Thursday, December 25, 2008

Biodiversity (Again)

Eleven years ago (1997) I attended a conference on biodiversity at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. I was reminded of what I had already known—the earth is the early stages of the sixth megaextinction, the catastrophic breakdown of biodiversity. Indeed, this prompted me to write a book, Bringing the Biosphere Home—Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change (MIT Press, 2001) which essentially is about how to educate for biodiversity and climate change.

Several weeks ago the National Council for Science and the Environment held its annual conference in Washington. This year's topic was biodiversity. Attending the conference allowed me to reflect on the last decade. You already know the news! World economic development, the continued emphasis on petroleum products, and the extraordinary growth in the Chinese and Indian economies have accelerated biodiversity loss at an unimagined pace.

As discouraging and depressing as this is, for the first time in recent memory, there is actually a great deal of hope in Washington. Why? The Obama team has assembled a science team that is knowledgeable, committed, and completely understands the severity of the biodiversity crisis.

Jane Lubchenco a Professor at Oregon State University (who holds an Honorary doctorate from Unity College!), the new NASA director, is a marine biologist who has long been an advocate of biodiversity initiatives.

Check out her website

Johm Holdren, A Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University and the President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, will lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He delivered a riveting lecture at the Eighth NCSE conference called "Meeting the Climate-Change Challenge."

Check out his website

Steven Chu, the new Secretary of Energy, directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is a long-time advocate of alternative energy development, and a Nobel Prize winning physics Professor.

Learn more about him here:

This is an absolutely extraordinary team and we have high hopes for what they might accomplish. Additionally, the Obama transition team has met repeatedly with some of the nation's foremost ecologists, environmental scientists, climate change experts, and biodiversity advocates. There is a great deal of hope and confidence that the forthcoming administration actually understands and cares about these challenges.

What does this mean for higher education generally and Unity College specifically? It lends greater meaning to our own efforts to revitalize our curriculum. We must prepare our students to (1) understand the dimensions of the climate change and biodiversity crises (2) develop the expertise to pursue meaningful and pertinent careers (3) take active roles as proponents of environmental awareness. Our students can now pursue their studies knowing that there will be hope, initiative, and support for their efforts. What a difference that makes as they embark on their careers. They must also understand that they face a daunting challenge. But it will be much easier for them to do so knowing that there will be support for their efforts.

I cannot think of anything more urgent for our nation's college students then to get mobilized and educated on behalf of preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. All of the recent emphasis on sustainability and a green economy is magnificent. Yet we must remember that these are responses to a bigger challenge. If a green economy lacks an ecological ethic then it will merely be a passing trend, a superficial way to get people back to work rebuilding a failing infrastructure. That's important! But it won't be enduring or resilient if it lacks the requisite environmental awareness.

At Unity College the best way we can support the new administration is to train a new generation of environmental leaders who will not only help create the foundation of a green economy, but will do so with preserving biodiversity in mind. That is at the heart of our curricular challenge.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Environmental Studies for Whom?

I just returned (two weeks ago) from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) Conference for College Presidents and Board Trustees. This concludes my annual trek to three higher education conferences. The others are the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) President’s Conference and the New England Association of Colleges and Universities (NEASC) annual conference.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from all three conferences. There is virtual unanimity around the following trends:
- A college education is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
- There is an alarming class stratification defining those who have the means to attend college (the lower and middle classes are increasingly left out).
- There is increased scrutiny of the value of higher education, what is called accountability.
- Competition to attract students will become increasingly stiff (especially in the Northeast) as the post-boomer generation declines.
- The fiscal crisis of the state (less support from the government) coupled with the unsettling economic times will dictate an era of diminishing fiscal support.

The conventional response is that all colleges have to develop strategic and innovative business models, define their marketing niches, implement lean and mean cost accounting procedures (especially as applied to academic programs), carefully tune their enrollment management strategies, reward entrepreneurial staff and faculty, search for alternative sources of revenue, and aggressively cultivate philanthropic support. In other words, implement a first-rate business plan!

