Rights in the Stone Age by hananmedo

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									        PERSPECTIVES                                               MICHAEL M. CROW




Overcoming Stone Age Logic


T
               hrough a remarkable manipulation of limited         Jr.; Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton; John Hofmeister, for-
               knowledge, brute force, and an overwhelming         mer president of Shell Oil and now president of Citizens for
               arrogance, humans have shaped a world that          Affordable Energy; Massachusetts congressman Edward
               in all likelihood cannot sustain the standard of    Markey, chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on Energy
               living and quality of life we have come to take     Independence and Global Warming; Michigan congress-
for granted. Our approach to energy, to look at only one sec-      man Fred Upton, a member of the House Energy and Com-
tor, epitomizes our limitations. We remain fixated on short-       merce Committee; and Frances Beinecke, president of the
term goals and a simplistic model governed by what I call          Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Stone Age logic”: We continue to dig deep holes in the                Although there was broad agreement at the summit that
ground, extract dark substances that are the remains of pre-       Washington has abandoned its traditional environmental lead-
historic plants and animals, and deliver this treasure to          ership role, leaving us reliant on a patchwork quilt of local
primitive machines for combustion to maintain the energy           or regional-scale solutions from cities and states, there was
system on which we base our entire civilization. We invest         nevertheless a recognition that informed and carefully con-
immense scientific and technological effort to find it more        sidered federal efforts will be essential if we are to meet our
efficiently, burn it more cleanly, and bury it somewhere we        societal needs within the limits of our environment. How-
will never have to see it again within a time horizon that might   ever well-intentioned the motivation for immediate action
concern us. Find it, burn it, bury it. Our dependency on fos-      may be, I would argue that without some grounding of pub-
sils fuels would be worthy of cavemen.                             lic policy in the discourse of sustainability, we are likely to
    Fortunately, we seem to be slowly moving out of the final      dig ourselves deeper into the holes we have already dug.
decades of the Stone Age, and discussions about whether our            Sometimes mistakenly equated with an exclusive focus
planet will be able to continue to sustain human societies         on the environment, the term “sustainability” tends to be used
at our present scale are no longer limited to environmen-          so casually that we risk diluting its power as a concept. Its
talists and apocalyptic religious groups. Prominent corpo-         implications are far broader than the environment, embrac-
rate, government, academic, and environmental leaders              ing economic development, health care, urbanization, energy,
gathered during September 2008 in Washington to con-               materials, agriculture, business practices, social services,
sider some of the most serious challenges facing humanity          and government. Sustainable development, for example,
in a summit convened by Arizona State University. Among            means balancing wealth generation with continuously
the host of concerned leaders were Minnesota governor              enhanced environmental quality and social well-being. Sus-
Tim Pawlenty; Ford Motors executive chairman Bill Ford             tainability is a concept of a complexity, richness, and signif-



                                                                                                                WINTER 2009    25
OUR UNIVERSITIES REMAIN DISPROPORTIONATELY FOCUSED
ON PERPETUATING DISCIPLINARY BOUNDARIES AND
DEVELOPING INCREASINGLY SPECIALIZED NEW KNOWLEDGE
AT THE EXPENSE OF COLLABORATIVE ENDEAVORS TARGETING
REAL-WORLD PROBLEMS.


icance comparable to other guiding principles of modern soci-         The summit in Washington is heartening evidence that
eties, such as human rights, justice, liberty, and equality.       such collaboration is possible. The involvement of corpo-
Yet, as is obvious from our failure to embrace the concept         rate visionaries such as Bill Ford and Rob Walton as well as
in our national deliberations, sustainability is clearly not       government leaders from both sides of the aisle represents
yet a core value in our society or any other.                      an expanded franchise not only of individuals but of insti-
   Although the general public and especially our younger          tutional capabilities for response. But more flexibility,
generations have begun to think in terms of sustainability,        resilience, and responsiveness will be required of all insti-
the task remains to improve our capacity to implement              tutions and organizations. Society will never be able to con-
advances in knowledge through sound policy decisions. We           trol the large-scale consequences of its actions, but the real-
have yet to coordinate transnational responses commensu-           ization of the imperative for sustainability positions us at a
rate with the scale of looming problems such as global ter-        critical juncture in our evolutionary history. Progress will
rorism, climate change, or possible ecosystem disruption. Our      occur when new advances in our understanding converge
approach to the maddening complexity of the challenges             with our evolving social, cultural, economic, and historical
that confront us must be transformative rather than incre-         circumstances and practices to allow us to glimpse and pur-
mental and will demand major investment from concerned             sue new opportunities. To realize the potential of this
stakeholders. Progress toward sustainability will require the      moment will require both a focused collective commitment
reconceptualization and reorganization of our ossified knowl-      and the realization that sustainability, like democracy, is
edge enterprises. Our universities remain disproportion-           not a problem to be solved but rather a challenge that
ately focused on perpetuating disciplinary boundaries and          requires constant vigilance.
developing increasingly specialized new knowledge at the expense
of collaborative endeavors targeting real-world problems. If       Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University,
we in the academic sector hope to spearhead the effort, we         where he also serves as professor of public affairs and Foun-
will need to drive innovation at the same time as we forge         dation Leadership Chair. He is chair of the American College
much closer ties to the private sector and government alike.       and University Presidents Climate Commitment.




26 ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

								
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