Jobs for a Greener, Brighter Future

How many career advisers or college guidance counselors would put up a poster of this sort? I don’t want to reduce the notion to a mere image, but not to belabor the point either, I’ll limit the discussion to two of the listed occupations.


  1. A Mayor  Who Knows Ecology

An ecologically-minded mayor is key. It’s based on the idea that we should think globally but act locally, a concept first applied to environmental matters around 1970, but subsequently often ignored by municipalities. Critical thinker Nassim Nicolas Taleb believes that in a globalized world, municipal rule is central. He was recently supporting a grassroots movement in his native Lebanon led by Beirut Madinati, who unfortunately lost the election. The movement wants to turn around her namesake city of Beirut by:

(1) improving urban mobility by facilitating walking, biking and shared transportation systems (e.g. large buses, mini-vans, services, taxis). This cuts air pollution and beautifies a city.

(2) adding green spaces and turning the waterfront into a livable area.

(3) making housing more affordable and closer to work—which in itself would cut commuting costs and pollution for citizens. Presently the average cost of an apartment in Beirut is nearly $600 000.

(4) giving businesses and homes incentives for creating less waste. The city is currently experiencing a waste management crisis and needs a reuse and recycling program.

Across the Mediterranean and Atlantic,  our borough mayor has taken several steps towards a green city by creating a bike path network along main roads, and most recently by implementing a wide-scale composting program modeled after San Francisco’s. The compost product is used in city parks and distributed free biannually to citizens to encourage them to garden. Because the compost includes more than just leaves and encompasses all kitchen waste, it is richer in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, eliminating or at least significantly reducing the need for any other fertilizer.

The past two generations of Italian immigrants in Montreal were avid gardeners. In urban and suburban areas they grew basil, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, thyme, oregano, chamomile, and a variety of fruit trees including plums, cherries, pears and even fig trees, which either were carried indoors in large pots for the winter or even bent over and buried. With the composting-incentives in place, hopefully the younger generation will follow suit.  Widespread local, organic growth would reduce the scale of commercial farming and eventually pressure it to mend its ways. Often done irresponsibly, large scale agriculture has led to eutrophication, overuse of pesticides and land erosion. At the same time gardening is a more sensible alternative to lawn maintenance, which consumes large amounts of water, fertilizer and energy while yielding little in return.

The larger city of Montreal, which is committed to similar cycling and composting projects, has embarrassingly been using a very crude form of sewage disposal. But beginning in 2018 it  will finally ozonate its sewage . It will set up the largest facility of its kind in the continent. Ozonation is crucial because screening and sludge removal alone still leave residual bacteria and other organic molecules such as pharmaceuticals in the water reentering the St.Lawrence River. But ozone kills microbes, oxidizes and cleaves organic molecules. Unlike chlorine, ozone doesn’t create chlorinated organic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic.

Previous Montreal administrations had been spending tax money on less important stuff, while funds were literally being stuffed in mobsters’ socks. Corruption in Beirut and Naples, just to name a few cities, also cause environmental degradation. But to turn urban areas around, where most of the economic activity takes place and where a growing majority of the population lives, will be a significant step towards a greener planet.

2. Environmental Chemists

It’s frightening to see the amount of rhetoric buzzing over the regulation of chemical compounds. Trumped by the notion that dilution is not pollution, influential people hope for the death of protective laws or guidelines so they could swoop in for more short term profits. Or they are deluded in thinking that their actions are a strike against some form of communism. Rather than applying the precautionary principle, many industries want a carte blanche with new compounds and be allowed to proceed until proven guilty, at times suppressing their own research when the results are not convenient to them.

An environmental chemist understands that the earth has a finite supply of limited elements essential to life such has nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur. Each of these elements is part of vital cycles where the elements are in the form of various molecules and ions, only some of which can be directly absorbed by living organisms. Associated with silent, invisible players such as bacteria and fungi, these elements are constantly made available in the growing seasons of thriving ecosystems. The hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, three other essential elements, are found in water and carbon dioxide, which have their own cycles.

Without the work of environmental chemists we would have had no idea that each of the cycles is threatened by chemophilia, which has led to an irresponsible and massive use of man-made compounds. Becoming more sophisticated technologically creates a greater need for a self consciousness with regard to a society’s intake and outflow of compounds. We have no choice but to reduce and recycle as many compounds possible. And if the compounds are novel, we cannot release them into rivers, hoping that microorganisms will take care of the rest.

I had my first shock with regard to industry’s at-times-shameful attitude to environmental causes when I worked in a quality control laboratory of a large copper refinery in 1981. To meet guidelines of toxic metal emissions into our river, a second pipe was used to deliver tap water in order to lower concentrations for provincial inspectors. The same amount of effluent was entering the river; they were just playing with numbers so that business could proceed as usual. Equally deplorable was the attitude of the engineer who was in charge of student replacements for regular employees who were on summer vacations. In the orientation session, he explained how the electrostatic precipitator used to filter selenium emissions was only 90 to 95% efficient, so that whenever production was boosted, neighbors would still get red selenium all over their trees. He explained this with a smug smile that led to an outburst of laughter from the student engineers. The recruits had come to them with the company’s priorities already in place.

