The future of education and climate change: part 7

Over the past few weeks I’ve been blogging about the impact of climate change and higher education (posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; all here). Today I’d like to expand on points from post #4, about the relationship between…

Campuses and the rest of the world in a climate crisis (continued)

Relationships between universities and the business world can become strained or broken, depending on carbon politics. For example, we’ve seen divestment campaigns for nearly a decade, with students and faculty urging their campus to withdraw funds from certain carbon-focused companies (“By September 2019, a total of 1,100 institutions and over 58,000 individuals representing $11 trillion in assets worldwide had been divested from fossil fuels.”)

That’s a start. This desire to pry campuses away from carbon investment can extend to other enterprises and sectors. Will public attention embarrass wealthy universities into divesting from climate change related projects? For example, one campaign is pressuring Harvard to step away from land speculation in the Amazon area? Listen to the connection:

Land speculation by pension funds and endowment funds, such as TIAA and Harvard University, is stimulating land grabbing and causing displacement of rural communities and environmental destruction. These corporations promote extensive mono-cropping of agricultural commodities, which cannot be sustainable. This agricultural system is based on chemical inputs and fossil fuels, constituting a major cause of climate change. The main area targeted by this process, the Cerrado (Brazilian savannah), is a unique ecosystem because of its rich biodiversity, river springs and rain cycles, which are connected to the Amazon and the Central-South regions of the country.

This could extend pretty far. Think of other, carbon-involved or -dependent industries: airlines, plastic manufacturing, chemical production, or parts of agriculture.

From another approach, will members of a college or a campus itself join lawsuits like this one against Exxon?

Exxon Mobil Corp was sued by Massachusetts for allegedly hiding its early knowledge of climate change from the public and misleading investors about the future financial impact of global warming, two days after a trial started on similar claims in New York.

If we follow a path of escalating outrage towards the petroleum extraction world, such lawsuits should proliferate, as will campus interest in engaging with them.

Beyond the business world, academia’s relationships with governments can also become challenging in the age of climate crisis. For example, a state could compel campuses to adjust their carbon footprint, as Larry Smarr, Jerry Sheehan, and Tom DeFanti noted in 2009:

the category of regulated entities will likely include colleges and universities, many of which are essentially small cities, especially those that have their own power plant to generate heat and/or electricity. Specifically, any higher education institution that generates over 25,000 mTCO 2 e will be subject to the EPA reporting and regulation requirements under the proposed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill and may have to purchase emission permits.

This can play out in many ways, such as adding another issue for colleges and universities to lobby their states about, or shifting local power generation to other means (wind, solar, etc). The opposite could also happen, should local, state, or national governments pursue policies against climate change mitigation.

Let’s step back a bit to view the problem from an even higher level. How will higher ed respond to problems facing general infrastructure? In the face of Berkeley shutting down because of raging fires, Jeffrey Market observes:

“We’re not at all prepared for our core technologies to regress like this…” That’s a powerful phrase, elegantly capturing one way climate change can press on civilization. Always-on electricity gives way to intermittent power and then to no charge at all. Modern air conditioning fails in favor of hand powered fans. It’s like something from Phil Dick’s great novel Ubik (1969). How many colleges are prepared to handle such a regression along infrastructure’s developmental track? There’s a very practical level to this, which we touched on in parts 2 and 6, but there’s also a strategic aspect, as campus seek to maintain themselves according to 21st century standards. In addition there’s a mental health aspect, as a population accustomed to the hope of accelerating progress is confronted by the reality of regression.

Scaling up a bit higher, we can ask: will higher education respond to the crisis in anything like a timely fashion? Maybe not. Marcus Barber thinks academia isn’t going to respond, being caught in a kind of institutional inertia.

Universities… had a chance 15 years ago when action was needed. They’ve done nothing in reality and only now starting to get on board, years after the broader community started to take decisive action…

After all, academia worldwide is generally famous/notorious for not being able to change quickly.

Tom Haymes has higher hopes for higher ed. He sees us reframing higher education in order to meet a civilizational threat, and in so doing we will have to “rethink some of our basic priorities and approaches to teaching and learning.” This includes a larger emphasis on critical thinking, plus:

…the tools of creative problem-solving, which is based on a foundation of critical thinking. They are the tools of design, iteration, and experimentation, which are based on a scientific approach.

To his credit, Tom has redesigned his own teaching (government) along these lines. And this lets us see the connections between the micro and macro, a given classroom instance and global trends. How many other educators have made that link in their own work? How many staff have done so? How many students, trustees, alumni, and legislators? Bridging that tremendous gulf between planetary crisis and immediate campus action may be what defines academia’s next generation more than anything else.

Originally published at https://bryanalexander.org on November 11, 2019.

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.