From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles: The Great Turning by David W. Orr

FrameWorld

We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

“Only connect” – E. M. Forster

Implications for education and the educated

Vicious Gyres

Fifteen-hundred miles west of Seattle, in the middle of the North Pacific, a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge is caught in ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. It is estimated to be the size of the lower 48 states at a depth of 100-1000 feet. But no one knows for certain how large or how deep, only that it is massive and growing. Some of the most amazing things humans have ever made float in what has been renamed the “North Pacific Garbage Gyre.” They are made primarily of oil extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth, which is another remarkable story. The impact on marine organisms and sea life is poorly documented but it is between disastrous and catastrophic. Some of the debris is ingested by birds and fish who mistake floating plastic doo-dads for food. Some of it breaks down into long-lived toxic compounds. Despite its size and ecological effects the North Pacific Garbage Gyre is distant enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

Another gyre of gases circulates around the Earth six miles above our heads, the result of our annual combustion of four cubic miles of primeval goo—ancient sunlight congealed in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, shale oil, and tar sands. The atmospheric residues, chiefly CO2 reached 400 ppm in May of 2013—the highest concentration in hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps several million years. The atmospheric CO2 gyre is changing the thermal balance of Earth in an instant of geologic time and locking us into a future of extreme heat, drought, larger storms, rising sea levels, and changing ecologies that will increasingly imperil economies, public health, and social and political stability, that is to say, civilization itself.

A third gyre of long-lived chemicals cycles through our bloodstream, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues. They are in our air, water, food, everyday products, and many toys. In the words of the President’s Cancer Panel babies are born “pre-polluted,” poisoned by toxic substances that pass through their mother’s umbilical cords. A typical sample of chemicals in the average body would include 200 or more that are suspected or known to cause cancer and cell mutations and disrupt the endocrine system. It is possible that, singly or in combination, invasive chemicals also cause behavioral abnormalities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects of chemicals one by one, we don’t know much about the possible combined effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed or the several hundred that we’ve ingested, absorbed, and inhaled.

We Knew Better

The three gyres have many things in common. They are vicious cycles or “wicked problems” that are complex, long-term, and non-linear—a fancy way to say they are unpredictable with lots of unknowns. They involve virtually every discipline listed in a college catalog and much outside the conventional curriculum as well. But they are not so much problems that can be solved with enough money and effort as they are dilemmas that could not and cannot be solved. With foresight, however, each could have been avoided.

The effects of each gyre will last for a long time. Toxic and radioactive trash will threaten human health and ecologies for centuries to come. The loss of biodiversity driven by climate change, pollution, and over-development is permanent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect climate for thousands of years, requiring a level of public and private vigilance for which we have no good historical precedents. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals last a lifetime in the human body, and some are passed on to our offspring.

The causes of each gyre were known a long time ago. It required no great prescience to see that our mountains of trash would someday rise up to haunt us. Similarly, the first warning of impending climate change was given to Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But a half-century later we still have no de jure climate policy and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever before. And the adverse health effects of the promiscuous use of chemicals were suspected at least from 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

The consequences of pollution gyres were not understood except in hindsight. In Wendell Berry’s words, “we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.” Even so, we knew better. And long ago we knew we had good alternatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, solar technology, and natural systems agriculture that have improved greatly in the years since. But widespread adoption was blocked by money, by political dysfunction, and often by the lack of imagination. As a result, it has been profitable for some to create a throwaway economy. It is highly profitable to extract, sell, and burn fossil fuels that are diminishing the human future by the day. It is profitable to pollute our air, food, and water and undermine human health. The three gyres, in other words, are neither accidents nor anomalies, but the logical results of a system of ideas and philosophy deeply embedded in our culture, politics, economy, technology, and educational system.

The causes of the three gyres were once thought to be evidence of prosperity measured as economic growth. But a large part of our wealth is fraudulent. We are simply offloading costs of pollution and environmental damages onto people living somewhere else or at some later time. We are beneficiaries of self-deception and conveniently bad bookkeeping.

By undermining ecological balance, climate stability, and our reproductive potential the three gyres are the primary causes of the “6th Great Extinction” now underway. This time, however, it is not about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but us. The approach path to oblivion, in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s words, is a “system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes . . . feeding on one another and growing in strength . . . [leading to] an age of unprecedented violence.” The stakes in other words, are total, but there are no effective legal sanctions for the destruction of oceans, ecosystems, climate stability, human health, or actions that risk civilization for a few more years of corporate profits. We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.” Neither do we acknowledge the right to life of our co-passengers on spaceship Earth. Our courts are blind to the plight of those who are suffering and many more who will assuredly suffer because of our dereliction. Indeed, there is no national or international legal regime commensurate with the depth of the human predicament or the requirements for ecological justice across generations.