This is why we need the new generation to aspire to new careers, to change the lingering culture. Otherwise we just add to the litany of unpleasant, unexpected consequences from continuing to play along in an anti-ecological society rooted in hubris.



Ode to Robo-Teachers

robot-teacherOh Robo-teachers,
Of the 22nd century,
Why can’t you be here now,
To stand in the middle of all classrooms,
Your heads projecting holograms
Of the Battle of Dieppe,
Your auto-synthesizers making dimethyl sulfide and decenal,
So students could have their hearts throbbing,
And rising to their throats
While they smell and taste
The blend of sea and blood.

Unlike a few old fogeys,
Who challenged students to imagine
And did not make schools and districts spend,
You allow them to open hidden wallets
And are the darling of peddlers.

If students persistently long for fresh air
Or get consistently gloomy,
You act as an onsite pharmacy,
And flawlessly dispense colored capsules of mind-altering matter,
Keeping them content and wired.

Under your techno-umbrella,
Students need no books or memory of facts;
Ever-connected to Googleplex,
You track all the flux of changing answers,
And the intravenous flow of ephemeral information
Takes away their appetite for solid concepts.

Robo-teachers, darling of disguised austerity,
You need no salary or time to reflect.
Having no life or wife,
You recharge wirelessly after school,
Running extracurricular activities,
Hours after sunset,
Whose aesthetics to you and your subjects
Are a meaningless distraction.

You never argue or question
The interests of bureaucrats and technocrats
Who control and program you.
Having already escaped from students,
Your owners love your presence
Over that of flawed,
Whiny, flesh and blood teachers.

When your electronics are no longer compatible,
With the latest updates,
You will not be in need
Of staged farewells
Or a pension package.
They will simply add you
To the Himalaya-sized dump
Of planned obsolescence.

Horizontal Propaganda: Impact on Science and Education

Propaganda_Jacques_Ellul_1973In the book Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul argued that although hubris may lead intellectuals to believe that they are immune to propaganda, it influences everyone. Intellectuals are more equipped than the average person to explore a variety of issues, but their curiosity exposes them to a vast volume of literature, generalizations and out-of-specialty ideas. Since they do not have the time to explore everything critically, they become at least as vulnerable to propaganda as anyone else.

How was propaganda defined by Ellul?

The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.

Ellul wrote Propaganda in 1962, identifying key sociological myths such as that of historical progress, happiness as a life-goal and the innate good nature of humanity. Three to four decades later, thanks to the world wide web and its millions of websites, blogs, Facebook accounts and other social media, propaganda has not only gone digital, but its horizontal scope has been amplified exponentially. Due to economic investments and rewards, more myths have spread recently, and they have had a huge impact on science and education. Here are examples of myths perpetuated and the action they have provoked.

Self-worth(1) Everyone can benefit from selling their image. But in reality, the pervasiveness of marketing techniques has come with a price. Blog and book publishers expect writers to provide biographies, give talks and market their work, and they comply, sacrificing time for relaxation, incubation and production itself.  Scientists, self-conscious of metrics while securing research grants, compromise on their selection of topics for research. High school students spread their talents thinly, committing themselves to an avalanche of activities because they’ve been told that it looks good on their CVs. Schools advertise and compete with others, as if their primary function is to sell a service to the consumer.

(2) Technology brings the world together. We can easily phone, email, Skype, text or chat with people across the planet. We can converse with people having similar interests. Without technology we would never have known these people existed. Yet anyone can tell you that technology cannot transmit a person’s physical presence or their body language. The ease of having multiple interactions reduces the time spent with given individuals, the latter ironically being the hallmark of friendship. Of course, every popular social media network has no real concern for bonding people. While drawing in millions by providing either the veneer of interaction or a medium for narcissism, media sites sell advertising to sponsors who can now more specifically target people. Their task is made easier and more desirable because most users volunteer information about themselves. The on-the-go usage and small format on cell phones and tablets encourages the use of images, short videos and slogans to convey ideas. People are then exposed to hundreds of such stimuli; even those linked to literature are at best quickly read without further research. What better way is there for horizontal propaganda to spread?

It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.

-Jacques Ellul, from Propaganda

(3) Online learning is a more powerful educational tool than traditional crafts. In essence digital media are just another set of tools that have to be complemented by a host of other methods to be effective. But currently teachers are pressured to believe that chalkboards and lectures are a thing of the past. Its popular alternative, “active learning”, a title presumptuous because it implies that previous learning was passive, relies heavily on online media. Yet learning from an experienced specialist who is in the same room; gaining from real experiments and demonstrations; and thinking and imagining quietly in the absence of any gadgets remain essential to see concepts at work in different settings.

(4) Colleges do a better job when they focus on preparing students for the job market. As William Deresiewicz argues, educational institutions have surrendered their soul to the market and neoliberalism. A century ago colleges were committed to

developing in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully ,

but now they are primarily concerned with practical fields such as business and technology and in whatever brings in money for graduates and the college, as in the billions of dollars obtained from sports TV broadcasting contracts. This has had a detrimental impact on learning for its own sake and on studying for the purpose of enriching life.

since the 1960s, the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more (than English majors), by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.

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