Sustainability on and off campus: food for thought

By Joern Fischer

During my postdoc, Will Steffen directed the institute where I worked in Australia. He referred to the Anthropocene as a “non-analogue state” — i.e. there was no historical parallel to what was happening to the Earth system. I’ve often thought of this phrase over the last few days: what the world is experiencing now is a fascinating case study of the Anthropocene in a nutshell. The number of sustainability lessons in front of us right now is pretty much endless.

In this blog post, I won’t even try to come anywhere close to a comprehensive list of what we can learn from current events (a nice reflection on conservation specifically by the way, can be found here). But there are three things that keep coming to my mind, and that I’d like to raise here.

  1. Exponential growth in urbanisation and global hyper-connectedness are part of the Anthropocene — the dangers of leaving these patterns unquestioned are becoming apparent more than ever just now. According to resilience theory, hyper-connected systems are often not very resilient. More than ever, we see the downside of exponential growth in urbanisation and hyper-connectedness unfolding in front of our eyes. While praying to the Gods of Efficiency and Specialisation, humanity has essentially forgotten to remain healthy and resilient; which often requires less connectivity, and may even call for “wasting time”, as Marten Scheffer put it so nicely at the Resilience Conference in Stockholm a few years ago.
  2. Moreover, speaking of resilience and efficiency, there are real questions as to what ought to be the appropriate response of universities to the current situation. There’s much to be said for keeping universities running, and for shifting teaching activities to online formats whenever possible. This will, after all, maintain a certain level of normality in these not-so-normal times; it will keep both students and teachers occupied in meaningful social conduct; and it may even be especially interesting in sustainability-oriented subjects because of the current events.

    But here, too, a focus on delivering high-quality education content to keep things going is a double-edged sword: while it’s sensible and responsible to keep things running, it might also be dangerous to expect that we can keep things running as if everything was entirely normal. Our global social-ecological system has just punched us in the stomach, and we’d be well advised to at least take note of this — and take it as a warning signal that not all is well with that system. We can, of course, just put all teaching content online, and plan to go back to normal in autumn … but that’s a huge wasted opportunity to not face the current situation for what it actually could be: a social-ecological warning call that actually reaches Europe, and that unlike most of the other social-ecological crises around the world, wealthy nations at last cannot fully ignore. It would be nice to learn from this warning call — including the all-important lessons about resilience and efficiency that I raised in point 1. If we think we can keep everything going as normal, we’ll further undermine the resilience of many aspects of our personal “inner systems” … which takes me to point 3.

  3. People are people, not robots (and that’s a good thing). At university, this goes for both university teachers and university students. As robots, we could just shift everything online and keep up our efficient learning endeavours. As people, we are emotionally involved in what is going on, and we have relationships that need attention — including relationships with our children, other loved ones, and our inner selves. Extra energy is needed by each and every individual right now to make sense of the current events, and to cope in practical ways as well as emotionally. Some university teachers and students have children they need to look after, for example. There’s a reason we have a “workplace” normally, namely that being equally productive from home is not always possible, especially not when engaged in childcare! So based on this alone, we need to seriously reduce our expectations as to what is actually possible right now, in terms of continuing “business as usual”.

    But equally important, people are emotional beings, and making sense of all that is happening requires time and energy: and if we don’t want to further undermine our collective resilience, we’d be well advised to invest that energy into ourselves and our relationships, as a top priority, ahead of keeping “business” going. Many people are seriously distressed right now, and that’s not only those who are actually sick, or are in touch with someone who’s sick. For many of us, it’s simply painful to see the world as we know it fail; and many of us (in science) have analysed exponential growth curves for many years, and highlighted their inevitable dangers. Dealing with the present situation as such is also an emotional challenge. As such, this time presents an opportunity for introspection and strengthening relationships. If we don’t take our being human and not robots seriously, we risk seeing a wave of new mental health problems while “social distancing” is taking place, as well as missing a global invitation to gradually adjust humanity’s trajectory towards a more sustainable one.

Or in short: Slow down, now.

2 thoughts on “Sustainability on and off campus: food for thought

  1. Well put Joern. I completely agree that this time is an important invitation to take time to reflect and consider whether we are happy with where our world is heading, and to rediscover our humanity. The easiest responses will be to double down on the task of getting back to business as usual, or to distract ourselves with mindless entertainment until the whole thing goes away. But the opportunity is here at this point of ‘release’ in the adaptive cycle to consider how we should ‘reorganise’ around a more sustainable, just and ‘human’ society. Time will tell whether or not we take this opportunity.

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