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5 minutes reading time (1072 words)

World Problems Identified by B.F. Skinner in 1971

A few days ago I was browsing in a used bookstore. Tens of thousands of books! An overwhelming wealth of good things to read. So many books, so little time.

I happened to glance at a $2 paperback:

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Bantam.

B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) was interested in making the discipline of human behavior into more of a science. He was one of the great scholars and researchers of the 20th century. I am always impressed and in awe of the work done by the great thinkers in the past.

Skinner is best known for his work in Behaviorism, and this work is still having a major impact on our educational system. In his 1971 book he claims that this area of study had made only modest progress in the past 2,000 years.

As I read the first page of his book, I was struck by his insights into the world’s problems. Quoting from Skinner's book:

In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology. To contain a population explosion we look for better methods of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope, control disease, better housing and transportation will solve the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. [Bold added for emphasis.]

What a remarkable list—as relevant now as it was more than 40 years ago. Ask yourself, what progress are we making toward solving these problems?

I was particularly struck by Skinner’s insights into the pluses and minuses of technology. A professional colleague of mine likes to point out that “technology is non-neutral.” It is non-neutral in that it tends to help solve problems and to help create problems. It is non-neutral in that it helps some people much more than other people—indeed, a particular bit of technological progress may have a negative impact on many people. If you doubt this, think about the impact of instant messaging and electronic games on student learning in schools.

I like to look at lists such as Skinner provided, and to analyze them in terms of our current world. For example, Skinner mentions a world population problem. In 1971, the world’s population was about 3.8 billion and now it is over 7 billion. (See Population growth continues to be a rapidly growing worldwide challenge.

Hunger remains a major problem in many parts of the world and even in the U.S. In 2012, about 3/7 of the world’s population was living on less than $2.50 per day. (See

In 1971, we were in the midst of a Cold War that lasted from 1947 to 1991. (See Considerable progress has occurred in nuclear disarmament. However, nuclear weapons remain a major threat, and we have had several nuclear power plant disasters. Right now various nations differ considerably about expanding or disbanding their nuclear power use.

There has been considerable medical progress since 1971. In the U.S. the life expectancy at birth has increased from about 71 years in 1971 to about 79 years today. (See However, the cost of medical care has skyrocketed. The U.S. is now spending over 1/6 of its Gross National Product for medical services.

My recent (free) book (Moursund, 2012) includes a discussion of U.S. progress in improving precollege math and science education over the past four decades. Little progress has occurred in spite of more that doubling the per pupil expenditures (corrected for inflation) during that time.

I could continue this data retrieval and comparison process, but you get the idea. Yesterday’s and today’s best thinkers and researchers have identified worldwide problems that have challenged humanity for many years and will likely continue to challenge us for many years into the future. In the past, humanity as a whole has given relatively little thought to issues of sustainability and related problems, and has had little success in addressing these problems. It is essential to the future of humanity that this lack of foresight ends.

What You Can Do

I believe that our children should be learning about the sustainability problems humanity and our world currently face and will continue to face in the future. An understanding of these problems is essential to their making informed personal decisions as a responsible adult.

You can help by building your personal knowledge about sustainability issues and by sharing such knowledge with your students and others.

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.

Conceptualizing a very large number. See

In the United States, one in seven (and well over 20% of children) live in poverty. See

Is the technology singularity near? See

Renewable energy and teaching problem solving. See

Rising above the gathering storm, revisited: The rapidly approaching category 5 storm. See

Some grand global challenges. See

Steadily increasing world population is a steadily increasing problem in sustainability.  See

Think globally, act locally. See

U.S. debt and world population. See


Moursund, D. (2012). Some grand global challenges. (Retrieved 7/22/2012 from

Moursund, D. (2012). Using brain/mind science and computers to improve elementary school math education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF copy from and the Microsoft Word copy from

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Bantam.




Mohandas Ghandi: Living and Learning
New Free Math Education Book by David Moursund


David Moursund (website) on Monday, 10 June 2013 23:49
Poverty in the United States

Written by davem, July 23, 2012.

I am greatly saddened when I read about poverty in the U.S. Today my local newspaper contains an article stating that data from the recent U.S. Census indicates nearly 16% of people in the U.S. live in poverty, and that about 22% of children in the U.S. live in poverty. (See

Written by davem, July 23, 2012. I am greatly saddened when I read about poverty in the U.S. Today my local newspaper contains an article stating that data from the recent U.S. Census indicates nearly 16% of people in the U.S. live in poverty, and that about 22% of children in the U.S. live in poverty. (See
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Monday, 13 July 2020

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