ON TEACHING THE END OF THE WORLD

In the Fall semester of 2018 I taught a new course entitled The Global Politics of the End of the World (As We Know It). What follows is my account of teaching this course, informed by student comments and suggestions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 1980s undergraduate experience doing International Relations (IR) at Keele, but my memory keeps dredging up two equal and opposite experiences. On the plus side was Hidemi Suganami’s final year ‘Causes of War’ elective course. It was my last choice (out of three), but it turned out to be my favourite. Hidemi used the question of the causes of war to explore diverse foundational issues about the nature of causes, historical debates, and the role of imperialism. Questions were used as ways of opening up the complexity of debates. One such question was ‘If there had been nuclear weapons in 1914, would the First World War have happened?’ Little did we know at the time, but in the previous year (1983) the world had actually come perilously close to a full nuclear war during NATO’s Able Archer exercise.

            The other standout experience was sitting in a Department seminar during the discussion of an issue that has long faded from memory. Department members were debating some point or other that took a particular 1980s English School perspective on the state and diplomacy. Suddenly it hit me that a lot of what I was learning seemed to have little relevance to the politico-economic world I experienced around me. The debate was an interesting and nuanced discussion, but it suddenly seemed rather ‘angels on the head of a pin’ irrelevant to what really concerned me at the time.

            A similar dissatisfaction hit me a few years back. My teaching in IR was missing something. Yes, I very much enjoyed the subject matter, as did the students, but it struck me that in every seminar or lecture there was a spectre hanging over the debates: important though each issue was, the threat of catastrophic climate change hung in the air. This sense of foreboding was not new to me. During my undergraduate a similar angst lurked in the corner of each seminar room in the form of the imminent threat of a civilization-destroying nuclear war. 1983 was not only the year that we almost went to war; it was also the year that the TTAPS study came out. The TTAPS authors claimed that even the use of a fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenal would trigger a nuclear winter that would destroy our civilization, and could quite possibly also lead to the extinction of humanity. The nuclear winter scenario was played out dramatically the following year in the BBC film ‘Threads’. Both now and then it seems important that IR address these very elemental threats, as the Burke et al Manifesto argued in 2016.

This story isn’t true’

In The Phaedrus Plato shows Socrates having a change of heart. After trotting out his usual ‘Platonic’ advice on love and relationships to a young man, Socrates is suddenly struck by the epiphany that what he has said is wrong. ‘This story isn’t true!’ he declares, and proceeds to tell a different story. Like Socrates, I realized that I could no longer stick to my usual teaching plan, and that I had to give a different account of global politics. There is, though, one element that I kept from my previous teaching. That was the importance of a longue durée approach to IR. I have long been critical of IR’s recency bias, and since my recent research is part of the historical turn in the field this represented some continuity in my own intellectual journey. Perhaps the only addition here was the increased awareness of the importance of geological time to the mix.

Doomsday Clock

            My next step was to decide what it was that I did not plan to cover. There is a long apocalyptic tradition in theological and philosophical thought that views the coming end of the world in moral terms. This tradition found its home in many religions, including most notably Norse mythology and Christianity, and has its modern versions in the work of Oswald Spengler and (most recently) the coming (moral) chaos predicted by the conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson. Yet, I have excellent colleagues in our Religious Studies Department who could do a better job of this. Also, it was clear to me that the important issue I wanted to cover was how human societies interact with their ecology. The emphasis was on the existential threat posed by material bases of civilization, not on our supposed moral failings.

            While I wanted to cover issues of climate, pollution, resource use, and the nuclear winter, I also did not want to make this course solely an environmental politics one. One of the issues that came out of my initial readings, and it was something that would be confirmed in the class debates, was that the collapse of a society was rarely (if ever) due to a single noticeable cause, but rather the result of a perfect storm of threats that overwhelms a society’s coping mechanisms. While environmental politics would remain a central feature of the course, I wanted to extend our discussions into the nature of human society, and to other contributing threats, such as artificial intelligence and the nature of the political economy.

