How Ecological Collapse Affects Your Discipline

While writing the headline of this article, questions are storming through my head about the legitimacy of burdening people’s shoulders with even more things to worry about. We are living in trying times, facing unprecedented difficulties, experiencing a mix of fear, uncertainty, despair, even depression. More bad news is the last thing anyone needs. Many of us hope things will soon get back to normal, but let’s face it: they won’t, and we know it. Oh sure, maybe the current vaccines will allow a few more years of relative peace to be squeezed out. But it is now almost common knowledge that another emergency—climate change and the unprecedented level of biosphere degradation happening alongside—is continuing to spiral out of control. At some level, somewhere in the back of our minds, we all understand that this threat will change everything. 


In fact, in this day and age, it would be rather curious to meet a single person who is not concerned or at least aware of the world’s current environmental issues. We all know (even if we deny) that glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, weather is becoming more extreme, fresh water and forests are disappearing, species are dying out and pollution levels are dangerous. We have known this for years, some of us our entire lives. We are aware that the UN, the EU, and some of the most progressive and ambitious states, now hopefully including the USA, are trying to do something about it. We also know that it may not be enough. You probably have heard about the Green (New) Deal, the green transition of the economy, the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and the Paris Agreement. Everybody knows who Greta Thunberg is—a young woman somehow both admired and hated by people around the globe. She, more than anyone else, has brought the world’s attention to the threats to our survival on this planet. 


And yet, despite all this, I have good reason to think that many of us, including some of the most esteemed scholars, continue to neglect the issue and use all sorts of mechanisms to suppress it in their minds, continuing to live their lives as if nothing were happening. We all do it to some extent. Take, as an example, a group of students who took my “Environmental Crisis and Global Sustainability” course. In autumn, they accomplished a team project in which they cooperated with Professor Joseph Dodds to organize a lecture at UNYP about the coping mechanisms we use for dealing with things we find too large to comprehend and seemingly impossible to control. Specifically, things such as climate change. Suppression, dissociation and distancing from grand problems of such magnitude and complexity is, sadly, quite normal. Evolution has not equipped our brains with the ability to perceive seemingly invisible and relatively slowly-encroaching risks of such a scale. Hearing about them in the news simply might not be enough, especially given how disconnected from the natural world many of us have become. Thanks to their work with Professor Dodds, these students have also revealed other defense mechanisms, the most interesting and dangerous of which include denial and repression.  


These mechanisms are most obviously found in highly conservative circles, among people who have grown accustomed to one specific worldview which they refuse to change, and instead reject anything that does not fit into their paradigm. However, they are by no means limited to these circles. Instead, they manifest themselves in different ways. As Naomi Klein pointed out close to a decade ago in an interview with Jason Mark (2013), “conservatives deny the science while some liberals deny the political implications of the science.” These political implications are truly massive, and imagining them, let alone accepting them, is rather difficult. They really will change everything, affecting every corner of our society, every transaction, and indeed the academic world as well – a point I will come back to shortly. 


And while we repress and deny, the situation is getting worse. Just last month a team of 17 researchers, citing 150 studies, indicated that the situation is “far more dangerous” than the current discourse would lead us to believe. They report that “the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms —including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts” (my emphasis; Bradshaw et al. 2021).  


So, what are we to do as an academic institution, as a community of truth-seekers and disseminators, if we are unable to grasp the enormity of this emergency and its implications? Are we not ourselves in denial about what we must do in the face of this crisis? In answering this question, I contend that the academic world in its entirety, for this is surely an all-encompassing problem if there ever was one, needs to rethink its role in light of this emergency if we have any hope of overcoming the denial and repression we are all experiencing, to overcome our desire to go back to normal, and instead get on with the very real needs we must address as we hang on the precipice of disaster.    


The question I continue to ask myself over and over is whether these defense mechanisms could be overcome through education. My students seem to think so, as can be manifested using their own examples, and as they also repeatedly let me know in their feedback of the course—implying that a course on the ongoing environmental crisis should be taught everywhere, and in all programs.  


Yet on its own, education is not the solution either. And the proof is evident upon reflection. While the field of Earth Science is still relatively young, and its findings, as a result, are not yet common knowledge, nor part of the way we perceive the world around us, teaching people about concepts such as “the Anthropocene” and “planetary boundaries” have not been enough. Instead, we need to ensure that our colleagues and students understand how the sophisticated global databases, observation techniques and modelling systems of contemporary Earth Science fit into their areas of expertise. As the same team of scientists pointed out via Levin (1999 in Bradshaw et al. 2021) “disciplinary specialization and insularity encourage unfamiliarity with the complex adaptive systems in which problems and their potential solutions are embedded.” This concern is not limited to the natural sciences, as you might think, but the social and formal sciences too. The way we do science itself needs to be rethought in light of this existential emergency, where all hands really must be on deck. What is needed here is to begin studying, researching, working and educating in a more interdisciplinary way, so that we can overcome our cognitive dissonance when it comes to the ramifications of climate change and ecological breakdown. Indeed, even with the knowledge of what is necessary, without a truly interdisciplinary, emergency approach to this crisis, comprehending what is needed to tackle it is nearly impossible.  
 
References: 
Bradshaw et al. (2021). Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Frontiers in Conservation Science 1, 1-10. 
Levin, S. (1999). Fragile Dominion. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing. In: Bradshaw et al. (2021). Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Frontiers in Conservation Science 1, 1-10. 
Mark, Jason. “Naomi Klein: Big Green is in denial.” Salon. 5 Sep 2013. Accessed 14 Feb 2021 via: https://www.salon.com/2013/09/05/naomi_klein_big_green_groups_are_crippl...

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