viernes, 30 de noviembre de 2012

What starts here accelerates the destruction of the world

UT, University of Texas, Motto Modification: What Starts Here... Accelerates Destruction of the World?
Joe   seph    J.    Bish
See:<> I want to suggest a slight modification of the University of Texas' motto, "What starts here changes the world." A more accurate slogan -- while not quite as pithy and probably less effective for public-relations purposes -- would be, "What starts here accelerates the destruction of the world." I am not suggesting that the administrators or faculty of UT, where I have been a professor for two decades, want to destroy the world. Rather, I'm arguing that like almost every other institution of higher education in the United States, UT is complicit in the ongoing destruction of the world by offering a curriculum that celebrates the existing economic/political/social systems, which undermine the life-sustaining capacity of the world. While that claim may sound crazy, I think my reasoning is calm and careful. The
destructive features of contemporary America's systems -- an extractive economy that
demands endless growth, with a mystical faith in high-energy/high-technology systems
and gadgets, dependent on continued mass consumption of goods of questionable value
-- are all woven into the fabric of UT's teaching and research. Entire departments
on campus are staffed with faculty who seem incapable of imagining a challenge to
those features and appear dedicated to maintaining the systems. The goal of most
courses is to train students to play by the existing rules, not question the systems
that produce the rules.

The obvious problem: We face multiple, cascading ecological crises that should spur
us to rethink our economy, politics and society, but the existing rules rule out
such thinking. If we can't transcend these intellectual limits, it is not clear that
an ongoing large-scale human presence on the earth will be possible. What is clear
is that affluent societies such as the United States cannot continue to live
indefinitely in the style to which so many have become accustomed. In the short term
such affluence can be maintained only by intensifying already unconscionable levels
of inequality, and in the long term even that soulless strategy can't stop the
inevitable decline and eventual collapse.

Reality Check

First, the difficult realities. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the
ecosphere in which we live -- groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, desertification,
chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of
"dead zones" in the oceans, extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity --
and ask a simple question: Are we heading in the right direction? Don't forget that
we also live in an oil-based world and are rapidly depleting the cheap and easily
accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure
that undergirds our lives. The desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought
us into the era of "extreme energy," marked by the use of more dangerous and
destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top
removal, tar sands extraction). And, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory
of global warming and climate disruption.

Where does that leave us? Instead of thinking in terms of manageable "environmental
problems," scientists these days are talking about tipping points and the breach of
planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its

Second, the deficient response. Universities, which have the resources to chart the
new paths that are necessary, too often push students onto the same old dead-end
roads. On occasion, cautionary notes from the academy are sounded. For example, one
group of scientists recently warned that humans are forcing a planetary-scale
critical transition "with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly
into a state unknown in human experience," which means that "the biological
resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable
transformations within a few human generations."

Unfortunately, most of the modern university pays no heed. The most obvious place
where realities are avoided and illusions maintained is the business school, ground
zero on campus for the indoctrination into capitalist ideology. What's the problem
with that? After all, hasn't capitalism unleashed incredible productivity and
created unparalleled wealth? Yes, but putting aside the important questions about
what the unequal distribution of that wealth says about our alleged commitment to
moral principles (in case it's not clear, it says we don't take our moral principles
very seriously), we now face the grim reality that capitalism is ecocidal.
Industrial capitalism treats the world as a mine from which to extract resources and
a dump for wastes. Largely unregulated markets obscure that destruction, as
financial "instruments" are traded with no regard for what is necessary for a real
economy to continue -- the capacity of nature to sustain life.

Schools of Thought

But in business school, future corporate leaders are taught to maximize profit,
marketing experts develop evermore ways to sell us things we don't need, and
financial wizards slice and dice the numbers to make it all work -- at least on
paper. How much critique of the destructive capacity of contemporary corporate
capitalism will students encounter in the UT business school? I regularly ask my
students about their experience in business classes, and they report that there is
virtually no such discussion beyond occasional mentions of "corporate social
responsibility," a concept designed to assuage consciences rather than deal with
core problems. Real critique in business classes is so rare that when I ask that
question, students either look confused or chuckle at the absurdity.

Move over to the economics department, which at UT (and most other universities) is
dominated by the conventional wisdom of neoclassical and/or mildly reformist
Keynesian economic thought. These models acknowledge "market failures" and "negative
externalities," and then proceed to downplay the dramatic consequences. Failures and
externalities such as climate disruption and other human-generated forms of
ecological destruction aren't mere footnotes to otherwise well-functioning models.
Yet while these looming disasters reveal the models to be irrational, market
fundamentalism demands we ignore the obvious.

These difficult realities do not seem to slow down the economics department or the
business school, as they offer instruction in the theory and practice of a system
that is killing the planet at a quickening pace.

