Friday, January 29, 2010

Kobe sustainability practitioners

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

Last week was spent with terrific hosts at Kobe University. One purpose of my visit was to do Philosophy with colleagues (the invitation, quite flattering, was to attend a workshop on my stuff). Another purpose was to sound out a partnership with South Florida. In two weeks, USF will open the School of Global Sustainability; courses for the MA degree will start next term. The MA track will train students for all the new Green Collar jobs, such as resource managers, sustainability officers, post carbon energy engineers, or sustainability design professionals. The pilot program is a policy track with a scientific bent. Graduates will work with scientists and engineers to shepherd their companies through the paradigm shift.

While the United States, and especially Florida (an anthropological limit in many ways), is in the initial throes of this paradigm shift, Japan, and especially Osaka Bay (where Kobe is located), is already close to the other side of the change. Japan has one of the best-designed mass transit systems in the world, with stunning bullet trains as well as efficient local shuttles; it has the largest wildland preserves and the most tree cover in proportion to landmass of any highly developed nation; and its per capita carbon footprint is a fraction of that in the United States. Thought-provoking about this tiny print is the evident health of passer-bys (as compared to the apple- and pear-shaped people so visible in America), as well as the beautiful livability of neighborhoods (in contrast to our surburban geography of nowhere). New to me, since my last visit years ago, were the windfarms with their giant rotors dotting hillsides along the coasts. Just being there impresses the traveler with the message that we can change, and that we'll be far better off as soon as we get going. From a Kantian point of view, if everyone embraced the Japanese lifestyle, we could continue to embrace it -- chances are we wouldn't even have climate change.

Kobe is close to Kyoto, the cultural heart, and to Osaka, the industrial hub of Japan. Like Yokohama, Kobe was once a freeport. Here gaijins could get in, work, make deals, and settle down. The city sits on a strip between mountains (like Rokkoyama, on whose slope Kobe University is built) and the sea. Japan is generally ahead in terms of civil evolution towards a postcarbon future, but Kobe sticks out in terms of environmental sensitivity. One reason was the Hanshin Earthquake almost precisely fifteen years ago, with its six and a half thousand deaths. The earthquake, currently remembered in two art exhibitions around town, is a sign post not only of natural forces but also of existential universals. The destructive effects meant the same for all who lived through them: terror, pain, and grief. Natural catastrophes highlight something western philosophers prefer to ignore, namely the universality of human experience. If you're hit, you'll suffer, and it really won't matter who or what you are. These are secular absolutes.

Another reason for Kobe's environmental sensitivity is its past as the national harbor that accepted asbestos shipments from overseas. That was the time, as my friend and colleague, the Leibniz-scholar Matsuda, explained to me, when asbestos was the "wonder silicate" of concrete manufacturing, loved for its resistance to heat, fire, and electricity as well for its tensile strength. So at Kobe the lionshare of the asbestos used in Japan's great industrialization effort was received, handled, distributed, repackaged, and further processed. Problem is that asbestos kills. It causes lung cancer and other malignant tumors in the respiratory system called mesothelioma. The problem of the problem, as it were, is that the incubation period, or duration of the causal link, is two to four decades (!) between exposure and illness. And that is creepy. Another creepiness is that there's no clear-cut threshold of exposure at which the causal link snaps shut. While asbestos has long been banned in Japan (although not in other Asian economies), there is a sizable community of asbestos victims in town. Cleaning up the concrete rubble after the Kobe earthquake led to additional exposure, especially among construction workers who had to work without masks in the initial rescue operations. Some of them are now showing the first symptoms.

The asbestos issue is vital for understanding policy risk judgments. Matsuda had published on this. Climate ethics, for instance, involves the Precautionary Principle, and the creepy features of asbestos -- the unbelievably long time lag, the threshold uncertainty, the great present profitability, and the awful eventual consequences -- show that a weak version of the Precautionary Principle, which would seem so pragmatic and sensible at first glance, doesn't cut it. (The weak version says that when there are threats, the lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing measures to deal with the threats. The strong version of the Precautionary Principle says that measures for dealing with threats may be called for even before a causal link has been absolutely proven.) Acting on the weak precautionary principle in the mitigation of climate change might just give us the climate equivalent of mesiothelioma.

The university has an interdisciplinary program in Education for Sustainable Development or ESD. This is run by the Faculties of Human Development, Economics, Letters, and (starting this year) Agriculture. The goal is to train students for sustainable societies. The pedagogical target is the Sustainability Practitioner. This is a Support Program for Contemporary Educational Needs in the Japanese Ministry of Education. Right now students take it as a minor, and here the idea is that they'll go on the market with conventional training plus this Green Collar enhancement. The paradigm shift will surely affect all levels of academic training; such an enhancement will also help Philosophy majors to make good careers -- for sooner or later Philosophers who are purely historical scholars, mind-technicians, or conceptual engineers without sustainability training might find themselves unemployable.

In our joint faculty meeting at Kobe, one of the professors in Human Development, Suemoto, who leads the curricular development of ESD, pointed out the specific educational targets of the program. Keywords are harmonious coexistence, interconnectedness, and responsibility to the future. Its funny how such keywords sounded romantic only a few years ago. Now they indicate a resolute realism. Suoemoto's colleague Matsuoka talked about the Action Research Fields of ESD. These are internships for practitioners in local communities. Possibilities are work in the satoyama border zone between mountains and arable land; in a bird sanctuary to promote human-avian coexistence and organic cultivation; in a NGO focused on reducing the already minimalistic packaging in Japan even further; or in the Kobe self-help group of asbestos victims, to name just a few options. I was also left thinking by Suzuki, from the Faculty of Agriculture, who reminded me that any credible schooling in sustainability requires clarity on systems thinking--the very kind of reasoning that is marginalized in the liberal, individualistic American mentality. Well, the Americans will have to learn.

