Finding Hope in Heartbreak

There has been a steady beat of heart-breaking news lately from various fronts.  Did you hear that the flame retardants required by law to be sprayed on American sofas are highly toxic chemicals that continue to break down in your living room? And those sofas, by the way, if they’re the nice wood-framed ones from Ikea, are being made from irreplaceable 600-year-old trees.  When you lie on your sofa to breast-feed your baby, you’re getting a whopping dose of PCB-type chemicals, and your infant is too, since toxic chemicals pass right into breast milk.

Or maybe you caught the long article in the New York Times the other day about American zoos becoming Arks for modern-day Noahs, who have to choose which species to try to preserve and which to let go into extinction.  This was one of the most candid acknowledgements I’ve seen in the mainstream media of the explosive pace of extinctions occurring around the world, partly due to the loss of those ancient trees to logging.

And meanwhile, in my corner of the world, there was more bad weather—record heat in May, followed by violent electric storms, complete with hail and the threat of twisters, which knocked out my power last night, including permanent damage to my DSL box, leaving me without internet access this morning.

The relentlessness of this kind of information, combined with the evidence I can see before my eyes of climate change and the contamination of our landscapes, is like a steady drag on my spirit, a weight around my neck.

Even when I’m enjoying myself with friends and family, as I did this past weekend, I have one mental foot in the future, imagining a time when such happy, peaceful and bountiful gatherings will exist only in memory.

I am always giving myself silent pep talks, hanging on to the hope that we will accomplish the switch to renewable energy sources; that we will stop the deforestation and the industrial agriculture; that we will become responsible stewards of our home planet, rather than the armed pirates and chemical warriors that we have come to be in the last hundred years or so.

Joanna Macy

Lately I have been finding some comfort in Joanna Macy’s 1991 volume World as Lover, World as Self, reissued in 2007 by Parallax Press.  When I think of how oblivious I was back in 1991 about global heating and toxic contamination, I am amazed at Macy’s prescience.

Rather than simply bemoaning, or even exhorting her readers to change their ways before it’s too late, Macy offers us a way to understand and process what is happening to our world, principally through coming to the recognition that the traditional human individualist view of the self is a misconception.

“The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen in its military, ecological or social aspect, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self,” she says.  “It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things.  It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”

In place of this, Macy draws on the work of systems theorists and ecological philosophers like Arne Naess, as well as the Buddhist notion of “inter-being,” to argue for a “greening of the self,” a way of self-understanding that recognizes our essential connectedness with all other life forms on our planet.

Arne Naess

Once we have understood that we are integrals parts in the living system of Earth, we should no longer have to appeal to human beings’ dubious moral sense to prompt a shift to a more sustainable way of living.  We can simply appeal to self-interest, Macy says.

“For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t cut off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.” It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is a part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body.”

One of the ideas I find most exciting about this part of Macy’s work is her application of the concept of “inter-being” to temporality.

“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time.  It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime.  The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception.  Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first spinning and splitting of the stars.

“Thus the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and own our story as life on Earth.  We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layers of our neocortex and what we learned at school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined.  When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us survive.”

When I think of my place in time and space in these terms, I do feel that gladness.  It is true that we are living through the sixth great extinction on the planet now.  It is true that we are producing and spreading contaminants in the air, water and soils that will last, some of them, for billions of years.

But the Earth has time.  And who knows, perhaps what we think of today as toxic waste can in time become the building blocks of new forms of life.  Our planet has shown itself to be remarkably adaptive.

Macy is unusual in working across disciplines and discourses that are generally kept apart, speaking fluently and persuasively in the tongues of sociology, systems theory, psychology, neurology, geology, ecology, theology, and even spirituality.  We are going to need the wisdom from all of these avenues of inquiry to begin to understand what will be happening to us in the coming years, as individuals, as a species, and as a part of the living fabric of Earth.

Perhaps that is what most distinguishes us most as human beings.  We want to understand.

And perhaps there is still a chance that if we can understand in time, we can, as Macy says, survive.

Memorial Day Memories

This Memorial Day, I want to honor my ancestors, at least as far back as my family memory goes.  On both sides of my family, my ancestors were hounded out of Europe by the dogs of anti-Semitism and greed.  Under great pressure, facing an uncertain future in a faraway land, in a time when leaving home very likely meant never again seeing or speaking with family and friends, they bravely gathered what they could carry and set off to try to establish a better future for their descendants.

