Monday, June 8, 2015

Thoughts from Dave Newport about "sustainable brands"

Dave Newport is a campus sustainability officer at UC Boulder and maintains a blog at "Inside Higher Education" on the interrsection of sustainability and academic life.

Today's piece describes his visit to a "sustainable branding" conference.  He begins:

"It would be easy to flip off the Sustainable Brands conference. Corporate raiders spouting the S-word? How much gooey new green wash can these suits concoct?

But that would be stupid.

Want proof it’s stupid? Well, the flip-off was my first impulse. ‘Nuff said.

So after a few years of people telling me it was worth the price (hefty) and the time (four days), at great personal sacrifice I went to the chichi San Diego oceanside resort hosting this green corporate orgy to rub cotton with the suits.

My excuse? Paul Hawken told me to. Well, sorta."

Read the full piece here

Friday, June 5, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 2

Continuing my thoughts on MATH033... At the end of each class at Penn State, students get to fill out "SRTE" forms - that is "Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness", a.k.a. "course evaluations".  I was especially interested to see what the students in Math 033 would say and I emphasized as strongly as I could that the course was brand new and that through their comments they had an opportunity to improve it for next time it was offered.  I was very glad to see the many extensive responses to this request.  In addition to comments via the SRTE process, three students took the time to write me longer emails describing their experiences in the class and their thoughts about how it might be made more effective.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How Worried Are You About Climate Change?

 I filled in a survey recently, which was intended to "help determine the most effective religious messaging on climate change". 

One of the questions in the survey was the one in the title: How worried are you about climate change? The survey offered a range of options from "extremely worried" to "not at all worried".  The last was further subdivided into two categories: "not at all worried because I don't believe climate change is happening" and "not at all worried because it is all part of God's plan for the end of the world".

I had a lot of trouble answering this question, and I came to feel that was because two questions had been fused into one - and that the way these two questions had been fused together itself has something to say about "religious messaging on climate change".

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Matthew Dickerson at the ACMS conference

I've just returned from the biennial conference of the Association for Christians in the Mathematical Sciences.   This organization brings together several hundred students, faculty members, and others working in the fields of mathematics, statistics and computer science who want to explore how the Christian faith relates to their teaching, research and scholarship.  I remember discovering the ACMS when I was working in Oxford, and my delight at discovering that there were other people who were pondering the same kind of questions that bothered me.

There were two plenary speakers, Matthew Dickerson from Middlebury College (computer science) and Annalisa Crannell from Franklin and Marshall College (mathematics). Each gave two presentations, and both were excellent speakers.  Here I want to focus on Dickerson's second presentation, where he found himself discussing the ecological implications of "transhumanism" (Ray Kurzweil et al) and its relationship to the thought of C.S.Lewis.  I was quite surprised to discover that our Computer Science plenary speaker was also the co-author of a book - Narnia and the Fields of Arbol - on Lewis' environmental thought which I had recently read and which I had been planning to review some time on this blog.

Dickerson contrasted the implicit Platonism of Kurzweil - what matters is our "software" (that is, the "program" which constitutes our minds), our "hardware" (that is, our bodies) is defective and can and should be replaced by an artificial substitute - with the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body.  He quoted Lewis from chapter IV of Miracles:
The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of man survives the death of the natural organism.  But they are very little interested in the matter.
Surprising worlds from a defender of the supernatural! Lewis goes on
What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or "resurrection" of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act.
 Narnia and the Fields of Arbol appeals to Lewis' fiction to develop the idea that this hope - of the restoration not just of the human creature but of all creation - provides a foundation for an appropriate relationship between humanity and the rest of the created world.  Contrary to the famous thesis of Lynn White according to which Christianity, by demythologizing the sacred groves, had licensed humanity to exploit them, Lewis presented deforestation as a blasphemous project, as for instance in The Last Battle:
"Woe, woe, woe!" cried the voice. "Woe for my brothers and sisters! Woe for the holy trees! The woods are laid waste.  The axe is loosed against us. We are being felled.  Great trees are falling, falling, falling."
In this passage the natural world, represented by a Dryad, the "nymph of a beechtree", cries out to its human steward, King Tirian, for justice and protection from exploitation - exploitation which has been justified in the name of religion, yes, but of a false and cruel religion. Dickerson reads Lewis as an agrarian with a deep sympathy to nature and place, almost Wendell Berry as an Oxford don.

I very much agree with the basic theological point here. Humans are part of creation, not "above" it, and our hope is to be restored along with it, not to leave it behind after a technological Singularity or an eschatological Rapture.  Still, I would have been interested to hear more about how this works out in practice.   How do these principles inform our decision-making as Christians confronted daily with stewardship-related questions both large and small?

PS: More reading on this blog related to Lewis and the environment can be found here, here and here.