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Hurricane Sandy Two Important Research Findings on Children and Trauma Support the Halting of Testing in K-12 Public Schools: An Open Letter to Governor Christie, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg

Dear Governor Christie, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg,

I write to applaud your rapid response to Hurricane Sandy. You have been decisive in your decision making and tireless in your efforts to care for all those who have suffered because of the brute force of the storm. Many of the decisions you have made have been courageous, some unexpectedly so. I urge you now to make one more decision for the sake of the children who whose lives have been so tragically impacted by Sandy.

It is imperative that executive decisions are made so that displaced students are not required to take benchmarking assessments in their new, “temporary” schools. Of equal importance is the suspension of all testing of children whose lives have been deeply affected by the storm. The focus on all new evaluative procedures should be postponed. The push to fully implement APPR, SLOs, DASA, HEDI, summative evaluations, benchmarks, and baseline rubrics, should also be suspended.

An immediate necessity is the push back of the end of the marking quarter. “For my district and I imagine most others, missing this past week means projects, essays, and tests upon return to round out the quarter average that is already stunted by the APPR benchmarking assessments,” a teacher states. “We are scheduled to close our gradebooks Friday and report grades by Tuesday the November 13.

Such pressures in times of catastrophe increase the possibility that children will experience lasting effects on their health and well being as well as their academic development. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event or in an on-going emergency, school administrators and teachers need all testing to be suspended so that they can work together to: (1) support the social and emotional well-being of children; and (2) create classrooms that encourage resiliency. It is of vital importance that all pedagogical initiatives ensure that every child has the opportunity to engage in activities that support their learning in healthful and productive ways.

Two research findings provide a framework for schools to establish safe learning environments for K-12 students in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Both findings are supported by ethnographic research in locations where catastrophic events have taken place and/or emergency situations exist; and by medical, psychiatric and psychological research on children and mass trauma. The first finding is that it is important that we do everything we can to restore the social fabric of children’s everyday lives if they are to have the best chance possible to recover when catastrophic events take place. The second finding is that children need to experience joy if they are going to have the best chance possible to recover from potentially traumatic experiences.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy these two findings support the focus on schools as social environments that can enhance the health and well being of students as well as their academic development.. The research based recommendations are presented in depth in “Recommendations for Administrators and Teachers Reopening Schools in the Aftermath of the Storm”. Summarized here, they are deceptively simple:

  1. Establish schools as safe, joyful places for children and teachers;
  2. Ensure that schools are nurturing environments in which children who have been    evacuated can become welcome members of the school community;
  3. Promote children’s health and well being by providing them with increased opportunities to participate in art, music, drama, dance, and physical education;
  4. Enhance academic learning through meaningful literacy activities, listening to and reading stories, participating in constructivist math and science projects, and other meaning making activities;
  5. Encourage family and community participation in the daily life of the school;
  6. Make sure that the school takes part in community events and activities.

These recommendations are not earth shattering suggestions, but to implement them will take a suspension of stressful mandated requirements. There is no doubt that the current intense focus on testing and value added assessment increases the pressures on children and teachers who have experienced a potentially traumatizing disaster such as Hurricane Sandy. Thus suspending these testing policies and mandates becomes critically important if teachers are to focus on creating environments in schools which will contribute to the restoration of the social fabric of children’s everyday lives.  In such circumstances creative, imaginative and joyful learning experiences that are responsive to the social, emotional and intellectual needs of children, and which support their learning in healthful and productive ways are absolutely essential.


Denny Taylor
Professor of Literacy Studies
Founding Director of the International Center for Everybody’s Child
Hofstra University

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Hurricane Sandy Recommendations for Administrators and Teachers Reopening Schools in the Aftermath of the Storm

Recommendations for Administrators and Teachers Responding to Hurricane Sandy:

            Hurricane Sandy has created long lasting catastrophic conditions in the North East of the United States. People are making heroic efforts to respond to the emergency.  At hospitals in New York City nurses arrived on Sunday and did not leave until Wednesday evening. On Monday Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of NYC, called on New York teachers to be first responders in public shelters in the city. Teachers are strong, capable, compassionate, and always ready to take care of children and their families, but, unlike doctors, nurses, the police, firefighters and EMT’s, teachers receive little or no training.

Nevertheless teachers are leading the way.

One teacher from Long Beach writes, “I have been running our medical triage where we assess patients and then dispatch them to ambulances or to busses to be transported to shelters. We also have a doctor working off of a trolley trying to see as many people as he can to get medication and vaccinations out to the people who need it. The outreach has been amazing”.

“I am wondering what they are doing about the public schools here?” the same teacher writes. “They got a lot of damage from what I understand and many students have been displaced from their homes”.

“We have a meeting at one of the schools in Long Beach on Tuesday for those who can make it,” another teacher writes. “I’m going to attend, and see what my district plans on doing in regard to the school year. My school also had 3-5 feet of water in every classroom, and is in the worst shape out of all buildings in the district. I can’t imagine how we are going to have school.”

School districts across the U.S. have developed emergency plans; however, few educators receive preparation to be first responders in the aftermath of catastrophic events when schools reopen and children arrive whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. Some will not know what has happened to family and friends; others will have lost their pets. Many of their families will be living without light or heat and some will have difficulty obtaining water or fresh food to eat.

In such circumstances many teachers will have experienced similar losses and hardships, and yet they will return to school to make sure their classrooms are safe places for students to be. The following recommendations are based upon the findings of psychiatric and medical research and build on the advice the National Child Stress Network (2006). The recommendations are also supported by the findings of my ethnographic research in schools in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and in schools in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The most recent review of the recommendations took place in May 2008 when teachers in St. Bernard Parish and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana reflected on the impact of the storm (their advice is included in parentheses).

The enduring message, in hindsight, from the teachers in Louisiana is that in the aftermath of catastrophic events all potentially stressful activities (test prep and testing) should be suspended and schools should to be safe joyful places for children to be.  have the opportunity to recover when catastrophes take place. Every effort should be made to recognize the importance of children’s families and friends.  Have a plan, share the plan and stick to the plan. Build strong communities, incorporate health and well being into pedagogical initiatives. Every attempt should be made to take care of the whole child, every child, and make school a joyful place for children to be. This is the basis for school and community preparedness for catastrophes. In the aftermath of teachers in Louisiana stood outside with umbrellas to welcome children back to schools that put the pressures of unreasonable mandates to one side so that they could take care of every child. Here are the recommendations with the addition of the advice of Louisiana teachers are in brackets:

First Responses in Shelters When Catastrophic Events Take Place:

  1. Talking with children and youth and their families, who have experienced a catastrophic event, is an intervention. Just being comfortable with the fact that children are distressed, helps first responders.
  2. Make sure children with special needs are located and that their immediate needs are met. This might include making sure the child receives medical attention (“be prepared to take care of children who are autistic” “and those who are wheelchair bound”).
  3. When there are young children involved, activities that promote a sense of well being include: (a) Playing with children to help distract them; (b) If parents are present holding babies so parents can eat or rest; (c) If there is nothing to do, helping with care giving, just making yourself available, and “being there” with them.
  4. Do not ask children to reveal emotional information, but if they do, listen, (“provide opportunities” “give them crayons”)
  5. Try to focus on their immediate needs by reducing hassles for survivors. If you assist doctors and Red Cross workers in problem-solving and logistics (e.g. making telephone calls, replacing personal items, etc.) you are providing a service.
  6. If possible provide personal hygiene items including antibacterial wipes, tissues, lotion, tooth brushes and tooth paste, child and adult diapers, female tampons and pads.

