Sustainable Development and Global Environmental Politics

Sustainable Development and Global Environmental Politics


My name is Simon Nicholson. I teach in the School
of International Service at American University,
where I teach and write on global environmental
concerns writ large with a particular focus
on global food challenges and questions about
emerging technologies. Now, this is a course
about the nature of the environmental challenge. We’re going to look at how
we got into this mess– because we really are
in a mess when it comes to environmental
considerations– and what we need
to do to get out. Many courses of
this type quickly get labeled Intro to
Doom 101 or Introduction to the End of the
World because much of the stuff that we’re going to
be dealing with is pretty dark. When you start digging into
the environmental situation, if you’re paying
attention, you’ll notice that things
don’t look too rosy. So I teach the stuff
in part because it’s a great intellectual challenge. As an academic, I get
jazzed up by thinking about big ideas
and big questions. But I also spend time
working on these issues because I firmly believe
with lots of other people that the environmental
challenge is the great challenge of our age. Every generation faces its
own unique set of challenges. In the past, we’ve
had folks who’ve worked to bring about greater
civil rights for certain parts of the human population. We’ve had folks who’ve
worked to transition us to new technological forms
through the Industrial Revolution. We’ve had folks who’ve
been in generations that have had to fight great
wars against fascism and so forth. This particular
moment is really, I think, about making sure that
human activities are ultimately compatible with
ecological realities. If we don’t sort this
out, nothing else matters. There’s a quote from a guy
I know named David Oren. David and I taught a workshop
together some years ago. And during that
workshop, David said something that has stuck with
me and resonated ever since. He said that, “If you consider
the environmental situation and you’re optimistic,
you don’t know enough,” which is pretty profound
and pretty depressing. But he went on to say,
“If you’re pessimistic, then you’re ineffective.” So the great challenge
for us in the face of the environmental
situation is to find the sweet spot between
optimism and pessimism, between being blindly optimistic
and so pessimistic the we drink heavily and just throw
the covers over our heads. That sweet spot is hope. That’s the sweet
spot in the middle. And so one of the themes
that we’ll develop together through the course is how
to respond effectively to the environmental challenge. If you want to
find hope, it comes through more effective action. I’m from New Zealand originally. New Zealand’s a
place that’s known for its environmental action. New Zealand a country about
the size of Japan in land area. Japan has– what, more
than 100 million people? New Zealand has
only four million. And people in New
Zealand live lifestyles very much like those in Japan,
United States, and Western Europe. If everybody in the world lived
like we do in New Zealand, the world would be a mess. And in fact, New Zealand, when
you start digging into it, is a pretty messy place. We project this green
image, but in fact, there are all kinds of problems
that the country faces. Wherever you look, you
find the same dynamic– in rich countries,
environmental devastation that can be transported to
other countries and hidden. In poor countries, ecological
deterioration that’s tied to people living
in desperate poverty. There is so much work to do. So it’s going to be a great
privilege working with you through this course
to unpack the nature of this environmental
challenge and to work out how best to respond. Let’s jump in, shall we?

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