We're Screwed!

Michael C. Kalton, University of Washington

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

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  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


This course takes three two-hour classes. It is designed to address the interlocked problems of unwillingness to confront the dimensions of the environmental crisis and the feelings of helplessness and despair that often accompany perceiving the gravity of the situation. The title sums up the latter, an expression of the difficulty of bringing about deep social change and the feeling that we may already have reached the point of no return.

Learning Goals

The first class takes on the question of the gravity of the situation, bringing to bear an evolutionary perspective that suggests the radical contingency of any species, including our own. It introduces a spiritual analysis that addresses such radical contingency, which many of our religious traditions obscure or deny.
"Big Idea": history of five major extinctions


The second class addresses the unpredictable and surprising discontinuities of change in complex natural and social systems as thresholds are crossed or "tipping points" are reached. This explores the dynamic systems processes that underlay systemic transformations.

"Big Idea": thresholds/tipping points
The third class addresses both unpredictability and human responsibility as we move into the future. It introduces ways in which the dynamics of complex systems and their tipping points may be studied and used for socio-eco systemic healing.
"Big Idea": tipping points as leverage
Sensitivity to initial conditions
Adjacent possible

Context for Use

This course segment is designed for courses in Environmental Ethics, but it would also be relevant in a broad spectrum of environmentally related courses in which students confront the critical situation that has made sustainability the issue of our time. We now have powerful material to break through ill-informed blast that is not there. The critical task is to create a space in which hope and engagement can live with eyes wide open to the gravity of the situation.

These classes could also be broken up and used individually in various sorts of courses. The first class, dealing with radical contingency, would have a place in many sorts of contemporary philosophy or religion courses. The second fits well with any course introducing systems/ecosystems, systems dynamics, etc. The third addresses the "what can we do?" plaint that arises whenever a course delves into environmental problems.

At University of Washington, Tacoma, our class format is two hours twice a week. Especially since I have allocated about 30-45 minutes to student group presentations as an important activity/content delivery method, it might be difficult to adapt this to a shorter (e.g. 50 min) class format, though the readings and Web materials might still be useful. This material would typically belong in the middle of a course, after students have seen enough to have some fairly deep questions/concerns, but while there is still opportunity to further develop and utilize the themes that emerge.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This material could fit in religion, philosophy, or environmental science courses, and illustrates the way in which all of these can come together. The first class could easily be sliced off for religion or philosophy courses. The second and third belong to the world of complex adaptive systems, but for humans, that is not really separate from what we do with our spiritual and thoughtful lives.

Description and Teaching Materials

I divide my classes from the beginning into groups of seven to eight students; these groups convene regularly at the beginning of class for small group discussions of the reading material, and they work together on a class presentation. For each of these three classes, I combine an assigned reading for the whole class with a group presentation of 30-40 minutes that introduces a body of material that plays off of or leads into the reading in important ways (this is the students' "group presentation for the quarter, and counts for about 10% of their grade). Students have considerable freedom in their presentations, but I attempt to give the presentation assignment enough definition that I know they will be introducing certain critical ideas that I can clarify and expand upon as needed.

The first of these three classes confronts radical contingency, the proposition being that this is the gateway to grasping what is at stake when we talk about "sustainability." Not that human existence on the planet is necessarily immediately imperiled, but that the possibility that it could be amounts to a fairly routine eco-systemic observation. The assigned class reading is a piece I wrote analyzing and suggesting alternatives to how familiar religious traditions tend to write humans into the very fabric of existence and equate the prospect of our absence with a "meaningless" world: Green Spirituality, http://faculty.washington.edu/mkalton/green%20spir1.htm.

Class will begin with a student group presentation of 40-50 minutes dealing with the history of the five major extinction events in evolutionary history. For preparation I will direct them to begin with a Google search on "anthropogenic and natural extinction," "evolution," and "extinction events." Out of this, I will ask them to be sure to discuss estimates of the natural background versus the anthropogenic rates of extinction, and also the thesis that we are in the midst of "major extinction event number six". Knowledge of extinction events is useful background, but the central idea to emerge from all of this will be that 99 % of species are no longer with us, and none is permanent. With this recognition of radical contingency we can begin to reflect on what we mean by "sustainability."

