Monday, February 21, 2005


My alma mater continues its move to the left....

Greening Vanderbilt: Renewing our mission for the 21st century

by David Wood

On Feb. 16, 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came in effect around the world, though the United States has not yet signed the treaty. The Kyoto Protocol is designed to slow down the global warming resulting from the gases released into the atmosphere by our accelerating use of fossil fuels. The worry is that global warming will “trigger droughts and floods, raise sea levels and wipe out thousands of species by 2100,” according to Reuters. Kyoto sets legally binding targets for rich nations’ emissions of greenhouse gases – especially CO2 from power plants, factories and cars – aiming to reduce them to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. It is not enough, but it’s a start.

Vanderbilt’s Ecology and Spirituality Research Group, part of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, takes a special interest in these issues. From our work so far, we have concluded that there is a strong case for redefining the mission of the university, indeed any major teaching and research university, so as to bring all our resources to bear on the many dimensions of what imperils the quality of life on this planet. (Give me a break! I thought the mission of the university is to teach students!)

This is our case:

1. Most reputable scientists in the fields associated with climate study are now firmly convinced of the reality of global warming and that we humans are largely responsible for it.

2. Global warming will most likely bring drought, crop reductions, disease, flooding, fatal heat waves and threats to natural resources, such as freshwater and fertile soil. While the actual consequences may not be as severe as predicted, they may also be much worse. Moreover, by the time we can be certain, it will be too late to stop them.

3. These changes may be abrupt. Global warming could induce positive feedback, generating accelerating or runaway weather changes in coming decades. Scientists are identifying increasing numbers of systems with tipping points that are vulnerable to global warming. Even if such events are unlikely in the short-term, the severity of the consequences demands our serious attention.

4. Carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere today will remain for a century or more. Because the oceans warm slowly, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise for hundreds of years even if we could stabilize greenhouse gases at today’s concentrations. What we do in the next decades may not have effects that we will see, but will shape the world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren inhabit at the turn of the next century.

5. These realities pose to our society, indeed to our species (and many others) a series of fundamental and painful challenges and questions:a. By what technical innovations (plausible, imaginable) can we hope to slow, halt or reverse these trends (e.g. that would dramatically cut our use of fossil fuels)?b. How can we improve our knowledge of what is happening and the models by which we understand relevant complex local and global systems? c. How can we bring the best science firmly to bear on public policy? d. How can genuine spiritual and religious concerns be brought to bear productively on these matters, and protected from unscrupulous exploitation? e. What public policy issues are highlighted by these trends? How might we imagine moving to dramatically less energy-consuming patterns of social organization? f. Do we not need to start thinking (and feeling) differently about our goals, needs, attitudes and obligations to other people, nations and species? (And if not now, when?)

6. Universities, with their range of knowledge, research capacity and imagination, and their relative independence from short-term economic pressures, are ideal institutions for trying to think through these questions in a creative and collaborative way.

7. There could be no more important guiding mission for a university in the early decades of the 21st century.

The Vanderbilt/CSRC Ecology and Spirituality Research Group consists of Brooke Ackerley (political science), Michael Bess (history), co-director Beth Conklin (anthropology, religious studies), Jonathan Gilligan (earth and environmental sciences), Annabeth Headrick (art and art history), Michael Vandenbergh (law), Gay Welch (religious studies, women’s studies, university chaplain) and co-director David Wood (philosophy). David Wood has been a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt since 1994. He studied at Oxford and has a Ph.D. from Warwick (UK). His book, The Step Back: Ethics and Politics after Deconstruction, will be published this spring.

The Vanderbilt Register welcomes commentary and opinion pieces from all members of the Vanderbilt community.