I happened to be listening to the second hour of the Dianne Rehm show on NPR this morning. Dianne's guest was Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist, oceanographer, author and research scholar at the University of York, England. Roberts was on to promote his book "The Ocean of Life", a discussion of how important oceans are to human survival and what sorts of major stresses oceans are currently undergoing.
One of the themes that recurred constantly during the conversation was the negative effects of industrial processes: industrial production (manufacturing), industrial agriculture, industrial fishing. Industrial production proceeds on the assumption that raw materials are infinitely available and waste materials are infinitely disposable in an infinitely absorptive ocean. Industrial agriculture assumes that (industrially produced) chemical fertilizers are infinitely applicable and infinitely disposable in an infinitely absorptive ocean. And industrial fishing is based on the premise that there are a limited number of fish in the sea and you better catch (kill) them before the next guy does.
The unsustainability of each of these processes -- much less all of them taken together -- is pretty obvious. Yet when prompted by a caller's question, Roberts couldn't bring himself to say that industrial fishing (much less the other industrial processes) need stop. Instead, he stated that a limited amount of industrial fishing is necessary to feed the human race. He offered no quantitative evidence of the truth of this statement. Indeed, it sounded much more like an assumption than an assertion.
But it's the kind of assumption that generally goes unchallenged (as this one did). People will starve without industrial fishing and industrial agriculture. There won't be any electricity without industrial-scale generating plants. We can't meet the material needs of the human race without industrial production. Were it not for industrialized housing production, we'd all go homeless. None of these assumptions, of course, is necessarily true (indeed, there's significant quantitative evidence to prove quite the opposite), but each of them is easy to accept. Each of them is likely to go unchallenged. Each of them is an expression of the dominant paradigm with which pretty much all Americans have learned to feel comfortable.
On the other hand, it's a comfort level and a paradigm that is no longer serving us well. The whole linear model of industry, where raw (or living) materials become the feedstocks which are used to create both products and waste materials, is inherently unsustainable. Microeconomic thinking by which labor inputs become just another cost to be minimized leads to macroeconomic disruption when consumers no longer earn enough to sustain demand levels. Physical sinks (of which the oceans are just the largest and most obvious) aren't infinite, nor infinitely absorptive.
Of course, our academic model, and the processes by which it's implemented, are based on exactly the same industrial paradigm. We presume an infinite supply of high school graduates, apply four years of instruction (over six years of calendar time, or two over three), and pop graduates out the door. Yet, the North American economy can no longer absorb the sheer number (or at least not the product mix) of university graduates our linearly-designed higher education process needs, for purposes of its own survival, to produce on an annual basis. The supply of North American high school graduates is on the decrease, while demand for higher education now often occurs at later stages of life and in smaller (chronologically shorter) quantities.
If universities hope to help the societies in which we operate to become more sustainable, we're going to have to help people to move past industrial (infinitely scalable, linear process-based) thinking. We need to be comfortable speaking in terms of alternative -- more cyclical -- paradigms. But before we can do that, we need to move beyond industrial linear thinking, ourselves.