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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Good news, bad news, mortality and sex
January 5, 2011 - 7:00pm

A family member likes to say, referring to a single fact within a situation, "that's the good news -- it's also the bad news." No other construct sums up so neatly what it feels like to work in the sustainability field at the beginning of 2011.

Of course, the comment would be even more applicable if the order were reversed; it's been pretty hard to spot a silver lining that's not surrounded by a hell of a large cloud. The "good news" coming out of the Cancun summit ("COP-16" to insiders -- why is there never a cop around when you need one?) is that the entire UN Climate Change Conference process didn't totally self-destruct. The bad news, of course, is that an absence of self-destruction can even be portrayed as good news.

The "good news" coming out of the only capital the USA has got is that the EPA is making moves to regulate CO2 output from major emitters. The bad news is that the agency's authority to do that has been challenged in court, the incoming Congress seems likely to restrict funding for such regulation, and the regulations -- even if strictly enforced -- will have little positive (and possibly a negative) short-term impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The "good news" about the economic situation is that the Great Recession has been declared to be winding down. The bad news, of course, is that your recession is only over if you're in the investing class, not if you're in the working class. And that, for some reason, the same folks who deny climate change science are able to deny that converting the world to clean energy will produce economic benefits (as if there had ever been a single historical case of a major technology shift that didn't create a large-scale economic boost).

The "good news" in the current discourse around environmental activism is that we're recognizing we've passed the point of addressing climate change by means of politics as usual. The bad news is that "politics as unusual" seems pretty ill-defined.

Looking on the upside, of course, there is the bad news that the biggest known deposits of the rare earths required to manufacture advanced renewable energy equipment are located in China -- the USA's number one competitor within the industry -- and China is restricting exports to protect their own industries. The silver lining on this one might be that it will finally force US-based companies to get serious about recycling of electronic equipment -- shifting high-tech has-beens from a waste stream into a resource supply. Maybe trade restrictions can become the mother(s) of invention.

All of this is probably weighing a little heavier on me than it normally would. I've been dealing with some health issues over the holidays, and got a brief glimpse of my own mortality. (At least, I hope that's what I got a glimpse of. If my mortality is, in fact, something worse than what I glimpsed, I shudder to imagine.) It concentrates the mind wonderfully, as the saying goes.

So how can colleges and universities use the good news/bad news situation and the amplifier of mortality to best effect? I'm thinking that the combination of increasingly bizarre weather impacts and increasingly dysfunctional public bodies might provide an opportunity. Rather than preaching the reality of climate science or the need for massive action (top-down or bottom-up, as you prefer), I wonder if it might not work better to teach individual and small-community survival skills. Concentrate on giving our students the knowledge that they'll need to survive in a dystopian future, and let them work out for themselves how much easier it would be to avoid dystopia in the first place.

American society, like American culture in general, isn't big on visions of mortality. From Fenimore Cooper to Horatio Alger to Hollywood westerns to Disney to the current fascination with synthesized "reality" on TV, Americans only like stories with happy endings. So we can't shift public perceptions and priorities by preaching imminent disaster -- we'd only turn off the audience (who would then turn off the message). But Americans are increasingly opposed to any sort of inconvenience. Maybe a message of imminent inconvenience can get through.

I'm thinking some sort of co-curricular offerings, probably couched in terms of surviving and thriving in a changing climate. Part Outing Club, part civil defense drill, part survival camping, part social networking. Problem-based learning with components of ecology, engineering, team-building, and public service. Trans-disciplinary in a way that curricular offerings can't realistically achieve. Mainly outdoors. Hard work, but fun as well. Positive reinforcement from teamwork and accomplishment. And sexy.

I've always found that nothing breaks down barriers between people of differing (but not incompatible) gender persuasions than a shared task, successfully addressed. "Sexy" in a good way, between folks who like and respect one another. Not 'sexy' like this. (While I appreciate the impulse, I shudder at the implementation. Almost as much as I shudder at . . . well . . . you know.)


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