First Responses in Schools:

  1. Assume that students are doing their absolute best to cope.
  2. Encourage students to engage in self-care.
  3. Help students feel as much in control as they can.
  4. Make sure students with special needs receive assistance (“think about allergies” “peanut butter”).
  5. Don’t assume first responders have taken care of basic needs.
  6. Make sure students have food, clothing and shelter.
  7. Keep parents informed and send letters when possible (“If possible” “Finding ways to communicate is very difficult”).
  8. Teachers should not provide psychological intervention, but simply listen and support students who are in distress.
  9. It is important that students are not asked to tell their stories. Talking about what happened to them and their families can lead to students reliving the catastrophic event and to retraumatization.
  10. If students talk about the events that have taken place, listen and “be there” for them.
  11. If students focus on the catastrophic event when they write or draw, make sure that they keep their work.
  12. Respect students’ wishes.
  13. Do not make false assurances.
  14. Re-establish basic routines with students (“try to do this as soon as possible”).
  15. Engage students in creative activities. Music and art are important.
  16. Read stories and then more stories
  17. Suspend all activities that might be stressful.
  18. Test prep and tests should be postponed
  19. Make sure there is time for students to play, have fun, and participate in sports activities. Participating in pleasurable activities is essential for recovery.
  20. Reassure students that with the exception of self-destructive behaviors and emotions, their feelings and reactions are reasonable given the situation. (“We are seeing students who coped after the storm who are now having difficulties”).
  21. If you are concerned about a student, know what to do to triage that student and get them mental or physical health services at your site.
  22. Let an administrator or someone in charge of the relief effort know what needs you have identified, so services can be provided to help meet the needs of your students.
  23. Make sure that every teacher has a list of resources and knows what services are available.
  24. Remember that teachers have also experienced the catastrophic event and need support too.

Learning from Teachers who were First Responders in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

In Louisiana in May 2008 teachers talked about the importance of making time for teacher support groups. Meetings can be held at lunch time or after school. Teachers need time to discuss what’s happening and share feelings. These groups should be non-hierarchical and rotate leadership.

The Louisiana teachers emphasized the importance that time is also set aside for students to talk. “Morning meetings,” one teacher said, “we roll a dice with happy, sad, embarrassing, scary, and funny on it and children talk if they want to.” They all talked about the importance of helping students find out what had happened to their friends and of reuniting friends whenever possible.

“One catastrophe can lead to another,” a teacher says. She recounts, “A child holding on to a tree with his mother and father was coping okay and then his mother tried to commit suicide.” Other teachers shares similar stories. Three years after Hurricane Katrina tragedies are still occurring. They talk of time. “Catastrophes happen and children might cope but a year later, two years later problems might surface.”

The psychiatrist, Anand Pandya (2006), provides verification of the experiences of the Louisiana teachers when he speaks of the expectation of “symptoms” during the acute phase of an emergency that become “transient and fluid,” often recurring weeks, months or years after the disaster happened. He spoke of the “let down,” and so did the Louisiana teachers, who spoke at length at the changes they were observing in their students’ behaviors, as they began to understand that their families, schools and communities would never be the same as they were before Katrina.  One teacher spoke to the way in which she is approaching this problem. “When something is happening in the community I point it our,” she says. “’Did you see the street signs!’” “’Did you see the new trees they’ve planted?’”

The Louisiana teachers talked of recovery, of the lack of support from Federal agencies and repeatedly spoke of schools as the center of the recovery effort. “It’s important for schools to have a single point of entry for all services that they need,” one says. “If there was a place in school,” another begins. “If schools could have a resource place just like a medical tent,” another continues. “When the school reopened it was the only place parents could eat.” “They came in to use the bathroom.” “It was the only place they could get help.” “We took care of the parents too.” “We are still helping them.”

Press Release (Reblog): Save Our Schools Response to Hurricane Sandy

Press Release
November 5, 2012
Bess Altwerger, SOS Action Committee bessaltwer@aol.com
Bob George, SOS Steering Committee jorgereads@mac.com


Please Donate to the Hurricane Sandy Student and Teacher Support Fund

Save Our Schools calls on all local, state and federal authorities to spare no expense in rushing aide to thousands of school children and teachers affected by hurricane Sandy. The devastating loss of homes, clothing, books and school supplies will result in a serious and prolonged disruption to education. Schools that have suffered destruction from flooding will need immediate assistance to replace materials and restore a healthy, safe environment for all students and employees. Students experiencing the trauma of fear and loss need counseling and other social services to ensure their emotional health and optimize their ability to continue learning. We need to do all that we can to make certain adequate services are provided. Building a sense of connection and care, and providing opportunities to process with others what has just occurred should be a key focus of instruction at this time.

Learn more at saveourschools.org

Writing Pictures and Painting Stories: Creative Acts of Imagination Challenge the Monetization of Public Education

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In Writing Pictures Painting Stories we begin by making connections between people and the planet. I read Italo Calvino’s brilliant story, A Sign in Space, and invite graduate students to imagine the universe. Calvino begins with science as he often does, and he tells the reader “the sun takes about two hundred millions years to make a complete revolution of the Galaxy”. He introduces Qfwfw who when I read to my students I call “Q”. When I read the story to myself Qfwfw is Calvino, an Italian philosopher and literary genius.

Qfwfw draws a sign in space so that he will find it two hundred million years later when he has completed one complete revolution of the galaxy. And it is at this moment that humans begin to think. Before eyes, teeth and noses, making a sign is the first thought.

“What sort of sign?” Calvino pretends we ask. “It’s hard to explain because if I say sign to you, you immediately think of a something that can be distinguished from a something else, but nothing could be distinguished there”.

“As to the form a sign should have, you say it’s no problem because, whatever form it may be given, a sign only has to serve as a sign, that is, be different or else the same as other signs,” but as Calvino explains, “in that period I didn’t have any examples to follow, I couldn’t say I’ll make it the same or I’ll make it different, there were no things to copy, nobody knew what a line was, straight or curved, or even a dot, or a protuberance or a cavity”.

In a few short pages Calvino writes the history of the human race, which reaches the end heaped up with signs and false signs in a universe that no longer exists. But following the story on the first morning, in a conference room that we use as a studio, we begin at the beginning, and I ask the masters and doctoral students in our course to make the first sign in the universe. Later students talk about how challenging it was to make a sign that had no meaning. Students have hours to produce this work. It is a time of deep contemplation. Does life exist without meaning? Is it possible for humans not to mean?

The syllabus suggests otherwise. I won’t repeat it here. In the afternoon students work in small groups reading chapters from Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, sharing paragraphs that have gained new significance since they made the first sign in the universe. Calvino and Greene make the course magical. Calvino connects our physical existence to the galaxy, for him science, philosophy, and literature are intricately connected. Greene views life on Earth in similar ways. For her, philosophy, literature, and the aesthetic experience are also intertwined. Greene’s writings are not always easy for students to read and they start out hesitatingly at the beginning of the course, but the studio experiences make it possible for them to inhabit the book, and from her writings become part of the artwork the students create.

Quoting Jonathon Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Greene rejects the narrowing of students’ lives and the cul-de-sacs of the dominant decision makers restructuring of schools. She writes of “looking at things as if they could be otherwise”. Greene brings in John Dewey and the idea of imagination as the “gateway” through which meaning is derived, and Hannah Arendt on the “startling unexpectedness” that is “inherent in all beginnings”.

And so we begin. Together the students recreate the universe, in ways that represent all the ideas they are interpreting about signs and symbols, and about functional and aesthetic texts. There are conversations about language, literacy, color, texture, and design, and discussions about emotion and empathy, hopes and fears, as well as reason. At night their research becomes digital as they explore data sets in a different space on the history of writing systems and the human development of social semiotic systems. If you look closely at the photos of the exhibit you will find a laptop with a slideshow. The laptop is a physical object integral to the installation, as well as a gateway to a digital world that signifies a galaxy of visual and textual information.

After a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the students’ studio work becomes infused with symbolic representations that signify ancient and modern meaning systems that connect them to the ethos of the people who created them. Ethos, mythos, and logos are not separated. They become one, a celebration of humankind. In their group installation people and the planet are reunited irrespective of gender, ethnicity, race, or religion. The work is physical and digital, but the one communicative form does not dominate the other.

