Keeping the Torch Lit: Higher Education During The Great Disruption

squalid-campusA condemned campus building.

“….the way we have structured research and organized universities is not consistent with how reality works…..the sciences and universities are stuck in the disciplinary status quo they have been in for centuries.”  – Anders Wijkman & Johan Rockström in Bankrupting Nature. 2012.

“…..there has never before been a geological force aware of its own influence.”  – David Grinspoon in Earth in Human Hands. 2016. Continue reading “Keeping the Torch Lit: Higher Education During The Great Disruption”

Higher education in the environmental century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

 “….what we’re doing today with greenhouse gas emissions — which is just a moment when you look at the geophysical timescales — has consequences for decades, centuries, millennia.” —Ricarda Winkelmann, Climate Scientist, Potsdam Institute, 2016

“Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope.”Lester Brown, Environmental Analyst, 2008

Planetary Boundaries (Image credit: Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre; Wikimedia Commons) Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009 (doi:10.1038/461472a) and Steffen et al. 2015 (doi:10.1126/science.1259855). The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.

Two overarching imperatives have come together to provide the framework for my lifework. The first of these is the long emergency driven by the existential threats of climate change and biosphere transformation. As a scientist, I have felt compelled to make my academic life relevant to these threats, which are illustrated above as safety margins for human activities. My research on the ecology of tropical forests has been meaningful in this context, but in early 2000, I became increasingly aware that higher education is broadly failing to prepare generations of students to face the unfolding crises of the environmental century. Thus, the second imperative is the need to transform higher education to provide students and professionals with the understanding to respond to profound disruptions of our biosphere and civilization. This represents a new paradigm of relevance for higher education, and increasingly students are asking how they can be a part of a meaningful response to these challenges. Continue reading “Higher education in the environmental century”

Higher Education in the Environmental Century LLC

Gainesville, Florida, 9 February 2016.

HEEC v1.1

Stephen Mulkey, PhD, principal


Today I am announcing the creation of an LLC dedicated to providing practitioners in higher education guidance for administration and curriculum development to support a sustainable civilization.

(Mulkey CV)
Continue reading “Higher Education in the Environmental Century LLC”

Curriculum for sustainability in the environmental century

This is the opening keynote address to the national conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education held in October 2015 in Minneapolis. Here I outline my argument for the curriculum reform necessary to meet the environmental and sustainability challenges of the coming decades.

I don’t know that my recommendations are the only path forward, but I assert that it is high time for higher education to get off its duff and embrace a new form of relevance. When I have presented these ideas at various institutions, I typically get nodding heads and smiling faces, and utterly no willingness, or perhaps ability, to act. The silos of our institutions have walls that are thick and high.

I offer the mirror test as a thought experiment for any administrator or faculty member who reads these words:

In ten years will you be able to look in the mirror and say with integrity and conviction that you did the best you could to bring about positive change and needed reform?

I am sure that some of you will think me preachy and overly righteous. Perhaps so. But, I believe that the purpose of our fine careers is not to be comfortable. We are afforded the highest privilege of civilized society. We are paid to be intellectuals, and we are asked to give back in the form of scholarship, research, teaching and outreach.

I am merely suggesting that we direct our efforts to addressing the greatest challenge in the history of our species.

This seems like a reasonable and timely proposition.

Twelve lessons I wish I had learned in college

Commencement address December 2015

“We only want you to be happy……”
– Your parents

Rarely have I accurately predicted what would make me happy. Ironically, happiness often seems to be an unintended consequence of my inability to get what I want.

“The purpose of life is not happiness but worthiness.”
– Felix Adler

But, worthy for what? Who determines what is worthy? Continue reading “Twelve lessons I wish I had learned in college”

The president’s message for the Unity College magazine

We are out of time. Our collective action or inaction within the next decade or so will determine the fate of civilization. Climate change presently driven by historic emissions from burning fossil fuels will affect everything about the lives of the current generation of students in college. It will determine what they eat, where they work, how they get to work, where they can live, the kinds of careers available, and most of all, their quality of life. Failure to significantly curtail emissions will result in an estimated 4-6˚C global average temperature rise by 2100 and unthinkable consequences for civilization. Because environmental change will be the dominant theme of the coming decades, I believe that this century will come to be known as the Environmental Century. This is a watershed moment for our species. Continue reading “The president’s message for the Unity College magazine”