Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Reason in a Dark Time" continued

Last year I wrote a review of Dale Jamieson's book Reason in a Dark Time for this blog.   Jamieson is a professor of philosophy and environmental studies, and his book struggles with two questions: what made it so hard for humans to avoid committing the planet to irreversible and damaging climate change? (it is clear that he regards this commitment as, effectively, already having been made) and what resources do we have to move forward from here?

In the New York Times yesterday, Jamieson is interviewed by Gary Gutting for the regular philosophy blog series The Stone.   Here is an extract from the interview, where he summarizes some of his thoughts on "resources to move forward".
G.G.: Do you have suggestions for coming to terms with such questions?
D.J.: I think we need to think ambitiously about what a morality would be like that was adequate to the problems we face in a high-population, densely interconnected world undergoing radical climate change. At the same time philosophers don’t invent moralities that people then go out and adopt. We need to figure out how people can act from within their existing moral psychologies in a way that is both more environmentally friendly and will help to give them meaning in a world that is so different from the one in which most of our values were created. I’ve tried to develop an account of the “green virtues” as a first effort in this direction.
G.G.: What are some of these “green virtues”?
D.J.: The ones I discuss in my book, “Reason in a Dark Time,” are cooperativeness, mindfulness, simplicity, temperance and respect for nature. They will not solve the problem of climate change on their own but they will help us to live with meaning and grace in the world that we are creating.
Read the whole interview here, and my review of Reason in a Dark Time here.

 Photo hotlinked from The Stone article referenced, believed to be fair use.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 1

So, we completed the first semester of teaching MATH033 - "Math for Sustainability".  About forty hardy students signed up, and as the semester progressed I felt that a learning community and class spirit began to come together.  For me as the lead instructor, I can say for sure that I have never had to work so hard on preparing a course!  It reminded me strongly of the time when I was a new faculty member - but even then, though I had not taught the courses before, I had at least experienced courses somewhat like them.  This time around, I felt like I was trying to create something almost entirely new.  It was stressful, but also extremely exciting.

I have this summer to reflect on the lessons learned from this first test run, and then we will offer the course again in the fall.  I'm planning to write a series of posts on this blog reflecting on various aspects of our experience with MATH033.  These will be part of my personal review process.   Among the topics I want to reflect on are:
  • The course content.  How well did the "four themes" organization (measuring, changing, risking, networking) work as a device for framing "sustainability math"?  How clear was it to students and faculty?   Especially in the fourth segment, "networking", I found myself talking more about decision-making (game theory) and less about connectivity (graph theory) than I had expected; I wonder if it would be better to re-name that last unit "Deciding".
  • The case study component: about a third of the class sessions were designated "case studies", applying course ideas to a particular environmental topic, and of those about half were delivered by visiting speakers.  How successful were these sessions in contributing to the overall objectives of the course? Could/should we try to focus on "case study themes" which cut across the "mathematical  segments" of the course?   Case studies which referred specifically to the PSU campus seemed to particularly engage many students: can we build on that?
  • The writing requirement component of the course needs to be thought about at greater length.  I wanted students to post regularly on a blog, using the skills that they had learned to make mathematically sound arguments about sustainability-related topics.  In general, I was disappointed with the results (though there were some excellent posts).  I didn't think enough about the fact that we would need to teach how to use mathematically ideas in writing pieces, and I didn't set the grading system up to give students enough push to revise and improve their pieces.  I strongly believe though that learning through writing quantitative arguments is an important component of the course, for reasons well expressed in this syllabus from Marilyn Frankenstein.  So this is something I need to work on restructuring over the summer.
The web site for the course is here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 6)

My last post in this series was nearly a year ago.  In December, blogger Cellarius left an interesting comment on that post - following along, I discovered his paper "God of piston and wheel" (can be found here) which begins
The psalmist hymns the benevolence of God who tells the number of the stars and yet also provides for his animal creation, including 'herb for the use of man' (Ps 147.4, 8b BCP). What happens when the same theological attention is given to the furnaces of the stars as Christian tradition has given to the biosphere? In what sense and to what purpose has the non-living fruit of creation been provided 'for the use of man'?
In thinking more about questions related to mining, I want to acknowledge the writings of Donald Hay.  Donald was Tutor in Economics at Jesus College in Oxford when I arrived as a very young mathematics fellow in 1986.  He was and is an example to me of how to live an academic life which is also a life of Christian vocation, and since his retirement he's invested himself in the program Developing a Christian Mind which helps students and others integrate vocational and intellectual training.  I think it's also fair to say that, as a professional economist, Donald would be skeptical about my embrace of a "limits to growth" philosophy. So it is interesting to turn back to his Economics Today: A Christian Critique, first published in 1989, to see what he has to say about nonrenewable resource extraction (which is what I mean in these posts by "mining").

Monday, May 4, 2015

Cool Head, Warm Heart at TEDx

It's been a while, but the video of my presentation at TEDx has finally been officially released.  You should be able to click it in the window above, or follow this link to YouTube.

I am really grateful to all the TEDx crew who helped put this together and especially to Katie Kirsch who produced the wonderful visuals.

The Science paper that I refer to is

Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett, R. Biggs, et al. 2015. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet.” Science, January, 1259855. doi:10.1126/science.1259855.