Act: Inspiration

Transforming the University to Confront the Climate Crisis, Part 1

July 23, 2020

A Network Strategy of Providing Transformative Resources to Teacher-Activists of the Climate Crisis

The series

Drawing on my own experiences at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a college professor of radical social change for thirty-one years who has been focused on the climate crisis for the past ten, in this three-part series I explore the crisis of higher education with respect to the most pressing existential challenge of the twenty-first century and propose various approaches, actions, activities, and projects for both classroom teachers and networks of educators.

Part One (re-)introduces the UC-CSU NXTerra Knowledge Action Network and the UCSB-developed nearly carbon neutral conference model, which should be of special interest in the Corona Crisis activist and academic worlds as it is a how-to model of a free, no-budget, highly participative, and permanent kind of conference that explodes the weaknesses of the standard model.

Part Two discusses ways of engaging  high school and college students in designing and implementing systemic alternatives outside the classroom in their own communities, such as in our case, Eco Vista — the 23,000-member student and non-student community of Isla Vista just adjacent to UC Santa Barbara, among others.

The final part of the series will present a vision of new type of university, exemplified in the world-spanning Ecoversities Alliance, and dreamed of in Transition U and Eco Vista U, two prototypes that I am involved in co-creating with students, staff, faculty, and community members in Santa Barbara, California, and in the Transition US movement.

Jean-Pierre Hébert, “Inflationary Bubble”, 1990 (Courtesy Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics)
Jean-Pierre Hébert, “Inflationary Bubble”, 1990 (Courtesy Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics)

Introduction:  Education in the Triple Quadruple Quintuple Sextuple Crisis

Education should consist of a series of enchantments, each raising the individual to a higher level of awareness, understanding and kinship with all living things – Unknown

What is the pedagogy of justice in the current conjuncture where more and more of us recognize the future in the present? – Manuel Callahan 2019

The interlocked triple crisis of capitalist globalization-driven inequality, bought- and paid-for democracies, pervasive cultures of violence – from our most intimate relationships to the militarism of the United States – has for a long time been bound up with the truly wicked fourth of climate chaos.  And now we have the wake-up moment of the coronavirus and the global rebellion for social justice of what might be called the George Floyd uprisings breaking upon these structural, systemic burdens.

So, how do we connect this many dots?  Every movement, organization, systemic alternative, and countless activists, theorists, and intellectuals are asking this as the crisis unfolds.

The time has come to ask new questions of our own as teachers.

Such as, to take a few:

What role does/can higher education – and colleges and universities in particular – play in addressing these crises?

How can we draw on our movements and systemic alternatives in the time of the Corona and George Floyd crises to create a different kind of university, fit for the purpose?

Everywhere, there is evidence that people are rethinking and imagining alternatives to our outmoded educational systems that pride themselves as the cutting edge of modernity (see the chapters on education in the recent volume Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education:  Special Issue on the Anthropocene in the Study of Higher Education (2019), particularly Ullmer and Maxwell).  This re-thinking extends to our moribund traditionally-defined academic “disciplines” (for a look at my own, Sociology, see Foran 2019).  What systemic alternatives might offer an economy that works for all to meet real, basic needs; a new and better kind of politics and learning spaces to enable radical social transformation away from the corporate university constrained in its neoliberal depoliticizing straitjacket; shifts in culture and affect to design the whole ways of non-violent living we desire; the fair, ambitious, and binding global approach to the threat of climate chaos?

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Sooner or later, climate change, of itself, will force systemic and radical social change on states and other elite institutions.  As scholars, activists, and teachers we are compelled to ask in what ways can we assist in the birth of a pluriverse of possible paths for this journey?

This essay hopes to open up and contribute to such conversations by touching on some actual on the ground practices and pedagogies.  My audience is teachers in high schools, secondary education, and college or university settings.

The journey takes us first to a (hopefully) radically useful set of resources for teachers and students, and then to a classroom that is not a classroom, and finally to some visionary alternative universities who are already travelling the path.  Let’s go!

NXTerra:  A Network Strategy of Providing Transformative Resources to Teacher-Activists of the Climate Crisis

“We tried to create an autonomous place, open to learn by doing rather than by studying, as it was suggested by Ivan Illich, as it were a joyful activity of free people.” Gustavo Esteva

NXTerra is the name chosen for an innovative digital platform designed by teachers in the University of California and California State University system that was launched in late 2019.  Its aim is to provide the materials for a “transformative education for climate action” and it offers seventeen “Topics” under the broad categories of the climate crisis, climate justice, and critical sustainability.