            Although the title was deliberately pessimistic and gloomy, I did not want to make it a pessimistic course. There is an ethos in IR teaching that often presents the world in a pessimistic way by saying to students: ‘this is the age-old underlying reality we work with. Claims of rapid change – whether positive or negative – always end up hitting the cold hard reality of the enduring nature of political life. Now get back to reading Thucydides!’ There is a comforting complacency to the idea that we cannot change some set of realities, and the danger of this approach is that it can produce an inactivity borne of fatalism that is as much a threat to meaningful action as over-optimistic denials of a threat. I wanted the course to contradict the ‘age-old realities’ chestnut in two ways. First, through a geologic and longue durée historic approach I wanted to show how change and discontinuities were at the heart of the realities of both the physical and social worlds. Here I would put heavy emphasis on two game-changing accelerations: the effects of the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, and ‘the Great Acceleration’ since 1950. Both of these have had profound game-changing effects on global politics. Second, the emphasis on how humans have already changed their ecology (not to mention, avoided threats like nuclear war) shows that we are capable of doing something about the challenges we face. Change will happen regardless, and our task is to turn unthinking impacts into creative and well-thought-out acts.

Exxon_desert_tanker wikicommons image

            From this an ethos for the course emerged. The first element of this was how global politics is embedded in a broader planet-wide ecology, and it is in the nature of that embeddedness that potential crises would emerge. Here I also reacted against a common sense notion that action to preserve the health of our ecology was about ‘caring for the planet’. The planet, after all, would easily survive anything we could throw at it, and going back to the climate of the Cretaceous would be no hardship for the planet. The thing that we should be caring for is our own civilization and the ecological states that maintain it. Caring for the environment really means maintaining the conditions that make our societies sustainable on this planet. The second element was that knowledge of impending threats was the first step to preventing a disastrous ‘end of the world’. Because my emphasis was on knowledge of likely threats, I did discount random acts of the universe, such as asteroid strikes or alien invasions. The final element was the point that the end of the world (in the sense of our society and way of life) was not the end of the world. A major part of studying past collapses is to understand that some form of human society does survive, even if its material culture collapses. Learning to brace for impact is as much part of studying the end of the world as is heading the problem off at the pass.

Dates Tuesday Thursday Assignments
7 Sept   Introduction  
Part I: The Basics of Society & Past Cases of Collapse
11-13 Sept Energy & Complexity Build-a-Society  
18-20 Sept Sources of Collapse Human & Non-human 1st exercise report
25-27 Sept Late Bronze Age Roman Britain 2 exercise reports
2-4 Oct The Maya Norse Greenland 2 exercise reports
Part II: Threats to Industrial Society
11 Oct   The Anthropocene Short paper (1st group)
16-18 Oct Industrial Society Agraria to Industria Exercise report
23-25 Oct Thermonuclear War Dr Strangelove Exercise report
30 Oct-1Nov Chemicals & Plastics Pollution & Time Exercise report

Short paper (2nd group)

6-8 Nov Climate Change Science & Denial Exercise report
13-15 Nov Artificial Intelligence Posthumanity Exercise report
20-22 Nov Political Economy Rethinking Pol Econ Exercise report
Part III: Conclusion
27-29 Nov

Assessing Threats

Preparing for the Worst Exercise report
5-14 Dec Exams Research paper

*interactive seminars in italics & bold

 

‘It’s the only thing to look forward to: the past’

While I did want to make most of the course about the existential threats our global civilization faces now, I also wanted to embed the course in a broader understanding of the past. Consequentially the first part of the course aimed to cover two things. The first involved understanding how the nature of human societies have been shaped by their embeddedness in their broader ecology, with particular emphasis on the role played by the production and consumption of energy. Here the wealth of knowledge we have on agrarian societies was useful. Since exploring the collapse of societies requires us to understand first how those societies emerged and developed, I began the course with a ‘build-a-society’ exercise. I presented the class with a scenario for a society going through the transition to agriculture, and then broke the class up into four groups, each charged with solving a problem thrown up by the agricultural revolution (issues included storage, keeping records, land ownership, the legal system, enforcement of laws, protection from other societies, and systems of government).

            Initially I was worried that we would immediately run into the problem that both the instructor and the students were predominantly ‘WEIRD’ (western, educated, from industrial, rich and democratic societies). Would they just try to replicate an industrial North American civilization in the Neolithic? I had already given them an introductory lecture on how different past societies were, and how agriculture tended to foster different relationships. However, a combination of the introductory lecture, the scenario instructions for the exercise, the dynamics of the groups, and the inquisitiveness of the students led down a very different path. By trying to deal with each specific issue in isolation, and then submitting it to the whole class before breaking up again to deal with follow-up issues, the class began to build up a believable ancient agrarian society. Two of the four groups, while trying to solve new problems thrown up by earlier decisions, suggested establishing a gerontocracy as a basis for both government and for legal processes. Myths were established to encourage behaviour that facilitated social organization beneficial to agricultural production, and specialists began to emerge. A major lesson from the exercise mirrored the argument made by Joseph Tainter: that in solving problems a society increases both its complexity and its consumption of energy.

