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So That All the Other Struggles May Go On
By David Orr

 

What are we willing to risk, and what moral capital will we leave behind?

 

Within the lifetimes of students now attending Oberlin College, world population will double to 10 to 12 billion people, human actions will drive into extinction perhaps 20 percent of the species now on earth, and the emission of heat-trapping gases will force global climate into a less stable and probably far less desirable state.

Surveying these and other global trends, 102 Nobel laureates in science and 1600 other scientists from 70 countries signed, in 1992, the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, which reads in part:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. . . . If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.

A substantial and growing body of scientific evidence amassed since 1992 confirms the view that humans are at or near critical thresholds of planetary stability and ecological carrying capacity. Humankind is now in the first truly global crisis that concerns our survival as a species, the terms by which we might survive, and what it means to be human.

No problem mentioned by the world scientists is unsolvable in principle; all can be solved if we have the wit and will to act with intelligence, foresight, and dispatch.

One all-too-common response to the warnings, however, is to deny their validity. The extreme right has done this by ridiculing, obscuring evidence, and confusing the larger issues in question. The political left often denies by attacking science and inconvenient evidence as reflections of gender, power, and ethnic background. More sophisticated forms of denial take the form of excuses that we do not have the time or expertise to worry about issues beyond our specialization, especially those that make us uncomfortable in polite circumstances. Some even say that humankind has always triumphed in the past and ergo will do so in the future. Beneath all forms of denial is the hope that someone else will figure it out or that technology will save humankind in the nick of time.

Denial is not just an individual behavior--institutions do it, too.

The document that came from our recent exercise in strategic planning, for example, contains no mention that global environmental trends are pertinent to Oberlin's future. Broad Directions for Oberlin's Future carries no hint that global change has anything to do with the educational mission of the College or that it might radically alter the lives and career prospects of Oberlin students. In its silence about environmental and global issues, the document could have been written 40 years ago.

Broad Directions calls for higher faculty salaries and more time for scholarship. It is filled with familiar and undefined phrases about diversity, multiculturalism, and social empathy, without saying what these words have to do with the preservation of biological diversity. It may even confuse egalitarianism with real cultural diversity. It certainly does not say what social empathy has to do with empathy toward our fellow creatures in the natural world and to the generations ahead whose prospects are jeopardized by rapid global change.

We read, for example, that every Oberlin student should learn how artists think. But nowhere are we told that all students should know how the biophysical world works and why that knowledge is important to their prospects.

We are enjoined to celebrate our diverse social, artistic, and intellectual life together, but nowhere does the document note the central fact of our existence: that, aware of it or not, we are part of an ecological community.

The document recommends steps to promote health and wellness but makes no reference to the fact that human wellness in a sick environment is temporary at best.

What would it mean for Oberlin College to face the mounting evidence that humankind is in real danger of mutilating the home we call earth as well as our own humanity?

First, it would require an attitude of utter candor and intellectual fearlessness to overcome the complacency, self-congratulation, and busyness that sometimes characterize this and other colleges. We cannot easily or legitimately escape our culpability in the larger problems of our time. The important planning questions have to do with how this college might be energized to rethink what institutional success means at a time when the entire human enterprise is in jeopardy.

Second, taking long-term global change seriously would require us to think more carefully about what our students will need to know to live lives of service at a time when ecological stability can no longer be taken for granted. Among other things, they will need to know how to:

  • power civilization by a combination of high efficiency and technologies that capture current sunlight, thereby reducing the likelihood of severe climatic change;
  • reduce population growth while safeguarding basic human rights;
  • preserve species and entire ecosystems;
  • grow their food sustainably, which means preserving soils, groundwater, and biological diversity while safeguarding human health;
  • eliminate waste and pollution;
  • restore degraded ecosystems;
  • develop economies that can be sustained within the limits of natural systems;
  • comprehend systems dynamics and long-time horizons;
  • create artistic and cultural symbols necessary to redefine the human role in nature;
  • create the political basis for an ecologically solvent democracy; and
  • create a just distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity in a world increasingly divided between rich and poor.

Third, a vigorous response to global change would require us to think openly about things now taboo, including the narrowness with which we define liberal arts, the unexamined assumptions implicit in our technological fundamentalism, the controlling assumptions hidden in a curriculum organized by departments and disciplines, and the anthropocentrism that limits our willingness to see ourselves as only a part of a larger ecological community on a long evolutionary journey. Our students will need to think in patterns and systems, yet--rhetoric to the contrary--we still emphasize disciplinary specialization. They will need a kind of lateral rigor to combine knowledge from different fields, yet we still educate them as if rigor were exclusively vertical and meant going deeper and deeper into a particular discipline. They will need a larger sense of beauty that insists on causing no ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time. Yet we still educate them as if art, science, morality, and the long-term human future were unrelated. The relevant planning questions have to do with how we might create the resources, time, and intellectual tolerance to question the reductionism and anthropocentrism buried in the organization of our academic and institutional life.

Fourth, taking the long-term human future seriously would require developing ecological literacy throughout the entire College, from students through trustees. We have a model in the continuing effort to develop and upgrade our computer literacy. We have other models having to do with gender, sexual orientation, and racial equality that have been institutionalized in policy guidelines and administrative procedures. The planning question is how we might institutionalize the capacity to think and act across discipline boundaries as if evolution, ecology, thermodynamics, and the long-term future really mattered.

Fifth, taking the long-term seriously would change how the institution operates. We have a moral interest in making certain that campus purchasing, investments, and operations of the physical plant do not undermine the integrity, beauty, and stability of the world our students will inherit. With that obligation in mind, could Oberlin take the lead to declare, say, a 10-year goal to become the first college in the world to power itself by a combination of greater efficiency, emerging solar technologies, and hydrogen? Why not? The limits are no longer technological or even economic, but those of imagination and commitment. Through the imaginative commitment of our purchasing and investments could we help leverage the emergence of a genuinely sustainable economy in the Oberlin region? And could we incorporate such things into the curriculum in ways that cross disciplinary boundaries while having a practical effect on the world? Why not? The important planning questions have to do with how we might imaginatively calibrate our stated values with our real institutional behavior and do so as part of a larger effort to teach our students that the world is indeed rich in good possibilities.

Oberlin is a distinctive institution largely because its early leaders were willing to risk the very existence of the College for large ideals. We have drawn on the moral capital they created ever since. It is fair to ask what we are willing to risk and what moral capital we will leave behind. Our predecessors risked it all for human equality. That struggle continues, but it is now subsumed in a far larger struggle to ensure a habitable planet for coming generations so that all the other struggles might go on. Future generations--the presumed beneficiaries of our strategic planning--will care not a lick for how we stacked up against the conventional indicators of institutional success. They will measure us, rather, by our foresight and for what we were willing to risk on their behalf.

This article appeared originally in the January 30, 1998, issue of the Observer, the faculty and staff newspaper of Oberlin College that published between 1979 and 1998.