Ecocentricity Blog: Back to School, Hypothetically Speaking

By: John A. Lanier
Sep 8, 2021 10:30 AM ET
Campaign: Ecocentricity Blog

Ecocentricity Blog: Back to School, Hypothetically Speaking

Dangit, do I feel old. Yes, yes, I know that 35 years of age is still pretty young. But I FEEL old. My back hurts, I wake up naturally at 5am some mornings, I just started getting gray hairs at my temples, and I can barely keep up with my kids and their boundless energy.

What really makes me feel old though is thinking back on my formative years and realizing how different things are nowadays. I thought college was just a chapter ago in my life’s storybook, but clearly that isn’t the case. When I was starting college, Facebook was barely a thing, my phone wasn’t smart, our laptops weighed as much as our textbooks, remote learning was practically nonexistent, and the thought of a global pandemic couldn’t have been further from our minds. If I had to go back to college today, I’d be like a fish out of water.

But what if I did have to go back to college today? What would I change? Where would I want to go, and would I study the same things? I am wrestling with this purely hypothetical question not because college has changed since I went to college, but because the world has changed since I went to college.

Back in 2004, environmentalism was generally equated with “being someone who recycles.” Today, environmentalism is broadly understood to include practices like composting, conserving water, buying green alternatives, and modifying one’s diet. Back then, my grandfather was one of very few public voices talking about how corporations globally must take sustainability seriously. Today, sustainability has become mainstream in the business world, and in society generally. Back then, climate deniers were given broad platforms to argue that the earth wasn’t actually on a long-term warming trajectory. Today, most Americans not only know that global warming is happening - they understand that humans are the primary cause of it.

No, I don’t think I would go to the same college or study the same things if I had to start over today. Don’t get me wrong, I love the University of Virginia and value my education in economics, history, and the law. I’m exceedingly lucky that those degrees have allowed me to find my way to the work I do today (and exceedingly lucky to have been born into a family that has given me the passion and opportunity to work in the environmental space).

But if I had to do it all over again, I would want an education that directly prepared me for solving the climate crisis. I would need some basic education in atmospheric sciences, but I wouldn’t want to specialize there. I would want to apply a climate change lens to many different fields, from political science to sociology, from economics to agroecology, from systems thinking to electrical engineering, and from law and to public policy. With all of that as a baseline, I would then want to specialize in the field of carbon accounting. I would become an expert in helping organizations quantify their carbon footprints and then design systems-level solutions to help them reduce it.

Where would I study all of this? Honestly, I don’t know. But I was encouraged to read this Time article on how climate change is reshaping higher education. And I would love to study at a place like Columbia University, which has established a full Climate School. I’d also be drawn to Georgia Tech for the Global Change Program that Dr. Kim Cobb leads, and would be thrilled to participate in the Carbon Reduction Challenge that she and Dr. Beril Toktay run. Honestly though, I’d be happy to settle in with nearly any interdisciplinary program that gave me the freedom to study climate solutions in their many forms.

How about you? I’d genuinely like to know. If you got a college do-over in the present day, or if you never went to college but had the chance now, what would you study and why? Feel free to shoot me a note or leave some answers in the comments below. Cheers y’all!

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Valerie Bennett
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