Survival 101: Malcolm Pott’s new global health course to save the world

by / Wednesday, 02 December 2015 / Published in Global Health Voices @ UC Berkeley, Global Health Voices @ UCBerkeley

We are a great university and great universities should not be afraid to confront big problems. My colleague Federico Castillo from the College of Natural Resources and I have started a new undergraduate course we call, PH196.003 Survival 101: Taking Control of your Future.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.13.39 PMMost of us use our experience of the past to predict the future. It is comfortable and seems commonsensical. Unfortunately today it is misleading and dangerous and Survival 101 will explorewhy.

Much of the world is richer than it was 50 years ago, people are living longer, automobiles are larger, and we can afford to throw away 40% of the food we grow and not go hungry. Politicians and economists expect – indeed depend upon – the gross national product growing at several percent a year. In fact the higher the number, the happier everyone seems to be. However, as the late professor Al Bartlett quipped, anybody who believes in exponential growth is either a fool or an economist.

Our brains were not evolved to fully comprehend the implications of exponential growth. Consider this thought experiment: With a small pipette place a drop of water in the palm of your hand; one minute later place two more drops, and after three minutes 4 drops. Soon we have enough water to fill a thimble, then a beaker – how long, doubling the amount of water every minute, would it take to fill the Memorial Stadium at the top of the campus? You might guess weeks, or even years. In fact it’s a mere 50 minutes. What is really frightening is that after 40 minutes therepotts_0 is merely a small puddle in the artificial turf. After 45 minutes there is a small lake. After 49 minutes it is half-filled.

During their professional and personal lives students now attending Berkeley will see many things go from half empty to over full. They will confront a very different set of challenges than most of the current faculty have experienced. Economic growth cannot continue exponentially in a finite world. Human activity and human numbers threaten the possibility of irreversible damage to the fragile biosphere on which all life depends. The current generation of students is the first one to face the existential problem of the survival of the biosphere. Greenland’s icy mountains are turning to blue rivers. California is in the fourth year of a costly drought.

Is there are good news?

Fortunately, most of the problems we face do have scientifically and socially achievable solutions. We need the will, the ingenuity and –as the stadium is already half full – also some luck to survive.

Big problems invariably demand multidisciplinary solutions. Survival 101 is intended to appeal to students from across the campus. It is designed to build synergies between diverse disciplines. All majors are welcome. In Survival 101 senior faculty with diverse expertise will give a one hour lecture on topics such as energy consumption, food security, population growth, climate change, governance, migration, poverty, and resource consumption. Class discussion groups will respond to the challenges presented and suggest ways of ameliorating the problem under discussion.

I ran a pilot course last Spring. We addressed questions such as, will it be possible to feed a world of 10 billion people? Will today’s migrants to Europe grow from half a million to ever growing millions? Will there be an economic bubble that make the 2009 recession look like a hiccup? The response of the Spring class was optimistic, but also realistic. Though I was afraid the topics would lead to doom and gloom, but the presentations at the last class were accompanied by laughter and hope.

Our hope is that Survival 101 will transition into one giant decal class. One of my consistently enriching experiences at UC Berkeley has been to be part of PH116: Social, Political, and Ethical Issues in Health and Medicine, which is part of the Health and Medical Apprenticeship Program, for 20 years, and the faculty of record for over a decade. I never cease to be impressed by the energy of the students, and the commitment of the many discussion leaders. My dream is that Survival 101 will become a second large class of this type. I hope we can have between 100 and 200 students at the Spring 2016 course and then build to perhaps 500 students a semester over the coming years.

Federico Castillo and I are fortunate to have a grant from the Presidential Chair Fellows Curriculum enrichment program to help us plan and develop improved teaching models for the Spring 2016 class of PH106.003, Survival 101: Taking Control of Your Future.