In recent years I have witnessed the descriptions of several resource peaks, from oil to water, grain to gold, and peak economy. One additional resource peak that has drawn my attention over the last several months, occurring even as I write this piece, is “peak” education.
Education is the sacred political issue that no one tampers with, at least until now. As state revenues decline across the country, state institutions of higher learning are reeling from cuts in state support, and are raising tuitions at unprecedented rates. Public schools are finding their state allocations cut, and consequently have begun making painful cuts to programs, teacher salaries, benefits, and maintenance. Utah has even considered eliminating the 12th grade, making that year of study an optional choice for students.
Ever increasing energy has been the foundation for modern society during the past several hundred years. First it was coal, and then came oil. In between the wind was harnessed to pump water, mill grain, and sail ships to facilitate commerce. As energy allowed more and more work to be done by machine, access to additional energy sources made the mechanized process faster and cheaper than manual labor.
Energy began to work its way into our everyday lives. Additional energy required more education to expand its uses. Formal education began to be the norm. High school developed after the mid 1800’s when it became apparent that soldiers needed more education to be effective using the new weapons that energy made possible. Our society became more complex and dependent upon additional education to utilize all of the additional energy and the revenue it provided.
Now, our society has come to resemble a giant mechanical watch with a broken winding stem. Energy, now in the form of an unwinding main spring, provides the power to move all of the gears in unison. One of those gears is education. As the main spring winds down, all the gears begin to move more slowly. With the faulty winding stem, everyone is seeking alternate methods to rewind the main spring of energy resource. We are finding many alternatives insufficient, turning the winding stem only a quarter turn or so.
As the energy supply providing the revenue becomes less effective, so do all of those society pieces that depend on the main spring, energy, for their function to continue at the previous pace. Education will shrink, along with law enforcement, fire protection, infrastructure maintenance and other public services dependent upon the revenue supplied by the weakening mainspring of energy.
What follows when the education gear begins to slow down, along with the other gears? At first there will be small things, elimination of field trips, less frequent replacement of textbooks, infrequent updates to lab equipment or computers, larger class sizes, etc. Then the changes become more pronounced. We begin to see things like fewer teachers, elimination of extracurricular activities, drastically reduced bussing, deferred maintenance, and elimination of non-core educational offerings. Further slowing of the education gear will bring about serious discussion at the state levels regarding the amount of education that can be supplied on reduced energy revenue. At some point, the current K-12 structure could be seriously questioned and revamped. Are you seeing or hearing discussions of any of the above items in your school districts today? I am not aware of any school district that isn’t dealing with one or more of these issues.
This phenomenon will not be confined solely to public school systems. Private schools and universities/colleges will be facing a similar fate. Today’s economy is a dismal landscape for a recent graduate to venture into. With reduced revenues, private schools and colleges/universities will raise tuitions, while paring back degree offerings. Many who before would have chosen a college education will now be forced to reconsider the costs and rewards. The university I attended was huge, some 25,000 students on campus at that time. Today it has over 50,000 students. Sustaining an infrastructure of that size will be no more possible than sustaining a city infrastructure for a 400 square mile city, when the energy driven spring winds down.
This can’t happen you think; education is too important. Do you think we are the first society to pose that thought? Many skills and technologies have been gained, and then lost over the centuries, only to be re-discovered in recent times. Storage batteries were in use around 300 B.C. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it would be nearly 1400 years before they were “re-discovered”. Similar things have happened with brain surgery, which was in use several hundred years B.C. and then lost with the fall of the Roman Empire, and not “re-discovered” until the 1930s. Education all but vanished in the “Dark Ages”.
I believe that we reached peak education at some time in the last five or six years. We are presently on a plateau now, but as energy and revenue derived from all functions dependent on it decline, so will education. In the next 24 months or so, it will become obvious to many (even with the cooked book statistics we are fed), that future growth of our economy will be miniscule when compared to what it was in the past. Without that growth, there can be no increase in the public services that we take for granted, only reductions.
Just like peak oil, there are no bright spots on the horizon for the future of public services such as an educational system. How will we cope, and what will be the total impact on society as a whole? Only time will tell.