Crisis And Opportunity In The Environmental Century: Inspiring A Generation To Greatness In The Classroom

by Stephen Mulkey, via Climate Access

As an ecologist, I know that we have precious little time to prepare a generation to respond to the ecological crisis of our planet in peril. As the president of Unity College, I am alarmed by how little progress has been made in focusing higher learning on what is undoubtedly the most important challenge facing humankind. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of imminent climate disruption, failure to make climate literacy a requisite part of any undergraduate curriculum is inexcusable.

Recent papers in the journal Nature show that we have transgressed the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity with respect to several key environmental factors. Chief among these is climate change, which amplifies the effects of all other critical factors such as freshwater depletion, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and changes in land use. There is now mounting evidence that sometime during this century we will reach a state shift in the planet’s ability to support us. Climate change will affect every facet of the academy and change the practice of essentially all fields of study.

Unity College aspires to be America’s Environmental College and thus climate change must be a centerpiece of our programming. It is nothing short of mission critical that we get this right. At my request the faculty and Board of Trustees have adopted Sustainability Science (sensu U.S. National Academy of Science) as our overarching framework for all academic programming, and especially for upper division courses. Although this approach addresses all aspects of global environmental change, because of its innovative delivery, it is especially suited to the urgency of climate change. As a four-year liberal arts academy, a focus this specific has sweeping implications for our programming, but it does not obviate the need for critical skills such as oral and written literacy.  Thus I am quick to point out that the humanities are foundational to implementation of Sustainability Science as pedagogy.

As multiple components of our life support deteriorate, I think it likely that this century is destined to be the Century of the Environment. There can be little doubt that a child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we are able to make significant adjustments in our use of natural resources and bring new sources of energy rapidly online.  Development of a sustainable relationship with our natural resources is an imperative for our survival as we face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species. Owing to the lead-time required to address climate change, it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously transition towards sustainability. Because our curriculum is science-based, we do not shy away from acknowledging that the consequences of failing to respond will be catastrophic and irrevocable over a millennial time scale. Such a broad frame for the work of Unity College gives profound meaning to everything we do.

Interdisciplinary programming in higher education is accepted as necessary for effective instructional delivery of complex environmental problems. Unfortunately this approach has largely failed because of the impediments to sharing resources among disciplinary silos at universities.  Moreover, the need for students to sequentially access information from different disciplines makes integration of knowledge unwieldy and slow. In contrast, Sustainability Science employs transdisciplinary programming, which requires that the perspectives of various disciplines be simultaneously integrated in problem-focused pedagogy. This is a promising alternative framework that focuses on the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems and is defined by the problems that it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. Students are empowered to become knowledge brokers, while faculty act as curators of knowledge to provide students with networked resources that are generally external to the classroom.

Although an exciting innovation in delivery, Sustainability Science will not be useful if we cannot quickly produce effective practitioners. We are simply out of time to address many aspects of climate change.  Accordingly, it is the streamlining of knowledge management that we think is one of the most significant advantages of Sustainability Science as a paradigm. The entering class this fall will be the first to matriculate under this new framework, and we are eager to demonstrate that our graduates can bring the right stuff to the green economy.

Because of the opportunities inherent in our long ecological crisis I see many reasons for hope. This crisis, made hugely immediate by climate change, represents an opportunity rarely witnessed in the history of our species. During this century the current generation of students will be forced to the limits of their ingenuity, cooperation, and innovation. I am struck that the results of such efforts will be immensely rewarding. Those who are prepared and can lead will have unprecedented opportunities for service through the creation of a new global economy based on sustainable practice. They will be remembered long after their time for laying the cornerstones of a stable human ecology.

I believe that we have a covenant of duty to not merely prepare, but also inspire this generation to rise to greatness.  Indeed, this is the Great Work of their generation (cf., Thomas Berry). As a scientist, I know that climate change will be the defining environmental issue of this century, but as an educator I know that an even more pressing challenge is one of motivation and inspiration. History shows us that our species will not rise to meet great challenges unless there is a force that speaks to our hearts. Inspiration and affective power must be embedded in this endeavor if it is to succeed.

Historically, the arts and humanities have been the key to such willingness, and I see these fields as utterly indispensable to Sustainability Science. Our vision of a sustainable future must inspire, rather than burden, and thus it should be partnered with fine art, great literature, and powerful music. It must lead, rather than support the status quo. It must build, rather than merely struggle to maintain. It must counter fear with a luminous path forward. It must provide brilliant, pragmatic hope when the future seems devoid of options. Through the ineffable power of art and literature we can experience the grandeur of the quest for sustainability. By infusing sustainability education with such primal affective substance we can reclaim the identity that connects all of us as obligate social primates to each other and to the Earth.

It is my fervent hope that we will soon arrive at a cultural tipping point when higher education will embrace the imperative of this mission. David Orr has noted that “all education is environmental education,” and I take this to be literally true if we are to have any hope of supporting a civilization of over nine billion humans by mid century. Placed in the context of our own survival, there can be no more important mission for higher education. Yet, like awareness of the inevitability of our own death, awareness of impending ecological collapse is overwhelming, and thus unthinkable.  We push it from our minds, especially if the evidence is not in our faces. So, for now we continue with business as usual in higher education, acquiescing to the perennial demand to educate students for jobs. The great irony is that within the next few decades these jobs will certainly not exist if we do not address the environmental imperative that we so assiduously avoid.

