Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world -- and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action. Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.
I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center. We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.
Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams. My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.
Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative. It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good.
I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.” But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.
We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.
The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way. That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself. Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on. Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.