A recent string of emails on the green schools list centers on recommendations for a sound, accessible book on climate change around which to build a first year seminar. Many of the answers posted are old favorites -- the books, writers and perspectives that motivated a lot of current sustainability administrators and advocates to make this our career.
But several of the posts have taken it as a given that anthropogenic climate change is now irrevocably in the range of serious consequences -- that we've missed our chance to avoid serious impact, and so there's no reason to have incoming students read the logic of moderation.
I first heard that position put forth convincingly some six or eight years ago. Its proponent was an engineer working as an energy operations manager for a large northeastern utility company. Most of his coworkers were then heavily into denial (understandably, as it's difficult to admit that what you've spent your life trying to do well has in large part created major social and ecological problems). But this guy took quite a different stance. In a sense, his position that the problem could no longer be avoided made it possible for his profession to continue, just as his coworkers' denialism made it possible for theirs. But the logic of his position -- that there was simply no way worldwide industry could do an about-turn on its profligate use of energy in time, nor could the energy industry do an about-turn on its use of fossil fuels quickly enough -- was based in his decades of experience addressing and managing energy supply and demand issues, and dealing with the relative lack of flexibility in most parts of the energy economy. His take was that we can't stop it, so we better learn how to live with it.
If colleges and universities were to introduce the concept of necessary adaptation to their students, I wonder what the impact would be. My cynical side says that the impact of a climate-adaptation first year seminar would be pretty much the same as the impact of most other first-year seminars. Which is to say, not much. First year students are dealing with a whole lot of major life changes, and the signals received hormonally and emotionally often overwhelm the ones received only through intellectual channels.
My practical side notes that, if we're trying to communicate a message around climate change to all our students, first-year seminars are pretty much our only chance to do that.
And my optimistic side thinks it possible that if the message about needing to adapt pretty much every aspect of life to a changing climate really did get through, a continuing barrage of student questions could induce many (not all, probably not even most) of our professors to abandon their familiar, comfortable "business as usual" paradigms.
What sorts of adaptations will be required? Of course, no one really knows. Writers imbued with a profound vision of sustainability talk about tighter communities, more localized industry, processes optimized to minimize raw materials rather than human labor, regional diets, increased importance of smaller political units, a virtual end to globalization as we know it. Other folks, more in tune with our current ethos of short-term profit and stratified power, seem to focus more on building self-sufficient fortress cities where the rich can hole up in air-conditioned comfort while the rest of us deal with less food, less water, less habitable land.
My idealistic side would like to believe that universities could choose to deliver the former message and that, if it truly got through to first-year students it could reshape the whole remainder of their educational careers. But I'm not holding my breath.