You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The cover of Blue Skies by T. C. Boyle.

W. W. Norton

Blue Skies: A Novel by T. C. Boyle

Published in May 2023

I see our academic world differently since reading my friend Bryan Alexander’s book Universities on Fire. Climate change is now my higher education lens and filter. Rising sea levels, ever-rising temperatures, wildfires, drought and extreme weather events provide the context in which the future of the university will play out.

What Universities on Fire has needed is a fictional complement—a great novel (or TV show or movie) that places climate change at the core of its narrative arc.

Of course, the fictional adaptation of Universities on Fire would ideally be set on a college campus. While not situated in academia, T. C. Boyle’s new novel, Blue Skies, is my current nomination for the novel to pair with Alexander’s indispensable book. (In keeping the academic theme, one of the main characters in Blue Skies is a perpetual Ph.D. student—so there’s that).

What makes Blue Skies so good is precisely why Apple TV’s recent Extrapolations show was not so great. Blue Skies is character-driven in the sense that the reader understands and cares about the protagonists. In Extrapolations, the people are less interesting than the world changed by climate, resulting in the show being less memorable and emotionally resonant than it might have been.

The women and men who populate Blue Skies, which takes place in the near future and is set in Florida and California, respond to climate catastrophes (sea-level rise, unbearable heat, extreme weather, water shortages, wildfires) in ways that are internally consistent to their biographies, personalities and idiosyncrasies. People who move to Florida always seem to make bad decisions, but Blue Skies makes a convincing case that those choices will lead to nasty outcomes in our unfolding climate emergency.

Bringing Blue Skies and Universities on Fire into conversation with one another, one is left with the idea that the true impacts of climate change on higher education will be to cause many things in academia to be incrementally worse. Water shortages, high temperatures, floods, extreme storms, wildfires and a rising sea level will not kill universities overnight. Taken together and cumulatively over time, the effects of a warming planet will result in less resilient and more expensive universities.

Reading Blue Skies while thinking about Universities on Fire, it is easy to imagine a time when the residential college will become a luxury good. How will cash-strapped public universities in climate-vulnerable areas afford to protect their campuses from never-ending heat waves, water shortages, fires and flooding?

One theme of Blue Skies is that even the smartest and best intentioned among us are not ready for the problems that climate change will create. And a theme of Universities on Fire is that even smart and well-intentioned leaders in higher education are doing too little to prepare their institutions.

Reading Blue Skies provide the emotional push for academic leaders to act on the data-driven scenarios explored in Universities on Fire.

What are you reading?

Next Story

Written By

More from Learning Innovation