America and China’s big ask for higher education: on the Sunnylands statement

Last month Chinese and United States leaders met in the San Francisco area. It was a major diplomatic meeting for the world’s largest geopolitical struggle. Many developments emerged from this event, yet I want to draw your attention to a single item.  It appeared from one of several communiques, the Sunnylands Statement (English language, Chinese language).  It has several implications for higher education, but also one clear demand of the academy, which I’d like to share here.

I don’t have time today to go into the broader geopolitical details and implications of the series of meetings: the hot line, different readouts, trade, etc. There are some good, basic commentaries out there.  There are also solid analyses of the Sunnylands statement, like this one.  Instead, I’m going to focus on this one document and what it could do for – and to – academia.

Why should educators care about international agreements?  Because when it comes to climate change these impact us directly and indirectly, on multiple fronts.  (Chapter 5 of my Universities On Fire addresses this in some detail.)

The Sunnylands Statement is a multi-point pledge for bilateral cooperation on the climate crisis.  John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua represented their respective nations in its crafting. It calls on both countries to triple renewable energy production in seven years.  Methane and other gas reduction is on the table, in addition to CO2  Both sides agreed to build five new “large-scale cooperative” carbon capture facilities.  China didn’t sign up for any details about reducing its immense coal production sector.  Both nations agreed to set up a shared climate working group (which restarts an older one, which China nixed after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan) as well as a U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Forum.  They stuck to the 1.5 degree cap as a goal.

What about colleges and universities?  Why should we care?

First off, we can think about how Sunnylands might change the world we inhabit, if China and America follow its directions.  Let’s use my concept map for academia’s multileveled engagement with climate change:

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

The communities around our physical campuses may change, sprouting wind and solar installations, perhaps with tidal and geothermal structures as well.  We might re-source campus electrical power thusly.  Carbon capture facilities may also appear.  Coal, oil, and gas sites may disappear.  So there are implications for community relations as well as our physical campus.  Beyond the local community, we might see academics comment on Sunnylands in public intellectual mode.

Some faculty, staff, and students may research this process, especially in fields like engineering, economics, politics, and energy.  Similarly, the topic could well appear in classes taught by those departments.

(Note that I wrote “if” above. Academics will also, mostly likely, wonder about the likelihood of China and America actually following the document’s directives.  All kinds of things could sap the document’s impact, notably domestic political shifts in either nation or changes in the international relationship.)

Second, Sunnylands calls out higher education explicitly at one point, and it’s a topic which might surprise many academics:

DALL-E circular economy society

DALL-E: “The illustration showcases a futuristic society living in harmony with circular economy principles. The cityscape and the activities of its inhabitants reflect a sustainable and ecologically responsible way of life.”

14. Recognizing the importance of developing circular economy and resource efficiency in addressing the climate crisis, relevant government agencies of the two countries intend to conduct a policy dialogue on these topics as soon as possible and support enterprises, universities, and research institutions of both sides to engage in discussions and collaborative projects. [emphases added]

I was impressed to see this – that the two leading powers of the world were gesturing towards the circular economy idea.

What is that idea about?  Briefly, a circular economy aims to to reduce waste to zero by  recycling goods throughout the economy.  Wikipedia has a nice summary:

It employs reusesharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, reducing the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions.[17] The circular economy aims to keep products, materials, equipment and infrastructure[18] in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. Waste materials and energy should become input for other processes through waste valorization: either as a component for another industrial process or as regenerative resources for nature (e.g., compost).

Which is a huge shift from the go-go state capitalism of China and America’s financialized neoliberalism!  This is an example of the kind of deep, bold thinking climate change calls forth.

And the shift to a circular economy needs universities to work, at least according to leading diplomats from the world’s leading nations.  Think about this.  The statement commits the two leading world powers to a major economic shift, and explicitly asks higher education to help make it happen.

How might this play out?

Scroll back up to my multi-level concept map of how academia can engage with the climate crisis. We can reuse it here.  First, the Sunnylands statement calls on universities (and others, with some academic overlap, as with think tanks) to “to engage in discussions and collaborative projects.”  I hear this as a request for research and development, functions right at academia’s core. Based on scholarship on the circular economy, we can see a range of disciplines ready to go: economics, of course, along with political science, sociology, history, architecture, engineering, business, and more.

Second, given American academia’s practice of linking research with teaching, we might expect more classes to include the circular economy in their subject matter.

To be sure, American and Chinese academics already do these things.  I’m talking about doing more of them, and with more of a public exposure.

Back to my concept map: academics might experiment with implementing circular economy principles in their operations and physical plant.  The easy first step is to expand recycling of materials, including food, but then to look to recycling and reusing building materials in renovation and construction. The same idea might apply to institutionally owned vehicles, grounds, and more.

More: we could see town-gown collaborations on circular economics. Think of a college or university engaging the community recycling center by adding and using more stuff, research it, staffing with students, and so on.  Beyond the immediate community, Sunnylands might encourage faculty, staff, and students to take up public intellectual roles on this matter, speaking to the broader world.

And yet. Once again, this document might fade away into the long list of ineffective diplomatic communications.  The present COP meeting might vitiate it. The Washington-Beijing tension could flare up. Either Xi or Biden might fall from power in a year. Or neither nation’s leaders will take the circular economy idea seriously.  Americans and Chinese, both marinaded in growth-at-all-costs capitalism, might reject the circular economy outright.

On the other hand, the opposite might occur.  Local, regional, or national leaders in either the United States or China could take Sunnylands seriously and issue policy accordingly. This might not happen right now – I haven’t seen any signs yet! – but the downstream possibility is there.  In which case colleges and universities, especially public ones, may well be impacted.

If we look some years out, up to a decade, there’s also a change that as generation Z rises in the workplace and into increasingly positions of authority that it might be more supportive of the circular economy than the rest of us. Already they are less enamored of neoliberalism, due no doubt in part to their different life experiences (no Cold War, the 2008 Great Recession hitting their youth).

So a geopolitically-driven drive for higher ed to take the circular economy seriously is… possibility.  It’s one sparked to life by a major geopolitical summit. Perhaps it nudges academia in one direction.  It’s something to watch – and maybe participate it.

PS: on a related note, I’ve been working on analogous political economy models, like no-growth and degrowth.  I will follow up on those as time (sigh) permits.

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2 Responses to America and China’s big ask for higher education: on the Sunnylands statement

  1. Ralph Wolff says:

    Good insights and the Circular Economy framework seems to mirror the natural Step movement of some years ago. The concept of reuse seems to be more embedded in the approaches to climate change that the EU is taking rather than the US.

    Be good for you to keep track of those courses or programs where the Circular Economy is addressed.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Can’t we just get folks from buying so much sh*t? #reduce

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