If and when the ecological idea takes root, it is likely to change things.
General George Lee Butler ascended through the ranks of the air force from fighter pilot to the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command. He was a true believer in the mission of the military and specifically in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence, but he was also a thinking man, and his doubts had begun in the 1970s. Finally, in 1988 during a visit to Moscow, he wrote, "it all came crashing home to me that I really had been dealing with a caricature all those years" (Smith 1997, 20). Butler was nearing the end of what he described as a "long and arduous intellectual journey from staunch advocate of nuclear deterrence to a public proponent of nuclear abolition" (Butler 1996). The difference between Butler and many others in the military was that "he reflected on what he was doing time and again," and much of what he'd come to take for normal did not add up. He wrote, "We have yet to fully grasp the monstrous effects of these weapons ... and the horrific prospect of a world seething with enmities, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons." To do so will require overcoming a "terror-induced anesthesia which suspend[s] rational thought" in order to see that "we cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it" (Butler 1998). Butler, now in private business, devotes a substantial part of his life to the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface Corporation, experienced an even more abrupt conversion. In 1994, after 21 years as the head of a highly successful carpet and tile company, he was asked by his senior staff to define the company's environmental policy. "Frankly," he writes, "I did not have a vision" (Anderson 1998, 39). In trying to develop one, he happened to read Paul Hawken's (1993) The Ecology of Commerce, and the effect was, as he put it, like "a spear in the chest" (Anderson 1998, 23). He subsequently read other books ranging from Daniel Quinn's Ishmael to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The effect of his reading and reflection was to deepen and intensify an emotional and intellectual commitment to transform the company. Anderson went on to define environmental goals for Interface that has placed the company in the forefront of U.S. business, a transformation that he describes as "a phenomenon of the first order" (Anderson 1998, 183). Instead of merely complying with the law, Anderson aims to make Interface a highly profitable, solar-powered company discharging no waste and converting used product into new product through what the company calls an "evergreen lease." The Interface annual report reads like a primer in industrial ecology written by thinkers like Paul Hawken, William McDonough, and Amory Lovins. Anderson, now in his midsixties, has become a tireless and eloquent advocate for the ecological transformation of business.
Butler and Anderson are extraordinary people. They were both at the top of their respective professions when they came to the realization that something fundamental was wrong. They were thoughtful and honest enough to eventually see through the complacency and pretensions that accumulate around organizations and institutions like barnacles on the hulls of ships. They are deeply religious men who saw the necessity for change in moral terms and had enough moral energy to transcend the world of cold calculation to see their professions in a larger human and humane perspective and enough courage to risk failure, rejection, and ridicule.
People like Butler and Anderson are threatening to the stability and smooth functioning of organizations and institutions. Butler's challenge to the defense establishment, an entity not famous for its encouragement of new ways of seeing things, is the more daunting. As the CEO of Interface, Anderson has considerably more leverage over outcomes. But both men represent the kind of professional that Donald Schon (1983) once called "the reflective practitioner." In Schon's words, the reflective practitioner is inclined to engage "messy but crucially important problems" through a process that combines "experience, trial and error, intuition, and muddling through" (ibid., 43). Moreover, the reflective practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomena before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behavior. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomena and a change in the situation. [He] is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique . . . his inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate . . . he does not separate thinking from doing. (Schon 1983, 68)
In contrast, most professionals are "locked into a view of themselves as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection [having] become too skillful at techniques of selective inattention, junk categories, and situational control" (ibid., 69). For them, professionalism functions, as Abraham Maslow once described science, "as a Chinese Wall against innovation, creativeness, revolution, even against new truth itself if it is too upsetting" (1966, 33). But organizations and institutions do not often reward mavericks who upset rules and procedures or who question the unquestionable. To the contrary, they are penalized, ostracized, or, worse, elaborately ignored because they threaten what are perceived to be core values and comfortable routines.
The problem that reflective practitioners face is that they mostly work in rigid organizations or professions that function unreflectively. Both Butler and Anderson challenged the fundamental worldview of their respective organizations by seeing the organization and its larger environment at a higher level of generality. From that vantage point Butler could see that nuclear weapons only compounded the problem of security, and Anderson could see the environmental and human havoc caused by a prosperous company otherwise doing everything by the rules. To accommodate people like Butler and Anderson, an organization must meet "extraordinary conditions" that include plac[ing] a high priority on flexible procedures, differentiated responses, qualitative appreciation of complex processes, and decentralized responsibility for judgment and action . . . mak[ing] a place for attention to conflicting values and purposes" (Schon 1983, 338). In short, an organization must be capable of learning (Schon 1971).
The concept of a learning organization sounds like an oxymoron, but the human prospect depends every bit as much on the capacity of organizations to learn as it does on individual learning. Few scholars have thought more deeply about the possibility and dynamics of organizational learning than Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Peter Senge. According to Senge, learning organizations are those in which "people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns or thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (1990, 3). Learning organizations, Senge writes, "develop people who learn to see as systems thinkers see, who develop their own personal mastery, and who learn how to surface and restructure mental models collaboratively" (ibid., 367). They foster people capable of seeing the organization and institution at a higher level of generality and thereby capable of challenging basic premises. In short, learning organizations encourage creativity, innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and the heretics who speak to fundamentals. On such people and on such organizations the human future depends.