They succeeded.  My family has prospered here in America.  On my father’s side, the three surviving children of my Russian immigrant great-grandparents became a doctor, a lawyer and (my grandmother) a teacher.  On my mother’s side, the German emigrants of the late 19th century became comfortable businessmen, doctors and dentists.

The Depression took its toll on my family, but by and large they did well, creating generations of hard-working, honest, loving people who entered energetically into building the American Dream.

Just because none of them died in war doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor them on Memorial Day.  There are many forms of service to one’s country and one’s family.

This Memorial Day, I raise a toast to the departed, to peace, and to life!

A la recherche du temps perdu

I have always been very sensitive to the passage of time.  As a child, I often began a long, golden summer season grieving in advance for its end.

I remember how, during long car rides with my family—my mother, my father, my brother, my dog and cat—I was aware of a sense of perfect contentment, thinking ‘if only this moment could go on forever, for here we all are, everyone I love, complete and whole and happy.’

Now, looking into the future and knowing how close our planet is to a major realignment of living systems, it seems there is always a part of me that is engaged in the long, drawn-out process of grieving in advance.

No moment can last forever.  Grief is inevitable for those of us who open our hearts to attachment.

These thoughts are at the forefront of my mind today because this weekend I am having the odd experience of participating in my 30-year college reunion, seeing people with whom I shared some of my most formative, impressionable teenage moments, now grown older, grayer, wider, hopefully wiser too.

At the start of the weekend, I attended a play written and directed by Simon’s Rock alum Pooja Roo Prema, featuring a cast composed mostly of different generations of Simon’s Rock graduates.  Called “Isis-Chernobyl: A Tale of Uncertain Fruit,” the play is impossible to summarize in a nutshell, other than to say that it is an extended allegory of grief.

Pooja describes it as more a ritual enactment than an entertainment, which is certainly true; it has elements of high Greek tragedy, as well as Shakespearian clowning, but the thread that runs through it all is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the unimaginable desolation of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Isis, wandering the earth seeking the lost, dismembered parts of her beloved Osiris, could be any one of us wandering the haunted landscapes of our own memories, seeing people, places and events that once were woven into the warp of our being, but have become lost in the forward rush of life’s unfolding.

Reuniting now with generations of Simon’s Rock alumni, my own cohort past midlife and facing a future likely to be shorter than our past, I am reminded once again of how important it is to seize each moment, make the most of each day, appreciate one’s friends and family before they are torn from us by the relentless cyclical forces of life and death.

Isis can never be satisfied in her quest to feel again the smooth living skin and warm kisses of her lover, but she can reanimate his spirit in her own grieving flesh and mind.

Just as every car ride of my childhood came inevitably to an end, these days too shall pass, living on only in our memories.

This Memorial Day, I celebrate memory: the living memories of past happiness that glow within us like shining stars as well as the dark, grieving memories of people and places lost to us forever.

If I had been asked to speak at Commencement….

This is what I would have said:

It’s become a cliché to say that every day is the first day of the rest of your life, and yet like most clichés this one holds truth to it.

When you walk down that aisle today holding your B.A. diploma, achieving a goal which you have worked towards for many years, you will be stepping into your adulthood with all the rights and privileges, but also all the responsibilities that this maturity brings.

The year 2012, long prophesied as a time of great change and transition, is not an easy time to be reaching adulthood.

I don’t have to tell you that times are tough economically, or that our planetary environment is facing its own severe shifts due to anthropogenic global heating.  You have probably heard tell of a “sixth great extinction event” on the horizon, if climate change projections continue unabated on their current course, causing the heating and acidification of the oceans and resulting drought, floods and violent storms on land.

Most of us “know” about these issues the same way we “know” that toxic chemicals in our food, water, air and household products cause cancer.

We do our best not to think about it too much, because thinking about it just makes us scared and depressed, and what can we do about it, anyway?

I want to suggest to you, as you step out into the world this afternoon with your newly minted B.A., that you are stepping into an unprecedented opportunity to do more than any previous human generation has ever done.

It is not an exaggeration to say that you have the opportunity to turn this great Titanic of an earthship around, sailing her away from the iceberg and into safer waters.

There have been “greatest generations” before now.  But their challenges have been far less global and all-encompassing than the challenges we face now.

Now it’s not just a nation or even a group of nations that are faced with disaster.  It is the entire globe, human civilization writ large, which could in fact be toppled if the earth gives a great climatic shrug of her shoulders and goes back to the evolutionary drawing board.

Even the most sober earth scientists are predicting that if we do not change our habits of carbon emission, the resulting global heating will make the world uninhabitable for some 90% of current species on the planet by the year 2050, including 90% of current human populations.