All of this makes sense. I am deeply worried about the accessibility and affordability of higher education. And I’m sure that much of the advice regarding strategic leadership and innovative management is absolutely correct. Surely we are moving in this direction at Unity College. And so is every other institution that attends these meetings! At least we aspire to do so.
One of the big questions here, and perhaps the most riveting one for Unity College is: Who Gets to Go to College? Applied more directly to our mission and purpose: Environmental Studies for Whom?

One third of the students at Unity College are what are known as first-generation college students. That means they are the first people in their families to attend college. These are exactly the young people who are most underserved by higher education in America. They are the ones at highest risk for being left out of college access and affordability. Further, many of these students come from families who have historically earned their living by working the land, often in natural resource industries. In many of the states we serve, these industries are in decline, or making the transition to a tourist-based economy, or hopefully restructuring towards a sustainable approach to these industries.

Here’s our dilemma (and it’s faced by all colleges that serve first generation students). If we provide too much financial aid, we can’t generate enough revenue to operate. If we don’t provide enough, these students will be unable to afford college. Increasingly this challenge faces any middle-income student (first generation or not) who wishes to attend college.

At Unity College, we believe that it’s crucial to train a new generation of students who will be the pioneers of the new sustainability industries. We hope that hundreds of thousands of young people will go to college (at Unity and elsewhere) not only so they have the opportunity to earn a good living and lead fulfilling lives, but so we they are equipped to lead America to a sustainable future.

Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn of the Environmental Defense Fund address the urgency of the new sustainability industries in their book Earth: The Sequel:

“A revolution is on the horizon: a wholesale transformation of the world economy and the way people live. The revolution will depend on industrial technology—capital intensive, shovel-in-the-ground industries—and will almost certainly create the great fortunes of the twenty-first century. But this new industrial revolution holds a more important promise: securing the world against the dangers of global warming. It is developing amid the poltical, economic, and technological equivalence of the perfect storm: worldwide concern about the enormous threat of greenhouse gases, growing realization that we are prisoners of petroleum—hostage to the unstable, sometimes hostile, regimes that control the supplies of crude and natural gas—and, finally, huge and accelerating advances in technology that make possible unprecedented breakthroughs in how we make and use energy.”

Here are three converging trends: the growing inaccessibility of higher education, the promise of a new “sustainable” industrial revolution, and the threat of global warming. If we link the “crisis” in higher education to this bigger challenge (future ecology and economy of the planet), we can begin to craft solutions.

America’s colleges and universities should be retooled so that they can provide maximum opportunity for students of all income levels, especially if they want to be trained for the new sustainable industries. We can reconstruct our economy by seeding these industries with an entire generation of young people who are looking for a cause. And we can’t expect colleges and universities to do it on their own. They need strong support from businesses and government. They need strong support from the voting public. If we train students to earn fulfilling livings by engaging them in an innovative, sustainable economy, most colleges will address the issue of accountability—they will make their institutions relevant and vital!

When I ask Environmental Studies for Whom I mean to suggest that environmental studies should be taught to everybody. As David Orr, Gus Speth, Michael Crow, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Tony Cortese, and countless others suggest: our crisis of education is a crisis of environment and our crisis of environment is a crisis of values.

This is the mentality that should inform how our colleges do business. It will certainly be the basis for how Unity College navigates its path to the future and who it chooses to serve.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The End of the Earth (and its Renewal)

"You don't inherit place. You commit to it. You take its meanings upon yourself: its history, its rhythms, its defining character. When you make a place a home—an affectionately regarded range of ground from which you take identity (literally your home ground)—you are taking upon yourself an active duty of care."

Pete Hay

Tasmania is breathtakingly beautiful and when I am there I wonder to myself: "Can I be born again and live my life here?" Such thoughts don't imply dissatisfaction with beautiful Northern New England.......well perhaps they do reveal some impatience with a very long much as they reflect the intriguing natural landscape.