In other parts of the university, the story is slightly more complicated. In the
government department and law school, for example, a wider range of views are
acceptable, but the overall thrust of each is toward the conventional. The study of
law and politics typically takes corporate capitalism as non-negotiable, and so
other aspects of our lives must adapt to the rules of that economic game. A few
critics are allowed in these departments but are largely treated as cranky misfits
who need not be taken seriously.

In the sciences and engineering, there is less attention paid to
economic/political/social systems. There, administrators and faculty see their
disciplines as focused on answering different kinds of questions. Here it is not
market fundamentalism but technological fundamentalism that is most troubling.

Technological fundamentalists assume that the increasing use of evermore
sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any
problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be
remedied by more technology. This kind of magical thinking offers a reassuring way
out of the problems that the extractive/industrial economy has created -- if we
ignore the history of those unintended consequences.

The story of air-conditioning is a great example. The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
widely used in cooling systems were depleting the ozone layer, and so they were
replaced with "safer" hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which we now know are
contributing significantly to global warming. Rather than rethink our demand for
constant cooling, we stumble forward looking for the next technological fix. But if
we look only for "solutions" that don't disturb existing systems, and those existing
systems are unsustainable, then our solutions are at best irrelevant and at worst
will exacerbate the fundamental problems and make it harder for people to imagine
new systems. That's not an argument to abandon all attempts to improve technology,
but rather a reminder of technology's limits and dangers.

The university departments where one is most likely to find the culture of sustained
critical inquiry we need are in the humanities and the social sciences. These
departments -- philosophy, history, literature, sociology, anthropology, as well as
ethnic and women's studies -- will vary ideologically depending on time and place,
but they offer space from which one can think about challenges to existing systems
of power and privilege.

While much excellent and exciting thinking goes on in such settings, too often the
way in which that knowledge is framed and communicated guarantees that any insights
will not go beyond a narrow scholarly community. The university's system of rewards
and punishments encourages professors to stay stuck in the academic trenches, which
have become increasingly self-indulgent spaces. As long as critically minded
academics stay safely within academic life and speak an unnecessarily jargon-laden
specialized language, they are free to pursue whatever topics they like, but at the
cost of social irrelevance.

Power To The ... Powers That Be?

Let me be clear about what I am NOT arguing: I am not suggesting there is no good
intellectual work done at UT; I am not suggesting that the system has cowed every
administrator or professor; and I most certainly am not saying that anyone who
disagrees with me is corrupt or incompetent. Reasonable people can disagree, and I
do not think I have an exclusive claim on wisdom. I consider myself a hard-working
second-tier intellectual and make no claim to being a terribly deep or original
thinker. This essay reflects the analyses and arguments made by an increasingly
large group of critics urging us to step back and think more deeply about the world
we have built.

And let me be clear about one more thing: I love my job and am grateful for the
resources that UT provides for my work. But when I try to understand the system in
which I work, I observe patterns that keep certain points of view dominant and other
approaches marginal. I see younger faculty who want to challenge that system but get
beaten down, or who toe the line out of fear, or who are quickly seduced by the
promise of privilege. I see students who want to push their professors to consider
more critical views but often give up when they meet resistance.

Most important to understanding all this, I see a system of higher education that is
structured hierarchically like a corporation and largely dependent on corporations
for support. The primary reason that UT rarely challenges the conventional wisdom is
that it is dependent on other institutions and people who build, maintain, and
profit from the conventional wisdom.

The University of Texas should be a place where teaching and research challenge the
culture to face what it prefers to ignore. Such confrontation isn't going to come
from corporations in a capitalist economy, which are dedicated to the status quo.
Such confrontation isn't going to come from conventional political parties and
politicians, who are largely captured by the wealth concentrated in the corporate
sector. Such confrontation usually emerges on the margins of society, from
relatively small grassroots groups that generate new ideas but lack the resources to
put the relevant issues on the public agenda.

Universities could serve an important role in helping amplify those challenges to
power. They have not only the resources, but the responsibility of pursuing
knowledge even when the consequences are uncomfortable. UT claims that "we are a
catalyst for change," but the institution implicitly defines that as "change within
existing systems." While UT administrators may be heartfelt in their belief that "we
are driven to solve society's issues," most of the so-called solutions that are
generated ignore or intensify the fundamental problems of the systems.

In a culture that is short on long-term vision, universities are vital spaces for
critical thought. Instead of remaining trapped within the logic of existing systems,
that critical thinking has to be more creative. If there is to be a decent future,
we have to give up on the imperial fantasy of endless power, the capitalist fantasy
of endless growth, the technological fantasy of endless comfort.

There's a lot of intellectual work to do if we are to create such a future. What
starts at UT and other universities can change the world, but only if we give up on
those seductive fantasies and start facing the difficult realities.

Thank you,



Joseph J. Bish

Population Outreach Manager

Population Media Center

145 Pine Haven Shores Road, Suite 2011

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