I lay this out for you starkly not to depress you on what should be a happy and auspicious day, but to impress upon you the importance of the decisions you will be making and actions you will be taking in the coming years.

While it is true that lifestyle changes of individuals can only have limited effect on climate change, they are a start.  We can choose to support alternative energy whenever and however possible.  We can choose to push our elected representatives to shift subsidies and incentives away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.  We can encourage sustainable agricultural practices in our own communities and through our consumer choices.

What I would ask of you above all is to stay informed and engaged with these issues as you move forward into adulthood, and seize all opportunities to push governments and corporations to do the right thing not just for the bottom line or the national interest, but for the good of our planetary home and her current life forms, including humanity.

I am not proud of the condition of the world that my generation is now handing off to you.  I am not proud of what I and my cohort have allowed to happen on our watch.

The past cannot be undone.  But the future is yours to shape.

Don’t be afraid to try out completely new ideas. Listen to your dreams, listen to your intuition.  Be alert, be thoughtful, be creative.  Tune out the background buzz that will try to lull you into complacency and inaction.

I hope that when it’s your turn to witness your children stepping out into their adulthood, you will be able to be proud of the world you have created for them.

Truly, their future is in your hands.

Commencement reflections, 2012

This weekend my first-born son will graduate at age 20 with a B.A. in Biology.  He will join thousands of other graduates across the country marching to the dais to accept his hard-earned degree from school officials dressed in the medieval cap and gowns we still wear for such occasions.

And then he will march out into the world to join the hordes of recently graduated young adults, confronting one of the worst job markets ever seen in American history.

When I graduated college back in 1982, there was also a bit of a recession on, but things quickly rallied, and I had no trouble finding a job in journalism, and working my way up from reporter to staff writer to editor at publications in New York City.

When I chose to go to graduate school, it wasn’t hard to find a part-time job as an assistant editor to make room in my schedule for my studies.

And so it went, one step leading to the next with a steady predictability.

For my son, now, that kind of reliable future is out of the question.

We live in such a fast-changing world that there is no way to predict with certainty what kind of challenges we’ll be facing in, say, the next five years.

Will climate change come to a head and rain environmental devastation down on us?  Will an antibiotic-resistant bacteria strike?  Will the risky behavior of the financial sector finally put us completely at the economic mercy of the Chinese?

We can’t know the answers to any of these big global questions, any more than we can know the answer to the very small, local question that I am sure is in the minds of all the parents and grandparents who will be watching their graduates march this weekend: will s/he be able to find a job next year?

Many of the graduates will choose to put off confronting that question by diving back into graduate school.  That is certainly what my son has in mind, and it is the right thing to do, given his desire to work as a marine biologist.

Even a Ph.D. is no guarantee of a living wage anymore, although things are somewhat brighter in the sciences than for those of us stuck in the doldrums of the humanities.

I am proud of what my son has accomplished in his first two decades, and proud of the fine human being he has become.

I am much less proud of the world we, his elders, have created, into which he’ll now be stepping as a young adult.

As a teacher, I see clearly that what is needed is a collaboration of older, more experienced minds, with the open, energetic and passionate young minds who are now coming into their full powers.

I don’t want my son and all the other graduates to follow blindly in our path, doing things as they’ve always been done, which is largely what I myself did as a young adult.

Knowing how desperately we need to change our habits in order to shift our society on to a sustainable path, we can’t afford to give young people the luxury of just following along the paths that are already established.

We need them to be blazing new trails, and we older folk need to work with them closely in this crucial undertaking.

As my son strides off the dais with his BA in hand on Saturday, this is the blessing that will be in my mind:

May you take your knowledge and talents and use them for the benefit of our planetary home.  May you be a warrior for good, and become a leader in your sphere.  May you prosper and find happiness in working for the prosperity and happiness of all. 

Embracing the Monster of Climate Change

Finally, a mainstream media reporter has the courage to bring up the elephant in the newsroom: CLIMATE CHANGE!!!

In a blog post—not a front page or prime time news story, alas–ABC News reporter Bill Blakemore writes candidly of the fear that a realistic assessment of the threat of climate change must raise in anyone who cares about the future of human civilization on this planet.

“Established scientists, community and government leaders and journalists, as they describe the disruptions, suffering and destruction that manmade global warming is already producing, with far worse in the offing if humanity doesn’t somehow control it, are starting to allow themselves publicly to use terms like “calamity,” “catastrophe”, and “risk to the collective civilization,” Blakemore writes.

