Sustainability Symposium tackles “tipping points” and “global mourning”

On Wednesday, April 19, 2017, a symposium regarding UC Riverside’s contributions to the prevention of environmental degradation was held from 6-8 p.m. in the conference room of the Botanic Gardens. The discussion, entitled, “Renewable Nature,” was led by a cross-disciplinary group of six UCR professors involved in UCR’s Living the Promise campaign, a campus-wide program that seeks to raise $300 million by 2020 in order to bolster the reputation, facilities and student life of UCR.

The symposium began with Interim Provost and Chemistry Professor Cynthia Larive’s introduction of Creative Writing Professor Susan Straight, who proceeded to read an excerpt of “The River in Me,” an essay she had previously published in Orion magazine. The essay examined Straight’s relationship with the Santa Ana River, treating it as a kind of “middle ground between civilization and noncivilization” that could serve to illustrate “why a place should remain wild,” she explained.

After Straight’s reading, Biology Professor Michael Allen approached the podium to introduce the evening’s main point of departure: The “Gaia Hypothesis,” an idea posed in the 1970s by chemist James Lovelock that conceptualized Earth as an integrated, self-sustaining system. The question with which the panelists would chiefly concern themselves, Allen said, was whether the Earth truly did act in such a “self-controlled and self-correcting” way, or whether the planet was instead approaching a “tipping point,” after which global ecological damage would be irreversible.

Following Allen, CNAS Dean Kathryn Uhrich took to the podium to moderate the discussion, and began by asking Microbiology Professor Emma Aronson to present her view of the Gaia Hypothesis. Aronson explained that, while the Earth is at least in part a “self-correcting system,” ecological “tipping points” do seem to exist, though it is difficult for scientists to determine specifically when one has been reached. Professor of Physiological Ecology Louis Santiago concurred, pointing out that an environmental tipping point must be defined before it can be addressed. Such a point, he suggested, would probably be typified by “substantial changes” in carbon dioxide emissions and glacial retreat.

Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy Juliann Allison pointed out that recent substantial changes in the public’s awareness of climate change might serve to counter the effects of environmental destruction. Events like Earth Day marches can be seen as a kind of “crying out” that signals a process of “global mourning” for the planet, she suggested, and such mourning might be the first step toward reparative action.

Uhrich then asked Geoecology Professor Marilyn Fogel about how new technologies might be harnessed to mitigate the harsher aspects of a changing planet. Fogel asserted that scientists need to implement “completely different solutions” to environmental problems, and that such solutions should be pursued with a greater emphasis on engineering, not merely scientific research. Allen agreed, calling for practitioners of every branch of science to play their part in combating climate change.

Uhrich then pointed out that the humanities shared this burden. Straight, a novelist, embraced this point enthusiastically, saying that people must learn how to raise their voices and “tell stories” in new ways. Such changes in narrative, she described, lay behind the Clean Air Act of 1970, a historic law that drastically reduced smog in her native Southern California, and whose genesis Straight traces to a group of concerned mothers in the LA area. “We can see the mountains because of those moms,” she stated.

Subsequently, Straight added, there is also value in the darkness of experiencing environmental destruction. Perhaps, she said, “Admitting a little despair is the place to start.”

After a brief Q-and-A, the symposium ended with an outdoor reception featuring posters of recent UCR science faculty research and paintings by M.F.A. candidate Kellie Flint, whose abstract works are based on NASA satellite images that depict the effects of climate change.

The symposium was the fifth in a series hosted by the Living the Promise campaign. The next and last of the series, entitled, “New Voices and Visions,” will be held on the Monday, May 8, at the Alumni and Visitors Center.

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