Kobe filled me with hope. Perhaps we can beat the trends to the finish line. We have eighty-three months left before the runaway.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Potsdam climate meeting

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) hosted a workshop-conference on climate and the humanities last week. Organizers were Dieter Gerten (PIK), Sigurd Bergmann (Norwegian U of Science & Tech), and Konrad Ott (U Greifswald). The theme was "Religion in Climate Change--Sufferings, Values, and Lifestyles".

The meeting had encouraging vibes. When planning the Climate Philosophy conference at the University of South Florida four years ago, all the submissions from religious quarters then were based on climate change denial. This time denial wasn't even an issue. What a difference a few years can make. Of course, the difference in space matters, and over civil evolution, Berlin comes out ahead. In Florida religion-related submissions had been sent in only from American Christians, while the participants at the Potsdam conference were largely from Europe. Still, the religious gestalt shift is a pleasure, and it's nice to see Christians transforming from foes to friends.

I loved seeing so many young scholars and researchers. Being in the mid-forties pegged me as a senior participant. That's a sign of the paradigm shift: the young ones are surfing the wave. A new term I learned in Berlin, as a non-ethno- and -anthropologist, was "local knowledge". Local knowledge is native wisdom, know-how, and spirituality. It's an object of scientific research, but by itself isn't regarded as scientifically relevant information. My hunch is that the disregard for local knowledge will end. On the first day, I sensed a prevailing opinion that local knowledge, and indigenous traditions in particular, are under threat by climate change. On the second day I talked about the evolution of faith and opposed this perception. I suspect that climate change is the best possible news for planetary paganism, for the narratives embedded in these creeds will enjoy vindication. At the same time it was good to see European theologians, of the Lutheran and the Catholic creed, to think ahead and to re-interpret their faith in recognition of the changes ahead. While this will shore up Christianity, it will do so only in the enlightened continental version. I imagine that climate change is the worst possible news for the US evangelical movement, because this creed, representative of the American Disenlightenment, will be associated with the perpetration of the new bad realities.

Here are some highlights of papers I listened to. (I missed the beginning of the conference because of Munich snow chaos, and the end of the meeting because of classes in Florida starting.)

Undine Froemming and Christian Reichel (both Ethnology, FU Berlin) summarized field work in Java, Sulawesi, and Flores. In their description of indigenous creeds, I was once again struck by the mirror-like identity of native views around the planet. Sometimes you get the impression that there are really only two basic religions: the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths aka the sibling monotheisms of the West, and the paganisms everywhere else, with webs of beliefs that are formally identical in different places. James Cameron, in his recent Avatar, captures the pagan memeplex perfectly. The Na'vi faith is the quintessence of the great pagan alternative.

And we'll need this alternative. As Froemming and Reichel point out, that the Indonesian villagers worship locally placed souls and deities protects the areas from incursion and preserves biodiversity.

Gulnara Aitpaeva (Aigine Research Center Bishkek) talked about climate change and Kyrgyz spirituality. She cited a native impression of the emerging reality: "summer is not summer, and winter is not winter." Instability, unpredictability, and excessiveness are the three faces of climate change in local perception, and they may well be applicable globally now.

According to Aitpaeva, the basic points of Kyrgyz cosmology are holism and reciprocity. Indeed. Once again, these points may well be applicable to quasi-N'avi creeds everywhere. And I personally like it because it reminds me of my Tao of Koenigsberg studies.

Susan Crate (Environmental Science & Policy, George Mason U) gave a terrific paper about climate change in Yakutia. Helpful, also for philosophers trying to come to terms with the sheer phenomenology of climate change, is the empirical list of transformations she identified. The Siberians are observing nine changes in particular, she said:
winters are warm ...
land is water ...
lots of rain ...
summers are cold ...
more floods ...
seasons arrive late ...
lots of snow ...
temps change suddenly ...
and less animals.
No birds sing. The coldest time, referred to as a mythical bull by the indigenous, is not arriving anymore. The bull is gone. The climate has gotten spikier--there is freak weather and sudden changes. Interesting about these greater swings is that the freak weather doesn't show up in meteorological statistics. Wild weather, which swings either way, doesn't register in the balanced-out annual averages.

Tim Leduc (Center for Environment, U Toronto) gave a striking summary of a Canadian perspective. Tim pointed out, citing G. Monbiot (Nov 20, 2009), the tar sand exploitation, which amounts to 2.5 more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil use, makes Canada into a planetary bad ass, almost as bad as the United States. Tim's case for an intercultural IPCC was challenged in the discussion. Rightly so, in that the IPCC doesn't care about non-scientific information. Still, Tim had a point. We need an intercultural agency to help civil evolution along. Science alone won't cut it. A transnational executive entity must steer the re-evaluation of values away from the American Dream responsible for the current malaise, for such re-evalution is the sine qua non of civil evolution.

Markus Vogt (LMU Munich) talked about "Climate justice--an ethical analysis of the conflicts, rights and incentives surrounding CO2", a well thought-out paper on environmental justice that I want my climate seminar students to read this term. (Mental note: get the paper from Markus!) Michael Reder (Munich School for Philosophy) made a point that supported Tim's case: religions need to move to the public sphere, for they can make vital contributions to the impending civil evolution.

That's it. Kudos to the organizers, and more power to the PIK! The papers will hopefully be printed as a collection.

Eighty-three months left.


Back from Sabbatical

The Mad Hun is back.

Happy blogging, happy surfing, and happy new year!

There'll be a change to the set-up of the blog: comments and thoughts will continue to be posted here. The link list of the monthly climate reviews will now appear at the blistered orb data bank.

We have eighty-three months left.