On Friday when the installation is complete, students trace the evolution of their thinking and the progression of their textual productions. There are no time limits. Students are just invited to speak. Each presentation is a tour de force, and they surprise themselves as well as each other as they tie together their studio work with their philosophical readings and their visit to the Metropolitan Museum.

And all the while the question that consumes us is: how can we create such opportunities for children in schools that are so crippled by the imposition of program and assessment mandates to support the billion dollar industry that public education in America has become? Releasing the imagination of children from the tests that bind them requires creating spaces in which graduate students can imagine the possibilities for a more just and caring world by teaching in the cracks of dominant and dominating schools “reforms”.

Imagine the possibilities for social and political change if public schools across America made test days “Writing Pictures Painting Stories” days. This would be a creative act of rebellion against the monetization of public education. On Writing Pictures Painting Stories day, Maxine Greene and John Dewey would be back in the classroom, opening up the possibilities for children to imagine themselves in a world that is decent, just, and full of caring. The great artists, philosophers, and scientists could participate in a digital space that anticipates the future as well as the past. Calvino would be in their classrooms with his stories of science and philosophy, encouraging teachers to resist the false signs of the money makers that have “superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space”, so that there is “no longer any way to establish a point of reference”. He would extol the importance of creative and imaginative human learning, and encourage us to seize this moment, warning us that if we don’t, we will forget what it is like to think imaginatively and do original work.

“Making signs that weren’t that sign no longer held any interest for me,” Calvino, writing as Qfwfw, tells us. “I had forgotten that sign … so unable to make true signs … I started making false signs, notches in space, holes, stains, little tricks that only an incompetent creature … could mistake for signs.”

Writing pictures and painting stories impacts students’ lives, infusing their hearts and minds with life as it could be otherwise. It is always a significant moment when the students disassemble the installation, and then leave without a trace of the remarkable work they have done. It’s August and the students’ art work fills the floor of the atrium, but the few people who come into the building barely notice as they hurry along the narrow pathway at the edge of our universe on their way to meetings to discuss new mandates including the “common core” which realigns faculty as well as graduate students, flatlining us into meritocracy for profit with false signs and little tricks.

We all pitch in and clear up. When it’s done, students say goodbye to their new friends and to me, but they linger, just standing, as if they want to hold on to the moment. At the end of Calvino’s story Qfwfq wonders if space had “never existed”, if it had been just signs “heaped up”. Perhaps in those last moments before leaving the building and going home the students knew that once they left, the universe that they had created would be lost without a trace, as it if had never been. But we have the photos to prove they were there, and it is in more than our imagination their work exists.

This morning as I think back it seems to me that what they created when they painted the sun with a ray for each student was a golden compass, perhaps more primitive that the one in the book of the same name, but a compass all the same. If we are going to find our way forward and share with our children our common humanity, it might be that the only possibility we have left is to incite imagination and transgress in a day of collective creative action, writing pictures and painting stories instead of passively administering mind numbing and dumbing tests.

Now that the intense week of writing pictures and painting stories is over students have one last assignment, which is ten hours of “field work” in which they share with children the inspiration they have gained from releasing their own imagination in an environment that nurtures language, literacy, science, philosophy and art. When the projects, girded by thousands of years of history, supported by scientific empirical research, by deep understandings of the humanities and the arts, and enacted through a pedagogy that is supported by our current knowledge of human development, arrive in defense of the human spirit, the contrast is striking between the creative and deeply intellectual work of the children and young people, and the work that both young children and older students produce when they are restricted by inappropriate program mandates, and by required but indefensible commercial tests. The quiet, thoughtful conversations that take place in the pedagogical environments that the graduate students establish, are supported by a century of research on human development and learning, and reflect the work of teachers in classrooms across the country, who through their teaching, now transgress. The contrast could not be more striking with the false conversations required in classrooms in which teachers are forced to prep for tests that find their genesis in the vitriolic and denigrating rhetoric of the political decision makers pushing privatization of K-12 public education that is a 500 billion dollar industry for corporations.

“It was incredible to see how creative and imaginative she was,” one graduate student writes of the six year old girl with whom she worked. “I barely helped her and it was fascinating to see what she came up with on her own, in terms of every given task. It was amazing to see what she created by sitting calmly in a relaxed setting with a paintbrush in her hand and paints to play with.” She writes of the child’s interpretations of the letter “W” in Braille and Chinese, and of her “inventiveness while creating different patterns”, and “her ability to apply a message from a book to her own life and to express these insights on paper through art”.

“She really showed me the extent of her knowledge,” the graduate student states. “Not only did I enjoy doing this activity with her, she kept saying over and over how she would love to do this every day in school.”

“Just by her statement,” the student reflects, “I have learned that it’s so crucial that all children need to be independent and have the opportunity to sit, relax, use their imagination and create! I cannot wait to better my teaching strategies as I start a new year with my preschoolers. As an educator and simply as a human being, I have learned that creativity and imagination is a necessity for growth, success, and inner peace for us all, especially for our children. Children and adults need to be inspired on a day to day basis. Imagination allows us to tap into our own inspirations.”

Another graduate student in Writing Pictures Painting Stories worked with two high school students. She writes, “First, I read “The Universe” by May Swenson (LINK to poem) and had students try their best to put what they were visualizing on paper.” It is a Calvino moment. Science, philosophy, and aesthetic experience all wrapped up in a poem.

“What is it about the universe, the universe about us stretching out?” May Swenson asks. She writes, “We, within our brains, within it, think we must unspin the laws that spin it.”

“We think why because we think because,” she responds in verse. “Because we think,

we think the universe about us.” A physicist or philosopher could take these lines and “spin” a book. A literary critic could “spin” the poem. It could become the basis for a conference on people and the planet. For sure, it is as complex as any human thought can be, and yet it is written with simplicity and the high school students seize the moment.

“I asked them to think about the relationship between the universe and humans,” the graduate student explains, “and how we created the concept of meaning.”

“I was surprised to find that neither high school student asked any questions before or after we read. It seemed that they had seen the paint, pastels and paper in front of them and just knew what they wanted to do. As soon as I stopped reading, I expected blank stares, but instead found that the students went right to work, hands grabbing for paints and brushes before I could even find any more instructions to give them. I kept quiet and started my own artwork to keep the creative energy of the room flowing.”

“When it came time to share, one of the high school students held her artwork up and began to talk about how she’d watched a program on Stephen Hawking once in physics class and had found a way to connect it to the poem. Her discussion focused on the idea that the Big Bang started with just a single point. This point accumulated as much density and energy as it could before exploding and continually creating the universe. The strokes of color signified how energy occurs in cycles, moving through various forms until you can’t trace where or what it had been before. The black edges represented the knowledge that we do not yet know, but are aware that we do not know and search for.”

Maxine Green would smile and nod, and possibly say, “Yes, that is how I imagined it would be.” In the concluding paragraph of the paper on her field work the graduate student writes,  “Maxine Greene states, ‘it is imagination—with its capacity to both make order out of chaos and open experience to the mysterious and the strange—that moves us to go in quest, to journey where we have never been’ (1995, p.23). This class has helped me to learn the power of imagination and what it has the capacity to do within the classroom.”

“I have learned so much from this experience, and hope that I do get the opportunity to infuse these ideas into my own classroom one day,” she writes. “It is vital that as teachers we show our students how important their imagination is, and that we allow them the time to use it, reflect on it, and grow from it.”

Again she quotes Maxine Greene: “Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, ‘Here we are’” (Maxine Greene, 1995, p.31).

“As Maxine points out over and over again,” she continues, seizing the moment, “imagination is a tool of empowerment, something that helps us to exceed our expectations and travel to places that we would not have dreamed of. …This should be what we strive for as we create our classroom communities. Amidst the textbooks, skill and drill, and standardized testing, students need the opportunities to let their creativity flow and let their own colors shine through into the world.”

