Using the now classic metaphor, if we imagine all of human evolution to have occurred in the past hour, the last 550 years that the World Simulation attempts to simulate is no more than a few tenths of a second. While these final tenths have brought us tremendous technological advances, they have also brought us unparalleled global inequality, the most deadly wars of all time, and a precarious environmental situation. Our population is more than 10 times what it was just a few short tenths of a second ago. The richest 225 humans on earth have more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion people combined and the richest 20% of humans on earth account for 86% of consumption and on average make over $25,000/year. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion people make less than $1/day and over half the world makes less than $2/day. Humans produce more than enough food to feed everyone in the world, but at least 800 million people are starving. In 2004, worldwide military expenditures were $950 billion. In that same year, Worldwatch estimated that it would cost just $12 billion for reproductive health care for all women, $19 billion for the elimination of hunger and malnutrition, $10 billion for clean drinking water for all, and $13 billion to immunize every child in the world from common major diseases. In these final few tenths of a second we have created a global economy running on nonrenewable fossil fuels, all of which will be gone within the next second on our imaginary clock. The use of these fuels has increased carbon dioxide levels by almost 30%, nitrous oxide by about 15%, and concentrations of methane have more than doubled – all of which contribute to a rise in global temperature leading to rising sea levels, expanding deserts, and more intense storms. Perhaps most dramatic, it is in these final tenths of a second on our metaphorical clock that we human beings have attained the ability to literally stop the clock and annihilate ourselves. Whether or not the clock keeps ticking into the next hour will largely be up to the students we are now teaching. This is no small task they face. It may take an almost complete reinvention of how we live and a total revision of how we see the world and our fellow human beings.
So how do our students view these problems and what do they plan on doing about them? Some students are well aware of these issues and are seriously engaged in finding solutions. Unfortunately, the more common perception among students is that these problems are not theirs to solve. Technology will take care of the environmental problems and those in poverty should take care of themselves. “We” are rich because we are smart, hard-working, and have our head on straight. “They” are poor because they are lazy, not smart, and probably corrupt. In short, our system works. Their systems do not. There is little recognition that “our system” might in some ways depend on those of others and vice versa – that perhaps there is ultimately only one system after all, the world system.
It is almost impossible to say all that and keep the attention of those who don’t want to hear it. These are statements that are destined to always be preached to the choir and not far beyond. Fortunately these statements are really secondary to what we really need from our students: good questions that will drive them to understand more about our world and become active and responsible global citizens working to ensure our clock keeps ticking.
In my last post, I described my “anti-teaching” philosophy that led me to experiment with different ways of teaching cultural anthropology in very large introductory classes. So far, the most radical and intensive experiment I have tried is the “World Simulation.” In this post I will briefly discuss some of the background of the simulation and then discuss how our “world” is constructed prior to the actual simulation itself. This project is a major work in progress, of which I can no longer claim to be the sole author. Many of the 1000+ students who have been a part of the simulation over the past 2 years have added innumerable remarkable ideas that have since been incorporated.
I first thought about doing the world simulation when I discovered the Pandya-Chispa game used by the Peace Corps (with other variations used in various leadership and diversity training seminars). In this activity, people are split into two groups and each group gets their own handout describing their “cultural norms” which tell them how to interact with outsiders. The two groups then try to interact using their different cultural norms, resulting in misunderstandings, difficulties, etc. This creates a platform to discuss the challenges and importance of effective cross-cultural communication. I used this game with my students as an “ice breaker” and then started wondering what it might look like if we just expanded it to simulate the entire world.
About 6 months ago I discovered I wasn’t the only one who has ever tried this kind of thing. Starting in the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller created a “World Game” which is similar to the simulation we do here. Fuller created the game with the noble cause of critiquing “cold war games” by challenging participants to find a way to make “the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or the disadvantage of anyone.” The development of his World Game has since been picked up by o.s. Earth, which will do a Global Simulation Workshop for you for $3,500 – $8,000. From what I can see on their website, the simulation looks great, but it is designed for 3 hours rather than a full semester. Because of this, it misses out on the most important part of the simulation. As my TA Kevin Champion noted, most of the learning comes from building it, setting it up, and designing it, not in its performance. While I provide guidance in the form of lectures, readings, handouts, and basic rules, most of the actual construction of our imaginary world is done by the students themselves.
I have found that every little piece of the simulation raises questions for the students and me. I find myself asking questions and pursuing information I would have never otherwise pursued, and it all feels extraordinarily relevant and important because it is all fitting into that big picture question about how the world works and why it is the way it is. Why are some people so rich and others so poor? Are the two related? In what ways? How can it be that we produce enough food to go around and yet some people are starving? How will we, as the human species, survive the next 100 years (or 1,000 or 10,000 or 1 million years)? It’s like taking Yali’s Question and pursuing it both as it was taken by Jared Diamond (How the West won) and how it was (more correctly) understood by Gewertz and Errington (Why the West thinks they won and how they – perhaps unconsciously – ensure that they keep on “winning”). All the while I’m wondering (and I hope my students are also wondering) whether or not these are really the right questions to be asking – or if there might not be better, more productive questions to ask.
Without a doubt, this is my favorite place in the blogosphere, so it is a great honor to be invited as a guest blogger. I think anybody who reads Savage Minds will immediately see the contributions blogging (especially group-blogging) might add to anthropological discourse.
This little corner of the blogosphere seems to be the perfect place to begin a discussion about some rather strange teaching habits I have picked up in the past couple years. Lately I find myself doing such bizarre activities in the classroom that I can scarcely refer to myself as a “teacher.” So this is my “anti-teaching” philosophy, illustrated with a short description of the “World Simulation,” a massive class activity that provides the primary structure for my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course here at Kansas State University. On the surface, the World Simulation appears to be little more than “just a game” but underneath is a good deal of theory – both pedagogical and anthropological – which I look forward to discussing here over the next two weeks.