Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 3
(2006)

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Faculty Involvement
Science, Diversity, and Global Learning: Untangling Complex Problems
Breaking the Pyramid: Putting Science in the Core
Geologic Science for Global Citizenship: Under the Radar, but on the Web
Science and Global Learning at Carnegie Mellon University
Campus-Community Connections
Science and Citizenship: Habits of Mind for Global Understanding
Curricular Transformation
Connecting Global Learning and Science Education in the General Education Curriculum
Science, Gender, and the Environment
Student Experience
Seeing the World Around You
Institutional Leadership
Developing a Scalable, Sustainable Campus Diversity Initiative
Resources
Resources
Resources for Science, Diversity, and Global Learning

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. Lawrence University

Kenya Semester Program, St. Lawrence University

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. Lawrence University

Kenya Semester Program, St. Lawrence University

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 collaboration.

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 it.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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