Posts Tagged ‘research’

Optimism in Sustainability and Environmental Studies

In all of my courses, I strive to focus on positive signs for sustainability and improvements in both the human condition and in the state of the planet.  The field is packed with naysayers and doomsday predictions, many of whom, I think, may prove to be correct for their concern.  In spite of this, I am optimistic.  The apocalyptic forecasts often (but clearly not always) lead to adaptation and changing behaviors.  This is the reflexivity that social scientists often discuss (and struggle with in our research) – the dynamic and introspective nature of many of the systems that we study.  In my policy classes, we often discuss the oft-cited example of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-depleting Substances and how the international community effectively mitigated a serious problem (the Ozone Hole) and made it a non-issue.  In my Workshop course, student groups have looked at a number of local sustainability challenges and have taken concrete steps to resolve the problems on a local-scale (the “Think globally, act locally” idea put into practice).  With this in mind, I was quite curious to read a couple of books written with a similar optimistic mindset – “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley and “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.  For now, I want to focus on some of Ridley’s writing.

As I hope the preceding paragraph makes clear, I’m fully supportive, indeed, overly eager, for writing that looks at positive signs for humanity and sustainability.  Ridley does a great job at highlighting many of the ways that the human condition has improved over the years.  For this reason alone, it’s a worthwhile read.  A marked contrast to the eloquent yet pessimistic writing of many resilience/sustainability/environmental writers.  But there are a number of caveats to my recommendation.  First, as I stated above, the “pessimists” are 1) not wrong as often as Ridley makes it seem and 2) their clarion calls often lead to changes (and hence, often making their own predictions wrong).  Second, Ridley, as expected from a former editor of “The Economist” advocates a neoliberal agenda.  For those not familiar with the academic jargon, this means he is a strong advocate of international trade, the market as the main solution to many dilemmas, small government, and commodification of many goods not currently in the market.  If this is or isn’t your cup of tea, you have been forewarned.  If it is, enjoy.

Now, instead of writing a rather formal review, I’d like to avoid a debate on many of the strengths (some of which I mentioned in the opening paragraph) and weaknesses (particularly a noted lack of understanding of tipping points, nonlinear systems, and thresholds, fat tailed distributions, and most surprisingly a lack of nuanced understanding of discount rates over long-time horizons).  I would like to draw attention to 3 areas that the book avoids, which may lead to Ridley’s overly smug findings:

  • The role of innovation and technological fixes
  • The challenge of inequality
  • The difference between governance and government as well as government failures as opposed to market failures

First, everything Ridley discusses presupposes innovation as a cure-all for many of today’s dilemmas.  While the pessimists often overlook society’s capacity to innovate for either adaptation or mitigation, the rational optimist presupposes  technological fixes to everything.  However, this overlooks the effects of timing between innovation and when its needed, and it ignores the repeated instances of innovation plateaus.  These plateaus have regularly occurred since the Acheulean tools of homo erectus and sometimes last a long, long time.  This also overlooks the role of innovation and technology as the cause of many of our current problems.  Ridley, for instance, cites the role of fossil fuels in improving our standard of living, but for some reason he doesn’t see innovation as an effective response to eliminating the “bads” of fossil fuels now.

Second, this rational optimism assumes that if everyone improves a little (the pareto frontier gets pushed out), that this is enough.  There is no mention of current levels of inequality or any place for redistribution.  If this doesn’t seem to be an issue, please read Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality” for an overview of why this could be important.

Third, for some reason, there is a noted focus on the various types of government failure (clearly an issue).  But there is little discussion of noted market failures and the role of government in addressing them.  Nor is there much understanding of the role of government in supporting market institutions (the rules that enable it), the securing of property rights (in spite of invoking de Soto’s work), or a legal system that helps grease the wheels of his market-based system.  In addition, there is no understanding of how governance (the ordering of interpersonal or intergroup relations) differs from formal government.  Governance occurs within all groups – in/through businesses, NGOs, civil society, within families, formal and informal groups, etc.

More to follow on “Abundance”.  For now, please enjoy.  And do think about the benefits from a positive outlook.