Dig deeper, however, and you realize, the extent to which Tasmania is a contested landscape. It's ecological and cultural heritage is fragile and threatened. It contains the dark shadow of an outrageous Aboriginal genocide, a controversial colonization—ecological imperialism, agricultural domestication, incarceration—and more recently fierce political disagreements as to how the landscape should be managed (wilderness protection versus industrial forestry). 

The tentative compromise (historically speaking) is that southwest Tasmania is a world heritage area. But many of the remaining wilderness areas are unprotected and scheduled for logging and/or mining. A stunning new book of photography, Endangered Tasmania, presents luscious spreads of these landscapes, with liner notes explaining when they are scheduled for desecration. Given the "industrial" form of so much of Tasmania's natural resource extraction history, these "endangered" landscapes are truly at risk. It also seems to me, as an outsider, that Tasmania has yet to find a middle ground, a long-term plan for sustainable ecological land use, which would feature selective cutting, alternative energy, biodiversity protection, and economic opportunity. 

Pete Hay, a political theorist/poet/essayist/place-based activist, addresses these challenges in a riveting and provocative series of essays (Vandiemonian Essays), which brilliantly reconstruct the history of the island (which he prefers to call Van Diemen's Land), striving to form an ecological identity, grounded in the ecological and cultural reality of the island. 

This place, call it what you will, with it's compelling beauty, contested history, and  remarkable ecology, isn't really "the end of the earth" as much as it is a living laboratory for the future of life on earth. Tasmania's future is no different than anyplace else. It's legacy and ancestry are inextricably linked, and a reconstructed history, one that is truly multicultural and ecological, will allow its inhabitants to live in place as they define it. Pete Hay describes his work as subversive because he (and his colleagues and fellow activists) are trying to reconceptualize the future of the island so that it fully embodies it's ecological and cultural heritage and potential. 

What happens is Tasmania matters for the entire planet. When Pete asked Jake what brought him to the end of the earth, perhaps he was also thinking that this place is where the earth (and his own future) is renewed, fully understanding all of the struggles such renewal implies. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Visit to Tasmania (Part One)

I was having dinner with Pete Hay, a wonderful Tasmanian writer and professor along with my son Jake who is studying photography at the University of Tasmania. Pete asked Jake why he was attracted to visit the "end of the earth." Jake remarked that Tasmania looked so compelling on his map of the world and then explained that when he arrived in Hobart, the air was so clear that he felt like he was viewing the world through binoculars.

Have a look at a map of the world and check out Tasmania. Notice its longitude. There is no other land at that longitude with the exception of a thin slice of Southern Chile. The "roaring forties" sweep through Tasmania, battering its Western edge with winds and rain. The rugged southwest is roadless and impenetrable rain forest. Many sections receive considerably more than one hundred inches of rain a year. However, the Eastern edge is in a rainshadow, receiving only twenty inches of rain. Hobart, the capital city, has a wonderful climate, and the Eastern shore is downright balmy.

Tasmania is a naturalist's dream. As part of a land mass that originally included Australia and New Zealand, its flora and fauna are relics of ancient Gondwanaland. For a North American, you've got a complex assortment of plant assemblages and species, most of which you've never previously encountered. The mammals are marsupials and monotremes and primarily nocturnal. And after you've seen a few of the cosmopolitan bird species (egrets and
 cormorants), you're on your own. Further, Tasmania has been separated from mainland Australia for almost ten thousand years so their are unique microhabitat adaptations. As Tasmania is the most mountainous island in the world, their are dozens of topographical, climatic, and substrate variations, resulting in an intriguing biogeography. 