Crossing the humanities, social sciences, and “natural” sciences, topics range from climate change and religion to systems thinking, from  climate fiction to climate governance, and from oceans and wildfires to community-engaged research, indigenous leadership, consumerism, and inclusive environmental identities.  Here students and teachers who want to find videos, readings, syllabi, classroom activities, and more can draw freely from the resources we have archived and curated for this purpose.  If, for example, a teacher of climate science wants to consider the importance of movements for climate justice by global youth in order to offer their students an outlet if they want to take action after learning the disturbing facts of our predicament, those materials and links can be found on the site.

Indeed, any teacher’s eyes open to the distress and anxiety that students increasingly feel today who wants to be able to help them work through and with those feelings can find help at the “Climate Emotions” page, put together by Sarah Ray, author of the new book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (2020).

If one teaches sustainability studies, and wants to go beyond the discourse of small “s” sustainability studies that tell us of a renewable energy future sometime around 2050, or even the UN’s more comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals, then they can look for materials under what we call “Critical Sustainability Studies” and topics such as “deep adaptation,” “systemic alternatives,” or “infrastructure:  past, present and future.”

A humanities teacher of language, the arts, or the philosophy of environmental and climate issues can find a primer on the climate science in the “Bending the Curve” page developed by Veerabhadran Ramanthan, professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the world’s great climate scientists who is engaging with the urgency of politics and empowerment of young people inside and beyond the classroom.  Ken Hiltner, a professor of English and Environmental Humanities offers all the materials he has developed for what might be called “Climate Change 101” for advanced high school students and college first-years, including the course website and YouTube channel videos.

My own topics on the site are “Climate Justice Movements” and “Systemic Alternatives,” my two best hopes for confronting the climate crisis.  Both offer learners practical hope and ideas for engagement outside the classroom, as we shall see in the next section. Under the heading of systemic alternatives are materials on Transition Towns, buen vivir, degrowth, and ecosocialism, among others.  And climate justice movements offers an introduction to the massively growing and inspiring global network of movements led by young people, frontline and fenceline communities of color, indigenous peoples, inhabitants of small island states, and the people who are doing the work of climate justice in all of these settings.

These are not just theories about radical transformation or stories about far-away struggles but instead invitations and maps for teachers and students who want to learn and connect with them in the real world.

The Nearly Carbon-neutral Conference is Here

As a final piece, readers should know about the “nearly carbon-neutral conference” model developed over the past five or so years by Professor Ken Hiltner of English and Environmental Humanities.  In this extensive excerpt from the White Paper/Practical Guide he elaborates on how and why academics must consider and amend their habits of flying to conferences [this was before the Corona Crisis, of course, but one fears that we will return to this practice as soon as it seems feasible]:

Traveling by air is a privilege that few share globally. The overwhelming majority of people on the planet will never step foot in an airplane. Only 5% of the world’s population flies annually. Even among Americans, half do not annually fly and just a quarter do so three or more times a year. Unfortunately, academics often find themselves in this last, rarified group because of conference travel….

What’s worse, the traditional conference has more than just environmental shortcomings. The cost of airfare from anywhere in the developing world to anywhere in North America or Europe is often greater than the per capita annual income in these countries. Consequently, scholars from most of the world’s countries, and nearly the entire Hemispheric South, have long been quietly, summarily excluded from international conferences. Even in wealthy countries like the U.S., conference participation is, owing to vagaries in funding, a privilege unequally shared.

What’s to be done? While attending fewer or only local conferences is an option, at UCSB we have been developing and experimenting with an online, nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) approach for conferences. This model was first implemented in May of 2016. A second NCN conference, which featured Bill McKibben as one of its keynote speakers, took place at UCSB in Oct/Nov of 2016.

Even though online activity has its own carbon footprint, crunching the numbers for UCSB’s two pilot conferences revealed that their total GHG emissions were less than 1% of traditional, fly-in events. When asked if this NCN conference approach was successful, 87% of the speakers from the first event responded “yes,” 13% “not sure,” and 0% “no….”

