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.)
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?
Happy Earth Day, all.
(first photo by Burnt Pineapple; second photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)