A Compass for the Future

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator, January 28, 2018

Michigan State University (MSU) is making national and international news. And it’s not for its prowess on athletic fields or courts. In fact, as I’m sure everyone reading this is aware, it is for the tragedy of sexual abuse that went on for years without being stopped. The president is gone, the gymnastics coach is gone, the athletic director just quit and the abuser will remain in prison until he dies. Yet to go, but likely so, are the board of trustees.

There is plenty of anguish in these parts for the victims and for the stain on the university that will outlive many of its supporters. I wrote a couple of days ago about this horrible set of events being an opportunity. In the house cleaning that has started there is an opportunity to pause as an institution and decide in what direction to steer. Many of us believe the current board of trustees is not capable of the clear thinking and leadership necessary to make the transition. Those who visit this blog will recognize that I do read a bit. Most of what I read I bump into. Sometimes as a footnote to a work in hand, sometimes on a new book shelf in a library or a used book in a bookstore. Rarely do I decide to buy a copy of a book after I have just read a library or used copy. One of the books in my hands the past few mornings is this exception to the rule, even though I’m past the halfway point. It is a book that anyone looking to find a direction for MSU and higher education to head would be wise to read!!

David OrrI read, as the occasional readers of my blog would know, many works I do recommend. Few do I find so special that I can’t wait to let the world know. Such is the case with David Orr’s Dangerous Years: Climate Change, The Long Emergency and The Way Forward. It is not that it covers territory that no one else has explored. David refers to many of the works I have read and mentioned in this blog over the years. His 50 pages of notes are themselves worth a read. But there is simply something striking about the ‘wholeness’ quality of his thought combined with the clarity of thought and language, and a palpable infusion of deep caring. While I can’t quite find adequate words to describe this book, let me just say that one could open up randomly to any page and find paragraphs that are profound and lyrical. I will post below a small handful of examples from my reading thus far.

David recently retired from Oberlin College where he was the Paul Sears Distinguished Faculty for Environmental Studies and Politics. He has been a leader in awakening higher education to the responsibility to help us recognize our interdependence with nature and to the coming challenges of climate change and other forces.

Dangerous Years came out at the end of 2016. Something I overlooked until a week ago when I pulled it from the library shelf. I met David 20 years ago at a meeting in Atlanta of some emerging leaders of sustainability in higher education. I had read and been inspired by his 1992 book, Ecological Literacy. I have bumped into David a number of times over the years at conferences, and organized a panel program with him . Since Oberlin is only a four hour drive from East Lansing I invited him speak a number of times over the years at our campus, from which he received his M.A. before going off to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his PhD. I also have visited David in Oberlin for the dedication of the remarkable Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin in 1999. This was then and remains one of the most environmentally conscious designed buildings on any campus. It’s worth a blog in its own right.

More recently I visited David with a colleague in 2015 to interview him about the Oberlin Project –  a city/campus partnership that was re-conceptualizing community development. The last chapter of this book goes into some detail on that effort. Throughout the years I have followed David’s writings and talks as one follows any mentor you might admire. For years he wrote profoundly thoughtful essays for the scholarly journal Conservation Biology. Many of these made their way into some of his later books. Those essays challenged us to re-think what we knew about the world and our role in it. Dangerous Years seems to pull it altogether. While I like to think that I read broadly, David’s breadth of reading is light years beyond me. A short visit to his lengthy and informative notes will prove that.

But unlike most scholars who manage to get lost in the cloistered vernacular of their discipline, David is able to condense and provide access to the thoughts of others turgid prose leaping intellectual boundaries. Perhaps a couple of the accolades say it better.

“No one has thought more deeply about the great challenges of our time than David Orr. Dangerous Years is an erudite, impassioned, and deeply wise book.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

“No one knows more about the hole we’re in, and no one has worked any harder to get us out of it—David Orr is a necessary guide to the great climate crisis we find ourselves in, and this is a vital book.”—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

“David Orr has written a perfectly marvelous book, a deep and wide-ranging reflection on the human condition. It’s a winner, and a rare one at that.”—James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning, The Bridge at the End of the World, and America the Possible

 Some examples from Dangerous Years follow:

     “The deeper challenge, however, is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation — as best as we are able — for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we  have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them t see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will have to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalism of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us. They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will have to rediscover old truths and what biochemist Erwin Chargaff called “forgotten knowledge.” They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to “solve for pattern,” how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. (pp.105-06)


     “Other questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “Anthropocene”? What is the proper balance among intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform the pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in way commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality. ((p.109)


     “The reason that climate destabilization does not attract foundation attention is that the great majority of trustees, foundation administrators, and program officers — even at this late date — know relatively little about climate science and how the earth works as a physical system and why such things matter for what they and their grantees do. They are selected and hired because they have been successful in their endeavors, notably finance, business, law, media, academics and public affairs, fields that offer little incentive or occasion for serious reflection on such things as the fate of the earth. Not having thought much about it, and consorting with others similarly disinclined, they have not thus far been moved to do much about it. With some exceptions, they are, by and large, not people easily alarmed even by alarming things and so are inclined to overlook rapid climate change as only another item on a long list of problems. In philanthropic circles, then, climate destabilization lacks priority among the myriad of other concerns. (p.124)


