A new role for the universities?

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15-21 October is Global Climate Change Week. The IPPC has just issued a report[i] asserting that humanity is likely to exhaust its budgetary quota of greenhouse gases by 2030, after which we incur higher and higher risks of deleterious climatic changes, and increased risks of triggering feedback effects that will make remedial measures increasingly difficult. Quite possibly, a point of no return.

Many of us in the environmental community have been aware of this for a long time, and we’ve exhausted ourselves yelling about the need for urgent responses. Generally we have been ignored.  But not entirely:  many people do seem to be listening, but somehow they are not acting. In view of the very high stakes, this seems odd, if not downright bizarre.

 In 2008 the distinguished social scientist Antony Giddens wrote a book called The Politics of Climate Change, [ii] in which he remarked on the oddity of non-action and gave it a label: The Giddens Paradox. Naturally we Old Hands were amused that a neophyte would swan into the field and bestow his name on an important phenomenon, but in science priority of publication is all; he was the first to actually give it a name, so there it is, the Giddens Paradox: Why, given the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced, do we seem so determined not to do anything?

 Perhaps it is not so paradoxical. George Marshall’s gripping Don’t Even Think About It[iii] gives 101 reasons why climate change is hard to think about rationally and even harder to confront in terms of practical policies. As the great Daniel Kahneman[iv] and many others[v] have exhaustively demonstrated, thinking is simply too riddled with evolutionary heuristics to be much use when it comes to designing a rational collective response to global problems, even ones of such desperate urgency and gravity.

 Politicians cannot be too far ahead of the People. So we cannot expect a great deal from the government sector. What about the Business Sector, so dynamic and creative? Enough said? We all know the business sector itself depends on ‘markets’, aka the People, and cannot deviate sufficiently from their heuristic preferences to think beyond a year or two.

 Goodness, who else will step up to the plate? We have already seen that nobody pays much attention to the Civil Sector (“they would say that wouldn’t they?”). There remains one hope: the universities, now a large sector in their own right, said to be generating a hundred billion pounds a year for the UK economy.[vi] They exhibit features of all the other sectors, but pride themselves on their independence and their calm academic realism. Surely, they can see what is coming, draw the logical conclusions and reorganise themselves appropriately?

 Well, somehow it’s not working here either. That is not to say that nothing’s happening at all. In fact there will be loud protests that, look, we are specifying low-energy buildings; we are putting photovoltaic panels on the roofs; we send surplus electonics for refurbishment; we research attitudes to climate change; we’re developing new battery systems, green industrial processes, new materials….

Nothing wrong with all this, but it’s just too slow. OK if we had a hundred years, but we have not. We need rapid changes at up to 10% a year, and this is not acknowledged. I’d like to call this the Harper Paradox, because I already remarked on it, albeit indirectly, in a paper published in 2000[vii]. It is of course a special case of the Giddens Paradox, but even more paradoxical, because surely this is what universities of all places are supposed to do, respond to the urgent and important issues of the day?[viii]

Well there are plenty of reasons why universities might have failed to get engaged in rapid transitions, so far. But let’s not give up. Of all the various sectors they will probably find the engagement easier, and once they have broken the logjam, the rest might be induced to follow.

 But universities have their own logjams. Who indeed is to Bell the Cat? Of course there are already many individuals and indeed whole departments working on important parts of the problem.  What we need however, are whole departments, indeed whole faculties, who will down tools, publicly assert that, in metaphorical terms at least, ‘There’s a War On!’ and insist that they will henceforth work only on matters directly relevant to preventing the worst. Otherwise they will simply resign and go where they can indeed work on the Real Stuff.

