Pathways of Possibility

September 18, 2017 Blog 0

by Randall Amster

The climate is changing rapidly, with effects being felt in real-time and not just on the inexorable scale of geological eons. Our environments are becoming toxic, species are going extinct, and forests are being decimated. Essentials including food and water are increasingly being privatized, commodified, and imperiled by factors including pollution and maldistribution. The biosphere itself is showing signs of our accumulated footprint, potentially impinging upon our continued capacity to inhabit this world. And so…

Humans, we have a problem. It’s tempting to draw this down to the conclusion that people in fact are the problem, but this seems clichéd by now and pointlessly fatalistic. Instead, we might consider the ways that the crises we face are not only ones of our own making, but also how that realization can help lead us to a place of commitment, empowerment, and an opportunity to actually do something about it.

First, though, a few points of clarification. When it’s said that “humans” or the collective “we” are responsible for the rampant changes in our midst, it’s important to parse that out since not everyone contributes equally to the problems at hand. In fact, it’s often those who contribute least to a problem that experience the worst of its effects, which is a key insight of environmental justice. Notable examples include waste facilities being sited in poor neighborhoods, disparate impacts regularly observed in disaster situations, and small island nations facing imminent and extreme flooding from rising sea levels.

Next, we have to confront the cultural fascination with the “end times” as reflected in popular dystopian and apocalyptic narratives, especially to the extent that some of these treatments convey an air of inevitability that can lead to greater degrees of apathy and disengagement. From the pervasive trope of the “zombie apocalypse” to thoughtful interventions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, the current discourse is awash in grim depictions of humankind’s literal or figurative demise. Many of the works in these genres, of course, are intended as invitations to resistance – yet they often seem like playbooks instead.

Lastly, it’s worth considering the ways in which science of all stripes can itself paint an equally dismal picture of the prospects for human survival. Invocations of the “Anthropocene” are important moments to rethink our place in the fabric of time and space, even as they can at times foster a sense that the magnitude of the problems lies beyond our reach as individuals. Indeed, I’m often asked whether it makes a difference anymore if someone recycles, eats healthier, consumes more consciously, travels lighter, and the like. While it’s hard to say that any individual’s choices are enough to matter in the grand scheme of things, one thing is clear: change is impossible to conceive if we don’t do these things.

And this is where the role of education comes to the fore. By doing this work together and with shared intentions, we can scale up our individual impacts to yield greater gains. By combining our collective intellectual capacities, we can leverage the prospects for creative and collaborative energies to foster a learning community in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By evolving what we now consider to be “core” concepts, practices, and values to include direct engagement with today’s most pressing issues, we can simultaneously honor the past, energize the present, and envision the future.

In all of these pursuits, we may even come to find, in time, that the very crises before us today are actually profound opportunities – not merely to find solutions to particular problems, but even more so to ask the harder questions about who we are, where we are going, and what our responsibilities are to one another and the balance of life around us. What we seek in these efforts is the rekindling of our innate capacities for hope, grounded in the eternal quest to make meaning in our mutual endeavors. No field alone can address these challenges, but together we just might forge a pathway toward possibility.