What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?

The recent public lecture by David Orr, a professor from Oberlin, Ohio got me thinking about the importance of language with respect to the environment: what we talk about, how we talk about it, and who says it. During his speech, Orr noted that we do not use the right language when we speak about global environmental issues (i.e. climate change). People who speak frankly about the forthcoming scenarios and challenges are seen as “doom and gloom” and therefore society does not realize the importance and magnitude of these future changes. We see the projected outcomes as possibilities instead of realities, which discourages action from being taken. He suggests that perhaps we feel that we can’t handle the realities. We keep people in the dark because it will avoid panic, despair and societal paralysis. Examples from history, he suggests, show that this is not true; if we talk realistically about what needs to be done (“Our Great Work”), people will rise to the challenge and rally to the cause.

I agree with Orr that what we say, and how we say it, is very important. I also agree as he suggests that education is the way forward. For the most part, the majority of the populous does not understand global weather cycles, where our energy comes from, how energy cycles, how much we consume, and how our actions lead to the impact we see. As individuals, we do not take the time to understand these concepts, which allows and encourages policymakers to waffle and be ambiguous in their policies and public statements. We cannot refute or challenge what they say, because we do not know better.

Although Orr points out the importance of educating people (he focuses on students in universities) I think he is a bit too optimistic that issues of global importance would be approached from a perspective like his own. That all professors will encourage students to understand the importance of reducing our energy and material consumption, that professors will highlight the ills of economic growth and current resource mismanagement. He also assumes that the students will gravitate towards the “right” perspective. These are huge assumptions to make. I feel that people are drawn towards others who affirm their beliefs – there will always be an academic that can tell me what I want to hear and have enough evidence to support it. If I would rather not acknowledge that climate change is a serious problem or that a low growth economy is a good idea, I will find someone who has data to support this. I will take classes that enforce my beliefs (heck, I am right now). This discourages us from changing our beliefs or educating ourselves about the real issues.

I appreciate that Orr puts forth solid suggestions about educational reform. The ideas however, seem to preach to the choir. I gravitate to his suggestions because I am attracted to these ideas to begin with. More importantly, how are these ideas received by those who are not attracted to them? If education is the key, how do we ensure students and society get the education needed to take on “Our Great Work”? When we are not encouraged to change our point of view, can Orr’s ideas actually gain footing?

5 Responses to “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?”

  1. parasite kid says:

    I agree, we tend to gravitate towards our interests. But how do we form these interests? I think most of us can relate it back to a certain professor, experience, or group that captivated us. As I see it, this relies on both the type of experience and the exposure to the experience.

    I say this to highlight 2 things – the importance of teaching style on influencing the next generation and the need to shift how we see the university experience; from one that emphasizes a speedy transition, to one that promotes exploration and learning. Given the exposure to captivating instruction in both economics and ecology shouldn’t future generations have more understanding of different disciplines? And doesn’t this have the potential to facilitate the cross-disciplinary dialogue we seek?

  2. Culture Kid says:

    Parasite Kid makes two interesting and necessary point here: 1) the need for good teaching (as well as new topics to teach), and 2) the need to reform the way in which we view university and its role or purpose. Too many people seem to view the academic institution as a trade school, as a place to endure for a set number of years in order to guarantee a high-paying job. Like Parasite Kid says, it should instead be a place that “promotes learning and exploration.” Jokes about going further in a field that will allow us to get “real” jobs become exasperating quickly, because the people who mouth them are missing the point. Universities are about promoting the passion for learning in general – ecologically and otherwise. The education reforms that Orr proposed should at the very least start on more general terms.

  3. merle says:

    Parasite Kid comment also highlights another important point: If we tend to seek confirmation of our interests/beliefs by selecting the courses we take at the university and if these interests/beliefs did not arise ex nihilo, but have their own history in our past, then I think it highlights the necessity of trying to implement some of the changes David Orr was talking about at a much earlier state in the educational process. Also, this strategy has a practical advantage: in institutions preceding the university, there is already a tradition of having mandatory courses for every student. Adding courses on ecological awareness or adding content to already existing courses would be easier (not easy) at that level than at the university (and it would reach more people).

    On the subject of using an appropriate language to talk about global environmental issues, I agree with Crocus and David Orr that it is a very important issue, but I think we must also acknowledge that there really are “doom and gloom” authors out there. So the question is, I think, what can we make not to be associated with them when we are reporting a bad news? Since the public often already do not understand the subtleties of scientific debates and given also that media emphases everything that is sensational, this might prove very hard to do. Since a population believing a “doom and gloom” scenario can deny it, think “it is anyway to late to do anything” or even ask for drastic ‘authoritarian’ measures (the kind of measures analogous to the ones which restrict individual freedom/rights in the name of national security), I think this is a very serious question that has received too little attention.

  4. crocus says:

    I personally think the “turn style” format that universities can have is one cause of bad teaching. A lot of time in academia is spent doing research and not learning how to properly communicate that research. Perhaps along with fostering critical thinking skills and exposing students to a diverse range of topics, university education should also cover communication and teaching skills. This would ensure that all doctoral students who intend to transition from student to professor will be able to inspire their future students as well.

  5. Jones says:

    These are all great points, but I have reservations about viewing the university as a place to solely promote learning and exploration. Just imagine how many generations of students came before us. If the university promoted learning and exploration by giving-up its turn-style qualities there would be no room for us. I would love to stay here until I grow old and senile, learning and exploring (I truly would, and am not being facetious), but I know this is not practical. To some extent, the university must act to boot us out, ready-made to offer our services to a hungry economic system.