In a nutshell, here is how this NCN approach works:

  1. Speakers record their own talks….
  2. Talks are viewed on the conference website…. Talks are organized into panels (i.e. individual webpages) that generally have three speakers each and a shared Q&A session – just like a traditional conference….
  3. Participants contribute to an online Q&A session. During the time that the conference is open, which is generally two or three weeks, participants can take part in the Q&A sessions for the panels, which are similar to online forums, by posing and responding to written questions and comments. Because comments can be made at any time in any time zone, participants from across the globe can equally take part in the conference….

While this NCN model is just one of many possible, because this approach has advantages that go beyond helping to mitigate climate change, it makes clear that a range of new technologies have opened up exciting possibilities for reimagining the traditional conference:

  1. Without the requirement of travel, scholars can participate from nearly anywhere on the globe….
  2. Similar to open-access journals, the archive created by NCN conferences (both recorded talks and Q&A transcripts) gives nearly anyone anywhere on the globe, as long as Internet access is available, instant and lasting access to all the cutting-edge material introduced at the event. In contrast, traditional conferences are often closed-door affairs open to only a privileged few…
  3. On average, the pilot conferences’ Q&A sessions generated three times more discussion than takes place at a traditional Q&A. A few sessions generated more than ten or fifteen times more, making clear that, while different from a traditional conference, meaningful personal interaction was not only possible, but in certain respects superior.
  4. Because the cost of an NCN conference is considerably less than its traditional counterparts, a range of groups and institutions, such as schools in the developing world currently lacking the significant financial resources required to coordinate international conferences, are now able to do so. Our pilot conferences were cobbled together largely using free, open-source software….
  5. Such events can result in far more efficient use of a conference goer’s time, as one can quickly scan through the text of a talk or a Q&A session for material of interest.

…. given the horrific environmental costs and inherently exclusionary nature of traditional conferences, the time has come to radically rethink this cornerstone practice of our profession. This NCN conference experiment is an attempt to do just that (Hiltner 2020).

I find it humbling and powerful that a simple professor of English has found a solution to what was previously considered nearly impossible (and thus outside the scope of the effort) by the otherwise ambitious Carbon Neutrality Initiative of the University of California, a ten-year project to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the ten campuses of the system to zero by the year 2025.

At UCSB, we have now held a half dozen such conferences, links to which can be found at the end of this essay.

This suggests what we already know:  that humanity’s challenge to confront the climate crisis is not going to be led by governments, university-based climate scientists, corporations, and other market actors, but from the bottom-up, and relying in part on the full spectrum of approaches currently existing in the world’s schools.


Foran, John. 2019.  “Sleepwalking is a Death Sentence for Humanity: Manifesto for a Sociology of the Climate Crisis and of Climate Justice.”  Pp. 105-113 in Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, Priya Kurian, and Debashish Munshi, editors,  Climate Futures:  Re-imagining Global Climate Justice.  London:  Zed Press, 2019.  Also published at:

Gildersleeve, Ryan Evely and Katie Kleinhesselink, editors.  2019.   Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education:  Special Issue on the Anthropocene in the Study of Higher Education 1 (1) (April),

Hiltner, Ken.  2020.  “A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model White Paper/Practical Guide.”

Maxwell, Nicholas.  2019.  “The Scandal of the Irrationality of Academia.”  Pp. 105-128 in Ryan Evely Gildersleeve and Katie Kleinhesselink, editors.  Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education.  Special Issue on the Anthropocene in the Study of Higher Education 1 (1) (April),

Ullmer, Jasmine Brooke.  2019.  “The Anthropocene Is a Question, Not a Strategic Plan.” Pp. 65-84 in Ryan Evely Gildersleeve and Katie Kleinhesselink, editors.  Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education.  Special Issue on the Anthropocene in the Study of Higher Education 1 (1) (April),

Nearly carbon-neutral conferences

Climate Change:  Views from the Humanities
Spring 2016

The World in 2050: Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures
Fall 2016

Building a UC/CSU Climate Knowledge Action Network for Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education and Action|
Spring 2017

Activists, Artists, and Academics:  Building Just Climate Futures Together
Summer 2017

Climate and Environmental Justice
Spring 2018

A Clockwork Green:  Ecomedia in the Athropocene

Summer 2018

Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines
Summer 2019


Teaser photo credit: Jean-Pierre Hébert, “Inflationary Bubble”, 1990 (Courtesy Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) courtesy of the artist

Tags: alternative education, building resilient societies, higher education