Most important if one traces the causes of each gyre back far enough there are students in classrooms acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to work unperturbed in the extractive economy that drives each gyre. They are the dutiful acolytes of Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and all of those in our time who share the dream of total human mastery over nature. We educators have equipped our graduates with the tools and technology necessary “to affect all things possible” in Frances Bacon’s words, but not the wherewithal to understand the consequences of doing so. Accordingly, generations of students have learned how to dismantle the world and concoct all manner of things—but not why that was often a bad idea—or how to repair the damage. We taught them how to manipulate, make, conjure, communicate worldwide, and sell everything under the sun but not how to think about the effects of doing such things. They learn how to grow an economy beyond the limits of Earth but almost nothing about physical, ecological, and moral limits to the scale of the human estate or the concepts of enough and sufficiency.

The epitaph for Western culture could be an educational system in which students learn more than they can comprehend in ethical or ecological terms. Learning is a fast process but comprehending the limits and proper uses of knowledge, which is to say acquiring wisdom, takes much longer.

My point is that the gyres of disintegration are not the work of the uneducated but rather that of those certified with Ph.Ds, MBAs, LLBs, Master’s degrees, BA and BS degrees. In other words, the ecological and climate disorder we see around us reflects a prior disorder in how we think and what we think about. That makes it the business of all of us in the “education industry” who purport to improve thinking. But to improve thinking we must address problems of education not merely those in education and so transcend the industrial-technological model of learning. Tinkering at the margins won’t do.

The irony, of course, is that the same education, science, and technology that threatens life on Earth also gave us the capacity to discern the effects of our actions. We can measure our pollution down to parts per billion. We can chart the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with great precision. We understand in detail many of the biological effects of long-term exposure to toxic substances. And since we know what we are doing we can also decide to change our course and do much better.

Transformative Education 

In the long view of history, however, we do not know yet whether the Western model of formal education will prove—on balance—to be a positive force in the evolution of a humane and sustainable civilization, or simply a training ground for advanced cleverness serving ever more powerful and destructive domination of Earth. If education is to play a positive role in a “Great Turning” toward a sustainable global civilization, our goal must be to enable coming generations to connect learning with a reverence for life and equip them with the analytical, practical, and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere.

This is hard to do in the blizzard of euphoria about our technological prowess and “breakthroughs” in everything but those things that matter. It is harder to do when ideas and communication are being compressed into 140-character tweets that exist like flotsam in a flood of meaningless, de-contextualized information. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the rising generation spends on average nine hours a day in front of one kind of screen or another, in danger, as Hannah Arendt once said, of becoming “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible.”

The condition of our children has deep cultural roots including the pathology that Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Since the dawn of the age of television young people have increasingly lived indoors marinating in an entirely human-made world. The resulting damages are many: to the growth of intellect, to their sense of reality, to their basic affiliations, and to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the “psychic thread” that connects us to nature. Louv argues that “the re-naturing of everyday life can be an important component of strengthening physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness . . . and relations between parents, children, and grandparents.” Experience and mountains of data show that the emotional disposition to learn is enhanced by time spent out of doors and the acquisition of practical skills.

The deep challenge is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation—as best we are able—for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them to see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will need to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalisms of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us— a variant of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will need to rediscover old truths and forgotten knowledge. They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. We must educate them to be the designers of a another kind of gyre that turns vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that might someday transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, and technologies, as well as our hearts and minds. We need a generation that rises above despair or fantastical thinking and sees the world as systems, patterns, and possibilities that give hope an authentic foundation.

In other words, if education is to serve the interests of humankind and life in the long emergency ahead it must be transformed beginning with a transformation in our thinking about education and the purposes that ideas serve. Samuel Johnson once said that the assurance of the gallows in a fortnight could concentrate the mind wonderfully. Similarly, the prospect of a civilizational collapse ought to concentrate our thinking about the substance and process of education in what could otherwise be “our final hour.” We cannot continue to equip students for success in an economy that is driving civilization to the brink of collapse. Rather, we must enable students to help build bridges to something better than what is in prospect.

Critics, predictably, will argue that saving the Earth, or humans for that matter, is not the business of educators while refusing to say exactly whose business it is. Purists will argue that doing so involves making value judgments and education ought to be value free, which is itself a value and conveniently obeisant to the forces driving us toward oblivion. Pessimists will argue that transforming the academy is a good idea, but is not feasible and so should not be tried. Trustees will wish not to offend the powerful and wealthy and thereby risk one form of insolvency while presumably avoiding another. Incrementalists will recommend caution and piecemeal change and hope that it doesn’t come up a day late and a dollar short. Traditionalists, eyes to the rear, will want no change whatsoever.

But we no longer have the luxury of preserving the status quo whatever we might otherwise wish. The landscape of education, including that wrought by the avalanche of television and electronic media, is rapidly changing and with it the mindscape of our civilization.

Many questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “anthropocene”? What is the proper balance between intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in ways commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality?

There are also practical questions having to do with our responsibilities to the communities in which we exist. What do we know that could be put to good use in developing durable economies based on renewable energy and local farm and food systems. What do we know about nurturing decent and fair communities? How should we spend and invest institutional assets locally to promote sustainable development?