Yet Tasmania is a fiercely contested landscape. The "wild and rugged" southwest is a world heritage area. But there is an ongoing  and historical controversy regarding natural resource extraction, polluted landscapes, and misplaced dams. Much of Tasmania's landscape is currently threatened. Hence it is a compelling and vivid case study for the future of biodiversity, sustainability, and dwelling in place.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Importance of Earth System Science

The Sunday New York Times had an interesting article by Andrew Revkin reporting on a conference of climate change doubters.
You can get there with this link:

Anyone who is concerned about climate change should read this article. Above all, you come away reiterating the importance of rigorous science. No single event, or season, or annual pattern can possibly reveal the spatial and temporal complexity of climate change. Yet we often cite anecdotal observations and information to indicate that the weather is changing. Earth system scientists rely on a complex array of emerging data. At the same time, we can't prove with one hundred per cent predictability a causal relationship between human activity and long-term climate change. But we can reliably assess important climatological patterns and we can indicate with a high percentage of reliability that carbon emissions are contributing to climate destabilization.

That's why I believe it's essential that every environmental studies student has a strong background in earth system science, understands scientific inquiry in relationship to earth system processes, and can distinguish between anecdotal observations and data-driven patterns. Similarly it's important to distinguish between scientific inquiry and propaganda.

At Unity College we are designing a new earth systems science major which will enable students to pursue work in global change science. It will strengthen the earth system foundation for all of our ecology and wildlife students as well. These will be crucial courses for our sustainability majors. Indeed, I will advocate that all students who graduate from an environmental college (or any college for that matter) ought to have an understanding of earth system sciences.

In a few weeks we will announce a new faculty member to help lead us in designing this major and this new suite of courses.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Climate Change and the Future of Higher Education

If you take the time to follow the latest climate change research or speak with the world-class scientists who are observing the data, you come away profoundly shaken. In essence they are deeply concerned that climate destabilization is happening much more quickly than even their worst scenarios projected. The most riveting changes prevail at the Poles where the ice is melting at extraordinary rates. If you’re interested in following the fascinating science of climate change, check out Dr. Steven Schneider’s (Stanford University) outstanding website.

About a month ago, I attended the annual conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment. This year’s topic “Climate Change: Science and Solutions” had well over one thousand participants. Speakers and panelists included a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including James Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy; Abigail Kimbell, Chief of the US Forest Service; and John Holdren, the President of the Woods Hole Research Center. Amongst the dozens of luminaries were hundreds of concerned scientists, policymakers, educators, business people, and citizens. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I report that there was an overwhelming consensus permeating the proceedings—climate destabilization is the most profound challenge facing the planet and it’s happening as quickly as our worst scenarios projected. Solutions will require a greater sense of urgency, international collaboration, and the mobilization of industry, government, and science. The conference generated hope by virtue of the creative energy of its participants.

But then we all arrive home to the long list of other things that we have to do. How do we convert the sense of urgency generated by the conference and translate it to our workplaces, communities, school systems and neighborhoods?

If the climate change crisis is as significant as many people think (I am a fervent believer), how do we respond? There are dozens of great writers and educators who have addressed this question magnificently over the last decade, most notably David Orr and Bill McKibben, who present compelling cases as to why all education should be environmental. And now college and university presidents are responding as well. Under the visionary and inspiring leadership of Anthony Cortese of Second Nature and Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, The President’s Climate Commitment has enlisted nearly five hundred institutions who have pledged to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Here in Maine, our neighbor colleges, College of the Atlantic, the University of Maine (Farmington), and the University of Maine (Machias), among many others in the state, are also taking prominent leadership roles in addressing this issue.

For Unity College, this provides additional inspiration, support, and vitality for our sustainability efforts. There is no letting up or turning back. We must set an example for our students, their families, and the community for how to live sustainably. But it goes deeper than that. The sustainability imperative raises fundamental questions not only about how we live, but how we learn, and that is the topic of this essay.

Consider a thought experiment. If you could start a college from scratch and you were designing that college to deal with the most urgent environmental challenges facing the planet, what would you do?

Here are my guiding principles:
1) Classes are offered twelve months of the year
2) Students help pay their tuition by taking an active role in building a sustainable community (growing food, working compost, retrofitting buildings, and other work chores)
3) All freshman take courses in the three most urgent and interrelated environmental challenges facing the planet: climate change, species extinction, and biodiversity
4) All students pursue a suite of real world skills that will allow them to apply their knowledge upon graduation
5) The college works in partnership with the most innovative environmental businesses in preparing a vital, adaptable, and effective workforce.
6) Students understand the basic principles of communicating ideas to a broader public, including the use of art, music, writing, poetry, dance, and graphic design.