Wheat_field_on_Dutch_flats_near_Mitchell,_Nebr._Farm_of_T.C._Shawver_-_NARA_-_294480.tif

            Second, having discussed how a society is formed, we then moved on to how it might collapse. Through a series of four case studies (the late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, Roman Britain, the classical lowland Maya, and the Greenland Norse) we explored how agrarian societies collapsed. Here Tainter again proved useful. His idea of growing complexity leading to diminishing returns was a useful template. For the case studies I sent the students off on scavenger hunts to find information on how each society collapsed (a list of texts and videos of varying complexity was also provided in the syllabus), and to come to class with what they had found. In addition to this, some students provided four page book reviews of key texts on the collapses that were made available to students prior to the class. In class I broke them into groups again, and posed two or three questions to all groups. After discussing each question the groups reported back to the whole class.

            [On a side note, the breaking up into random groups with chairs and rapporteurs was an idea I took from my colleague Sarah Martin’s teaching. Not only did it encourage speaking up in class, it also broke down the usual gender bias in favour of male participation that I had found in previous seminar classes.]

            The first thing that emerged from these group discussions was that, despite the tendency for television documentaries to hone in on one specific cause, all our case studies collapsed for multiple reasons. The stage was set by the first student book review on Eric H. Cline’s 1177BC. The Year Civilization Collapsed. Cline had argued that there was no single cause (or narrative chain) to the late Bronze Age collapse. Instead, he argued, the complex system of interdependent societies was overwhelmed by a perfect storm. Even collapses that have been heralded as coming about as a result of a single factor — the collapse of the Maya and the Greenland Norse have both been blamed on single environmental factors — proved to be more complex, and recent archaeological evidence in both cases has discredited the single environmental cause hypotheses. Rather, it seems that past human societies were adept at responding successfully to one dire crisis at a time, but two or more simultaneous crises could overwhelm them. This seems to have been the fate of the Greenland Norse. They could handle the changing climate, but the collapse of the lucrative walrus ivory trade (on top of the shorter seasons and more violent storms) was a challenge too far.

Fall of Rome

            Here attention would often turn away from the environmental & external threats to the form of the society itself. Emma Gause, in her discussion of the late classical Maya, points out that the Maya had survived drought before, and that the effects of the collapse was felt unevenly across regions. Environment, she argues, exacerbated existing social problems. The classical Maya collapse offers another lesson. Arthur Demarest has argued that the Maya elite, like many human ruling classes, usually respond to a crisis by doubling down on what they do best, rather than necessarily tailoring actions dispassionately to the specific problem. For the lowland Maya their strengths lay in monumental architecture and fighting wars. So doubling down in response to drought meant bigger monuments and more violent wars. The tendency for societies to double down in a crisis was to show up frequently throughout the course.

            Finally, the study of these collapses had to be balanced by the often less well known story of how people survived them. In at least three of the cases, people survived, and even sometimes thrived. Even the one exception, the Greenland Norse, might have just moved back to Iceland and Norway. In the Romano-British case the undoubted decline in material culture (especially the important written sources, pottery, and coinage that we use for hanging dates on the past), is contrasted with the clear continuity of settlement. Indeed Robin Fleming, in her analysis of post-Roman Britain, argues that the average person was probably better off (and lived two years longer) than they had under Roman rule. The collapse of civilization in an agrarian society might not mean an end to the mundane rhythms of life for ordinary people.

‘This changes everything’

While lessons can be drawn from past agrarian societies, when we moved on to our modern industrial society we hit a series of glaring discontinuities. In order to explore these, though, it was initially important to go back further in time. This time, though, it was geological time. Underlying our understanding of the threats to our modern industrial civilization it was first necessary to explore the idea that we live in a new geological timescale, the Anthropocene, in which human activity was now leaving its mark in the geological record. This required us to explore the basics of geological timekeeping, while also placing the human world within the broader understanding of Earth system science.

