Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the flood ... science, society, and coping with a Trumped up world

An email sent to students in ENVR 430, RES 508, and members of CHANS lab.
Many of you are likely reeling after last night’s election result and what it means for you as students of environmental science. What's the point in the pursuit of truth if its repudiation can be so alluring? To hear that a man who referred to climate change as a Chinese hoax is taking office in the most powerful nation in the world is surely unsettling. No less so because he is a demonstrably lying billionaire who hoodwinked a near majority of the voting public as the saviour for the ‘forgotten man’—despite having made his fortune by ripping off blue collar Americans (e.g., Trump University) and shipping their jobs overseas … a man who spoke of grabbing women by the p***y and call it locker-room talk (as if it were acceptable there—it isn’t!) … a man who enjoys the support of Vladimir Putin, who wants nothing less than chaos for the US … today is a dark day indeed.

But in your despair, remember this: there is no better affirmation of what you are doing than last night’s result.

Why? Because last night represented the clearest demonstration of the failure of conventional education and economic policy. For decades, elites have governed the US and many other western nations, on a promise of economic benefits from free trade and trickle-down economics. Promises that might have sounded good in theory but rang hollow in reality. Public education in the US was given too little attention (it’s far less equitable than in Canada), and it wasn’t enough to prevent the social stratification that resulted in much of middle America feeling left behind even as the US economy continues to power on. The policies promoted by political elites had tangible costs and mostly diffuse benefits—except for a few powerful corporations, whose power was entrenched and enhanced.

In ENVR 430/RES 508/CHANS lab, we are seeking science and societal change by a fundamentally different model. In contrast to the conventional approach, which assumes that policies that have a net societal benefit will be adopted by liberal democracies, we strive to account for the messy reality of social change and the fact that we humans are not rational actors. Instead of seeking change in such top-down policies, we are learning to engage directly and to enable bottom-up change by connecting with what really matters to people. E.g., Whereas for years environmentalists have classified what matters to people in very academic terms (intrinsic and instrumental values), we seek to understand this in the terms that people themselves use, including a much broader set of values (e.g., relational values).

Of course we don’t have all the answers (not even half of them!), and last night’s result is a huge setback for those who favour a freer, more tolerant, more truthful world. But remember that life is a struggle, and you’re on the right side of a long campaign.



  1. Wonderful thoughts...just wondering if it is only about economic alienation (failure of trickle down economics). Complete novice in the area of US electoral politics, but read an article which seemed to take a fuller view:

    Regarding the issue of environmental protection, I always wondered how we can bring all key stakeholders together when there are always win for some and loss (at best, less win) for others from instrumental value perspective...unless most can win (and in short term in a visible manner) in any carefully designed environmental intervention, the challenge of distrust to the issue (Chinese hoax etc.) will perhaps continue. We are not only irrational but we mostly prefer instant gratification. A long term benefit projection/ benefit for future generation while incurring minimal immediate loss does not excite us.

    We are truly in a challenging field where some question the basic rationale (denying climate change) while many others don't want to sacrifice (even if it is net benefit in long run) what is necessary to improve the situation. I think better understanding of your conceptualization of relational values and building up policies/ campaigns based on it is the future of environmental intervention.

  2. Irony: The good news and bad news of #USElection2016 is the same—Trump’s success is founded on lies.
    The good news re: Trump: all lies come tumbling down (e.g., tax cuts for the rich will not benefit the ‘forgotten man’).
    The bad news re: Trump: obvious lies hoodwinked a near majority. When the lies tumble, what will they fall for next?