Environmental Multimedia Networks

Ben Howell Davis

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Copyright, 1991.


In 1990, I attended the first annual Aspen Global Change Institute in Aspen, Colorado, to give a presentation on "New Media and Science Education." The Institute met for two weeks with thirty two international earth scientists to discuss issues of urgent global concern. An additional week was added so that twenty educators could present environmental education issues, social concerns, and environmental outreach projects.

Noel Brown of Jamaica, director of the United Nations Environment Program, referred to the 1990s' as the "turn-around decade" and stressed that we have about four thousand days to make significant progress in managing global change.

The "greenhouse effect," protection of fresh water systems, protection of ocean and coastal resources, protection of land resources, biological diversity, biotechnology regulation, toxic waste issues, and human health ethics were all sited as complex environmental issues that required substantive understanding and urgent attention.

Brown pointed out that traditional military alliances like NATO, non-aligned nation status, national sovereignty at the expense of ecology, and political world court adjudication systems were ineffective in terms of solving environmental problems. What is required is a new world community with new standards, new ethics, and a total involvment in creative problem solving that mobilizes industry, education, religion, and tough global protocols for human behavior aimed at a sustainable and equitable future. He stressed that education plays a major role in this process.

William Stapp of the University of Michigan, Department of Natural Resources, offered this definition of environmental education:

It is the process of recognizing values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes in order to appreciate the inter-relatedness of humans, culture, and nature. Environmental Education entails the practice of decision making and developing a code of behavior concerning the environmental issues of economics, sociology, politics, culture, and technology.

Environmental education was seen by the educators present to include the ability to think about systems and time. The ability to separate number, quality, quantity, and value. The need to distinguish the map from the territory (the model from the reality). The ability to move from awareness to knowledge to action. The need for a basic set of ecological concepts that is always revisable. The ability to reconcile a love of nature with a love of humanity. The ability to learn cooperatively and to be rewarded for it. The ability to learn in an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and intergrated environment.

I was originally invited to present the projects of the Visual Computing Group at MIT's Project Athena as a new media mechanism for accelerating inter- and multi-disciplinary concepts in education. After two preceding presentations on hypercard applications I realized that what our work is based on--the distributed network--is the fundamental condition that earth scientists and educators need for crucial work in environmental education. The ability to model with multimedia is conceptually very important in revealing the true complex nature of environmental problems. Equally important, however, is the necessity to connect human beings together in communicative systems that are as rich and multidimensional as possible.

The subsequent discussions at the conference were influenced by the revelation that powerful educational computing systems that could visually model complex environmental conditions (interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and integrated) might be exactly the kind of communication condition required for what Noel Brown called "the new way of living on planet Earth."

The issues that separate scientists from educators and the media are all related to having complex environmental processes and problems simplified for mass audiences, whether they be school children or television audiences. Scientists, for instance, revealed that there is no "ozone layer." Ozone is a part of the stratosphere and the strasophere is the layer that protects the planet from ultraviolet rays. The media have created the "ozone layer," producing a misleading explanation of complex phenomena. This is the center of scientific complaint.

Integration mechanisms like distributed multimedia computing networks create an environment that can be used both for the creation of scientific inquiry and its dissemination in a much truer form. The sins of mass media are many but its central fault is one of presenting "essence" rather than depth. Mass media is often a mechanism of strategy rather than substance.