Posted by: ericgrimsrud | October 16, 2017

The “Pretend World” in which so many now live

I was reminded recently of the existence of this Pretend World by the arrival of a publication from my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota. This beautiful publication was labelled the college’s “Global Issue” and related many wonderful stories concerning the personal experiences of StO students who have recently taken advantage of StO’s Studies Abroad programs. These interesting stories and illustrations left little doubt of the programs’ value – they are, indeed, first class and very educational. Also made clear in this publication is that one of StO’s President David Anderson’s greatest interests is in enlisting as many more StO students, faculty, alumni, and friends as he can into these programs. President Anderson, who actually leads some of these educational adventures himself for StO alumni, claims that StO has the most extensive Studies Abroad program of any institution its size.

All of that sounds great and would, in fact, be great if it were not for that proverbial 800-lb gorilla that resides in the back of every room today – that is, very high carbon footprint programs such as these add significantly to the greatest problem now facing all people and places of the world. Our continuously increasing levels of greenhouse gases simply must be curtailed before we lose all control over future conditions on our planet. While there is no question that great personal benefit can be derived from carbon intensive activities, they must now be avoided if they simultaneously harm our overextended planet.

If either President Anderson or any of his scientific acquaintances at StO College had been an atmospheric scientist (as I happen to be) and had followed the latest research on that subject, they would have realized by now that the entire world, including StO, must do its best to stop using all fossil-driven technologies, including those of transport. This would especially include transport by aircraft for which non-polluting sources of energy are not yet readily available. In spite of this, there is not a word in StO’s “Global Issue” addressing this most profound of all global problems.  A question they should have included in that publication is “how can our StO students get to and from these far off places without adding to the already overpowering greenhouse effect of our atmosphere?” And even if the answer to that question is, “there is no way at this time”, that fact should be acknowledged and seriously discussed – rather than ignoring it and pretending it does not exist.

In view of this, President Anderson’s unconditional and unrestrained promotion of StO’s exceedingly high carbon footprint Studies Abroad Programs – along with his refusal to divest the considerable financial resources of StO College from fossil-fuel-intensive industries sends a distinctly inappropriate message to the students and alumni of StO who need to modify their own lifestyles just like all other people of the world.

For these reasons, I have done my best to explain to President Anderson and the entire science faculty of StO that their college does not have a free pass from participation in this enormous battle against the relentless advance of global warming (see previous posts in this website’s archives of May 2015, April, September and November 2016, and February 2017). Is it not apparent that there is no such thing as “good” or “ethical” carbon emissions? The emissions of StO’s travel programs cause just as much damage to the planet as do all other carbon emissions. And, the bill for the environmental damage caused by such travel programs is not being paid for by their present users (by the use of more expensive biodiesel fuels, for example). Instead, they are being deferred to future generations who will have to deal with the problems caused by the extra carbon now being added to our biosphere. Thus, the global warming problem is no longer so much a scientific issue as it is a moral one.  And, the fact that many other colleges and universities are also developing similar “Studies Abroad” programs makes the shining example of StO’s apparent success in this area additionally problematic with respect to future emissions.

Please be aware of the fact that I do know all about the recent efforts at StO Collge to make their campus more fossil-fuel free by the use of wind and solar power. They now provide all of their electrical needs (not heating) by these renewable sources. Please also note, however, that while these changes are to be commended for environmental reasons, they were also driven by financial considerations (the “payback time” for the initial costs of wind and solar facilities is now typically down to less than a decade). Also note that reductions in the carbon footprints in one aspect of our lives does not earn us “free passes” for increased footprints in others. If we are to have a chance of maintaining conditions on this planet that are amenable to its future residents, we must bring ALL emissions of carbon dioxide down to near zero within the next couple decades. This exceedingly difficult task has been thrust upon us by the world’s lack of effective action in the past and is now being made worse by those who choose to remain in a “Pretend World” such as that so beautifully portrayed in the recent “Global Issue” of the St. Olaf College Magazine. Our institutions of higher learning should not be a part of deceptions that hide the new realities of the 21st Century – no matter how very unpleasant the needed adjustments to those realities might be.

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