"For twenty centuries and longer," in Aldo Leopold's words, "all civilized thought has rested upon one basic premise: that it is the destiny of man to exploit and enslave the earth" (1999, 303). And we've got ten good at it, multiplying and becoming fruitful beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Throughout history we learned mostly driven by necessity: failure, war, famine, overcrowding. Now we have to learn entirely new things, not because we failed in the narrow sense of the word, but because we succeeded too well. In one way or another all of the challenges of the twenty-first century are linked to the fact that we've procreated too rapidly and produced more waste than the earth can process. We suffer from a new dynamic of excess success and must make a rapid transition to a more restrained and elegant condition called sustainability. To do so, what must we learn? We must learn that we are inescapably part of what Leopold called "the soil-plant-animal-man food chain" (ibid., 198). We must master systems dynamics, learning ideas of feedback, stocks, flows, and delays between cause and effect. And we must learn to see ourselves as trustees of the larger community of life, which is to say that we must embrace a higher and more inclusive level of ethics. We must, in other words, see the human enterprise and all of our own little enterprises at a higher level of generality in a much longer span of time and restrain ourselves accordingly. Who will teach us these things?
The fact is that much or even most of what we've learned about this transition has been through the efforts of organizations not usually regarded as educational and by mavericks operating as reflective practitioners against the grain of their professions. Some of the best work on ecological technology, for example, occurs in places like Ocean Arks, Massachusetts, or Gaviotas, Colombia. The creative edge in urban planning and design has been happening on the streets of Curitiba, Brazil, or in cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, or in new developments like Village Homes in Davis, California, Haymount, Virginia, or Prairie Crossings, Wisconsin. The best forestry management is being practiced in the forests of the Menominee tribe in north-central Wisconsin. The most advanced thinking about energy use and automobiles comes from the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. Some of the best thinking about applied economics is taking place at small institutions like Rethinking Progress, Inc., or The Center for a New American Dream. We are learning industrial ecology from companies such as Interface, Inc., and 3-M. The best analysis of our global plight comes from institutions like the WorldWatch Institute and the World Resources Institute.
But where, in the most critical and fateful period of human history, does one find the prestigious and well-endowed institutions of higher education? The short answer is that most have yet to summon the wherewithal and energy to do very much. Relative to the transition to sustainability, institutions of higher education are under-achievers.1 On balance, then, it is unclear whether higher education will be a positive or negative factor in the transition ahead. What we do know is that higher education can, in Jonathan Kozol's words, "prosper next to concentration camps . . . collective hysteria, savagery—or simply quiet abdication in the presence of ongoing misery outside the college walls" (1985, 169). It has certainly adapted comfortably with the corporate dominated extractive economy that lies at the heart of our environmental and social problems. Why?
The problem stems, I think, from a deep-seated complacency that bears resemblance to the history of the U.S. auto industry. Consider that slow-moving, dim-witted colossus, General Motors circa 1970, that failed to check its rearview mirror. Toyota and Honda were in the passing lane. Our product, too, is often overpriced and of uncertain quality. We have lost our sense of direction, becoming all things to all people. Long ago we surrendered the idea of guiding students to a larger vision of self and life in favor of merely well-paying careers. On the most important issues of the time, we have sounded an uncertain trumpet or no trumpet at all. We are being corrupted by financial dependence on corporate interests that have every intention of using higher education to their advantage. And a glance at the rearview mirror shows competitors such as the Internet, organizations offering distance learning, and other vendors coming up fast in the passing lane.
The question, then, is whether the institutions that purport to advance learning can themselves learn new ways appropriate for an ecological era. What would it mean for the ecological idea to take root in colleges and universities? It would mean, for one thing, that such institutions would have to become learning organizations in order to reinvent themselves. This requires rethinking institutional
1. Berea College, College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College, Northland College, Prescott College, and Warren Wilson College are notable exceptions.
purposes and procedures at a higher level of generality. It would mean changing routines and old ways of doing things. It would require a willingness to accept the risks that accompany change. It would require a more honest accounting to include environmental costs. Instead of bureaucratic and academic fragmentation, the transition would require boundary crossing and systems ways of thinking and doing. Instead of being reactive organizations, they would become proactive, with an eye on the distant future. Instead of defining themselves narrowly, they would redefine themselves and what they do in the world at a higher and more inclusive level.
What do these things mean in everyday terms? For one thing, the transition to becoming a learning organization would change who has lunch with whom. The requirement for openness would tend to dissolve the barriers separating disciplines and encourage bolder, more imaginative, and more useful kinds of thought, research, and teaching. It would help to initiate a more honest dialogue about knowledge and its relation to our ecological prospects. The transition would require rethinking the standards for academic success to encourage engagement with real and sometimes messy public problems. It would expand the definition of our "product" from courses taught and articles published to include practical problem solving. It could change how we define our clientele in order to educate, and be educated by, a wider constituency. It would change the standards against which we evaluate institutions of higher education to include our real ecological impacts on the world and perhaps those of our graduates. Since learning, both institutional and individual, begins with an ability to see things in perspective, organizational learning might serve to deflate the pomposity that often pervades the upper echelons of the academy. Finally, transitions don't often occur without leadership, and higher education needs leaders as bold, honest, and capable as George Lee Butler and Ray Anderson.
It is not whether higher education will be reinvented, but rather who will do the reinventing and to what purposes. If we fail to make institutions of learning into learning organizations, others will reinvent the academy for less worthy purposes. If we fail to elevate professional standards, those professions will be irrelevant to the transition ahead, or worse, an impediment. If we, in higher education, cannot make these changes, the possibility that the great transition ahead will be informed by liberally educated people will also decline. That means, in short, that the ideas necessary for a humane, liberal, and ecologically solvent world will be lost in favor of a gross kind of global utilitarianism.
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