Thoughts on Earth Day 2023

On this Earth Day 2023 I’m thinking of many things.  My ongoing research into higher education and the climate crisis fills my mind with the sprawling dimensions of the problem: rising sea levels versus campuses, academic research and activist students, desertification and infrastructure.

This day can be compromised, of course.  There’s a commercialization of it under way. It’s also a good opportunity for greenwashing.  Yet I’m thinking of its basic idea, the appeal for Earth consciousness as well as its call to action.

(This will be quick, as I’m caught between work and a family trip.)

Earth from nearby space_Burnt Pineapple PRoduction

What should we do, in academia?

I think of the academics – faculty, staff, students, etc. – for whom climate change is not a call to action.  It’s part of the background hum of 21st century life, one piece of the very large strategic mosaic.  Thinking and planning about it can be outsourced in many ways: to a sustainability officer, some environmental studies faculty, to insurance companies.  It doesn’t merit proactive steps.  We have a *lot* of other things on our collective plates, and all too often have to address them with fewer resources and less support.  Many people are exhausted from the past few years of pandemic, politics, precarity.

I hear this, especially the last point about exhaustion.  Such has been the lot of too many academics before the pandemic and Trump, but I’m glad to see the issue in the mainstream now. Yet thinking ahead – remember, I’m a futurist – I have to anticipate the ways the climate crisis can impact colleges and universities when we don’t take proactive steps.

In Universities on Fire I describe three levels of potential impact.  They vary from location to location, by institutional structure, by the complexity of Earth systems, and over time, but in general they start with the direct damage caused by natural events.  Storm surges, floods, storms of all sorts, drought, fire, desertification, aridification, dangerously high temperatures, dangerously high wet bulb temperatures, and more can all hit campuses.  At a second level we see followup natural effects as global warming proceeds: diseases moving to new areas, current flora and fauna fading away and being replaced by new life, agriculture under stress, etc. At a third level we have the many ways humans respond to the crisis. Government policies (pro- or anti-climate), business actions, the positions of nonprofits, the behavior of all of us as residents, consumers, voters, activists, growing numbers of climate refugees… all of these can press upon a given college or university in many ways over the years to come.  Starting now.

Put another way: if academics don’t want to think and act about climate change now, we’ll have do in the future.

I’ve previously identified several domains for academic action.  We can rethink and redesign the physical campus, from buildings to grounds, electrical power to transport, food service, and more.  We can expand our climate-oriented research enterprise, across the disciplines, perhaps surfacing new fields.  Our teaching can grow, from infusing classes with climate examples and consciousness to creating new courses, degrees, and programs. We can do more with our immediate communities in many ways, from energy partnerships to service learning and applied research. And academics can pick up a more public role, sharing research and teaching broadly, as well as doing activism.

Today images of the Earth will be widespread.  For some of us they’ll give a taste of the overview effect, that reframing of thought to consider the entire planet as a whole.  (For others this is a bad thing; such may be the subject of a next book.) These images make me think of higher education as an entire sector, all 20,000 institutions or so, all the millions of us, together, and wonder what our collective role is.

Because the climate crisis is a radical and vast thing, potentially, a gigantic rethink of human civilization and identity.  We are starting to reconsider our economic model, our politics, our food systems, what progress means, what it means to be humans. We are starting to build a new civilization from the guts of the current one. Surely this is a clarion call for academic involvement.  If the climate crisis is as vast an issue as most scholars and activists think, an event and process on the scale of the industrial revolutions or World War II, what is the ethical response of a professor, librarian, students, grants officer, scholarly publisher?  Are we not called to take a hand?

And think of what academics have to offer!  The immense intellectual horsepower that has already powered so much climate understanding.  The amazing opportunity to teach a generation or two of the human race. The potential to aid our communities and the entire world.  Higher education has a unique and powerful position in the unfolding crisis.  How, then, should we act?  What should we do?

Earth at night from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Happy Earth Day, all.

(first photo by Burnt Pineapple; second photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

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6 Responses to Thoughts on Earth Day 2023

  1. Mike Richichi says:

    Got an email from LensCrafters telling me about how they are celebrating Earth Day by asking people not to take printed receipts and use email instead.

    I think that’s going to take care of it.

    • Bryan Alexander says:


      We could ask: how much do they ship? How much packaging? How much CO2 does the production of contacts emit?

  2. Geoff Cain says:

    While you are celebrating Earth Day, you might want to take some of that “immense intellectual horsepower” and look into the carbon footprint of AI: “…the datasets used to train AI are increasingly large and take an enormous amount of energy to run. The MIT Technology Review reported that training just one AI model can emit more than 626,00 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent – which is nearly five times the lifetime emissions of an average American car.”

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Indeed, this is by itself a huge problem. For some critics it points to regulation to check AI development. For others, the imperative to produce AI which uses far smaller datasets.

      It’s also part of a larger set of decisions we have to make. Do we use more IT in order to reduce travel? Or do we use less, because of IT’s carbon footprint?

  3. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Speculating on the future, some of the follow-on impacts may also include:

    – Steady downsizing/shrinkage of the higher education sector — as surplus energy available for economic activity continues to decline, due to both the depletion of FF resources as well as the climate-response transition to minerals-based rebuildable systems such as solar and wind, so to will decline the flow of students and research dollars into higher education. It’s been said that to get carbon emissions under control, the economy would need to revert to a level of energy consumption similar to the 1950s-1970s. This wouldn’t apply only to transport and home heating, but to the mining, processing, and transformation of all raw materials into products and services, the growing of food, and the distribution of all that to consumers — i.e. a contraction of everything. I would expect the higher ed sector to see a similar, if not greater, amount of contraction. We’re getting a taste of this now as inflation leads to both declining prosperity and rising costs of essentials, reducing discretionary affordability from both sides.

    – Students coming to school with yet more trauma — as more and more neighborhoods and hometowns are wiped off the map from fire, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc, more and more of us — students particularly but also faculty and staff — will be carrying the trauma of places we once knew and loved obliterated.

    – Shift in educational priorities — as climate impacts continue to cut into food production & distribution, public infrastructure & services reliability, social stability, trust in institutions, etc, and life generally gets tougher for the 99%, a greater proportion of young people may decide to pursue practical/useful skills that build their resilience and security rather than more “advanced” education. This would add downward pressure on the flow of undergrads into traditional 4-year programs. We might also see an uptick in trade schools and community colleges. Electrifying everything will require a large number of electricians.

    Generally, higher education is likely to transform into a radically different shape and size over the coming decades. Many of those coastal campuses might be empty by the time Neptune returns to recycle them under the waves.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jeremy, thank you so much for these brilliant comments.

      Yes to each of them:
      -reducing civilization’s power footprint is something we might do deliberately, or find ourselves having no choice but to submit to. And how would campuses appear in such a new order – would we have to throttle back our own energy use?
      -students with trauma: exactly. I wrote a bit about that in Universities on Fire.
      -shift in priorities, majors, curricula: indeed. And ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” .

      Love your sonorous final sentence.

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