Desertification

            Introducing the concept of the Anthropocene exposed the extent that humans are also a force of nature, and how sensitive the Earth system has been to human activity. We have been spoilt by the bubble of stability provided by ‘the long summer’ of the Holocene, and are often ignorant of how we have already changed Earth systems. The agricultural revolution likely kept temperatures warm through deforestation that led to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Equally, the extermination of 90% of the population of the Americas, as a result of disease and genocide, led to a reforestation that was responsible for a drop in carbon dioxide and led to drastically cooler temperatures. Dramatic as those changes have been, it is the game-changing accelerations since the second industrial revolution and (even more emphatically) since 1950 that provided the subject matter for most of the course. Here our two classes a week would be divided between a Tuesday lecture on the weekly topic, followed by a Thursday discussion (again breaking into groups).

            Introductory discussions on the Anthropocene and industrial society returned us to the initial theme of the importance of the ecology, technology, and system of political economy to a society. More specifically, we explored the role played by fossil fuels, and the extent to which the peculiar nature of this ancient ‘buried sunshine’ created the modern world we know. Each society is shaped by its energy sources, and we are (in Timothy Mitchell’s words) very much a hydrocarbon civilization. In a theme that we would see played out throughout the course: an initially very positive and liberating development would over time turn into a malevolent threat. Thus the burning of coal, which did so much to create affluent democracies over a century ago, has now become a serious threat to the very society it helped to create.

            Just as the agrarian case studies had emphasized multiple causes, so our exploration of our industrial global civilization was broken down into a series of interconnected threats. In deference to my own undergraduate angst we began with thermonuclear war. Here a new energy source brought an unprecedented destructive power to our weapons of war. The nuclear winter thesis not only underscores the civilization-destroying potential of thermonuclear weapons, but also popularized the atmospheric and climate models that would form the basis of the scientific study of climate change. Nuclear weapons forced us to face the reality that we could destroy our civilization in an afternoon. Although even here we first doubled-down by trying to integrate them into our existing security understandings, leading to the strange language games discussed in 1987 by Carol Cohn.

800px-FEMA_-_2720_-_Photograph_by_FEMA_News_Photo

            The nuclear tests of the 1940s-1970s have left a legacy of radioactive isotopes around us, but interestingly this is the least of our pollution problems. Our discussion of the role of pollutants began with Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the problem of DDT. We concentrated, though, on the latest worrying issue of plastic pollution, via the work of my colleague here at MUN: Max Liboiron. Again, fitting with the historical theme, both DDT and plastics started as wonder materials saving lives and creating prosperity, but through their continued use became a threat to humanity.

We ended the discussion of pollution by returning to a problem that is new to the Anthropocene: nuclear semiotics. Since we have now produced nuclear waste that can remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years, how do we send a message to the future to warn them about our radioactive dumps? While the Anthropocene has forced us to deal immediately with problems that used to take thousands of years, in this case it has had the opposite effect. Warning signs that usually only have to hold their meaning for decades or centuries now have to communicate with people living millennia in the future. Not only are we likely to have no written language in common, we will very likely not have a shared vocabulary of symbols.

            Climate change, as a key consequence of the post-1950 Great Acceleration, remained a central part of this section of the course. Here students had to deal with both the seriousness of the issue (most would agree in their final essays that climate change was the most important threat facing us), and the contradictory existence of climate science denialism. Denialism once more underscored Emma Gause’s point about the importance of social structures and constraints, since much denialism circled back to fears amongst some groups that confronting threats would dramatically change the nature of society. For many denialists, it seems, the end of their world might come in the form of the very responses proposed to deal with world-threatening challenges.

            Climate change also revealed a major shift in our relationship with time. The long summer of the Holocene has got us used to an orderly compartmentalizing of time. Geologists can study changes in geological time, historians in historical time, and many social scientists can work in the present and immediate past of ‘current time’. The Anthropocene represents a mixing up of these discreet divisions of time. Now processes of climate change we associate with geological time are taking place in a matter of decades, and the processes of Earth systems become a matter of current affairs.

            While the science of climate change is well understood, and the scientific consensus deepens with every new study, the issue of artificial intelligence (AI), by contrast, is still at an early stage. Studies cannot even agree on what affect AI will have on jobs, as Erin Winick has shown. Yet, those studying AI have had their own encounter with the way the Anthropocene plays with time. Reference is made to the Singularity, the point at which AI becomes more intelligent than humans, and consequently it becomes impossible for us to predict the future. The singularity might also represent the end of humanity as we know it, whether through extinction or cyborg augmentation. We also discussed the role of algorithms, and we got a series of teachable moments via our mobile phones. As the discussion progressed several students reported that their phones would intermittently send messages to them offering advertisements tailored to words that had been spoken in class. It seems that, as we were talking about AI, our devices were hard at work listening in to what we were saying, and setting off algorithms put in place to sell us stuff.

