Turning Holocaust “Paper Clips” Into Environmental “Paper Clips”

The story of the Holocaust “Paper Clips” project (read the last blog post) not only
moved me, but inspired me to action.

The book that I wrote – “Climate Change: the Fork at the End of Now”
Momentum Press (2011) – was written as “textbook for the general public,”
In academic terms: no prerequisites!

Yet, in my terms, it also means no preaching.  The book is structured so that
there is almost equal weight and focus on the scientific issues and the social
issues that impact climate change, like population, economics and politics.  The book
is anchored on data from organizations such as the World Bank, the Energy
Information Administration (EIA), oil company databases (mainly BP), the
International Energy Agency (IEA) American and International agencies such as
IPCC, NSF, World Bank, etc.

I tried to set up the book so that students could learn how to extrapolate to
the future without requiring that they be familiar with the details of exponential
growth (no prerequisites!!!) using concepts such as doubling time.  They could
then actually use this skill to try to imagine what the world might be like when,
for example, an “average” Chinese citizen would be as “rich” as an “average”
American, based on current growth patterns.  A chapter titled “What Can I Do?”
that appears toward the end of the book includes mainly activities like creating
personal energy audits and doing carbon footprint calculations.

At the time that the Hudson Falls meeting took place, where I saw “Paper Clips”
for the first time, the book was in print.  It came out in June 2011 and since then,
I have been able to use it for two semesters in two kinds of courses.  One is an “Energy
Use & Climate Change” course that is part of our Second Tier General Education
program.  The other is a second year Honors College Seminar targeted at providing
Honors students with a taste of scientific issues and structured so that half
the time is spent in classroom education and the other half is spent on group
research (typically, three students per group) that focuses on issues in New York

In both courses, the students were asked to read the book cover to cover during
the first half of the semester and were then tested on the material in the midterm
examinations.  The second half of the semester, in both cases, was focused on
related current events.

After I saw the “Paper Clips” movie, I started to think about how I could
individualize climate change and make it more personal for the students.

My first thought was that the best candidate that I had for an
environmental “Paper Clips” equivalent was the personal energy audits and
calculations of carbon footprints.  I did try it in both courses.

The first hurdle that students had to overcome was to understand and handle the
broad spectrum of energy units that our energy bills contain.  Once they learned
to handle the unit conversions, they could add up the amounts of energy from
various energy sources to figure out their total energy use and compare it with
the energy use of their friends and neighbors and with relevant averages in their
City, State, Country and, yes, even the world.

The second issue that they encountered was how to overcome the complexities
of the variety of living arrangements found in a city such as New York.  To get
the appropriate information, they had to interact with their parents, landlords and
whoever actually pays all the electric bills.  For the carbon footprint calculations,
they were not encouraged to go to the internet to get the “carbon coefficients” of
the various fuels.  Instead, despite the fact that many of them had never taken
any chemistry courses (remember, no prerequisites), they had to learn the basic
principles of chemical equations.  This included learning the concept of mole
and how to calculate the carbon coefficients from the basic chemical reactions
of burning the three most common forms of fossil fuels.  They learned what
electricity is, the differences between primary and secondary energy sources,
and why a unit of electrical energy costs about three times more than a unit of
heat energy that we derive by a direct burning of fossil fuel.  (Yes – they learned
the two laws of thermodynamics, but didn’t know they were doing it).

At the end of all this, they learned how and where they could save energy and
how much money those savings would produce.  Now, they can also critically
evaluate advertising that promises them wonders by switching from one fuel
to another or one light source to another.  I am now trying the concept on high
school students and eventually I hope to try it on middle school students, starting
with Whitwell, Tennessee.

These are my environmental “Paper Clips,” and I feel sure that learning how to
do energy audits made my students feel somewhat empowered and that they
were, in a real sense, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change, albeit on
a small scale.

My “dream” (likely unrealizable) is to try to follow Peter Finch in Sidney Lumet’s
film “Network” where, through the broadcasting network, he was able to incite
everybody to stand in front of the window or the terrace and shout, “I’m mad as
hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  In the process, he gave a huge boost to the
rating of the network.

In today’s terminology, he was able to create what Richard Dawkins called
a “meme.”  This was a “desperation” meme.  I would like to use it to create
a “meme of hope.”  The transmission of this meme will not be monopolized by
networks but will go through the educational systems – both formal and informal.
In my “dream,” the end result is similar – this meme of hope will be shouted from
the rooftops, windows, and terraces, from the tents, and from any other dwellings
throughout the world.  In all languages, including braille and sign language,
people will be able to shout, “I can do my energy audit and calculate my carbon
footprint (zero is ok) and I am doing it right and helping the planet.”

Once we get even closer to this situation, it will be much easier to achieve the
global and local environment that Gernot Wagner so desires in terms of global
and local regulatory systems.  In the process, everybody learns and we all gain.

With your help we will explore it further.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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7 Responses to Turning Holocaust “Paper Clips” Into Environmental “Paper Clips”

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  4. Marco says:

    I think Rosling did a remarkable job in explaining why we should reduce our carbon footprint: *because* others also want (and will) develop. It’s quite the opposite of what we often hear from certain groups of deniers, who claim ‘we’ do not want the developing world to develop and go back to the stone age (and similar alarmism).

  5. Wyo says:

    I’m not sure what my environmental paper clips would be, but I am going to ponder about that for a long time. Thanks for making me think.

  6. Micha Tomkiewicz says:

    Great presentation. The washing machine is not a “paper clip”. All the students do is laugh.

  7. Marco says:

    Micha, are you aware of Hans Rosling’s TED lectures? I think your students would like this one in particular:

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