     “We instinctively affiliate with “life and life-like processes,” or what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia.” Very young children have a rudimentary, prearticulate sense of fairness. I am inclined to think that compassion, kindness to strangers, mercy, and forgiveness are in some patchy way woven into our behavior. Deep in our bones, some things just feel, right and others abhorrent. This, I think, is the substratum of our still-evolving moral consciousness and may explain why it seems very odd whether — by any stretch of logic or sophistry — a few generations have the right to hog more than their fair share of Earth’s resources, including climate resilience. We are perhaps the first and perhaps the last generation likely to have the moral elasticity and inclination to debate such questions. (p.133)


     “For serious philanthropists of all kinds, the first challenge of truly loving humankind requires that we understand, protect, and, when possible, enhance the natural systems that nourish our bodies and souls. Restoring health to the systems we have damaged and on which we depend, however, is more than tidying up a bit after a binge. It is rather an act of atonement for the original sin of being so casually, carelessly, and sometimes wantonly destructive of things, about which we know so little and on which we depend so much. But it requires no more than an enlightened, ecologically informed self-interest. The second challenge is harder and goes further. It is to make certain that the good Earth is passed on in full to those who will (or would have) come after us. Call it a gift if you so choose, or trusteeship or stewardship, but by any name the safe passage of Earth to coming generations would be the first deliberate act of  true philanthropy from one generation to another. (p.136)

“We live in a tightly interconnected but also highly fractured nuclear-armed world in which our very survival depends on our learning to overcome our various parochialisms and divisions. We may never learn to see each other as brothers and sisters, but we have to learn to get along. That is not so much a  breakthrough as a long process by which we learn empathy and acquire the art and science of systems thinking—by which I mean the quality of mind that discerns the “patterns that connect,” in Gregory Bateson’s words. The ability to see our connectedness in larger systems is inherent in all religions, the root word for which means bound together. Like it or not, the fact is that we are kin to all that ever lived and all that will ever live—one link in the great chain of being. We may not appreciate all of our kinfolk, but their pictures are in the family scrapbook alongside our own. We are a small thread in the fabric of evolving life on Earth. In the presence of such vastness and mystery the only appropriate attitudes are those of wonder, gratitude, and lots of humility. But this is not what modern education aims to cause or cultivate. (p.158)

…The purpose of education presently is not to foster wonder or gratitude or ecological competence but rather to equip young people for jobs and careers in an economy designed to expand without limits. As Thomas Berry puts it:

The university prepares students for their role in extending the human dominion over the natural world, not for intimate presence to the natural world. Use of this power has devastated the planet…so awesome is the devastation we are bringing about that we can only conclude that we are caught in a severe cultural disorientation, a disorientation that is sustained intellectually by the university, economically by the corporations, and legally by the Constitution, spiritually by religious institutions. (p. 158-9)

…The modern university has come to resemble a Maginot Line with separate fortresses surrounded by moats and minefields. Against nearly impregnable fortifications, direct assaults are almost always futile, especially when organized and led by the non-tenured. When it advances, knowledge does so indirectly by flanking maneuvers and what Thomas Kuhn describes as paradigm changes by gerrymandering the boundaries and patrolling the borders to prevent either defections or intrusions. In fact, all disciplines in higher education endeavor to maintain a monopoly of terms, theories, and agendas, and befuddlements for the un-credentialed. It is called rigor, but is often hard to distinguish from rigor mortis. For all its needless complexity, Rube Goldberg might have been thought the architect of the byzantine machinery of knowledge “production” and transfer, but alas it was done as absent-mindedly as the British once acquired an empire. Nearly everywhere the results are the same. Our academic efforts are generally centripetal, focused (even in this day of “interdisciplinarity”) on the problems narrowly defined by discipline and subdiscipline. And the discussions among the professoriate, with some notable exceptions, leave aside the messy, big questions about the fate of civilization and human survival that are beyond this year’s departmental budget and the pressing problem of parking permits.

            It is not surprising then, that higher education has lost its way and the reasons are many. It is too expensive and too oriented to careers. The system is often demoralizing to students and faculty alike, populated by a growing number of underpaid and exploited adjunct faculty and administered in its upper reaches by educational barons paid princely salaries with lavish perks. In the larger and more successful universities, the ancient purposes of learning and so forth have become adornments to the sports programs that rake in millions of dollars while budgets for the philosophy department are slashed. Those who believe that markets are the answer, whatever the question, might propose that philosophers field their own teams that would play in stadiums suitably named for Immanuel Kant, Rene Descarte, Socrates, or maybe even Milton Friedman, paid for by the sales of books on the meaning of life and other deeper subjects. (p. 159-60)

As MSU attempts to move forward, they could learn much from the analysis and prescriptions their noted alum offers in these pages. It’s not too late, but time is running out.


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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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