and sustenance revolve around their
cattle. Just now, they are in the middle of a drought
that will likely kill cattle in large numbers, and as
cattle die, the Maasai suffer. The government was to
have provided spigots along the pipeline—access
points for the Maasai to obtain water for themselves
and their cattle—but these never materialized.
You might think, at least, that the pipe brings water
to the four million people of Nairobi, half of whom
live in ghettos without sewers or access to water except
for sporadic standpipes. The fact is that the Kilimajaro
spring water first stops at the flower farms, to satisfy
their massive needs. The ironies pile up. Minimum-wage
workers, who live in huts outside the fenced compounds,
without access to running water, provide the labor for
the flower farms. They suffer occupational illnesses
from the comparatively unregulated use of pesticides
and herbicides, and lack medical insurance. The springs
are likely not sustainable, as the glaciers on Kilimanjaro
are receding as a consequence of global warming. The
final irony, perhaps, is that the jet fuel burned to
distribute flowers around the world market contributes
to the global warming that is drying up the springs
of Kilimanjaro that make the flower growing possible.
So how can flowers be bad?
Habits of the Mind
My point, of course, is not to make you feel bad about
flowers and elephants, nor to induce despair. Rather,
I think these short tales illustrate the way global
problems are a tangle of issues that call for scientific,
social-scientific, and humanist analyses that are not
undertaken in isolation or in competition, but instead
are done with a kind of mutually informing systematic
The good news is that scientific methods of inquiry
and analysis foster habits of scalar and systemic thinking.
Seeing how very small parts function in larger wholes,
and understanding relationships in complex systems,
are habits of mind well cultivated in the sciences.
The world—its elephants, its flowers, and its
people—desperately needs that kind of thinking.
Our task is to produce graduates who are capable of