Yes_thanks_I'd_love_a_Jelly_Baby Cyberman

            The last topic we covered before the concluding week was the health of our industrial political economy. Here, taking our cue from the earlier case studies, we worked our discussion of the threats discussed above into the broader questions surrounding our politico-economic system. Here the problems of diminishing returns resurface. In line with Joseph Tainter’s model, our solving of economic problems had led to greater complexity, but the ability of our politico-economic system to deliver seemed to be in jeopardy. Wealth inequality and populism seemed to be working against action on climate change, in a classic example of one problem exacerbating another. What is more, our society, like the classical Maya before us, seems to be doubling down on what it does well, rather than trying to find novel solutions. Again the theme of how past solutions become the sources of future problems emerged. A clear example of this doubling down could be seen in the response to climate change, where immediate concerns of prosperity seem to prevent clear and timely action on greenhouse gas emissions (Canadian Twitter users may have noticed an example of this in their news feeds with a Government of Alberta campaign to build a pipeline, to sell more oil, to make money, in order to have the prosperity to deal with climate change. Mayan theatre state god-kings, hoping to use monuments and war to solve droughts, could not have put it better). Taking a political economy approach brought home Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s point that climate change should also be interpreted as a market failure.

Discussing the future when ‘it is two minutes to midnight’

In our last week we tried to bring all these separate threats together into some kind of organized picture of the problems face by our society. We were mindful of the lesson drawn from the earlier case studies that human civilizations seem adept at dealing with crises one at a time, but can get overwhelmed by a series of simultaneous problems. There was also the issue of discontinuity, though. With industrialization, the rise of hydrocarbons, and the Great Acceleration since 1950 it was clear that the specific crises we faced were unique, even if the human processes we use to deal with them were shared with past societies. As an example of this, the rather minor climate fluctuations that had acted as catalysts to collapse in the past were minor compared to the changes brought on by atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeding 400 parts per million this decade.

            A major difference we also discussed was, to use Bill McKibben’s phrase, the end of nature. There are now no remaining pristine places on Earth, and everywhere is marked in some way by human activity. In this sense, there is no natural world to return to. For good or ill, we humans have become a force of nature with the power to alter Earth systems, and indeed we have been exercising this power for thousands of years. It is only now with the Great Acceleration that our power as a force of nature threatens to send us into a new ‘hothouse Earth’ equilibrium in which the foundations of our civilization such as agriculture and food production will cease to function. As a species we have harnessed god-like powers that we have then absent-mindedly released on our ecology. Perhaps it is time that we take responsibility for those powers?

Gustav Dore New Zealander 1872

            Student feedback on the course showed that our discussions had got them thinking in new ways about global politics. One student admitted that ‘I often leave class feeling pretty meta about the end of human existence’, while another said they left thinking ‘from a brand new perspective. A new way to think about politics.’ As another student put it, the topics were ‘depressing, but interesting.’ The ‘interdisciplinary mix of information’ made one student feel like they ‘learnt something new’ in every class. In fact, for some the very course underscored the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives. ‘I’m not gonna lie’, one student wrote, ‘I think about things we learned in class on a daily basis. While I read about politics or general news, the perspective of collapse of civilization always exists in my mind.’ Finally, in the spirit of the curse of ‘interesting times’, one student pointed out that there was never a lecture in which they were bored.

            For me the course was its own instructor-level version of interesting times. On the one hand, I was never bored – ever. Each class was a joy to put together and orchestrate. On the other, I do not think I was really aware of how much work I would have to put in to make sure that I understood each subject under discussion (one sympathetic fellow academic at another institution suggested that I was making a lot of work for myself). The preparation of the syllabus saw me disappear down an interdisciplinary rabbit hole containing more information than one person could read in a lifetime. The reading up on the case studies alone required me to get up to speed with the latest archaeology in all four cases; and yes all four had seen major new studies, based on new archaeological evidence, that had overturned the fragile consensus of even a decade ago. This also complicated the students’ scavenger hunts, as many came back with sources less than two decades old that were now regarded as flawed and dated.

