Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer philosophizing

For most college professors, summer must be a time of readjustment and reflection. For me, I switch from brain work to manual work, which I always welcome, as I build or fix up various buildings, and do other practical work, around our own farm or for friends or contacts. I keep up with my renewable energy and energy efficiency consulting work by email, but I don't teach, and that saves me 40-50 hours work a week, which gives me the time to run the farm and, perhaps most importantly, to think.

The last three years, while I took a temporary administrative role, with a 12 month cycle, I've had to work during the summer. This year, I'm back to a nine-and-a-half month contract, and am happy for it.

Time to think.

A good reflective question that I often ponder during breaks of any kind in my routine, but especially my long, outdoor-working, manual-labor-intensive, summer breaks, one that can even make me uncomfortable is, "what's the most important thing now." Once or twice in my life, this question has kicked me into motion, taking me physically around the planet, or mentally from one topic area or problem to another. This is, I suppose, why I have three different degrees in three different subjects, instead of the usual bachelor's, master's and PhD in the same subject that most career academics possess. As I studied and reflected, my concept of what the most important thing was expanded and changed, and my topic area had to shift with it.

Most recently, together with with a large number of my colleagues, I've been heavily engaged in the job of building a modern ecological/environmental college out of a 1970's resource management school.

Unity College is now heading in a good direction. After years of effort my myself and other reforming faculty trying to turn the college around, finally, I'm starting to feel, that process is becoming self-sustaining. In particular, during the last 8-9 years at our small college, there have been hired enough new faculty, administrators, and staff, many or most of whom are recently out of graduate school, to start and self-sustain a virtuous cycle of improvement for the college. The work of taking even a small academic institution and bringing it completely up-to-date in substantive knowledge, pedagogy, and attitude, is not easy, nor is it without conflict, particularly between the reformers and the improvers. But after a time, it becomes impossible to stop or reverse, because enough change has happened that few folks even really know how things were back then.

The one thing the world doesn't need right now is a 1960 and 1970s-type resource management school. So much of the forestry, wildlife management, environmental economics, and environmental policy knowledge that was the canon during that period has been made outdated, there's hardly anything that is still really used in the field. It's hard of course, for people who went to graduate school during this period to admit this, but it's true. If you go out and look at the environmental careers that are available, virtually no-one is hiring timber cruisers, ungulate-only wildlife biologists, or neo-classical environmental economists. The basic sciences, social sciences, and skills courses at the root of the applied fields, biology, physics, chemistry, math, stats, these have changed rather less. But take my PhD area, environmental policy. If you didn't study carbon management in graduate school, if you didn't go to graduate school after 1990 (or, more likely 1995 or 2000, because a lot of programs took a while to catch on) you didn't study the most important environmental policy area of the 21st century.

Recapitulating how the environmental filed has changed in the broadest possible terms, first, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, we had "ecosytem management," and "ecological economics," the broad application (finally, after 150 years since Haekel founded the discipline), of ecology to resource management problems. Then we had climate change and the energy crisis, which were collectively a huge hit from a sledgehammer driving the ecological nail home. The world of environmental science and environmental studies has changed and remade itself completely these last few years.

Ecological thinking, systems thinking, feedback thinking is everything now. Linear systems are out. Complex systems are in.

And so now the news is full of energy and climate concern to an extent most academics probably could not even have imagined even 5 years ago.

But some of us did imagine it. Some of us thought about the current climate-and-energy crisis even a decade, or two, or three, before it hit. Some of us have been studying and teaching about oil depletion, energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability for all this time. And now everyone is studying it, in a way, as CNN and CBS and even Fox has energy news and extreme climate news, 24/7.

Ironic, isn't it, that the very cornfields just flooded are the ones supposed to grow the ethanol.

So, what is The Most Important Thing now?

It isn't climate change and energy, not anymore. Plenty of people are working on those problems. Those problems will get solved, one way or another. My work will be part of this, of course. I'll be teaching the systems thinking that is at the heart of both energy economics AND climate science for decades to come. But it will be routine, part of the canon. Not ahead of the curve. Not anymore.

Students will go on to apply these ideas in mitigation efforts. Politics, communities, farming, housing transportation will change. Civilization won't be saved, not quite in its current form, it never is. But it will endure much as we know it. (There'll aways be an England!) There'll be some backsliding a few wrong turns, of course. Like ethanol. I doubt we'll make Jim Hansen's goal of 350 ppm stabilization level for CO2. I expect we'll lose big land areas to their current, conventional farming and habitation systems. I can't quite imagine saving Ethiopia, Southern California, Spain, these currently marginal lands, from turning to desert, more or less. Maine will stabilize with a climate like Virginia's. Or Georgia's. If we're lucky, Connecticut's.

Or something like that. It doesn't matter so much anymore.

What does matter?

The more I think about it, the more I think what matters is the nature of the civilization, particularly the western civilization of Europe and the Americas, but also the eastern one of China and India, that comes out of the other side of the energy and climate crisis. And the big problem is the combined role of population and macroeconomics and particularly of current western conventions of conventional employment and consumption, which in case you haven't noticed are being exported to India and China at an unstoppable pace.

How can we stabilize climate and the energy economy and protect what will be left of biodiversity, unless we are willing to reduce population and move away from growth economics?

It took 200-plus years for industrial, capitalistic growth economics to become a worldwide institution, to the point where Chinese and Indian families now aspire to essentially the western one-to-two-kid, one-to-two-family car, middle class, meat-every-day, consumerist lifestyle.

But the planet cannot sustain that lifestyle. The west now knows this. Although we will try now for a while to have our cake and eat it too.

How can we fix this huge collective cognitive dissonance and still have a free, even a capitalistic or at least a free-enterprise based civilization.

How can we avoid the next totalitarianism? Which might even be a totalitarianism of climate advocates?

That's what I want to think about next.

1 comment:

Hugh said...

Here's a thought:

I think Capitalism is a dead dog and always has been As Yeats wrote "He that's mounting up/ Must on his neighbor mount" Environmental degredation is but a symptom of this disease of the heart. The big challenge for the future seems to be to evolve a way of life based on mutual aid rather than competition. How do we replace the possessive spirit with the creative one? The most compelling answer I've found - "Education through Art" by Herbert Read.