Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
It seems to me that there are two existential threats to humanity: (1) weapons of mass destruction (especially nuclear) and (2) the ecological crisis. Further, there are two unstoppable forces that will drive the future: (a) the ecological crisis and (b) the demands of the world’s people for inclusion and equity.
I agree with Cristina Escrigas’s paper on higher education as well as her prescriptions for reform. Higher education in the West once focused on the preparation of ministers and other professional leaders with a Christian orientation. The Industrial Revolution has transformed the world in only a few short years. The conditions of humans have been dramatically improved, and there are certainly more of us. Much can be explained by the success of the industrial mode of production, the increase in scientific knowledge which provides technologies for greater and more varied production to meet a greater variety of human needs and wants, and the growth of systems of capital accumulation and markets that feed the industrial system and provide income to individuals and institutions. Economics and industry have become of primary importance. The so-called postindustrial society or economy is not (postindustrial) at all. Maintaining and expanding economic-industrial society is extraordinarily difficulty. It, in a sense, requires our highest efforts, for it must grow: for more production, there must be more markets; more markets means more needs are met—or so it is thought.
What we have learned in conducting this enterprise, however, is now at variance with maintaining, much less expanding, it. We begin with the observation that humans are living at 1.5 times the carrying capacity of Earth. If all humans lived as we do in the United States, it would take five Earths and yet every government on Earth has made that its goal.
The ecology department cranks out these sad facts, while the business school prepares its students to participate in an expanding industrial economy. Sustainability is often mentioned but not seriously examined. An answer to full sustainability is provided by an x-factor of tremendous new technology, even a “singularity” where humans transcend biology, or by collapse—the first being fanciful and the latter a dreary prospect indeed.
Being in the planetary stage of human development has been cast upon us. And being in that place, the planet Earth is what we have in common. I suspect the “higher” in higher education will have to be found in a shared sense of the sacredness of Earth and of all its people and all its living beings and life systems. Thomas Berry coined the term “ecozoic.” Based on its root words, it means “house of life.” Every religious tradition and culture honors life. Every secular and humanistic traditions honors life. The unity of the uni-versity will be recovered in honoring life.
The economic-industrial age must give way to an ecological-cultural age. This will not do away with economics and industry, but they will not be the primary values. The primary values will be the flourishing of life on Earth—ecology—and full human development—culture.
To move into the ecological-cultural age is to move into a new period of civilization. The university of ecological civilization will be very different than the one of today.