            While I had come with some knowledge of political economy and thermonuclear war from my field of IR, further deep reading was still required in a number of fields that were new to me. These included Earth system science, geological stratigraphy (stop and ask me about the politics of golden spikes), material science, nuclear semiotics, discard studies, robotics, and many more. This forced interdisciplinary reading gave me a new respect for my colleagues in other fields, while also making me realize that the very complexity and interdisciplinary nature of the causes of social collapse make it a difficult field for anyone to master. If past societies failed to heed warnings due to lack of knowledge, we stand ready to fail with a surfeit of information readily available through our electronic devices.

            Yet, despite all this interdisciplinary work, there were many blind spots in the course. In the concluding week I invited the students to bring up topics that we should have discussed, but did not. Several mentioned that pandemics and biological warfare were missing, while others pointed out that we had only briefly mentioned mass extinctions during the discussion of climate change (I had made much of the loss of insect biomass in relation to the problem of creeping normalcy). Chernobyl was covered by two student book reviews, but not brought up much in the lectures or discussions. While politico-economic systems were discussed, the corresponding issue of state collapse was not covered (although my colleague Karlo Basta covers this better). Even the topics we did discuss were often not given the time they deserved. Several students would have liked more time on the key issue of climate change, for example.

Dustbowl Stratford Texas 1935

            Even with the topics discussed, I also faced the problem of finding appropriate sources for the students. I could not expect them to do the same level of preparation as I had done over the summer. Popular science journals such as Nature, New Scientist, or The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists proved invaluable here, as did The Guardian, which had many excellent long reads (and had the added advantage of not being behind a pay wall). The NASA website was an excellent source for climate change, and The Anthropocene Review proved a good interdisciplinary source for peer reviewed work.

            The sheer volume of books on the topics led me to the idea of getting each student to write a book review, which would be put online for all students to read for the appropriate class. My idea here was that, through the book review, each student would read one book in depth, but would have access to over thirty reviews. One lesson of this course, after all, was how knowledge is a community enterprise, even if the building blocks of it are individual.

            Because of the topicality of the issues, I also used a course Twitter hashtag to post new information and publications that appeared after the syllabus had been written. For example, two major climate change reports (IPCC and NOAA) came out while the course was running. A major book-length tour d’horizon came out before the class started, but too late to be bought and processed by the University library. Lewis and Maslin’s The Human Planet covered the topics of Earth system science, the Anthropocene, and a comprehensive history of the human species. I was, at least, able to incorporate it into the lecture material. In keeping with my teaching philosophy, there was no textbook.

            Finally, as part of the attempt to make as much information available to students on so many diverse and interdisciplinary topics as possible, I also made use of a series of resources freely available on YouTube. Many of these were recently recorded lectures by scholars used in the course, which provided fast and handy ways for students to access information. YouTube is also home to many quite well done short introductions to complex topics. Many television documentaries are also available online. While these often have superior production quality, this is often matched by a tendency to concentrate on misleading single causes for events or outdated information.

At the end of the day the course left me both worried and hopeful. The subject matter was frequently worrying, if not downright scary. In response to the ominous nature of the material we covered I took a leaf out of my wife’s teaching, and started putting gifs of cute kittens on my PowerPoint slides after particularly dismal pieces of information. This industrial-grade weaponized cuteness went down well, although it did lead to comments from students, who were more dog people, asking for the addition of puppies (a change I will happily bring in for next year. Another student also suggested baby pandas). Yet, there was also hope. Most of the hope I found was in the attitude and approach of the students themselves. There is now a cottage industry in criticizing this new rising generation (come to think of it, disparaging the young is as old as human civilization). Despite the fact that here in North America they are likely to be the first generation since the Great Depression to end up poorer on aggregate than their parents, they are often dismissed as snowflakes in need of safe spaces. My experience has been the opposite. This is an engaged generation that is often well aware of what the problems are in the society around them, and are more than willing to be exposed to quite harsh facts. Many of the students told me that they felt inspired by the course, and had developed new perspectives as a result of the material we covered. In short, my students gave me hope. On the other hand, it is the people of my generation – the age bracket that includes so many current world leaders, top business people, and opinion-formers – that scare me. The good news is that in the long term the future will be safe in the hands of those who are young today. The bad news is that we need action in the next decade, and if the outcome of the recent COP 24 is anything to go by, I am not yet convinced that the current generation of leaders is up to the task.

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