From Ivory Tower to global problem solver – aligning academia to the Sustainable Development Goals

A significant portion of the American electorate is seemingly alienated from academia. Conspiracy theorists and talk (hate) radio have seemingly co-opted a portion of the rural working class.  I include the word “seemingly” in the hopes that someone will prove that this is not the case.  But assuming that it is, what is to be done?  Marching for Science is one step.  However, marches must lead to further action.  Positive rationalists in the Al Gore mold will likely suggest providing “facts” to the alienated working class to “prove” to them that they are incorrect, and that learning things is good.  But these are people who listen to their “guts” and information that does not comport with what their “gut tells them” is readily discarded.

One approach would be to provide direct services to alienated people, so that their lived experience can inform and change their ideology.  For example, if academia were to provide jobs to rural Americans, their living standards would improve, and they might be less likely to blame all their problems on “intellectual elites.”  Unfortunately, if the people in those places are uneducated and addicted to opioids, the types of jobs provided by academia would seem to be a poor fit (unless we talking about being research study guinea pigs, which is at a different pay scale than tenured professorships).  But rural jobs should still be an area where academia could improve, particularly in “blue island” college towns (Kansas State, Louisiana State, Oklahoma State, etc).

Another approach would be providing free college to nearby residents.  This approach, advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, has recently been termed “College For All,” and goes along with Medicare for All, and perhaps Universal Basic Income.  Centrists and neoliberals dismissively call them “ponies” (free stuff, that they say is unpaid for, ignoring the hundreds of billions siphoned away by the 1% and corporations to the Cayman Islands or the hundreds of billions in tax cuts to the 1% or the military industrial complex) but College For All and similar measures have the potential to be inclusive rather than divisive, and to reach across the boundaries that have divided Americans over the last few election cycles.

Finally, and this is the main point of this essay, academia may need to look in the mirror.  Does publishing in esoteric journals read by numerically few “elites” (with even fewer votes in the Electoral College) reinforce the negative stereotypes of the Ivory Tower of Babel?  Are the current specialized disciplines relevant to the continued survival of our species?

Calling it the “Ivory Tower of Babel” refers to the Biblical story of human arrogance. But in this case, the book-smart people are being smited (politically) by the know-nothing populists. The smiting also could also connote the global temperature rise as coal lovers deny climate change and delay the needed transition to a low-carbon future. If the talk radio listeners refuse to read books, it is up to the high IQ elites to make themselves more comprehensible to each other and to the outside world. This could mean dismantling the Ivory Tower of Babel.

What are the problems of the world?

Climate change, the sixth mass extinction, economic inequality and a lack of basic necessities of food, water, shelter, the faulty ideology of continued infinite economic growth on a finite planet, the debt based monetary system that causes misery and leads to a scarcity mindset.  Let us add to this the recent rise of extremist and racist ideologies that blame minorities and immigrants for these problems, and can lead to a weakening of democracy and a resurgence of totalitarianism and even fascism.  The United Nations has put together a handy list called the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the UN website states:

On September 25th 2015, countries adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.

Sitting on the sidelines is no longer sufficient.  Our civilization could collapse while the smartest people are reading increasingly esoteric research papers and attending rarified conferences that no one outside their bubble knows or understands.  Meanwhile new generations of brilliant minds are being funneled into this labyrinth from which they may never return.  We need those people on the streets, and in the public sphere, arguing their positions, and bringing millions of people into political engagement, marches and rallies, the voting booth, and registering to run for office.

Maybe we need to disband the academic stovepipes, and realign them to the SDGs.

Then when you ask an eager undergraduate, “What’s your major?” they might answer, SDG 5 or SDG 7, or a double major in both of those.  This is a call to bring the sciences back to basics.  All hands on deck.  A Manhattan Project for survival.

Once we’ve fixed the carbon problem, the extinction problem, and the economics problem, then by all means go back to the luxury of the academic Ivory Tower of Babel. Until then, perhaps the Ivory Tower must be leveled.

Author’s note:  This essay was partly inspired by George Monbiot’s recent book “Out of the Wreckage.”  The author has also favored interdisciplinary study since his undergraduate work in Political Economy of Industrialized Societies [SDG 1 and SDG 8] (in the International and Area Studies Department), and graduate studies in Urban Planning [SDG 11] (with emphasis in Environmental Analysis and Policy) [SDGs 7, 13, 14, and 15]. His career is in SDG 7 and SDG 13.

Featured image: Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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