Earlier this month, Yale announced that through a generous $100 million gift from FedEx, the University would be starting a new Center for Natural Carbon Capture within the broader Yale Planetary Solutions Project. For many of us who have been brought up in a culture that views corporations as the problem and government regulation as the solution, there can be a knee-jerk skepticism to an exchange of money of this magnitude: Why is FedEx giving away $100 million, and what do they expect in return?
Frankly, I don’t really care what FedEx actually wants. I am really happy that companies like FedEx are committing money of this magnitude to helping solve climate change. At this point, it has to be all hands on deck.
FedEx announced earlier this month that its goal was “to achieve carbon-neutral operations globally by 2040.” Since there is not a clear course to making this goal a reality yet, the company has given a gift to Yale to chart at least one of the “key steps” in this pathway: “FedEx funding will help to establish the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture to support applied research into natural carbon sequestration solutions.”
And so here we are. But is funding an institute focused almost exclusively on technical solutions to climate change a pathway out of a climate catastrophe?
What follows should be understood as a “yes, and,” not a “yes, but.”
Although important, technical efforts like natural carbon capture are not sufficient to solve the problem of climate change. They will never be enough. And in some cases, these solutions present the larger danger of suggesting to a broader public that the problem of climate change can be solved without significant social and cultural shifts.
This is the same thinking that renders the problem of climate change as “there is carbon in the atmosphere,” and thus imagines its solution being “take the carbon out of the atmosphere.” It’s true, the carbon in the atmosphere is an enormous problem. But just focusing on carbon fails to acknowledge the deeper problem of Western culture’s inability to build institutions in a way that seriously considers the well-being of nonhuman life and the well-being of future generations of humans, not to mention many current generations of disempowered humans. Hence the “yes, and.”
If we don’t want to completely exhaust ourselves managing, mitigating and controlling every last symptom of some unknown underlying disease, we need to rethink the way we talk about the problem of climate change, and how we imagine solving it.
I suggest that as we look to solutions, we move beyond technology. In the simplest sense, we need to relocate the deepest roots of the problem of climate change from a problem that is “out there,” in nature, and thus manageable, to a problem that is “in here,” in society, and thus actually solvable. In the words of a former professor of mine, “there are no environmental problems, only human problems.”
So, does the Yale Planetary Solutions Project address climate change in all its complexities? Does the project integrate knowledge from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to understand the multi-layered nature of the problem in order to imagine an integrated set of cultural, institutional and technical solutions? It appears the answer is no.
The Yale Planetary Solutions Project website notes that “Scholars, educators, and practitioners university-wide conduct responsive research in natural sciences and engineering, offer outreach through arts and civic discourse and develop creative economic and social incentives and policies.”
This is a great start, but not yet good enough. The type of knowledge the project includes as relevant is simply the “natural sciences” and its applied arm, “engineering.” This is the hallmark of rendering a problem technical, “out there,” and thus manageable or controllable.
On the Planetary Solutions website, there is mention of neither the social sciences nor the humanities, nor environmental justice. Arts and civic dialogue are relegated to an “outreach” function, and as one would expect, when a problem is defined as simple and technical, the solution space becomes quite constrained.
In this case, the solutions are constrained to social “incentives and policies” that might “mitigate the effects of human-caused ecological disruption” — read: band-aid — and “adapt natural ecosystems” — instead of adapting human society. The problem is out there, in nature, to be controlled.
I want to make clear, I write this from the perspective of someone who wants to see Yale lead the world in addressing the enormously complex problem of climate change. I think in part because of Yale’s world-class programs in art, drama, law, divinity, in addition to our wonderful natural and social sciences, we are better set up to take on the wildly complex nature of climate change than perhaps any other university on the planet.
Bringing out the best in each of these segments of our school will take real leadership, which means those in charge having the intellectual humility to listen to, integrate and use all of the broad forms of knowledge that a university like Yale generates toward a better world.
In the time we spend arguing over whether the humanities are rigorous enough and whether the natural sciences are critical enough, heavy metal piles up in the veins of children in Flint. Addressing the cultural, institutional and technical problem of climate change will require us to overhaul how we design and distribute resources in efforts like the Yale Planetary Solutions Project in a way that is commensurate with the true complexity of the problem at hand.
I’m glad that FedEx gave us so much money. And I hope that as those in charge decide on where that money goes and how it is spent, there is serious consideration of how the project will foreground faculty from the humanities, social sciences and law in order to imagine the societal changes that will be necessary to reshape our culture into a form that takes seriously the well-being and security of all forms of life, present and future.
JESSE CALLAHAN BRYANT is a first year PhD student in Sociology at the School of the Environment. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.