Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Lament amongst Celebration

I am feeling a bit blue tonight, perhaps from the exhaustion of the end of the semester.  Maybe it is because some really superb students graduated today, and while they are all headed to really exciting next-steps in their careers, I will miss them a lot.  Or perhaps it is because of the recent horrific news stories ranking from the senseless deaths in Bangladesh to the bombings in the Boston region to the monster that held three girls – now women – for a decade and subjected them to unimaginable physical and mental abuse.

Besides these potential explanations, I have been pondering the significance of the planet hitting the 400 ppm atmospheric CO2 mark this week.  When I was in graduate school, we used 340 ppm for setting instruments and calculations.  This summer, my research student Marla (who graduated today) used 400 ppm as "ambient conditions" to calibrate the equipment that she was using.  Perhaps it is these types of little things that make the issue so real for me. 

Another graduate from today, Caiti, has already taught the public about the impacts of climate change at Exit Glacier in the Kenai Peninsula.  After a lot of research and personal experience, she wrote an amazing paper this semester on climate change and coastal communities -- focusing on NJ, the islands off of Louisiana, and Alaskan communities - weaving common themes between these seemingly disparate regions of the country. 

I wonder what the CO2 number will be when Marla and Caiti will be teaching students or National Park visitors in the future.

Today’s faculty speaker at graduation (Chris, from my department) spoke of the importance of education, of fighting against those who would try to keep us ignorant.  Malala Yousafzai comes to mind.  But Chris reminded us of the 25 year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff, killed in April while delivering books to a school in Afghanistan.  This sad story gets buried under all the current media coverage and politics surrounding the attacks in Benghazi.  Was Anne’s death any less disturbing or important than that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens?

Chris spoke of the growing anti-intellectualism in this country.  This is something I worry about a lot, especially as it related to the public's fear-turned-distrust-turned hostile sentiments towards science.  We all know of climate deniers and those who say evolution just couldn’t be true.  (Because us scientist types like to make up elaborate hoaxes.)  But there are also plenty of other examples where ignorance, especially about science, rears its ugly head.  This piece is just one small example of what we are up against:  Thank goodness for children who try to educate the teachers and for those like Adam Frank who say it like it is:

But I digress from my ponderings on greenhouse gases and their impact on our world.  My honors student from last year (Anna, '11), examined long-term data sets, and documented the changing migration patterns of songbirds.  When she enters medical school, she is likely to hear about the health impacts of climate change.  Very likely she will be treating patients in the future for diseases once considered tropical, for heat stroke, or for pathogens we don’t even know about yet.   So many changes in the world around us; perhaps this is why I am sad.

A former student Sarabeth ('10) has gone to Peru and seen first-hand the impacts of climate change (water shortages) in rural communities - where many people don't know about climate change (as opposed to denying that it exists).  Paradoxically, next year, as she enters graduate school, she will work closely with a professor who studies the sociological impacts of flooding along the Mississippi River.  In a recent email, Sarabeth wrote

After coming home from Peace Corps, its became clear to me that community efforts at a local level are enough to get larger, regional forms of government to step-up and pay attention.  If they have a leader willing to put it all on the line...
You are so right Sarabeth.

I am beginning to sense that the current youth are igniting an activist movement that will once again – as has often happened in history – change the course of events for the better.  Recently, efforts at several colleges and universities aimed at getting campuses to divest in fossil fuel companies have caught the media’s attention:   

I can't imagine that my institution will go this route any time soon, but as the NPR story notes, "So far only a few small colleges have opted to drop investments in fossil fuel companies."  Small schools like College of the Atlantic and Swarthmore are taking the lead.

There are things for which my institution has taken a leading role (thanks mostly to faculty and students).  One example is our accreditation status as U.N. civil society observers for the climate conferences (the “COP” meetings).  Like with divestment, only a few small colleges (5 to be exact) have this distinction.  Sadly, it is not recognized by everyone on campus as something to promote and support more fully.  There is a growing call by many others for higher education to step up and show leadership with respect to climate change; thus, we should be proud of our leadership role here.

Another example where the college shines is in the number of students who have done important research in the restoration work at the Palmerton Superfund Site or within local watersheds.  Restoration is becoming increasingly linked to sustainability and building resilience to climate change.

So while I am extremely proud of the students who have walked across the stage at recent Moravian commencements, I am also frightful of what the future will hold for them and for my own children.  Maybe that is why I am a bit sad tonight.  But when I reflect on what they have already accomplished, what they will be doing, and the deep passion they demonstrate to be change agents, my sadness is tempered with a sense of hope.


  1. So very thoughtful, Diane. I find your post a source of a lot of hope - all these young people so committed to helping our shared planetary future. Yes, there's so much to be concerned about, but at least they are concerned. I don't know what the future will hold, but it'll certainly be better than it would otherwise be because of your wonderful work with these remarkable young people.


  2. Thanks Trileigh. I am fortunate to work with some really fantastic students. However, they often complain that it is a small percentage of the campus student population that is active, passionate, engaged...while others suffer from "bystander syndrome" (their term) or apathy. But I chose to believe in these future leaders and the inspiring things that they will accomplish.