Faculty Spotlight: Dagomar Degroot
An interview of Dr. Dagomar Degroot by Eric Wang:
Who are you?
My name is Dagomar Degroot. I was born in the Netherlands in 1985 before immigrating to Canada in 1988. I received my PHD at York University in Toronto and came to Georgetown in 2015, so I’ve been teaching in DC for over 8 years now.
What do you teach in Core Pathways?
I am an Environmental Historian, meaning I explore the reciprocal relationship between human and environmental changes through time. In particular, I partner with scientists to identify how climate changed for natural reasons, before the onset of industrialization, and how diverse populations attempted to adapt. I then identify common pathways for adaptation in different communities that, I hope, can inform present-day policy development.
In Core Pathways, I teach two (2) courses:
- Hist 1111, The Little Ice Age: Surviving Climate Change in the Pre-Modern World. This course introduces a period of climatic cooling, brought about largely by volcanic eruptions, between the thirteenth and nineteenth century. Students learn about the science of identifying – or “reconstructing” – past climate changes, and about the diverse ways in which populations coped with these changes.
- Hist 1102: Global Warming. This course focuses on the impacts to date of global warming for vulnerable populations around the world. Yet it also considers how global warming was discovered, and why a relatively small group of corporate and scientific leaders decided to promote doubts about its existence.
In both of these courses, we focus on the concepts of resilience, vulnerable, and adaptation in the face of climate change.
In general, what are your thoughts about climate and humanity’s role?
We are changing the climate rapidly. If we keep it up, then we make Earth profoundly less habitable than it is now. Beyond the tragic, almost incomprehensible, loss of biodiversity that climate change could bring about, global warming that exceeds two or perhaps three degrees Celsius could make it almost impossible to sustain humanity – or at least human civilizations. If we’re not careful, it truly is an existential threat not only to us but also to millions of species.
This is scary, especially for young people. However, , climate change is also an opportunity to remake our societies so they are fundamentally more sustainable and more equitable. My historical work reveals, among other things, that populations that were less unequal – or at least, that provided for their poorest citizens – were often more resilient in the face of environmental disruption than others. This is a finding that we can now use to promote comprehensive climate change legislation – such as the Green New Deal – that does view today’s crisis as an unparalleled opportunity for social regeneration.
But adaptation will ultimately be useless if we do not reduce carbon emissions. Believe it or not, owing in part to the plummeting cost of solar and wind we have flattened the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are no longer rising rapidly from year to year. But we need to do so much more: we have to rapidly decrease emissions to limit warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius. If we fail, we may find that warming will accelerate beyond our control.
Essentially, dramatic action is needed now.
How long have you been a part of Core Pathways?
I helped initiate Core Pathways with the other founders about six (6) years ago, and I have taught in this program every academic year since. I’m old school!
What are your favorite parts about teaching in Core Pathways compared to other courses?
Because our courses are short, students are able to develop an eclectic mix of Core Pathways courses to find their own way through the inherently multidisciplinary scholarship on climate change.. They often join my classes with expertise derived from diverse courses – in disciplines ranging from disability studies to theology, from literary studies to physics – that have helped them view the climate crisis in a different light.
The Core Pathways therefore provides a truly unique opportunity for students to tailor their education around a huge, complex problem that will shape their lives.
Are there, if any, drawbacks from this kind of educational approach?
Of course, having just half the length of a usual course can be a real challenge as there is so much background information that students need to learn quickly. For instance, in the Little Ice Age, students need to know how climate has changed – especially in the past two (2) millennia, but also over the whole history of humanity -a before learning how these changes can be connected to human history. Compared to regular courses, there is a lot less time to learn!
Another issue, if not more important, is that classroom cultures can take time to form. After two (2) months, they are maturing – but just then students will switch to a new course. Fortunately, many students do keep in touch, and I often teach the same students more than once.
What are some of your other thoughts about Core Pathways?
For any kind of major subject [or so-called “wicked problems”] like climate change, it needs to be tackled in many varied disciplines, so I believe this format is more beneficial overall. It’s especially helpful for students who want to have additional perspectives on climate change without orienting their entire career towards it. For example, through the Pathway students can learn about climate change from the perspective of four disciplines in one academic year, when they might otherwise have been able to take only one or two courses that touch on the subject.
Student fellows have also helped us orient our integrative days to the needs of our students. In particular, they have in the past helped us design integrative days that not only draw on the often-abstract knowledge students learn in their courses, but also that offer practical guidance on how to get involved in climate change policy or activism, including right now in your community.
You mentioned Integrative Days. Could you elaborate a bit more about them?
Integrative Days present exciting opportunities in the Core Pathways! It doesn’t seem like anything else at Georgetown or even other universities have this kind of possibility — where every student in a curriculum gathers together and learns from a speaker or undertakes a project that draws from the distinct disciplines they’ve encountered in diverse courses. It’s truly something special, and I think it’s great that our Pathways fellows have helped to influence these events to make them more valuable for our students.
Any final thoughts? What would you like to say to the students of Core Pathways?
In your lifetime, our species will shape the future of the planet for millions of years to come. Climate change could devastate the world, like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, yet it is still entirely possible for us to reverse it and in the process build societies that will make the coming century better than the last one. You can contribute to this fight, and I hope the courses you are taking in the Core Pathways will set you on a path to doing so.