Stephen Mulkey is the president of Unity College, located in Unity, Maine. This piece was originally published at Climate Access and was reprinted with permission.

7 Responses to Crisis And Opportunity In The Environmental Century: Inspiring A Generation To Greatness In The Classroom

  1. Gail says:

    Bravo President Mulkey! Our universities have been dong a shameful job of educating students and it is courageous of you to refuse to go along with the corruption that taints higher education. Please teach the young people that the trees they see are not what they used to be – they are dying from pollution too, and we can’t live without them!

    Here’s the letter I sent to my daughter’s university after she graduated:

    Dear President Tilghman, Dr. Austin, and Dr. Happer,

    I am writing in reference to this undated letter to which Drs. Austin and Happer are purportedly signatories. (

    As a proud Princeton parent, I am dismayed that anyone affiliated with this institution would trample on its prestige, reputation, and academic integrity by being party to this fraudulent folly. I can only hope that the names of Drs. Austin and Happer were attached to this screed without their knowledge.

    Their entire premise of asking the EPA to hold hearings on the CO2 endangerment finding is based on this crucial lie:

    “In our view, particularly with temperatures now falling, the argument for CO2 regulation rests solely on the “validity” of the climate models relied upon by the IPCC and the EPA.”

    Global average temperatures are NOT falling, they are demonstrably, irrefutably rising, as stated by NASA here ( – reputable, reliable corroboration for which any undergraduate could find in the most trivial search attempt. For Drs. Austin and Happer to state otherwise is pure drivel. It is either unforgivably inept at best, or mendacious at worst.

    I am looking forward to a public statement by them repudiating this dangerous, deliberately misleading political propaganda; or to an announcement that their employment with Princeton has been terminated on grounds of moral turpitude.

    Of what value will my child’s Princeton education be when she inherits a world dominated by climate catastrophe thanks to her elders, those charged with her education, disseminating and perpetrating lies that benefit no one other than energy corporations?

    How incisive was it for the speaker at Class Day, Charlie Gibson, to basically admit that “our” generation has abdicated any responsibility for the existential threats we have created – insurmountable debt, increasing income inequality, squandering energy and polluting the Earth’s air, land and water? The hapless graduates and future generations are left to contend with rising seas and global warming likely to render many regions uninhabitable.

    And I might add, from observing the many students I have met, their Princeton education has left them woefully uninformed about the most important challenge facing humanity ever, and thus less prepared than a third-world peasant on a subsistence diet to survive in a rapidly and radically changing world.

    The university’s approach to educating students about the perils of climate change has been wholly inadequate. If history is not to judge your enterprise as nothing more than a sham to prop up the status quo, there must be a fundamental effort to disseminate the facts throughout the curriculum, and professors who lie about the facts must be, at the least, called out and disciplined.


    Gail Zawacki
    Princeton Parent 2010

  2. June Roullard says:

    Thank you so much for this beautifully written and inspiring post,Dr. Mulkey. It is a good example of what Joe means by “Language Intelligence”!

    As a fellow Mainer living “down the road” from Unity College, I have always been impressed with its mission and the dedication of faculty and students to sustainability, and its collective understanding of the complex and beautiful “web of life”.

    This makes me wish I were just starting out again.

  3. fj says:

    Yes, this truly speaks to the current absurdity of business as usual activity; and, people must be made aware of this.

  4. Larry Chamblin says:

    Stephen Mulkey makes a good case for an environment-centered curriculum. I can imagine a course of study that includes writers from Thoreau and Emerson to Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Thomas and Wendell Berry will serve as guides into the future in our limited world, and to a stronger connection between the human and nonhuman. Years ago I had the idea of an environment-centered curriculum, but the need today is more compelling. We need colleges like Unity College–unity of all life? We also need all schools and colleges to break from the emphasis on teaching the sciences and technologies of dominating and plundering nature and, instead, help students learn to live in harmony with the natural world and to build on that harmony for a sustainable future.

  5. Ellie Cohen says:

    Excellent and inspirational. Thank you!

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Good letter Gail, did you get a reply? ME

  7. Thanks for this inspiring message to educators. I particularly loved:

    “Our vision of a sustainable future must inspire, rather than burden, and thus it should be partnered with fine art, great literature, and powerful music. It must lead, rather than support the status quo. It must build, rather than merely struggle to maintain. It must counter fear with a luminous path forward. It must provide brilliant, pragmatic hope when the future seems devoid of options.”

    I teach environmental law in Australia and I have copied this quote to my class’s notice board. I plan to discuss it with them next week. It really builds on Van Jones’ point that we need to link environmental programs to jobs and alleviating poverty.

    We will not succeed in avoiding dangerous climate change unless we can convince a majority of people that there is a positive alternative future without burning fossil fuels that maintains jobs, homes, food supply and comparable lifestyles or acceptable restrictions in lifestyles.