From such ongoing conversations many results are possible. I will suggest only the most obvious. The first is a requirement that no one should graduate from any college or university without a firm grasp of how the world works as physical system and why that is important for their lives. For comparison, we would be justifiably embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be even more so to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, and systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. They should also be taught the social, political, economic, and philosophical causes of our predicament and master the ethical, analytical, and practical tools necessary to build a durable, resilient, and decent world. In short, we should equip them with the capacity to integrate disparate subjects and disciplines into a coherent and ecologically grounded worldview.

And we should do these things in the spirit that Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now:”

There is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’ 

Connection and Affection – The Great Turning

E. M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” belies the fact that we are already connected. The greatest discoveries of the 20th century revealed that we are stitched together in more ways than we can possibly know.

  • Despite all of the things that divide us, we humans share 99.5% of our genes,
  • We share 98% of our genes with our nearest kin, the large apes and bonobos;
  • 90% of our dry body weight isn’t us but a rowdy congress of bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers living in and on our bodies;
  • Our minds evolved to mirror each other’s feelings and to empathize with each other;
  • Every breath we take includes molecules once breathed by Socrates, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, or Idi Amin for that matter;
  • We have an innate affinity for life, that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “Biophilia;”
  • All of us are made of stuff that was once in stars;
  • Plants are linked in networks, communicate by chemical signals, and help each other in ways that resemble altruism;
  • And we are now connected globally as never before by social media, emails and smart phones in a thickening web of communication and intelligence as predicted long-ago by theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

In short, we are connected over time as a small part of the vast enterprise of life that stretches back 3.8 billion years and as far forward as the Angels of our better nature, luck, and sunlight allow. The problem is not to connect, but to recognize and act on the reality of our connectedness.

Forster’s further observation—that our capacity to connect “all turns on affection” sounds quaintly irrelevant. Affection is the antithesis of the calculating mind that we associate with rational economic behavior, shrewd career decisions, and the self-referential narcissism that infects the teenage “I” generation. Affection is complicated and paradoxical. It thrives, however, at the crossroads where enlightened self-interest, altruism, and foresight meet. Affection is born in compassion, empathy, and an enlarged sense of self. It acknowledges that nothing and no one is an island complete in itself. Everything and everyone is connected to the mainland.

Affection changes what we think is important, what is trivial, and what is dangerous. It changes the substance and process of learning. Affection would help us acquire the patience to see learning as a lifelong process not to be confused with formal schooling. Informed by affection we would not so easily confuse information with knowledge or rationality with reasonableness. It would help us understand that thinking is often overrated and intuition under-appreciated and that true learning cannot be certified by grades and degrees. A dose of affection might even help us comprehend and mediate the evolutionary divisions between the right and left hemispheres of our own minds.

Affection deals in wholes, including the parts that are inexplicable and mysterious. It connects us to the creative, artistic, musical, humorous, intuitive, empathic sides of ourselves. Albert Einstein put it this way “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Affection, then, causes us to celebrate mystery and opens us to the sense of wonder. Beyond the facts, data, theories, and analysis that permeate education, the inexplicable remains. What we know is like a drop in an ocean. What we don’t know is the ocean. Deep knowledge is elusive, rather like “studying darkness with a flashlight.” The fact is that we are infinitely more ignorant than we are smart and always will be. And that is OK. D. H. Lawrence captured the essence of the matter by observing that “Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen but there is a third thing that makes it water, and no one knows what that is.” And no one ever will.

Affection permits us to be compassionate with our own imperfect selves and the imperfections of others. Affection isn’t reserved just for the easy times. In a world of paradox, irony, and tragedy, affection moderates pretensions and punctures illusions. It is kind and forgiving. Clear-eyed affection helps us acquire what Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno once called “the tragic sense of life” which is neither resigned nor gloomy. To the contrary, it is a realistic perspective that permits us to laugh at ourselves and each other. It is the quality by which we have triumphed over tragedy before and it has equipped us to do so again.

Finally, affection helps us to see what could be, without losing sight of how things are. Affection causes us to hope for improvement. And hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up rooted in daily practice as something we do, not just what we wish for. It is a discipline requiring skill, competence, steadiness, and courage. It is practical. It bonds us to each other, and to real places, animals, trees, waters, and landscapes. The hopeful are patient not passive. They are creators of the gyres of positive change that could, in time, redeem the human prospect. They are people who will know how to connect us to a better world struggling to be born.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is a well-known environmentalist and author. His many books include Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. He holds a B.A. from Westminster College, an M.A. from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Bioneers Award, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, a Lyndhurst Prize awarded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University for his work in Environmental Education. 

David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach? “I come from a long line of preachers,” he says laughing. “My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . .” For Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that “we are all meaning-seeking creatures—a small part of a much larger pattern.”

“It is no accident,” Orr states, “that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio.” Orr wrote “most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves.” He puts connectedness at the center of his philosophy. His vocation—our responsibility and relationship to the Earth we’ve inherited and the Earth we will bequeath—has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

It is no surprise that he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause—he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for education—if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.” Source: Oberlin’s Presidential Lecture, November 8, 2013.

Reprinted with permission.

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