“With the first days of school approaching,” another graduate student in Writing Pictures Painting Stories writes, “I’ll meet all my “little ones” and remember the creativity you inspire through acceptance and celebration. You seem unconcerned or worried about an end product and guide an amazing, open process that allows for, and encourages the unexpected. I loved and learned from the journey, grateful to have been “orbiting” with peers.”

In Writing Pictures Painting Stories I try to give to my students what great educators, both scholars in universities and public school teachers, have given to me. From one generation to the next we evoke the human spirit, and create classroom communities that are caring and compassionate. We create intensely intellectual spaces in which students, who are often marginalized in American society, are nurtured, supported, and succeed in re-imagining the possibilities of their lives.

It is forty four years since I entered the classroom, and in that time I have never administered a test, and yet students learn and have no difficulty understanding the importance of hard work in any worthwhile human endeavor.  In these troubled times I teach to transgress, and will not participate in any initiatives to teach teachers to test. I reject the idea of “value added” which is borrowed from economics, and I challenge the government mandates that impose a “common core”, and I refuse to accept the imposition of mediocrity on teachers, children, and American society.

In her ninety sixth year Louise Rosenblatt, the renowned teacher and scholar, wrote in an email to me of the “generosity and bravery” of teachers. She wrote, “Those who sit back and wait are, I believe, ignoring the children whose lives will be affected. To minimize the bad effects on good schools as well as the poor ones, we must try to influence what is happening. If we fail, as well we may, we shall at least have spread the ideas, have educated some who will continue the resistance.” Louise never gave up. She was writing letters to Congress in her hundredth year. In her memory, in honor of Maxine, and in the spirit of Calvino, I hope we can find the courage to organize and transgress, and to write pictures and paint stories instead of administering another test.

Johan Rockstrom: Let the Environment Guide our Development

On June 22, 2010, at UNESCO in Paris, the International Council for Science (ICSU) held a Visioning Open Forum on “Institutional Frameworks for Global Sustainability”. The atmosphere at the forum was somber and the scientists were quiet and intense.

Johan Rockström opened the forum for scientists “to air their views” with a call for scientists “to reform our own structure”. “We have put ourselves in this position,” he said. “There have been great advances in science. As scientists it is fundamental that we move towards institutional frameworks to support research for a more sustainable world.”

He spoke of the vision of the “task team”, of “something profound and new”, of an “historic opportunity”, of “a turning point”, “an Apollo like endeavor to serve society”, “stronger engagement in communication and capacity building”, that is “more true to societal needs in the world”, to “avoid the risk of prophecy so daunting”, that is “not incremental but a step change”.

At scientific forums Rockström is a very serious man in a grey suit and white shirt. A whole conference can go by without a smile. But to get the urgency of the issues across to the public he wore a black shirt and used a beach ball to represent planet Earth. He even fell off the stage to get his message across.

If you only watch one video about what is happening to the planet and its people this is the video to watch.

Planetary Boundaries Presented at TED Global 2010

On June 22, 2010, at UNESCO in Paris, the International Council for Science (ICSU) held a Visioning Open Forum on “Institutional Frameworks for Global Sustainability”. The atmosphere at the forum was somber and the scientists were quiet and intense.

Johan Rockström opened the forum for scientists “to air their views” with a call for scientists “to reform our own structure”.  “We have put ourselves in this position,” he said. “There have been great advances in science. As scientists it is fundamental that we move towards institutional frameworks to support research for a more sustainable world.”’

He spoke of the vision of the “task team”, of “something profound and new”, of an “historic opportunity”, of “a turning point”, “an Apollo like endeavor to serve society”, “stronger engagement in communication and capacity building”, that is “more true to societal needs in the world”, to “avoid the risk of prophecy so daunting”, that is “not incremental but a step change”.

At scientific forums Rockström is a very serious man in a grey suit and white shirt. A whole conference can go by without a smile. But to get the urgency of the issues across to the public he wore a black shirt and used a beach ball to represent planet Earth. He even fell off the stage to get his message across.

If you only watch one video about what is happening to the planet and its people this is the video to watch.

Moyers & Company Show 128: Capitalism’s Sacrifice Zones

Chris Hedges is a courageous man. In a time of political paralysis, when the corporate and financial sectors rule, we must seek leaders with vision and insight in civil society. Hedges is such a leader. “I think that we don’t have a lot of time left, Hedges tells Moyers in this video. “And that for those of us who care about veering off into another course, a course that’s rational and sane and makes possible the perpetuation of not only the human species but the planet itself, we have to take this kind of radical action.”

Moyers & Company Show 128: Capitalism’s ‘Sacrifice Zones’ from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

Video Description (from billmoyers.com)

There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed. Journalist Chris Hedges calls these places “sacrifice zones,” and joins Bill this week on Moyers & Company to explore how areas like Camden, New Jersey; Immokalee, Florida; and parts of West Virginia suffer while the corporations that plundered them thrive.

The broadcast includes images from Hedges’ collaboration with comics artist and journalist Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which is an illustrated account of their travels through America’s sacrifice zones. Kirkus Reviews calls it an “unabashedly polemic, angry manifesto that is certain to open eyes, intensify outrage and incite argument about corporate greed.”

Related links

Chris Hedges, Columnist – Truthdig
Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

Occupy Wall Street


Can Science Save Us? Unpackaging Human Enterprise And Communicating With The Public

Can Science Save us if Science has Outpaced the Governmental Capacity to Respond to What’s Happening to the Planet, or has What’s Happening to Governments Outpaced Science?

This 11-year transdisciplinary study draws on the physical and social sciences and humanities in response to the overwhelming scientific evidence that people are changing the planet.

Based upon the empirical evidence, if we wait for a response from global leaders and policy makers it will be too late. Governments must act. Reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) will require legislation, but this will not be enough to reduce our transgression of planetary boundaries which places humanity at grave risk.

There are also multiple social tipping points that urgently need to be addressed, including global changes in financial regulation. Immediate action must be taken to stop speculative trading in vital commodities such as oil and food which causes extreme volatility in the market. Gambling on the price of food is catastrophic for vulnerable populations, counted in the billions, for whom the rapid rise in the price of food is a matter of life or death. When food prices rise rapidly there are cascading effects, including a rise in social unrest and armed conflict, public health emergencies, the internal displacement of people, and massive migrations, all of which lead to further destruction of ecosystems, accelerating climate change, and diminishing the essential conditions for human life as we know it.

The call from the international scientific community is for scientists to “deliver knowledge”, “build the capacity to deliver solutions”, “effectively deliver end-to-end environmental services”, “to provide new insights and solutions”, “to solve real world problems”, and most recently to deliver “actionable science”.

This begs the question: Can science save us if science has outpaced the governmental capacity to respond to what’s happening to the planet, or has what’s happening to governments outpaced science? It is a version of the question Hannah Arendt first asked, and one of the most prescient questions scientists are attempting to address.

Can we in this time of great danger and uncertainty, undertake global initiatives in response to climate change and ecological destruction of the planet without considering the super complexity of the non-linear, dynamic interrelationships between the global economic crisis, extreme poverty and wealth, armed conflict, and public health emergencies? Is it possible to address any of these interrelated catastrophes without also taking into consideration the great acceleration 
in the industrialization of the planet? Or, to act without recognizing that a rapid increase the number of people from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by the middle of this century will lead to an unprecedented increase in natural and human disasters? Will we adapt? Will human societies be transformed? Or, increasingly become sites of civil unrest and armed conflict?

In response to the uncertainty about the future, many scientists are repositioning themselves, moving from highly specialized, disciplinary research to interdisciplinary research which creates opportunities for researchers to address the complexity of the Earth System changes taking place. Still other scientists are taking a more radical stance and engaging in transdisciplinary scholarship that brings together the physical and social sciences in new and dynamic ways. Now researchers in the physical sciences are re-negotiating their role in society by asking: How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing—and—disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and power?