The second class takes up the social-eco systemic interface and the question of systemic change, especially from the point of view of thresholds or tipping points at which complex systems reorganize fundamental relationships. The class reading will be, "The World as a Polder," Chapter 16 of Jared Diamond's book, Collapse. It is a powerful summary of the complex problems we now confront, with some reasoned hope that we might just be able to meet the challenge. The students will begin class with a group presentation on natural and social thresholds. I will suggest they begin searching the net with "tipping point, nature" and "tipping point, social." In general the nature material is more abundant and meaningful, but the discussion should embrace society as well, since the natural world and society form a single co-evolving system-a fundamental understanding for considering sustainability. Here, if not earlier in the course, an explanation of system dynamics in terms of positive and negative feedback loops will be called for. The big idea here has to do with systemic thresholds and a related understanding of the potential for major and unexpected (except in hindsight) systemic change seemingly disproportionate to causal inputs. Students should come away with an understanding that the mechanistic model of prediction and control is utterly inadequate for understanding social-natural dynamics; it is, in fact, one of the reasons we are dealing with a sustainability crisis.

The third class will mine the understanding of feedback loops and tipping points from a positive direction. The class will be assigned two sections from the Web-based EcoTipping Points Project, which is unique in applying systems analysis to showing the potential to intervene and direct problematic situations in a healing direction. The first section describes how to identify and make positive use of tipping points inherent in social and ecological dynamics: http://www.ecotippingpoints.org/aboutetps.html.

With the third class, I would include an assignment that asks the students to write a two or three page analysis of the intersecting feedback loops of any one of the tipping point examples offered in http://www.ecotippingpoints.org/etpstories.html. They should also include reflection on why/how the tipping point is identified as it is, which they should be able to do by applying the content of the assigned reading.

Another section (not directly assigned, but they'll want to give it a look) gives a number of case histories. I will assign a third section that explicates those cases in terms of complex feedback loops and identifies the point of leverage/intervention:

For this class the student group presentation will be a bit more challenging than the others, so if you can identify an especially promising group, select it for this presentation. The general topic for the group presentation has to do with human agency and how we move into the future. The research for this presentation involves three vectors: first, Stuart Kauffman's (a leading complex systems thinker at the Santa Fe Institute, the epicenter of complex systems work in the U.S) notion of the "adjacent possible," an adjoining space-time pregnant with complex potentials that are shaped by the present but not determined by the present: of manifold possibilities, what turns one into what happens? The "adjacent possible" has proven a very useful concept for countering the kind of causal determinism common to our world view, and it is a help in restoring a feeling of hope and possibility. Kauffman is formidable reading, but a Web reflection on the notion is good enough (maybe better!): http://www.forbeswolfe.com/labels/black%20swan.html.

The second vector will be to ferret out a running debate on agents of tipping in society. Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller, The Tipping Point, introduced "super-influencers," an idea now under serious attack by some systems folk. The debate pries open a space where someone other than Oprah can change the tide: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/01/28/tippingpoint-skeptic.html for starters. The third vector will be a search on "black swan," a term for system-transforming outliers. This material, juxtaposed with the class reading on positive tipping points, should transform the class into hopeful black swans, chastened regarding predict-and-control notions, but heartened for activism by the very indeterminate nature of our situation and the unpredictable magnitude of the consequences of our actions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

These three classes are an interdisciplinary combination of religion, philosophy, psychology, and systems theory (complex adaptive systems, to be precise). Teachers of religion and philosophy with a strong environmental interest are likely to have the relevant systems understanding (feedback loops, thresholds or tipping points,–and some notion of self-organization would add a lot). Wikipedia is a good source, as is http://www.calresco.org/index.htm. Environmental science folks, on the other hand, might have a much more difficult time with the first class and "Green Spirituality," though they would be right at home with the other two classes. Many students wrestling with sustainability need both the religious/philosophical reflection and the systems understanding, and it is rewarding to stretch our comfort zones to encompass both.


The above assignment directly checks for student understanding of the notion of positive and negative feedback loops and tipping points and indirectly involves the understanding and attitudes that were the object of the first two classes.

The small group presentations are a very important part of each of these classes and should count for 10-15% of the grade for the course. I only give a group grade, i.e. all students in a group get the same grade, though a case can be made for a more individualized approach. The presentations can largely be worked up from materials available on the web, but there is potential to deepen the research expected for these assignments.

References and Resources

Class readings:

"Green Spirituality" at http://faculty.washington.edu/mkalton/green%20spir1.htm
"The World as a Polder," ch. 16 of Collapse, by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2005), pp. 486-525.
From EcoTipping Points Project webpage:

Small group presentations:

Web search on "anthropogenic and natural extinction," "evolution," and "extinction events."
Web search on with "tipping point, nature" and "tipping point, social."
On adjacent possible: http://www.forbeswolfe.com/labels/black%20swan.html
On debate re super influencers: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/01/28/tippingpoint-skeptic.html
Web search on "black swan."