Last week, Dr. Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, wrote an article for Forbes about an alarming experience he had walking out of a movie theatre. North Carolina anti-fracking petitioners asked Katsouleas to sign a petition to ban fracking throughout the State. “I certainly don’t want to add environmental risk to our landscape and drinking water,” Katsouleas writes, “but the problem is that this petition demands the wrong thing.”
The petition asks for signatures that would ban fracking entirely from the state. Katsouleas, in his article entitled “Don’t sign the wrong fracking petition” suggests that instead of banning all fracking because it’s unsafe and inefficient, we need to give science and technology more time to find better ways to extract natural gas before it becomes a problem.
Like freon in refrigerators and lead in paint, he argues, we didn’t get rid of all refrigerators or ban all paint. Instead, we improved them with science and technology so that they ceased to be as environmentally corrosive.
He concludes that if we completely ban fracking, we impede it from becoming a safer and more efficient way to obtain energy. Thus, “banning fracking pretty much means going back to the known environmental damage caused by burning coal.” He recommends that we petition the NSF and EPA to fund science and technology research and education as a way to ensure that fracking becomes a clean and sustainable energy source.
Though this appears to be a reasonable solution, it is only salient in the short-term, and offers a quick fix to a deep, cultural problem, namely that the West–in general–has become so accustomed to a certain way of living that it’s now a cultural trait to over-consume fossil-based fuels, and any threat to our consumption is met with fury and ire. Consequently, we rely on science and technology to ameliorate the inconvenience without ever considering that it’s our current lifestyles that perpetuate the problem.
Ultimately, the position Katsouleas takes disables us from ever examining our cultural habits. This lack of introspection may, in effect, drive science and technology to new, more amazing discoveries, but we will remain unchanged by the process.
The idea that science and technology are able to overcome any obstacle that threatens us from meeting our needs or satisfying our desires is one that has evolved over time, especially as science and technology continue to prove how effective they are at helping us overcome our odds with the natural environment, whether that’s something life-threatening like disease, or something more basic like drinking purified water. But it’s because they have been so effective that we now anticipate and rely on them to fix all current and future issues that we face.
In this case, finding an alternative and safer way to meet our energy needs only allows us to continue to demand cake, and to eat it, too. If this continues, then we will continually run into the same problems. It’s an economic and technologic answer to a cultural issue. Something about us has to change.
This is why Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical (STEM) education is–on its own–deeply insufficient to address future environmental and social issues. We must embed STEM into an environmental and culturally-relevant context.
To do this, the humanities and social sciences–i.e. environmental education, cultural studies, psychology, literature, history, and the visual arts–are sorely needed if we are to not only understand the entirety of the issues we’re up against, but to communicate and remedy them cross-culturally. If students are specialized in only one or two areas and are not taught how their discipline is connected to issues of social and human welfare, then they will fail to provide long-term and effective solutions.
If we’re serious about living sustainably (which is not just a question of energy efficiency, but of social development and equity), then the humanities, particularly environmental education, must be equally funded and promoted as STEM.