The question comes from the International Council for Science’s (ICSU) 2010, Grand Challenges document. It is the question that hides behind the question Can science save us?, the Question of Questions, the QoQ that has dogged people long before Montaigne. It is the QoQ that politicians have abysmally failed to answer, and Earth System Scientists are only just beginning to address.

Such enduring questions are not the forte of Cartesian science. Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, the belief that the physical world and man can be rationality understood through mathematical reasoning and formal argumentation,
 leaves little room for strong emotions or for the violent and passionate manifestations of human 
behavior that are constitutive of the QoQ. Ideologies, values, and beliefs defy logic and reason and in a world divided into sovereign nations that are parsed into widely differing political, religious, ethnic and racial groups with disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and access to power.

The QoQ has a long history in the social sciences and humanities, and provides an opportunity for social scientists and scholars to work collaboratively with scientists in the physical sciences. However, for many social scientists, the pressing problems of today leave little time for such questions. But in the midst
 of their struggle to respond to the long term misery and degradation in human societies, massive upheavals and seismic shifts in human populations are taking place which could conceivably be one of many indicators of 
a step change in human history. The fallout from the future is happening now. The ways in which we think, conceptualize knowledge, and live our lives is changing fast, but not in ways that support human life on Earth.

The Self-Destruction of the Apparatuses that the Modern World has been Building up on a Planetary Scale

Will we adapt? Will human societies be transformed? Or will we be annihilated by our destruction of the planet? Has the great human project really failed? Unsettling as it may be, no one knows for sure. Practicing ventriloqy, politicians offer the reassurances of lobbyists and funders, while the public relations firms working for multinational corporations convince us that oil is green in the aftermath of BP, and that nuclear power is good in the aftermath of Fukushima. And in this way we are lulled into believing or wanting to believe that they speak the truth, until Sabu Kohso (2011), who was born in Okayama, Japan, shouts at us and shakes us up:

What has been happening in Japan since 3/11/2011 cannot be deemed merely a situation particular to a nation-state in the Far East, but unfortunately a new phase of human history, an opening toward an apocalypse, or a total transformation or both. It is a universal experience in the sense not only of its economic and environmental impact but also of the self-destruction of the apparatuses that the modern world has been building up on a planetary scale.

Many Earth System scientists agree with Kohso. In 2009, Johan Rockström and twenty eight Earth system scientists, including James Hansen and Will Steffen, identify nine planetary boundaries for human life on Earth. “Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries,” these scientists write, “may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems”. The article is technical but the message is not. Rockström et al. state in the introduction, “We estimate that humanity has already transgressed three planetary boundaries” – 1) Climate Change; 2) Rate of Biodiversity Loss; and 3) Changes to the Global Nitrogen Cycle. They stress, “Planetary boundaries are interdependent, transgressing one may both shift the position of other boundaries or cause them to be transgressed.” They write, “There is significant uncertainty surrounding the duration over which boundaries can be transgressed before causing unacceptable environmental change and before triggering feedbacks that may result in crossing thresholds that drastically reduce the ability to return to safe levels”.

This transdisciplinary study is an attempt to put humans into the Earth system models, as Steffen encourages us to do, rather than positioning them – us – as an “outside force” perturbing the planet. It begins with an “inside” perspective of Earth system science, which is followed by the unpackaging of human enterprise to expose the unearthing of people that has taken place in the last four hundred years. The negative consequences of the protection of “invested interests” and the limited piecemeal and mechanistic responses of governments is examined, and is used to support the proposition that it is the inertia of governments, combined with the aggressive competition of geopolitical markets and the greed of global financial institutions, that provide the tipping elements for a step change for the planet and for humanity.

In Climate Change 2009: Faster Change and More Serious Risks, Will Steffen (2009) writes about “putting humans into Earth system models”. He states, “One of the most challenging research tasks ahead is to couple economic and social dynamics with the biophysical climate system in an interactive way”. For Earth system scientists the incompleteness of science without humanity is a huge dilemma. “At present,” Steffen writes, “human actions are usually represented as an outside force perturbing the “natural” climate system via a greenhouse emission scenario, or climate is simply represented by a damage function related to temperature embedded in a much more complex economic model. Achieving a balance between the human and biophysical components of a global-scale model has proven difficult”.

When people arrive on the scene all complex systems become ambiguous, and models can be thrown off by human activity. Steffen tries to address this when he writes, “In terms of human dynamics, a challenge for future modeling efforts is to capture the complexity of the ways in which societies are responding to climate change and will do so in the future. New approaches aimed at meeting this challenge include massive agent-based modeling, social network theory, game theory, evolutionary psychology and complex systems theory, or some combination of these”.

But all of these approaches are inadequate, and none of the social models have the predictive capability of physical models. Just as in science there are no absolutes, in social life nothing is certain. It is the nature of humanity that where there is order there is disorder, and while many social events can be anticipated and explainable, most are unpredictable. At the present time we are not well prepared for extreme weather events, for global economic instability, for the impact of food and water shortages, for public health emergencies, for industrial disasters, for natural disasters, or for the social and political unrest and armed conflict that is often associated with these extreme conditions.

Without the support and backing of the World Superpowers how “timely” will the “actions” be? What chance will scientists have to provide new insights and solutions to solve real world problems if the research is delivered to the U.S. Congress, but rendered ineffective by the irrational ideological gridlock of fractious partisan politics, and the deep associations of politicians with corporate lobbyists who represent the global financial institutions and multinational corporations that have become immensely rich on the backs of the people and at the expense of the planet?

The unpackaging of human enterprise that has unearthed people will take the efforts of scientists and scholars in the humanities working together to expose the negative consequences of the protection of invested interests by governments, which in turn are compromised by the aggressive competition of geopolitical markets and the greed of the global financial institutions, that provide the tipping elements for a step change for the planet and humanity.

In the spirit of Stephen Toulmin, it is going to take millions of people, of widely differing and disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interest and power, working together in small groups and organizations, to ensure that billions of people do not lose their lives in the struggle to survive.

The ICSU On-Line Global Visioning Consultation Which took Place in August, 2009, and was a Precursor to the ICSU Visioning Open Forum in Paris in 2010.

In Science, July 17, 2009 Walter Reid, Catherine Bréchignac,
and Yuan Tseh Lee write “In the past, a small group of scientists would be charged with determining the most pressing research questions,” they explain. “Now, given the urgent need to confront human-induced global environmental change and the imperative to focus our scientific resources, we need to spread the widest possible net to make sure that the world’s scientists will be addressing the questions that are the most critical”.

1016 scientists from 85 countries registered on the Consultation Visioning site. 323 research questions were posted. An analysis of the questions and responses revealed: Many of the questions are embedded in ways of thinking – highly evolved disciplinary
 metatheories parsed into sub areas of specialization, each with signatures of practice so esoteric that
only those within the sub-specialty can fully understand the significance, with many ways of knowing only actualized in situ through the actual doing of science. Many of the questions address problems about the impact of human enterprise on the planet that require economic and political considerations and input from the public, as well as the social and physical sciences. A few questions address the impact of human-induced change on vulnerable people and communities, but there are very few responses to these questions.

One group of questions calls for changes to take place in the communicative interface between the scientific community, policy makers and the economic drivers of environmental and climate change, but there are few responses and no responses to the four questions that follow.

1. “What are the main constraints to successful Earth System governance and what are our options for addressing these constraints in a timely, effective and accountable manner?” asks Laszlo Pinter, director, Measurement and Assessment Program, IISD, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (Q. 84)

The failure to make adequate, or any progress on Earth system issues such as poverty, ecosystem degradation or greenhouse gas emissions are related to society’s inability to fully grasp the gravity of the situation,” Pinter writes. “We need to understand much more clearly what are the formal and informal barriers and biases in our policy mechanisms, public and private institutions (down to the role and interests of individual decision-maker) that help prolong unsustainable patterns of practices and behaviors.”

