As I think about our Environmental Studies curriculum (I’m Acting Director this semester) and start to think about my Nature and Culture course (which I’ll be teaching in January), I come around to the question of how to conceptualize the fraught relationship between humans and everything else.

The Nature and Culture course offers tools for thinking about this relationship, and challenges students to interrogate those tools, developing them in their own ways and to various ends (ethical, practical, political, etc.). One conceptual tool, among many, is the “good news—bad news” frame. Here’s a quick attempt to present things in this frame.

First, of course . . .

The bad news… is that industrial humanity, in its collective impacts, is putting very severe stresses on the ecological systems (atmospheric, marine, terrestrial) that it depends on for its own continuation, and that the best informed among us are increasingly convinced that these stresses will bring about large-scale calamity in the decades to come. (… cries and mutterings of “Humans, boo!” “Capitalism, boo!” etc.)

The good news is that we have a lot of great ideas and practicable means for mitigating those stresses and moving to a more sustainable society, including

  • shifting from nonrenewable (fossil fuel and nuclear) to renewable energy systems;
  • redesigning our cities and architectural and transportation infrastructures in ways that would incorporate the maintenance and restoration of viable and biodiverse ecosystems;
  • redesigning our material objectscapes so as to fully incorporate the production of waste into the ecological systems underpinning the production and use of the objects themselves;
  • promoting the distribution of wealth and sense of empowerment and ownership to those with the least of it, so as to build more equitable and less war-prone social systems (war being a primary devastator of landscapes and ecosystems) and to allow more people to make population choices consistent with a viable living standard.

The last bit — the population question — is perhaps the one with the least convincing answer, since feeding seven-plus billion people from shrinking soil and marine reserves will be a huge challenge. But there’s a strengthening consensus that we could move toward population stabilization (at perhaps 10-12 billion people) if the various other difficulties could be worked out. (Ingenuity, yay! Creativity, yay!)

The bad news is

  • that progress to these goals is slowed down by the immense, systemic, and seemingly intransigent interests vested in maintaining present inequalities and eco-social relations;
  • that even if progress was quicker, it would still mean the “sacrifice” of many individual (and beautiful, charismatic, awesome) species and ecosystems that have taken a long time evolving to their present (or recent) conditions,
  • and that both of these facts are tragic and very frustrating and debilitating to confront. (Pass the [drug of your choice], man.)

The good news is

  • that there are many thousands of groups and millions of individuals working on one piece or another of this vision of change,
  • and that we have a pretty good idea of how to make it all less frustrating and debilitating — of how to extend our individual and collective capacities for living with paradox, frustration, confusion, dramatic change, and tremendous uncertainty: through the cultivation of mindfulness (via meditative and psycho-spiritual techniques developed over centuries) and supportive and nurturing domestic and social environments. (Cool!)

The bad news is that there are no guarantees that the “transition” will succeed, and even if it does it will be very challenging and difficult. (Aw, c’mon, enough already… just tell me what to do.)

And it goes on.

The overall frame, as I hope you’ve sensed already, suggests a dialectic in which we ourselves are implicated and, to the extent that we feel capable, can choose to do the right thing by aligning our personal and professional lives with the appropriate kinds of change-making behaviors and practices. For beginning university students, this can be an awesome and liberating realization (good news!). But putting it into practice, or even just into theory (i.e., preaching it, which is always easier than practicing), can be very trying and difficult (bad news!).

So we do our best to make the good news bits more attainable, by linking the teaching to the practice in an evolving culture of eco-social sustainability. (And, fortunately, living in a place like Burlington, Vermont, helps to make that culture seem real. In a Jon Stewartish sorta way.)


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