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Will Your Smart Watch Save the World?


At some point in 1968 my high school Spanish teacher—a rather gloomy fellow, he was—recommended that we read Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. First published that year, The Population Bomb was a kind of pop science (if you can say this about the work of a Stanford professor) look at the hazards of unrestrained population growth. In a world now holding seven billion people on a landmass shrinking as oceans rise, I look back on this book with a combination of nausea and wonder. As we headed off to college that year, rampant population growth and attendant global hunger were just one more set of topics for us to be worried about, but Ehrlich’s rhetorical strategies—especially the little scenarios he created to illustrate how a “death-rate solution” (as opposed to a more benign birth-rate solution to overpopulation), might come to pass—were certainly gripping.

Ebola wasn’t even on the radar in 1968, but Ehrlich spun a gripping yarn of how some new disease—he used some kind of “super flu” as his example—might spread outward through an uncontrolled local outbreak and then spread via global air travel around the world, killing hundreds of millions. This was kind of a new and especially creepy concept; we were already prepared for nuclear war and widespread famine, Ehrlich’s other doomsday mechanisms.

The Population Bomb sold like hotcakes, and happily the decades of disaster he predicted did not come to pass, at least in the ways he set forth. The Green Revolution came along in the nick of time to feed the burgeoning billions, and generally Ehrlich’s work has been relegated to the category of “alarmist best-sellers whose predictions didn’t come true.” But at the time it got our attention, and perhaps we thought harder about our own place in the procreating world. (One suspects that some of the book’s popularity had to do with our new-found smugness about the easy and reliable birth-control pill; I seem to recollect a distinct cultural bias in the text toward economically developed countries.)

But the book has been in the back of my mind all along, and I have to say that the planet’s population growth in my own lifetime, from two-and-a-half billion to seven-ish, is certainly sobering. But I’ve studied and even taught this kind of thing, and I know—for whatever it’s worth—that hunger on Earth is generally a matter of distribution and social/governmental/economic choice these days, at least so far. This doesn’t make anyone less hungry, of course, but it does mean the problem is theoretically solvable. And of course there are current predictions that relative prosperity around the world is spurring a general decline in birth rates that may mean we’ll hit “peak people” later in this century.

Watching the Ebola epidemic grow, however, is not so different from Ehrlich’s flu example. And the evidence of rapid climate change and global warming is equally alarming. Maybe, like the Green Revolution, some relatively cheap and simple solution for the effects of greenhouse gases will pop up just when we need it—arguably, now!—and probably the Ebola outbreak will run its course before it becomes a pandemic. But maybe not.

However, with memories of The Population Bomb part of my mental landscape I sometimes feel especially vulnerable to the idea that we’ve mucked things up in this world rather badly, and no bad deed goes unpunished. If I’ve been a little gloomy myself in these pages lately, it’s only because I have kids, teach kids, know kids, see kids…. They are the ones who are going to inherit this mess.

As I said in my last post about owning up to privilege and the existence of inequity, we’re going to have to start owning up to problems like climate change and the persistent pressures that a great many people are putting on the planet’s resources as a self-anointed handful reap a hugely disproportionate share of the benefits while showing little inclination to take meaningful steps to repair the damage their (let’s be real: our) overconsumption is causing. It’s not just about not denying science but about listening to it; it’s not just about decrying degradation of the environment but about figuring out ways to fix it.

To a degree my sentiments on all this make it hard for me to get all excited about “entrepreneurship” and career-preparation and social apps, as some of my fellow educators seem to be. It’s nice that some people have clever ideas that make them millions of dollars when Apple or Google buys them out, but too often our focus is on those dollars and the consumerist frenzy that we tend to go into when big numbers are mentioned. But I don’t see the Apple Watch making much of a dent in the world’s most serious problems.

Increasingly, I think, we need to make sure that the work our students are doing is explicitly linked not just to “learning goals” or college admission or even broad conceptions of social justice but to a still higher and more urgent end: saving the world. It may be scary to say it out loud in just this way, but we really have to be about saving the world and not just the corporate bottom line or even a whole House (or Senate or White House) full of political careers.

In my younger days we worried about saving the whales, and my kids laugh at me when I talk about my college era as “the revolution.” We thought it was, but it wasn’t. We thought we could change it all, but we didn’t. But there is still time, I think. My generation may still have time to influence the next ones, and so on down the line. But if we don’t believe in the possibility or even the necessity—if we blithely go on imagining that some new Green Revolution will fix this for us, anyhow—then why are we here?