2. “How can the perceived imperative in market-economies for continuous open-ended economic growth, be reconciled with the need from a natural science perspective for the collective human impact on the biosphysical Earth system to be stabilized or decreased in order to sustain human well-being indefinitely?” asks Robert Gifford, Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada. (Q. 126)

“The conflict between economic and natural science perspectives addressed by this question is the ultimate driver behind the biosphysical Earth System issues that are of concern and have led to the emergence of the idea of Earth System Science,” Gifford writes. “Unless the conflict between the socio-economic drivers of national and international policy can be reconciled with biophysical (environmental) drivers of policy, solutions to earth system problems at the whole-system level are doomed to failure. It will take a long time for the two world views to become reconciled into a single workable approach. The sooner the ESS starts addressing the issue the better”.

3. “How do we best understand the set of power relations between governments, corporations and civil society in a globalized world that keep us on unsustainable pathways? How do we transform these relations?” asks Kamal Kapadia, Oxford University, Environmental Change Institute (ECI). (Q. 170)

“The key reason why we face so many ecological and human crises is because we are locked into developmental pathways sustained by certain power relations in this world,” Kapadia writes. “It is thus imperative to understand these relations in order to know how to tackle and transform them. Obstacles include diverse and conflicting conceptual models in the social sciences on how best to understand the operation of power in a globalized world. Obstacles also include a serious dearth of funding for such research, and an overwhelming importance given to economics amongst the social sciences which does not address issues of power”.

4. “What changes in policies (global to local) and human behavior will most strongly reduce human pressures on the planet’s life support systems, and how can the scientific community influence their implementation?” asks F. Stuart Chapin, Professor of Ecology, in the Institute of Arctic Biology at University of Alaska Fairbanks, whose research focuses on impacts of high-latitude climate change on ecosystem services and society. (Q. 246)

 “Humanity has perhaps a couple of decades to radically reshape the relationship between society and the biosphere,” Chapin states. “This requires research on human perceptions and motivations as well as communications between scientists and society. Very little global change research is focused on these critical issues which will determine whether more basic research on global change will have any impact at all.”

On June 22, 2010, the International Council for Science (ICSU) held a Visioning Open Forum at UNESCO in Paris

For one day at this Visioning Open Forum, the curtain was drawn back on the workings of Earth system science as researchers from the geo biophysical sciences and a few from the social sciences gathered to talk across paradigms and disciplines about a draft of the Grand Challenges document which frames ICSU’s plans for a new ten year Earth system global sustainability research initiative.

Questions were raised about the problems and limitations of interpretations of complex, dynamic, non-linear phenomena that do not take into consideration the artificial institutional divisions the sciences have constructed between the natural and human world.

Counter narratives emerged that reveal different understandings of Earth system science and of how to care for the planet and sustain life on Earth. No one contested the proposition put forth that while dangerous changes are taking place over time, abrupt changes are most dangerous. Cataclysm and cataclysmic were the descriptors used – ratcheting up the language used to describe the increase in concern for the potential for an unprecedented global disaster.

There was talk of the “urgency” being “so daunting” that there is a critical need for the scientific community to restructure to meet the challenges. “The tremendous message,” as one scientist put it, “is that under the present institutional structures we will not be able to answer in time the research questions that confront us.” “Scale,” “focus,” and “intensity” were used to describe the work that must be done. Scientists spoke of restructuring governmental agencies, funding agencies, research institutions, universities, and schools to respond in this time of global emergency.

Scientists spoke of restructuring governmental agencies, funding agencies, research institutions, universities, and schools to respond in this time of global emergency. What these scientists were talking about was how to achieve a total rethinking on a global scale of the relationships between the ecological and the social – quite literally a repositioning of billions of people on the planet through a scientific revolution that even Thomas Kuhn might have found difficult to imagine.

Scientists agreed, as Will Steffen puts it in Climate Change 2009: Faster change and More Serious Risks, that “One of the most challenging research tasks ahead is to couple economic and social dynamics with the biophysical climate system in an interactive way”, and that “achieving a balance between the human and biophysical components of a global-scale model has proven difficult”.

The ISSC joined ICSU in confronting the dilemma of how to integrate the social, cultural, economic and political dynamics of human existence with geo biophysical global change research. Heide Hackmann, the Secretary-General of the Council, who stated that “the integration of the social sciences and humanities is no longer a choice but a necessity” in framing the global challenges that confront Earth system science. She spoke of “creativity and energy” and of “the urgent need to reach out to the broader social science community”. She argued that it is “not possible to underestimate the significance” of the social sciences and humanities which can “no longer be left in the margins”. She talked of including the social sciences in the “framing process” and of reaching out to the broader communities of the social sciences, “to bring them into full partnership with the natural sciences”, and within this context she spoke of “mobilizing social scientists” of “more deep social science” and “more global observation”.

Descriptors that were frequently used by presenters and participant included: “the co-creation of new knowledge”,
“large knowledge gaps in disciplines and between disciplines”, “the integration of scientific expertise”, “capacity building”, “the bidirectional flow of information”, and “research as a catalyst for cultural change”. Talk focused on “the connections between people doing science and policy makers not working”, “international cooperation”, “creating social movements”, and “deep transformations of societies”.

There was talk of the “importance of reaching out to broader communities”, the “capacity for international collaboration”, and the “use of multiple methodologies”, and of the “lacking of mutual respect”. “We’re all working at the edges of our disciplines,” a participant said, “It’s not an easy place to be”.

The conversation often turned to the inadequacy of communication between scientists and policy makers, and to the ineffectual presentation of the scientific evidence to the general public.
“Communication is central,” a participant said, “communicating science to the media”.

“We need for a clear vision of who the decision makers are,” another participant said. “There’s an urgent need for policy response”.

There was general acknowledgement that the findings of Earth science research will not count for much unless: (1) the communicative practices in the interspace between science and parliamentary and governmental agencies are transformed; and (2) deep transformations in societies are achieved through social and political action.

Click on each of the four Planet Under Pressure images below to download the PDF file.

Can Science Save Us? Poster 1 PDF Can Science Save Us? Poster 2 PDF Can Science Save Us? Poster 3 PDF Can Science Save Us? Poster 4 PDF

Copyright © 2012 Denny Taylor

Can Science Save Us? Integrating The Social Sciences And Humanities In Earth System Science To Address The ICSU/ISSC Grand Challenges

The Planet Under Pressure Requires Institutional Reforms in the Academy

This 11-year transdisciplinary study draws on the physical and social sciences and humanities. The ICSU/ISSC Grand Challenges question has become critical to the study:

How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing—and—disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and power?

In science there are no absolutes and in social life nothing is certain. When people arrive on the scene, where there is order there is disorder, and while many social events can be anticipated and explainable, most are unpredictable.

At the present time we are not well prepared for extreme weather events, for global economic instability, for the impact of food and water shortages, for public health emergencies, for industrial disasters, for natural disasters, or for the social and political unrest and armed conflict that is often associated with these extreme conditions.

The increasing scale and intensity of these complexly interrelated disasters challenges our capacity to adequately respond, either in the aftermath of the events taking place or in the recovery phase of disasters.

Nevertheless it is imperative that we ask the question, and that social scientists and scholars in the humanities work with Earth system scientists to address it. Social scientists and scholars in the humanities cannot stay in the margins of Earth system science, we have to join in.

At the present time social scientists are not even a footnote on the page.

In addition to new collaborative projects it is of critical importance in the vital transdisciplinary configuration that we reflect upon the research we have done and ask how our research findings advance our understandings of people and the planet. “What insights can we share?”

The growing capabilities of Earth system scientists to predict anthropogenic change, provides a nucleus for hope, but only if social scientists and scholars in the humanities find ways to participate in the endeavor.

The institutional reforms advocated by ICSU have the potential to create opportunities for greater understanding of not only the impact of people on Earth system functioning, but also of the impacts on people of the Earth system changes that are taking place. The current organization of research institutions creates, maintains and perpetuates divisions.

