Education has become the go-to solution for all societal problems or challenges. If we increase energy literacy, it will reduce energy use. If we educate about the real benefits of vaccines, vaccination rates will increase. If we teach people about violence prevention, violent crime will be reduced. If we educate society about the benefits the chemical industry enables, negative views of the industry will melt away.
I was amused to learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was hiring graphic artists and science writers to improve education about climate change, having concluded that the lack of public action is due to inadequate education.1
I certainly have the good fortune of being well-educated. I went through a very good suburban public school system, graduating from a high school with an excellent academic tradition. I followed that with a college degree at a liberal arts college. I then went to graduate school and received my Ph.D. By almost any standard, I have had a ridiculous amount of formal education. Education opened many doors for me. I am a believer in education.
However, I am having a bit of a crisis of confidence in the power of education to influence change. I have attended a number of forums where discussion of a problem has defaulted to education as the solution.
One of the forums was the annual American Center for Life Cycle Assessment's LCA XV conference, which was just held in October. This was the most passion-filled technical conference I ever attended. The opening plenary session concluded with a discussion about how life cycle thinking needs more respect and how we must better educate the public and policymakers about the power of life cycle assessment to inform their decisions. These are important decisions about how to best use resources and how to reduce the impact of development on water, energy, and the climate. The conference message was that all benefit from a life cycle view.
I left the plenary fired up, secure in the knowledge that a group of passionate practitioners are ready to change the world for the better. Sadly, these thoughts were quickly derailed by a college kid smoking a cigarette on the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia where the conference was held. Vancouver is an environmentally and health conscious community. It wasn't that a law was being broken, though it is reasonable to expect smoking is banned on campus. What caught my attention was that a college kid that was smoking when he should have known better.
I have two kids in college. I know the education my kids got about the evils of tobacco. When my daughter was in elementary school, I introduced her to a smoker we passed on the street. Her eyes got big when she noticed the cigarette and she tried to back away. When he was out of range, she gasped, "He was smoking!" The reaction was strong, like he was a criminal. She explained she learned about smoking in school. She was educated about the evils of tobacco.
The power of education was wielded against tobacco in my kids’ elementary school. It was reinforced by TV and print ads showing the negative effects of smoking. Cigarettes come with the surgeon general's warning on every pack. It is a product that carries a consistent message: this stuff can kill you.
It is impossible that the student I saw had not been educated about the dangers of smoking. Looking around, he was not the only college-aged smoker. How could it be that young people-- with the good sense to be getting an education, having grown up fully educated about the dangers of smoking--still elect to smoke? The inescapable conclusion is that education doesn't always stick. It has limits.
Data are available on smoking habits. Cigarette use among college students peaked before 2000 at over 44%, according to the University of Michigan “Monitoring the Future” effort. In 2014, the last year for which data are available, it dropped to less than 23%.2
About 20% of the population in the U.S. smoke, and that percentage has been relatively constant over the last few decades . It appears education about the dangers of smoking has reached its limit to drive further reductions.3
This does not bode well for the well-intentioned life cycle analysis folks. They want to improve the world, but don't have a message nearly as shrill as "this stuff can kill you". Will the problems that result from a lack of life cycle thinking kill you? Their answer is actually far too often, "it depends." If a "this stuff can kill you" message influences only about 80% of the population, "it depends" will have a hard time getting attention. The life cycle community is not alone. It’s a problem, too, for most parts of the chemical enterprise, where complicated and nuanced messages are the norm. Education may not be enough.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.
1. Nature 526, 293 (15 October 2015) doi:10.1038/526293a.
2. Data from trends in annual use in Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E. & Miech, R. A. (2015). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2014: Volume 2, College students and adults ages 19–55. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan:
3. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/, accessed on 25 October 2015.