The Pedagogy of Collapse

I owe John Michael Greer a beer, or maybe two. Now that he’s moved to this half of the continent, I may yet have a chance to offer him one.  Over the years of writing, Greer and I have argued and allied, worked together and apart, had our books published in the same season (twice now) and never yet met in person.  Having a background in lit crit, I tend to think of my relationship with Greer as having a slight taint of Harold Bloom style anxiety of influence to it, causing me to spend more time articulating my differences than recognizing our deep similarities of viewpoint.  Still, I have to admit here, I definitely owe him a drink.

 The reason is actually a project of Eric’s.  As you’ve probably all heard by now, my husband is a professor of Physics in the SUNY system – he was trained as Astrophysicist, working on Gamma Ray Bursts very, very far away, but spends most of his teaching time these days going local (it seems to be a theme here), at least by astronomical standards. That his, he teaches the history of space-science, which is basically local to our solar system, and he teaches environmental physics – the physics that apply primarily to our immediate planetary home.

After a break of a bit, Eric has taken up environmental physics again, and has, perhaps obviously, as his focus, the question of the physics of our future – the scientific realities of depletion and climate change, and what this means for a future.  He’s taught this class before, but one of the things he was anxious to do was to make sure that the concept of limits, and the progessive fallacy (ie, the idea that technology will save us) are addressed straight on early, but rather than bang hard on the drum of material limits, he really wanted a way for the students to come at the idea themselves.

And therein comes Greer’s eminently useful construction – he argues on his blog and in _The Long Descent_ that our crisis of depletion is in fact, not, as it is commonly presented, a problem, with potential solutions.  It is rather, he argues, a predicament, a situation we simply face, which cannot be solved.  The obvious model predicament is death – something that can be addressed and handled in a whole host of ways, some productive, some not, but that can never be solved – we all die.  How we approach our deaths, how we view them, the contexts in which they occur – these details matter enormously, but none of them approach the status of solution, eliminating the basic problem.

I’ve always liked this bit of Greer, but as Eric was telling me about his desire to frame the class differently than he has in the past, I was particularly grateful, because the “problem vs. predicament” lens seemed eminently useful as a way of talking about the scope of our problem to undergraduates, a superb organizing principle which I’m writing about here because I think it might be helpful to other people teaching at the high school or college level, or perhaps preparing teaching materials for adult education classes.

The idea’s great beauty is that it doesn’t demand the stark contrasts of “will we succeed or fail” or of the traditional rhetoric of apocalypses or futuristic manifest destiny – what Aaron and I call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” view of the future.  Identifying, say, climate change, as a problem doesn’t imply that we will solve it.  Identifying depletion as a predicament doesn’t mean there are no viable responses – merely no solutions.

Eric’s idea is to present each of the major present limitations on our present situation as both a problem to be solved, and a predicament to be responded to.  The students will be expected, then, to ask what the terms and realities would be if, say, peak energy or climate change, water depletion, our food situation or overpopulation  is a problem, with available solutions, and also, to ask what the realities will be if it is a predicament. 

Even more importantly, this organizing principle enables Eric to draw connections between each situation – if, for example, climate change is a predicament, but peak oil is a problem – what are the chances of being able to allocate massive quantities of our resources to addressing peak oil in a world where resources are being drawn down by remedying the disasters that go with an increasingly unstable climate?

And this, I think is actually the most useful bit of Greer’s distinction, at least for me – a point I think I’ll use as illustration – that is, if any of the above situations is a predicament, there’s a real chance that they render even issues that were otherwise problems, potentially soluble, into irremediable predicaments. 

For example, let’s imagine that our food crisis is a problem that can be solved – that the right combination of investment, research, resource allocation etc… will permit us to feed 10 billion people, at least for a while.  But what happens when you add any of the other problems into the mix?  I can answer this in some detail, actually – much of _A Nation of Farmers_ is precisely about this question.  And generally speaking, what you find is that any of those situations being irremediable, makes the food situation much more dire.  For example, if peak energy is irremediable, that means that in the longer term, populations and food must be much more closely linked – to wildly overgeneralize, in a much lower energy world, people have to live much more where the food grows, and much less where it doesn’t, reducing transport energy and replacing fossil fuel energy in agriculture with human inputs.  That means that a lot fewer people can live in Tucson and in Manhattan and a lot more people have to live in Iowa and Missouri.  And of course, the reallocation of populations is very energy and resource intensive – and deeply political.  Those are inter-American migrations, and perhaps imaginable.  The questions get harder when we ask where the people of Bangladesh will live.  If Peak Energy is a reality, and can’t be solved (or can be but isn’t), then we are very close to having our food crisis be a predicament as well.

Mix in climate change, and the situation gets more complex still – because much of the most productive available farmland is dependent on meltwater that will disappear, near coastlines and subject flooding and salinization of water supplies from rising seas, or otherwise vulnerable.  Add in the projected overall reduction in grain yields, and one finds that we’ve now moved firmly from “food crisis as a problem” to “food crisis as a predicament.”

And fascinatingly, most of the intersections of our difficulties work this way – if any one of them is fundamentally insoluble, if our choices are how to respond, rather than whether to prevent, the other crises become more firmly fixed as well.

There’s nothing really new about this analysis – it mirrors, for example, the findings of _The Limits to Growth:The 30 Year Update_, which observed that in nearly all of its models, the result was inevitably collapse, not because of any single, insoluble factor, but simply because the system eventually ran out of the ability to cope with multiple crises, each of them reducing the range of options available for responding to the *other* crises.

What’s most useful in Greer’s language, and framing of this issue, which I think will be uniquely interesting and also, not offputting to college students.  Eric has long ended his History of Space course with a few days on “by the way, earth is a planet too, and it would perhaps be unwise to get too fixated on the idea of leaving it, given the situation we’re facing” ;-), in which he attempts to address the long emergency, and give his students a sense of what they are facing.  This is important work – his class is one of the largest and most popular general education classes at his large SUNY campus, and that means that nearly a thousand undersgraduates each year – 1/4 of the student body during any given 4 year period – have gotten at least a solid basic exposure to the acute situation our society is facing – usually their first.  It may not change the world, but priming that many young people for what’s coming matters, IMHO, a great deal. 

But three days at the end of a class with the professor focusing on his perspective are a very different thing than an intensive class that gives undergraduates the tools to address the larger questions themselves – the ability to calculate tons of carbon, calories of food, rates of depletion and EROEI, Energy density and what the real odds of a progressive, high tech future are for yourself.  What I think is so valuable about Greer’s construction is this – as a pedagogical tool, it isn’t threatening – the students are going to have to cover some scary territory, and the temptation to view everything as problems, to simply argue “but if we just…” will always be there.  But instead of Eric offering the counter-arguments, this phrasing offers a way of getting the students to fully formulate both answers, to compare them, and to watch the ways they intersect.

Of course, he hasn’t done it yet.  One of the great rules of teaching is that sometimes things don’t work out quite as well as you think they will.  But we both see potential there.  And I definitely owe Greer that drink.