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.


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