At the 2010 Visioning at ICSU in Paris, Johan Rockström spoke of the need for a fundamental change of structure and a stronger engagement in communication and capacity building that is more true to the societal needs in the world. He spoke of “a new effort to serve society,” “new institutional frameworks, “ “greater consolidation,” and “an investment in integrated science.” Scientists at the forum discussed the large knowledge gaps within and between disciplines, and the need for transdisciplinary research was widely agreed upon – although there was also agreement that basic geo and biophysical Earth science research should be both supported and continued without being impeded by any reorganization efforts.

It is imperative that basic research continues, but within broader frameworks that take into consideration transdisciplinary perspectives. The non linear interrelationships between atmospheric and ecosystem stressors and human activity brings into sharp focus the supercomplexity of the relationships between the physical, biological and social sciences. Any global sustainability efforts will be highly dependent on the ability of all those who participate to take into consideration the professional challenges of working with participants who hold different views of science and, quite possibly, of humanity.

Even the suggestion of such systemic institutional change shakes up the academy. It challenges our understandings of the status quo, encourages us to rethink our positionalities within institutions and our relationships with other scientists, and challenges our conceptions of the endeavor we call “science.” Implicit in the conception of transdisciplinary research is the co-production of knowledge.

Transdisciplinary research in Earth system science requires consideration of complementary and contradictory paradigms and metatheories – ideological and theoretical presuppositions – which are philosophically grounded in different views of science with different histories and traditions.

Thus, we will have to reexamination the interconnections between the social, cultural, psychological, biological, and physical sciences, so that new questions can be asked, new understandings gained, and actions taken. To foster collaborative research networks that are truly global in scope transdisciplinary research will require the merger of disciplines and the establishment of research communities which include both physical and social scientists. This will create new conceptual spaces for further scientific thinking beyond the possible perspectives that can be gained from within any single discipline or paradigm.

“We’re all working on the edge of our disciplines,” a scientist said at the 2010 ICSU Visioning Forum in Paris. Earth system scientists work in the margins, in the spaces between disciplines, centrally dislocated, conducting research while coping with metaworries about metatheories. Many researchers in the social sciences are similarly situated. Inevitably, problems arise from working in complementary and contradictory paradigms, where there are concerns about: (1) reductionism and expansionism (2) questions about the super-complexity of research studies (3) worries about systemic risk.

Colleges and universities are not set up to support them – or to support the participation of social scientists in Earth System transdisciplinary researcher endeavors.

Responding to the Planet Under Pressure Creates Profound, New, and Historic Possibilities for Physical and Social Scientists to Work Together

At the 2010 Visioning Paris, Johan Rockström said, “There have been great advances in science. As scientists it is fundamental that we move towards institutional frameworks to support research for a more sustainable world.” A greater difficulty than changing the organizational structures of universities – if that’s possible – is changing the insularity of social and physical scientists’ disciplinary ways of being – seeing and knowing – within the institutions to which they belong.

Rockström talked of “something profound and new” and of an “historic opportunity.” What is profound and new and historic is the possibilities of finding ways for physical and social scientists to work together. But given the inadequacies of social science engagement where do we start? What are social scientists supposed to make of “non-linear social and ecological dynamics, interactions, thresholds and tipping points”? How do scientists in the geobiophysical sciences begin to talk with social scientists about their concerns that will need a very strong emphasis on multiple, multi-layered socio-geographic perspectives?”

The bottom line is that researchers in the physical and social sciences must talk to each other, read each other’s research, and collaborate in research projects so they can imagine science differently – thus expanding the possibilities of transdisciplinary research. But there’s a caveat.

“We see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and they look back on ours through ones of their own,” Clifford Geertz (1984), the renowned Princeton anthropologist writes, in his seminal article on the vituperative attacks on anthropology by other social scientists.

Another difficulty that must be addressed is the disagreements and dissonance within the social sciences. The scientific evidence for the great acceleration is rock solid, but most social scientists remain on the periphery, are not engaged at all, and/or are resistant to any invitation to participate in intellectual activities that stretch them beyond their disciplines, paradigms and favored lines of research, many preferring instead to remain caught up in local squabbles, and lost-in-the- moment contentious arguments.

At the social science conferences there is no mention that what is happening to the planet is outpacing the response. In social science journals there is scant mention that our current path is unsustainable, or that immediate action must be taken to change the global impact of people on Earth System functions. There is no sense of the “urgency” being “so daunting” that the scientific community needs to regroup, reorganize, and restructure to meet the challenge.

Discouraging at best – given we don’t have a century to wait. For social scientists their disciplines are like countries and their scholarly and professional identities are steeped in the ideologies and mythologies of the paradigms to which they belong. But perhaps it is our propensity for argumentation, perhaps it is what we argue about – what it means to be human –that makes the debates so agonistic and antagonistic.

How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing—and—disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and power?

Perhaps, counter-intuitively, the disarray of the social sciences and the cacophony of positions and dispositions actually create opportunities for the QoQ to be addressed.

Before scientists in the physical sciences despair at the ambiguity, indeterminacy and disarray in the social sciences and the cacophony – the noise on the page – the disagreements and dissonance within the social sciences — as well they might– Geertz opens the door to the connections that already exist between the social and physical sciences that provide a way
of thinking about possible collaborations in transidisciplinary science. Once again, Geertz is worth the read: It is, so I think, precisely the determination not to cling to what once worked well enough and got us to where we are and now doesn’t quite work well enough and gets us into recurrent stalemate that makes a science move. As long as there was nothing around much faster than a marathon runner, Aristotle’s physics worked well enough, Stoic paradoxes notwithstanding. So long as technical instrumentation could get us but a short way down and a certain way out from our sense-delivered world, Newton’s mechanics worked well enough, action-at-a-distance perplexities notwithstanding. It was not relativism – Sex, The Dialectic and The Death of God – that did in absolute motion, Euclidean space, and universal causation. It was wayward phenomena, wave packets and orbital leaps, before which they were helpless. Nor was it Relativism-Hermeneutico-Psychedelic Subjectivism that did in (and has to the degree they have done in) the Cartesian cognito, the Whig view of history, and “the moral point of view so sacred to Eliot and Arnold and Emerson.” It was odd actualities – infant betrothals and nonillusionist paintings – that embarrassed their categories (p. 275).

Geertz writes of old triumphs becoming complacencies, and one-time breakthroughs being transformed into road blocks which are shaken up by odd actualities. It is the gut wrenching experience of being there when catastrophic events take place that will draw them into collaborative work with physical scientists.

For the social scientist “being there” makes Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein’s Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity essential reading, but without the research in Steffen and his colleagues’ Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure, there can be little understanding of what’s happening to the planet.

Observations, Models and Epistemic Pluralism in Research on the Planet Under Pressure

In Earth System science an epistemic problem is the inherent dualities of “pure and applied science”. The idea of “basic and applied research” has long been the received orthodoxy, but
 in the quest for new knowledge towards solutions the allocation
 of the social sciences to the “applied side” is problematic. “New Perspectives and research are needed to understand the complex relation between global transformations of social and natural systems,” Biermann and his colleagues (2010) write. “Innovative research is needed also to analyze political options to govern sustainable development – taking into account not only political effectiveness and efficiency but also global and national justice and equity”.

At the 2010 ICSU Visioning in Paris, Rockström emphasized the urgent need for 
“more deep social science on global change and natural science,” and he spoke of
 the critical imperative for “investment in integrated science.” He stressed that global observation is stronger when “all the elements are wrapped up in a more integrated way.”

Rockström spoke of the Grand Challenges and of the “bringing two worlds together” as a “potential 
source for a weakness” inherent in the document – expressed by the participant at the meeting who was
 concerned by the absence of culture in the presentation of the Grand Challenges. He stressed the need for “clarity of defined research priorities” but then acknowledged that the research priorities included “a mixture in terms of research things,” of “action oriented things that aren’t environmental but political” that needed “more clarity in defining.”