The Stresses of Academia?

Recently, CNBC put out a report on the ‘least stressful jobs’ (found here http://www.cnbc.com/id/100349332).  Number one on the list – University Professor.  Since then, my Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded with comments about this absurdity.  Several referenced the following blog entry:  http://factsandotherfairytales.com/2013/01/04/the-least-stressful-job-for-2013-a-real-look-at-being-a-professor-in-the-us/

This follow-up piece hits on a lot of the key refutations of the CNBC study.  CNBC clearly misunderstands what university faculty do for a living – that research is a huge part of it, that the demands on our time can be overwhelming, and that the work doesn’t stop with the end of the semester.  These points, and many of those raised in the responses from my colleagues, resonate with me.  However, there are a number of points that deserve to be revisited.  Some of this has to do with the number of academics that haven’t spent much time outside of academia.  With that, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the debate that have gone undocumented – one in the CNBC study and one from the rebuttals.

Other aspects of academia that the CNBC study doesn’t grasp include the two biggest stresses in the profession – finding a job and securing tenure.  It’s well documented that there is an overabundance of academics.  Is it because it’s less stressful?   Perhaps, but I’ll get back to this in a moment.  With more doctoral candidates than traditional university professorships, we often end up competing for positions with (literally) hundreds of other candidates for a single spot.  Clearly, there is competition for jobs in many fields, but few have such barriers for relatively low paying entry-level positions.  Similarly, academics are forced to go to the openings.  Fat chance for those desiring to live in specific locations, and for those in a two academic household – good luck with those job searches.  Additionally, the year to year fluctuation on the number of openings in a given research area can vary enormously.  Because of this, we see huge numbers of qualified candidates stuck in adjunct positions, post-docs, or working as barristas.  This is the starving actor model of career development, with a dozen years of university work on top.  Universities continue to take advantage of this through an increasing reliance on low-paying part-timers with no benefits.  But that’s a subject for another column.  Once we find a position, the tenure clock starts ticking.  This is an up or out mentality, similar to that in consultancies, law partnerships, and investment banks.  It’s hard-core, cutthroat, and, yes, stressful.  The issues with tenure are ripe for their own column.

At the same time, the academic response to this perceived insult fails to understand a few things about stress and the job itself.  Once we obtain a tenure-track position, the CNBC study isn’t that far off.  Yes, the time requirements are excessive, and the expectations are high.  And there is a U-shaped curve for education and pay (more education can lead to declining salaries).  But let’s look at the job in more detail.  First, we have more flexibility than the vast majority of jobs.  Going in at 10 or leaving at 4.  Working at home or taking time off for holiday breaks or summers traveling.  Yes, I know that most are working a tremendous amount through these time periods, as well as late into the night and early in the morning.  But guess what…so are most other professions.  We have the ability to work around our personal schedules a lot more than most.  We can travel and work remotely, have the summers to pursue our own independent research, can secure grants to pay for it, are expected to travel for conferences, workshops, and meetings.

Next, let’s talk about “stress”.  Much academic stress is self-imposed.  Reading yet another paper or writing yet another article.  Likewise, the deadlines are often self-imposed.  Part of our challenge is that, as academics, our minds never shut off.  Face it, many in the profession have their own closet neuroses driving them to succeed.  Try to find an academic without a bit of OCD sometime.  But this is self-imposed and personal, aside from the job.

The work is what drives us into the field.  Most of us love what we research.  We read this stuff for fun.  If we work too long, toward crazy self-imposed deadlines, we’re doing it, in part, for the love of what we do.  Let’s contrast this with “stressful” jobs.  I’ve worked driving a lumber truck, on an assembly line in a foundry, as a mechanical engineer, and as a business consultant.  These all had their own stresses.  Businesspeople face the stress of million dollar deals, ticked off clients, and cutthroat competition.  Manual labor faces the day-to-day stress of working their tails off to squeak out a living.  Medical workers clearly have life or death situations by the minute.  And let’s not even discuss dangerous jobs – soldiers, fishers, foresters, and so on.  That’s stress.  Those revisions that I’d hoped to submit this week…not so much.