Within these six fundamental design principles, you could construct flows of work and study (call them majors if you must), career and professional directions (research, business, education, communication, law enforcement), and delivery models (when students come to campus).

What excites me about Unity College is that if you think about it and you are willing to let go of some of the vestiges and layers of our academic history, and then embrace the best of our values and traditions, we are not very far from being able to accomplish this.

I’d like to provide a bit more detail regarding the six principles and then offer some suggestions as to how we might develop a collective vision for our academic future. Just bear with me. Don’t think about all the reasons why this can’t work, or how it may change something you really like about how Unity College currently operates. Use these ideas as a means to dream up even better ones of your own.

The Twelve-Month Campus
Although Unity College is beautiful throughout the year, it is absolutely stunning from May through August, yet that is the time of least activity. With an active campus during the summer, we can grow more food, save energy costs, have longer days to get things done, enjoy ourselves more as we work, and provide great hands-on, field research opportunities for our students. We could take a much longer winter break, perhaps even closing for January and February (saving significantly on energy costs). With a three-semester system, we would have more flexibility for field semesters, work semesters, and course offerings. Some students could even finish in three years. That means we could get them into the work force more quickly.

The Work College
I’m convinced that Unity College should provide students with academic, professional, and real-world work skills. A great way to build community is to have all of its members working together on the vital aspects of community life. Colleges such as Berea and Warren Wilson have been very successful using such a model. It lowers the costs for our students and also provides us with a work force for a lot of our sustainability initiatives.

Freshman Courses
I’d like every freshman to learn the basics of climate change science, biodiversity and ecology, and sustainability science. Such courses could be the basis from which we teach biology, ecology, earth systems science, economics, and the humanities. Or they can serve as topics courses (freshman seminars) that are offered in parallel with more traditional approaches. They need to begin thinking about, processing, and applying these issues right away—using these challenges as a further motivation to learn the core interdisciplinary science. I’d like us to think more deeply about the conceptual skills that are necessary to teach the concepts of environmental change and to design courses that teach those skills. See my essay “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” for a lengthy discussion of this concept.

Real-World Skills
By the end of a student’s second year, he or she can begin thinking about core professional directions. We should think carefully about the kinds of careers we want to train our students for and then do the very best we can to prepare them. If they are going into the sustainability professions, what are the skills that will enable them to truly make a difference in the workplace?

And then, with those professional directions clearly in mind, what kind of internships and apprenticeships will best launch the student’s career? I’d like Unity to have working partnerships with the most innovative and interesting businesses, law enforcement agencies, schools, think tanks, etc., so we are always aware of what the employer requires and how our students can contribute.

Communicating Ideas
We need environmental practitioners who not only have sound substantive and professional skills but who know how to communicate. Whether it’s through developing web materials, understanding group process and leadership, writing great stories, using images and sounds, working with video—all Unity graduates should have a portfolio of communication tools.

Think about it. Is Unity College very far from being able to implement this? I don’t think so. We need to sharpen our academic vision, think imaginatively about the possibilities that are open to us, experiment a little bit, have some great conversations, make some decisions and then proceed! I’m not suggesting that it will be easy or comfortable. There will be different points of view and educational philosophies. But these are vital and dynamic conversations. And we should always remember the urgency of the planetary challenge. If we are “America’s Environmental College” then we have to respond with clarity, alacrity, and boldness.

In conjunction with the Master Planning Process (Unity 2020), and with the guidance of the Leadership Council, I will be asking Amy Knisley and the Academic Leadership to begin a similar academic planning process. How do we insure that Unity College really makes a difference in our students lives and in responding to the planetary challenge?

I consider questions like this every day and my hope is that it can be on the minds of everyone who thinks about our academic future.

We are the future of higher education and we have to respond to the challenge of climate change in all that we do.

Mitchell Thomashow
President, Unity College