When the dynamic complexity of the planet is combined with the dynamic complexity of human life on the planet, even the most advanced Earth System models are questionable. The complex relationships between people and the planet are not static or unidirectional. What we do changes the planet just as it changes us. Both the planet and people are probabilistic 
and not deterministic, nothing is ever “settled”. Thus, in science, even the most dynamic, interactive, non-linear, multimodal models that scientists build are not actual representations of real systems. In the dynamic observational sciences, integral to multiple disciplines, epistemic pluralism opens up possibilities for new models to be developed and new insights to be gained.

Owing more to Vico and Montaigne than to Descartes, within the interpretivistic social sciences, scientific rigor is highly dependent on disciplined, systematic observations. Clifford Geertz, the renowned Princeton anthropologist, called it “thick description”, and such scholarship is a lifetime pursuit for many researchers whose scientific endeavors require close observation of human societies in family, community, institutional, and other organizational settings.

It is in the situatedness of human activity, the embeddness of social practices, how practices are constitutive of socio-semiotic systems, and events are symbolic of particular discourse communities, which many researchers, across the social sciences, endeavor to observe, document, and explain. The caveat is that observing in the physical world is not the same as observing in the social world. The observations of researchers in the physical sciences are qualitatively and quantitatively different than the observations of researchers in the social sciences. Nevertheless, epistemic pluralism expands our understandings of transdisciplinary research, and by so doing changes the possible meanings of the question of questions and our possible responses to it. Once again the QoQ:

How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing—and—disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and power?

Any transdisciplinary response must begin with an examination of the observational data – both physical and social – taking into account the situatedness and the embeddness of the phenomenological, the functional and the physiological (physical and biochemical) in both the natural and social worlds. Deep Science x Deep Science, it’s our only chance to respond to the great acceleration.

Once scientists have collected their observations – whether data from space stations or from human communities – they have to do something with them. In science the construction of models based on observational data has long been integral to the development of new knowledge, predictions, effective decision making, and action.

The supercomplexity of this challenge to the Earth System Science is presented in the ICSU Grand Challenges document by the following sentence: The observation, data preservation and information systems required need to: encompass both natural and social features; be of high enough resolution to detect systematic change; assess vulnerability and resilience; include multiple sources of information (quantitative and narrative data and historical records); provide information about both direct drivers of change and indirect drivers; involve multiple stakeholders in the research process; support effective decisions at global and local scales; be formally part of adaptive decision making processes; provide full and open access to data; and be cost effective.

We know of the great acceleration through the vast wealth of data and the efforts of thousands of scientists and the models they have developed based upon the sheer genius of their observations. But the refinement of modeling capability in Earth System Science is tempered by the dynamic complexity, the epistemic pluralism, of the social world. The QoQ confounds
the modeling process. There is no possibility of algorithmic certainty. Models are vulnerable to too many sociopolitical and socioeconomic kicks. Models can provide useful information – including warnings – but not answers.

“All models are wrong, some are useful,” George Box, the renowned statistician is often quoted as saying. Boé, Hall and Qu (2009), in an article which focuses on the rapidly changing Arctic Climate, quote Box, and write, “We could add that many models – each wrong in a different way – can collectively be useful as a nearly perfect one, as long as observations exist to guide interpretations of their predictions”.

The Humanities are Important to the Development of Models of Non-Linear Dynamics and Thresholds of the Planet Under Pressure

Stories of our mortality run deep in human history – in every culture in every society. Similarly, the human destruction of the planet is a narrative loop that has reoccurred in oral stories and literature through the centuries and millennia.

Paradoxically, before scientists tell us the sky is falling, we already know what is happening to the planet. It’s an old message that our actions can be disastrous and have huge consequences. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, says to Oberon, the King of the Fairies:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge have sucked up from the sea Contagious fogs, which, falling in the land, Hath every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents. The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain, The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard. The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.

Hurricanes, tsunamis, heavy rains causing rivers to burst their banks, drowning livestock, destroying crops, pollution of contagious fogs, with birds growing fat on the diseased carcasses of dead sheep – it’s today’s story, an Earth science narrative that continues inexorably.

The human mortals want their winter here. No night is now with hymn or carol blessed. Therefore the moon, the governess
of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound. And through this distemperature we
 see, The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose, And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world By their increase now knows not which is which And this same progeny of evils comes From out debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original.

In our time, the bewildered (mazèd) world no longer knows the difference between winter (old Hiems’), spring, summer and fall. Weather patterns are more erratic and extreme. All life forms – bees, bats, birds, frogs, and children – have become increasingly susceptible to bacterial, viral, and fungal illnesses, some old and some that have not been known before. Common ailments such as rheumatic diseases flourish as do the illnesses caused by toxic stress that change our body chemistry and disorder cortisol metabolism, creating greater vulnerability in children. And, all progeny of evils originates from us, from human activity, from our enterprise, from our debate, from our dissension, the local gathered into the global, involving people of widely differing and disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests, and power – on a scale so vast it is beyond our capability to comprehend, except in fiction.

A few lines in a Shakespearian play convey the same message as any Earth System heavy tome. Plagues, pestilence, fires and flood, life and death, the struggle against adversity are played out in different ways across the ages. Shakespeare, writing at the time of Vico and Montaigne, reminds us of what we have forgotten, helping us remember, and brings us to the present day and the situatedness of our minds and bodies in the natural world.

In Earth science human experience, philosophy, and literature are intimately connected. In Daughters of the Moon, Italo Calvino (2002) connects them directly:

The road petered out in a hilly area with little valleys, ridges, hills and peaks; it was nor the contours of the land that created the bumpiness, but rather the layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city expelled once it had quickly used it up so it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things, ended up in that unprepossessing neighborhood.

Over the course of many years, piles of battered fridges, yellowing issues of Life magazine, fused light bulbs had accumulated around an enormous junkyard of cars. It was over this jagged, rust territory that the Moon now loomed, and the swatches of beat-up metal swelled up as if lifted by a high tide. They resembled each other: the decrepit Moon and that crust of the Earth that had been soldered into an amalgam of wreckage; the mountains of scrap metal formed a chain that closed in on itself like an amphitheatre, whose shape was precisely that of a volcanic crater or a lunar sea.

In the midst of the things that had been thrown away lived a community of people who had also been thrown away, or marginalized, or had thrown themselves away of their own volition, or had got tired of running all over the city to sell and buy new things that were destined to go out of date immediately: people who had decided that only things that had been thrown away were the real riches of the world.

That morning the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came round every year, one day in November, and had been set up to allow the shops’ customers to display their gratitude towards the god Production who tirelessly satisfied their every desire”.

The rest of the story is worth reading – the moon is reborn but not the Earth, and Calvino imagines the world as if it could be otherwise, without the junk and wreckage of discarded lives “we realize that now is when life begins,” he writes, “and yet it is clear that what we desire shall never be ours”.

Reading The Daughters of the Moon while studying Earth system science changes the story. But it is not only literature that is changed by science, we are changed, and in that changing science changes too – the depth of our understandings, our vision and our insights – lifting the curtain on the dynamic complexities of interrelationships between our social and physical worlds.

Calvino helps us get it. Language is always central to his thinking. “Words,” he writes, “like crystals, have facets and axes of rotation with different properties, and light is refracted differently according to how these crystal-words are orientated”. He writes of the importance of living in a world where science, philosophy and literature constantly challenge each other. “Literature,” he tells us, “breathes philosophy and science but keeps its distance and dissolves, with a slight puff of air, not only theoretical abstractions but also the apparent concreteness of reality”. Calvino writes that he is alluding to “that indefinable region of human imagination” which he, himself, sets free.

Click on each of the four Planet Under Pressure images below to download the PDF file.

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Copyright © 2012 Denny Taylor