 There’s a significant example.  Recently Professor Jem Bendell of Cumbria University has published a paper concurring with my previous remarks, and expressing his willingness to leave academia rather than continue fiddling while Rome burns. That’s a precedent. The big difference between him and myself is that he thinks prevention of the worst is already too late, that collapse of many significant institutions is inevitable, and the best we can do is ‘deep adaptation’. [ix]

 With great respect, I disagree. I am certain that there is yet time, but we must use it wisely. We must not waste time and effort on adaptation measures unless they are simultaneously preventative. I propose a national programme of ‘Deep Prevention’.  Looking outwards, this must be consistent with similar processes in other countries so that we can make our most effective contribution. Looking inwards, we have to harmonise the millions of different activities undertaken within the UK to prevent the worst.   This will need a generous synthesis of the best brains and all sectors to take a lead: others will follow once the benefits—there are many—can  be seen.

 How might it start? I imagine a mixed cabal of aware academics going to the Vice Chancellor with a proposal to start to a new department entirely dedicated to the prevention of climate change, and perhaps other key global environmental trends with near-term thresholds. Let’s call it for the sake of argument, the Department of Strategic Change.

  The VC agrees, and planning commences. At first it’s mostly research, at quite an abstract level, and some funding can come from conventional sources, but probably at the outset crowd-funding would be sought, giving time for the Research Councils to catch up. Most of the on-the-ground research is widely distributed and could carry on as before. A principal role of the DoSC would be to highlight this research and show how it could be extended and amplified. The amplification has to be very fast, and should be ‘strategic’ in that timings, rates, prior requirements and synergies are mapped out over the course of the transition period and widely understood. There is a strong sense of collective effort within the research and HE communities.

  I suppose that after a short while new undergraduate courses are introduced, training a new generation in the skills and understandings of the transition process. Of course it would be fiercely popular. Every idealistic bright young thing and her dog would want to be part of it. There would be no problem with Bums on Seats, and the VC would be delighted. Doubtless it would have a strongly international favour. One would hope that the need to teach would improve research and vice-versa.

 After a few years of rapid expansion the department would become a school or a faculty, with many sub-departments. This would be imitated by other universities eager to get a slice of the action. Indeed whole new specialist universities might emerge (think LSE, RAU).

 Once this process has begun, other sectors of the UK polity are freer to change; certainly the government, and increasingly the business sector. Ultimately of course the government has to call the shots, reframe the rules, harness the animal spirits of the private sector, keep explaining what’s going on, and hold the ring for all the ding-dong arguments that will fill the public space. And it has to maintain a furious level of diplomacy harmonising the UK’s efforts with the rest of the world. We might hope the UK, for once, would be an inspiration.[x]

 To summarise all the above. We can agree there is a need for a very rapid transition, but it’s scary and nobody wants to begin.  Universities are probably best placed to make the first decisive move and break the logjam, and it could be very positive for them and for the staff and students involved. That could bring a sense of contagious enthusiasm;  that in fact the whole transition projection could be positive and draw all sectors into a giant collective endeavour. We should make a start.

[i] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global Warming of 1.5°C. Special Report, 2018.

[ii] Giddens, A. The Politics of Climate Change. 2008.

[iii] Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It. Bloomsbury, 2014.

[iv] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[v] For example, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists, Princeton UP 2017.

[vi] See for example THES 2017.

 [vii] Harper, P. The End in Sight? Futures 32, 361 (2000) see here.

[viii] I am sure it will be objected here that universities certainly do address matters of sustainability and climate change, both in the practices of their Estates Departments, in courses, and indeed whole departments. Is there not a flourishing subject of Education for Sustainability (or in some cases, Sustainable Development)? Does it not have journals, chairs, conferences, courses and thousands of students? Yes it is and it does. But (again paradoxically perhaps) this is more or less the opposite of what I am calling for. The subject consists of a vast collection of comfortable topics that all appear to be going in the right direction but have no grasp of, or apparent interest in, the pace or the physical requirements of the necessary transition. It is more of a smokescreen than a component of the programme I am outlining. Part of the paradox is that workers in this field consider themselves to be engaged in the very essence of sustainability.

[ix] Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. IFLAS Occasional Papers No. 2, 2018.

[x] An interesting initiative in this respect is The Good Country project