“Sooner or later, everyone who learns about the rapid advance of manmade global warming must deal with the question of fear.”

Blakemore advises us to take a page out of the U.S. Air Force playbook and learn to “hug the monster” of climate change, rather than recoiling into fearful paralysis.

“If you freeze or panic — if you go into merely reactive “brainlock” — you’re lost,” he says.

“But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action — sometimes even by changing it into anger — and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up.”

It is absolutely clear that we stand on the edge of the greatest crisis ever to confront human civilization.

It is also quite clear that almost NO ONE WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IT.

Sometimes when I bring up the reality of impending climate change I really feel like the drip, the drone, the total wet blanket in the room.  People actually give me dirty looks and do their best to change the topic ASAP.

Okay, people.  You go your way and I’ll go mine.

I don’t know whether it’s possible for humanity to survive the coming catastrophe of global heating.

If we survive, it will only be through a drastic change in our ethos and way of life.

We cannot continue to treat the planet as our private killing field, burning and hacking at all other life forms as if they did not matter a damn.

We in the Western world cannot continue to pretend that our wasteful, profligate lifestyles are a given that cannot be questioned, touched or changed.

To me the monster in the room is not so much global heating itself, as the destructive, predatory mindset that has brought it about.

If we are going to embrace the monster, as the Air Force suggests, and even employ anger as a tool of resistance, than we need to start getting angry at ourselves.

We Americans and Europeans have brought the planet to the brink of the next “global extinction event”—aka, the brink of total annihilation for the majority of current life forms on Earth.

Where is the anger? Where is the outrage?  Where is the will to change?

First step: acknowledge that the problem exists.

Thanks, Bill Blakemore, for getting us just a little bit closer to taking that first baby step.

Celebrating the DIY Mom on Mother’s Day

Although I feel it’s my duty to write a celebration of mothers on Mother’s Day, every time I think about what I might write for this post, all that comes up in my mind is a kind of lament.

Becoming a mother was definitely the best thing I’ve done in my life.  When I look at my two big, handsome, talented boys, I am thrilled beyond measure with the knowledge that I nurtured them in my womb for nine months, I gave birth to them, I did all the loving labor a mother must do to successfully bring children up from helpless infants to strong, independent young men.

My boys setting sail

So where does the lament come in?

Shift to a small, smothered voice: I just wish I hadn’t had to do so much of it all by myself.

I suppose I am writing the lament of the single mom, or the “do-it-all” mom, the mom who doesn’t get much help or support from her partner in bringing up baby.

Even when I was married, I did the lioness’s share of the household and child care labor, while also bringing home a paycheck that grew in time to be the larger portion of the family bacon.

My marriage foundered on my partner’s inflexibility when it came to the idea of a man doing housework, and my exhaustion and resentment over having to do it all.

In addition to working two demanding jobs for nine years straight, while also publishing two books and organizing a major annual conference and doing all the other extra labor of being a fulltime academic, I also did all the shopping, cooking, laundry, cleaning and yard work; all the supervising of homework and staying involved with my children’s schools through parent-teacher meetings, volunteer work and car pooling; I made sure all the medical appointments were taken care of, I did all the bill-paying and taxes, and if there was anything left over for a small vacation or a purchase for the house, I handled that too.

I am sure this is sounding very familiar to all those single and DIY moms out there, right?  We know the list could go on and on.

My own mom did all that household stuff too, but without the added pressure of bringing home the paycheck.

It’s probably my traditional upbringing, where my dad went out to earn the money and my mom stayed home to run a smooth, highly functioning household and do her creative work on the side, that makes me feel like having to play both roles myself is somehow too much.

I should be able to do it all with grace and good cheer, without getting crabby with my children or frustrated when things don’t go quite as planned.

That’s what a mother does, right?

At least I can take some comfort in knowing I am not alone.

There were some 10 million single moms in the U.S. as of 2010, and the number keeps climbing.

This Mother’s Day, I want to give a big shout-out to all of us single moms, and the DIY moms who may someday decide that enough is enough, and go down the single mom route.

We need to keep our chins up and not let the pressures, obligations and yes, sacrifices of our position get us down.

We have to just do our best, and not beat ourselves up when we get overwhelmed.

We must remind ourselves that we are doing the most important work in this nation, bringing up the next generation to take their place responsibly and soberly in the difficult social and environmental landscape we must confront together.

