Spring Rebellion – May 2023
As a scientist, I have to live with an unbearable contradiction: while science is producing all the data that show that we find ourselves in the midst of a massive climate and biodiversity crisis – as well as the models that would make it possible for us to avoid worst case scenarios -, I have to watch how this knowledge is not acted upon. Political and economic interests are refraining the world from avoiding its own collapse. Delay and inaction concern north-western countries in a comprehensive, systemic way. And higher education and research is part of this system.
Science is very clear about the diagnosis and its possible cures. But there is a strong cognitive dissonance for scientists in that academic institutions epitomize the inaction of north-western societies. This is reflected in the incapacity to question and adapt the way in which Universities work. Scientists are not able to do science in the conditions required by what they know would scientifically be the only reasonable way to do science and, more generally, act. In fact, they are encouraged to do the exact opposite. Conference travels, quantity of research output, material-intensive projects are to this day key to academic recognition. Needless to say, it is an intellectually and emotionally destabilizing situation to be encouraged to do exactly what you know you shouldn’t do. And the entropy of the academic system has another drawback: it undermines the legitimacy scientists might want to rely on when they criticize other institutions for not acting decisively enough. Shouldn’t you clean your own doorstep before you start complaining about the neighbor’s?
Of course, higher education and research is polluting less than the fossil industry per se, the car lobby or the weapon business. But even if it is not as bad as the worse, it does by far not live up to the ethical (or simply survival) standards it cares to define. Academia would need a complete make-over to adjust to reality.
Striving to change the academic system from inside leads to one contradiction after the other. Academia is a hierarchical system, which means that in order to be able to impulse changes, you have to be on top of the pyramid. But if you are on top of the pyramid, you most likely rely on privileges. Giving up on these privileges is not only hard on the ego, you may also think it could reduce your ability to actually push your agenda. The fear of losing privilege is one key element in understanding why things move so slowly in higher education and research. Those who are privileged usually rely on their privilege to speak up, but the fear of losing the privileges leads them to not taking as much risks as would actually be necessary to prompt substantial change.
This fear relies on a conservative view people have of the relevance and frailty of their privileges. They could do much more, push things much further, without endangering their already privileged position in a substantial manner. And by people, I chiefly mean professors, tenured personnel who would be in a position to conceive, encourage and facilitate the implementation of more environmentally-friendly policies in hierarchical academic structures. While students fight for vegan food at University food courts, professors keep pondering about how far they can go on one agenda item at a meeting without endangering their position.
But truth is, as professors, we can write all the texts we want, sign all the petitions in the world with our long titles, it will not change a iota to reality. And this has to change. People in a position of power need to act quickly, decisively, and take their decisions not based on the scale of their predecessors’ privileges but on that of their successors’ upcoming doom – this is also true for Academia. The rule of thumb is simple: the more and the longer we consider our normality as normal, the more it will be a luxury for the coming generations.
What will happen if we don’t act now within the academic system? Carbon budgets will be introduced, probably faster than we think. They will give way to new forms of concurrence. Some disciplines will be awarded a bigger carbon budget than others, with two consequences. One is the introduction or the reinforcement of hierarchies that already exist as do those between Humanities and Sciences (according to criteria of relevance that are political in nature). The second one concerns the way disciplines will evolve, depending on their ability to adapt to low-carbon strategie. Obviously, the earlier a discipline starts addressing this issue and the earlier it develops and implements strategies, the better it will be able to maintain its position in the academic food chain. And who does address this issue today? Mostly the disciplines that are aware that they are too energy-intensive. Humanities still usually consider that their impact is much smaller (“we don’t require experimental equipment”); by and large, they don’t operate in a logic of structural change. Humanities are now quickly losing the advance they originally benefited from by having been dealt better cards in terms of reputation mechanisms, since impact factors are much less significant to them than they are to natural scientists. And researchers striving for a higher impact factor generally travel a lot to conferences to increase said factor: they have a particularly damaging carbon footprint.
In the current situation, I can see no obvious way how Humanities disciplines could come alive out of the process of reconfigurating priorities once the emergency of the situation is finally ackonwledged (and the later this happens, the worse things will be).
Students would also like to be taught about the world as it is today, not as it was thought to be 50 years ago. The contents we teach are not structurally adapted to the crisis situation we are in. It still takes months, years even, to implement modifications in University curricula. While we would have the intellectual and material capacity to redraft teaching schemes for them to fundamentally acknowledge the ongoing crises, the actions taken at all levels and the existing initiatives remain much too small. One of the reasons for that is, again, that some disciplines fear to become obsolete and instead of adapting, cling to their old substance.
The fundamental principle of modern universities is that of the unity of teaching and research as it was developed at the Berlin University in the early 19th century. It is a concept in which students are being taught to develop an autonomous judgement, a critical Weltanschauung of their own. It is also a concept in which what is taught is not some pre-cooked meal you would only have to heat up and feed on. Unity of research and teaching means that we teach that which is state of the art research; it is that we elaborate and construct an understanding of the world with the students. That we teach according to what research tells us the world is. And this is absolutely not what we are doing.
Some do, of course. Pedagogical material is being developed. Some lecturers have long started teaching differently. But the effect these isolated classes might have remains limited, especially considering the scale of the change that is needed. There remains no other option for academics willing to act upon the crisis, at this point, than to activate leverage outside the academic sphere: the media, the justice system.
Scholars, researchers participating in public discussions and taking action is nothing new. The myth of the neutrality of academic research is a somewhat sanitized stereotype, oblivious of the fact that all thinking and acting is, essentially situated. There is no such thing as a fully neutral point of view. The difference between a random point of view and that of a scientist is that the scientist has expertise and that they reflect on the context of this expertise, on their biases. There is no particular reason why the position a scientist should not be stated and acted upon as a part of one’s scientific role – especially when the point is to denounciate the strong ties between academic institutions and the fossil industry. Because, yes, the carbon footprint of academia looks much less anecdotical once you have taken into consideration its financial ties to big carbon emitters. PhDs or scientific publications are funded by the fossil industry on a regular basis: this is academia’s business as usual, too.
Academic personnel is not destined to stay in a fantasmagoric ivory tower from which to watch the world burn down while producing analysis after analysis of the furnace. Those who do not take action – those who ponder upon privileges they will only be able to keep for a preposterous fragment of time – are, in many ways, also encouraging arson. As far as I can see, there is no other way than activism, and taking the lab coats to the streets.