‘Unsustainable Means Self-Terminating’: and other Sentences I Can’t Stop Thinking About

a Teaching Climate Change Field Notes study and blog reflection

The big news in Honolulu this week, well, aside from Tourism, the Pandemic, and the Election, was a mass sighting of a UFO over Waikiki. It was translucent, hovering and lit from within, and the Astronomy experts say that it was (most likely) the atmospheric reentry of a spent rocket from 2008.

image: Pixabay

The island of Oʻahu has several military bases, so we are used to windowless aircraft flying low and in formation. Over the years, I’ve had many students who come to community college on the Post 9/11 GI bill. The essays about the Iraq War really stopped my heart. I still sometimes think about a sentence written by one young man. It was about a ribcage wrapped around a doorframe. I mean, what kind of comment is it possible to make, in the margins of that experience? What kind of grade is it possible to give? This boy, 23 or 24 years old, wasn’t trying to be shocking; he was just trying to put his experience surviving an IED blast into words. Verbal phrases, appositive phrases, you know, that’s the kind of advice I have on offer. “Like the tensed bones of two hands, ten fingers, the ribcage gripped the doorframe in a brutal embrace of longing.” It’s not quite what he wrote but it is what comes to mind after thinking about that sentence for ten or fifteen years.

During The Vietnam War, of course, an educational deferment was one way to avoid being drafted or moving to Canada. My former department chair, a lovely woman now retired, told me a story from her teaching in the 1970s, of a boy who contested a failing paper grade that was going to cause him to fail the course, become draft-eligible, and then, perhaps, die. (This was rather similar to what I know of my own father’s negotiation of those years, during which college or graduate school or service in the reserves or having a child could literally be life or death decisions.) It doesn’t matter what my chair’s verdict was on the course grade— just that such decisions exist, still today, in higher education.

“This is not for play, this is real.” said someone this week, in one of the 30+ Zoom hours I spent participating in the over 300 sessions of the Global Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education. (I’ll check my notes and try to cite that source later, since the week is still a bit of a blur.) It does tend to be the kind of thing that people say to me, random sentences like this that I write in notebooks and on the backs of envelopes. One purpose of this ‘field notes’ blog is to just put these thoughts outside of my head. I do it for research, but also for sanity, a relief from the 24/7 mental labour that has for all of my adult life involved lesson planning while sleeping, grading at playgrounds and ballet classes and coffee shops; endless briefings and debriefings about campus politics, meeting agendas, tenure reviews, and who said what at faculty senate. And now, the climate predicament. (If you follow this blog, then you can relate; if not, then nevermind.) If you don’t draw your boundaries with some kind of supersonic 3-D Sharpie (and if you do, you probably aren’t a serious player) then your work-life balance in higher education is….probably pretty unbalanced.

So, earlier today, I was in a three hour Zoom meeting of a very important and entirely laudable network tracking the Sustainable Development Goals. I’m completely IN. I love this group and the SDGs and #WASI and ACUPCCC and the Climate Emergency Letter and — just, all of it, hundredpercent. But during the panel presentation I found myself unable to stop multitasking, particularly, doomscrolling (have I mentioned that I am a compulsive and highly skilled speedreader?) The meeting wasn’t boring — people I liked, sincere and interesting ideas and updates on the existential goals for 2030.

I may have been ‘zoomed out’ or I may have been ‘trauma blocking’, but the juxtaposition of the proximal update (X number of schools signed on to eliminate plastic forks by 2022!) with the scale of change required is just hard to hold. During breakout groups, I turned my video on and focused and made a few suggestions that I think are relevant to Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education:

The other was, that students report information about climate change to be ‘hit or miss’ in their college classes. You can absolutely graduate from college without explicitly learning about climate change. At all. I suggested that legislation was one avenue. (In 2020, 18 states — including, actually, Hawaii, introduced legislation that would mandate a scientifically informed learning outcome related to climate change.)

Meanwhile, I’m in this meeting, and I’m also doomscrolling in the members-only Deep Adaptation Facebook Group, where I’m grokking the transcripts of a four part video series called “Facing Extinction”, by Michael Brownlee. I read:

“This entire system (ie: industrial civilization) that has grown exponentially over the last ten thousand years….is now in the process of rapidly self-terminating. It’s run its course, and it’s running out of the resources necessary to keep growing.”

I also read:

“I’ll remind you of something from the brilliant mind of Daniel Schmactenberger, that ‘Unsustainable means self-terminating’”.

The ribcage held the doorframe in a brutal embrace of longing.

It kind of felt like that.

The point is, that the discourse conventions of the two conversations I tried to hold simultaneously in my mind were so far from each other as to make for an absurdity. Like a ribcage and a doorframe. How could I hold a conversation about learning outcomes or certificates (which are absolutely necessary and useful) and also consider helpful affirmations from the “Facing Extinction” course which included:

I will prepare myself to face whatever is coming in the future.

I will become as resilient and self-reliant as possible, so as to not be swept away in the storms of the Anthropocene.

I will learn to live a life of contribution and service.

I will become strong, and not succumb to depression and despair.

I’m halfway through a book by Charles Eisenstein, a “visionary” and Yale graduate who has served on the faculty Penn State’s Dept of Science, Technology, and Society (albeit as a “temporary employee type 2” according to his bio). The book is called The Ascent of Humanity. He keeps promising something positive, perhaps coming soon in Chapter 6, but the part I’m in seems absolutely endless, sooo depressing, about how education has been programming people for industrial servitude to the dualism of self and other. My speedreading skills are of no use whatsoever. There is no grok; every word is a stab and slog. (My friend Julian Keniry once described a sustainability research project we were doing as a “slog through the bog”). Well, this Eisenstein book, for me, is a real slog through the bog. But what he’s getting at, and why I’m hanging in (actually why I’m totally gripped) seems important. Some type of evolutionary awakening or quantum paradigm shift. A different sensemaking of this moment. Please.

Now, I don’t know Charles Eisenstein personally, but he feels like a colleague, a smart guy, a great writer. I deeply appreciate his work. He’s what I would call a Public Intellectual. He, and other nontraditional academics like Jem Bendell and David Orr and Paul Morgan, have followed “unorthodox” trains of thought related to climate change, climate crisis, planetary catastrophe, and the role of higher education. It is a conversation taking place at the fringes of most colleges.

Are “we” in Higher Education, listening to this conversation at all, and if so, what does it mean to the campus mission, to the curriculum? Or are we not, and if not, what does that mean? Such complex sensemaking falls to the front line knowledge workers of the university to negotiate. Either we engage with the scope and scholarship of the climate emergency, or we don’t and we just…carry on.

Either we round up the essay grade to a C, or we send the boy to war.

Either we engage the magnitude of the climate crisis honestly, and purposively, or we don’t, which makes us complicit to something that is not compatible with my professional identity as a meaning-maker and a critical pedagogist.

And meanwhile, spent rockets or StarLink satellites (or unidentified flying objects) still captivate with the possibility of something outside of our reality.

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