4.3.Public Education and Understanding of Science - 2 Trends and Needs in a Future Global Economy 6

4.3.Public Education and Understanding of Science


Very little Earth System Science reaches any sort of public forum in South Africa. Today, the South African public may view some mining history at mining company museums in Johannesburg and Kimberley, and there are collections of minerals, rocks and meteorites on display at some museums (but often no mineral experts on the museum staff). That is it. South African museums have fine displays of fossils and early human development, but public displays on the present “State of the Planet”, or on “How the Earth works”, are very rare. This is remarkable, and a case of wasted opportunity, given the innate public interest in gems and pretty stones, dramatic landscapes, sinkholes, earthquakes, tsunamis, global warming, sea-level rise, water resources and a host of other Earth phenomena. It is even more remarkable in view of the role that mining has played in the social structure of the country, and where it still provides some 15% of the GNP.

Africans can no longer afford to be ignorant of their environment. The political liberation of South Africa, with its implications for participation and responsibility of all members of society, makes this change inevitable. A great many South Africans are deeply emotionally and financially connected with the Earth and we believe that a genuine awareness can be fostered that will lead toward pride and a responsible sense of stewardship. In addition, humans are a “keystone” species: people are interested in people and our own origins are usually fascinating to most of us. An increasing sense of the importance of our fossil heritage is taking root in South Africa. One huge impediment and challenge to the development of this interest is the resistance to evolutionary theory that has also taken root in the last 40 years or so. This must be a target for educational redress and is already being addressed by the existing EarthWISE programme.

AEON will engage with the public and foster education in Earth issues in two different ways.

First, AEON will host regular public seminars, partake in UCT’s annual summer schools, and will lead in public outreach and teacher-training, and take on talented high school students as summer vacation research interns. Public inquiry and media interest has already been established within the EarthWISE ambit and will be actively pursued and expanded.

At another level, AEON will establish the Earth Stewardship Media Centre to facilitate public understanding and participation in matters of Earth Stewardship Science. It is remarkable how much science-related material on local television and in newspapers is foreign produced. AEON founder members occasionally feature on radio and TV and contribute to discourse in the local newspapers. AEON’s media centre will support and encourage more regular and sustained interaction with public and private media. For example, Rehana Dada, an AEON founder member, recently produced a TV feature film focused on the newly discovered evidence for early microbial life preserved in South Africa’s oldest rocks. This was screened in February 2005 on a popular local TV programme (“50/50”), and should stimulate debate on the origin of life. In addition, the Media Centre will find more opportunities for systematic dialogue with the public, including leading corporations and civil society groups, and bring together diverse stakeholders in a science-based process of consensus-building that Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has dubbed “analytic deliberation”. New high-level forums for analytic deliberation on energy needs, climate change, carbon capture and storage, early warning systems, soil erosion and nutrient losses, groundwater depletion and water security, new human-produced materials, and development of eco-economic resource accounts can form the basis for consensus building for sustainable development.

5.Earth System Science and Technology Programmes

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