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  • Getting to Green

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

Hand and head
October 6, 2011 - 3:00pm

As I said earlier, I recently finished reading James H. Kunstler's World Made By Hand. Without taking its depiction of life in the northeastern USA after society collapses as anything approaching gospel, I found it an interesting basis for thought experiment. And the most relevant question, in terms of my work at Greenback U, is "so what should we in higher ed be doing to better prepare our students for such a future?"

At a superficial level, the answer is obvious: we should cut back on bachelors' and graduate degree programs, and concentrate on teaching practical, relatively low-tech, skill sets at the community college (or similar) level. After all, if the support systems we've come to depend on are likely to fail us, we're going to need all the hands-on expertise we can get.

But while that's true, I don't think it's the whole truth. Kunstler's book isn't just about the practical difficulties of living in a post-collapse society, it's also about the socio-political impacts of those difficulties, and of the collapse that led to them.

First off, he sets his story in a typical former mill town, and shows how it has withered over a decade or more. The town has certain inherent advantages (such as a public water system operating entirely by gravity), but also some basic weaknesses (like the fact that nobody thinks much about the water system, so as the town government evaporates [sorry!], no one thinks to maintain it and the flow and quality of the water decrease markedly). Kunstler doesn't so much say that today's society is living obliviously as he does show the impacts of the behaviors that obliviousness ls likely to lead to.

Second, he contrasts the weak governance of his town-in-decline with stronger models: a religious sect, a neo-feudal fiefdom, a semi-barbarous gang of scavengers and a mob-run city-state. Each of those options has its own disadvantages, but each also has the upside of relatively simple operation, based on relatively simple power dynamics.

None of the governance models Kunstler displays seems particularly attractive, and each of them came into play because the previously-stable social structure (presumably, the one we're living in now) failed to prepare its citizens for the nature and magnitude of the coming collapse. With adequate preparation, the collapse itself might have been somewhat mitigated; the socio-political responses it generated might have been less destructive. And "preparation" is, in a very real sense, one way of characterizing the line of work all of us are in.

So what sorts of educational outcomes -- beyond the ever-useful hands-on expertise -- should we be working toward?

To begin with, we need to deal with that "obliviousness" thing. We need to stop protecting/isolating our students from the outside world. Instead, we need to make sure that they're able to look at it from an integrated systems perspective. Not every university graduate needs to understand in detail how a municipal water system works, but each of them should have a conceptual grasp of why that's an important question, what the criteria for "successful water supply" are, what sorts of physical principals are involved.

Second, we need to ground our students in regional realities. Priorities and principals of operation will be far different in the inter-mountain West, for example, than they are in the northeastern portion of the country. What resources are available, which ones are scarce, what nutritional challenges apply, what sorts of density or transportation problems are likely to arise, what climate impacts can be expected.

Third, we need to get folks used to the idea that knowing the "best" solution to a problem is nowhere near as important as being able to figure out several solutions to that problem. Optimality varies with objective and circumstance. Flexibility of approach increases the likelihood that a viable solution can be achieved in a wide range of situations. And none of us is certain what future situations will entail.

Fourth, I think we need to drum a whole lot of implicit exceptionalism out of our students. And ourselves. And our curricula. The health and physical sciences aside, we seem reticent to learn from the experiences of other societies. Our challenge, whatever details it may exhibit, will involve sustaining lives and livelihoods in a world of decreased resource availability and environmental system services. Lots of societies in today's world are already facing that challenge, or something very like it. But for better or worse, those societies seem to be learning how to be more like us a whole lot faster than we're learning how to be more like them. And that trend is just speeding up the coming collapse.

If those of us in higher ed can rethink what we're teaching (and, to a degree, how we're teaching it), we can do a creditable job of preparing our students for whatever changes occur during their lifetimes. If that happens, the patterns of thought we encourage, and the patterns of behavior those create, might both slow the pace of change and mitigate its effects.

All of the above has been going through my mind this week. And the continuing (indeed, increasing) urgency of the situation is evidenced by such developments (or anti-developments) as are proposed for Redwood City, CA. So long as we (society) keep doing things, we're either going to make our situation better or we're going to make it worse. There's no standing still.

But I have to admit that, at the end of the day, my personal thoughts on society, governance, sustainability and education aren't a whole lot different after reading Kunstler's novel than they were before. Maybe that's because Kunstler and I, while we've had totally different career histories, are looking at the future with similar perspectives.

Or maybe, as William James noted, I think I've been thinking but I've merely been rearranging my prejudices.


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