I love this picture of me because I look the way I feel: as weathered, but as solid, as the rock behind me

Grassroots heroism: what we need now

The image that stays with me most from the blockbuster superhero action film The Avengers is not the thrilling climax when the hero uses all his power to wrest a nuclear missile away from its collision course with Manhattan and up into space, where it explodes a waiting battleship of nasty intergalactic invaders—although that was pretty thrilling I have to admit, especially in 3-D!  Man, that movie packs some powerful special effects!

But no, what really struck me were the scenes of ordinary human beings on the ground, dressed in their regular 21st century civilian clothing, sipping their lattes and strolling about midtown Manhattan one moment, and the next moment being terrorized from above by sinister alien rampaging monsters and soldiers.

Without Captain America, the Black Widow, the Incredible Hulk and the other heroes, all those people would certainly have been totally destroyed within minutes—and not just by the aliens, but by “friendly fire” as well.

This scene resonates with me on two levels.

On the one hand, it goes to show yet again how quickly an apparently normal, peaceful morning can turn to nightmare when militarized violence shows up unexpectedly.

And on the other hand, it underlines how deeply dependent we human beings are on the idea of the charismatic leader, the savior, the hero who will leap into action and save the day for us.

This has been true since ancient times, and it appears to be cross-cultural: every culture has its heroic myths and legends, in which men and women with superhuman strengths and powers do battle with dark forces on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Watching politicians of The Avengers decide to send a nuclear missile to destroy the entire city in order to kill off these alien soldiers, an order that their general resists but an ordinary pilot obeys, I am uncomfortably reminded of how much danger we are probably all in, every day, thanks to decisions made by the men in charge, who sit in remote splendor in faraway bunkers like the gods on Mount Olympus of old.

I want to see a movie made that points the way to a different model of heroism.

Instead of the superhero, David against Goliath type tale, I want to see, on the big 3-D screen with all the lavish special effects and brilliant actors, a tale that celebrates the ordinary heroism of people on the ground, who—understanding the danger of militarism and the mechanized violence that pervades human civilization, from agriculture to energy to education and entertainment—come together to offer whatever skills, talents and gifts they have to the common pool of resistance.

In this movie, the human beings would not cower on the ground while the battle of the titans raged overhead; they would not sink to their knees before the might of an alien invader; they would not follow blindly wherever the men with guns and uniforms told them to go.

Instead they would use the power of their collective will and determination to demand a change of course, and insist that it happen.

What I want to see celebrated on the big screen is the kind of grassroots resistance that we saw on the ground this past year in Egypt and other Arab Spring hotspots, or in the General Assemblies and protests of the Occupy movement.

Egyptian women protest in Cairo, April 2011

It is happening already in real life.  Hollywood and Marvel Comics, maybe it’s time to break with the fixation on the past and try a new story.

Help Wanted: Strong Leadership on Climate Change, Starting Immediately

Now if only President Obama could show the same leadership on climate change as he has just demonstrated on the divisive same- sex-marriage issue.

The same narrow-minded interests that made same-sex marriage such a boogeyman for the President are also controlling the GOP-dominated boardrooms of Big Oil, from Mr. Cheney on down.

These people seem to be motivated by one thing only: the bottom line.  And they seem to be able to think only as far as a quarter or two ahead.

They don’t see that they are driving us as fast as possible over a cliff from which there will be no recovery.  Or maybe they see, but just don’t care.

It was with great appreciation that I opened up The New York Times Opinion pages today and saw the indefatigable James Hansen offering the lead op-ed, once more displaying his vision and leadership in 1) insisting that the comfortable NYT readers pay attention to the imminent and grave threat of climate change, and 2) offering a practical solution for bringing about the swift change of course we need to avert disaster.

Those of us who have been thrown into gloom by the prospect of Canada scraping down the boreal forest to exploit their tar sands will be somewhat heartened by the strong language Hansen uses to condemn this approach to “solving” the peak oil crisis.

Alberta, Canada: from boreal forest to tar sand devastation

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

This is not some crazy Armageddon-spouting evangelical talking here.  This is James Hansen, senior scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The way to head off this catastrophic scenario, as Hansen and many other scientists have been telling us now for at least a decade, is to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, and Hansen has an easy, no-nonsense solution for forcing Americans to change our ways and start doing what we have to do to save our planet and our civilization.

“We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny,” Hansen says. “This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

As Hansen observes, in practice what we have been doing is just the opposite: “instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

These subsidies must stop.

Canada and the US must stop playing poker with the future of our children and our planetary epoch.

All of us, from President Obama and Prime Minister Harper right on down to each one of us ordinary folks who drive cars, heat our houses and run our air conditioning, need to stop pretending that business-as-usual can continue any longer.

Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainty is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?


There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

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