— COURSE —
What’s Wrong with the World? How Do We Fix It?
Perspectives and Solutions from the Environmental Humanities and Social Sciences
INT 133B: The Social Sciences
Why is this class important? Because it’s your (our) future we’ll be trying to figure out how to fight for!
This special course opens upon the current crisis of the Earth and humanity, marked by economic insecurity, a lack of faith in political parties, pervasive cultures of violence, and now, the wild card that makes them all much scarier – climate crisis.
But this course is really focused on hope, imagination, and the roles all of us could play in building a far better world in our lifetimes.
Visionary climate justice scholar-activist Naomi Klein has said: “There is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives.” Sociologist Constance Lever-Tracy adds: “We must ultimately aim for a thorough going de-carbonisation, a halt to all emissions, by a complete revolution in the way we produce and live.”
This means we will need to take action to deal with the most pressing problem of the 21st century, the problem of climate change. Importantly, this means moving the world as rapidly as possible toward the most ambitious possible global climate and sustainable consumption goals, contributing to the strongest possible global social justice movement, and through both of these channels helping to bring about the creation of a low-carbon, peaceful, equitable, and deeply democratic future.
A simple working definition of sustainable development might be “a just and ecologically-based society”; the 1987 Brundtland Report – also known as Our Common Future – has given the most famous definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The main focus of this course is to train our sociological and ecological imaginations to co-create the kind of society that might weather the climate maelstrom that is coming and actually come out on the other side (or more realistically in the midst of it as it inexorably deepens) with societies far more suited to human well-being and thriving than the ones we presently have all around the world.
I believe that if we are to pass on a world worth living in to the next generation (that’s you!), this movement against the crises besetting us and for the collective project of climate justice – in the broadest sense of the term – must become the biggest (and most effective) the world has ever seen.
Background and Meaning of What We Are Going to Do Together
A growing international scientific consensus has emerged that there is now only a 50 percent chance that the official United Nations target of limiting the rise in average temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius [about 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit] by the year 2050 would effectively avert irreversible climate change (and recent reports indicate that there is just a five percent chance of actually staying below 1.5 degrees).
In 2012, climate activist and scholar Bill McKibben estimated the cap for maximum atmospheric CO2 [carbon dioxide, which along with methane is the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming] emissions at 565 gigatons as the upper limit for staying at or below a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.
With annual global emissions currently running around 30 gigatons a year, this cap was then roughly equal to a nineteen-year supply – till about 2030 – if “business as usual” trends of economic production and growth continued. The terrifying part is that the estimate of the world’s already proven reserves of fossil fuels exceeds McKibben’s cap by five times.
In other words, the richest corporations in the history of the world would have to forego four-fifths of their future earnings – by some estimates, an astronomical $20 trillion or more. But instead, they are currently spending over $600 billion a year trying to discover new sources of fossil fuels – fracking, tar sands, deep-water drilling, Arctic oil, mountain-top removal – while each year the amount we can afford to burn decreases. To their great dishonor most of the world’s political leaders are actually subsidizing the extraction of fossil fuels to the tune of another $600 billion annually.
Equally distressing, the 2015 international climate treaty known as the “Paris Agreement” is not nearly adequate for the task, since if every one of its non-binding country pledges are met, we are still headed for around three degrees of warming. The dominant parties to the climate negotiations continue to advance positions completely at odds with climate science, thus ignoring the terrible fact that humanity is on a collision course with nature that we cannot win. The words “fossil fuels” do not even appear in the Agreement.
Unfortunately, meanwhile, the 2015 international climate treaty known as he “Paris Agreement” is not nearly adequate for the task, as the dominant parties to the climate negotiations continue to advance positions completely at odds with climate science, thus ignoring the terrible fact that humanity is on a collision course with nature that we cannot win.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or ICPP, is the world’s most distinguished body of climate scientists and others who are mapping the extent of our climate crisis. Their most recent assessment concluded that our only viable option would require massive (unspecified) social transformation. In the words of activist journalist Dahr Jamail:
A landmark UN report released in October  served as an imminent warning that if governments fail to act swiftly and dramatically (and within the next dozen years), droughts, flooding, and increasingly extreme heat waves will increase drastically.
In the Paris Climate Change Agreement, global governments pledged to try to keep warming within a limit of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in order to prevent increasingly catastrophic impacts.
In the recent UN report, experts stated that without urgent and unprecedented changes, meeting the 1.5°C [the upper limit we can safely allow] would be impossible [italics and brackets added by JF].
The good news is that since at least 2007, a promising global climate justice movement has emerged behind the slogan “System change, not climate change!” and is making demands for a socially just, scientifically informed, and legally binding treaty, sometimes called by activists at the negotiations a FAB (fair, ambitious and binding) treaty. Governments who do not want to vote for it, or whose short-term interests and economic elites are not served by signing, will need to be persuaded or forced to do the right thing by their own citizens and Earth citizens everywhere – that is, by us. One major question addressed in this course has been posed by my friend Bill Barnes: “Can we create new, transformative narratives to inspire political movements able to force vigorous engagement with climate change?”
This emphasis on finding new narratives puts us firmly in the domain of the environmental humanities and qualitative social sciences, the perspectives that inform this course. And it is an invitation to you – to all of us – to put our growing knowledge and imaginations to good purpose!
This course is thus about gaining useful knowledge that will enable positive action to secure a better future. This course is for you, about you, and ultimately will be driven by you.
DOWNLOAD THE SYLLABUS as a PDF: What’s Wrong With the World? How do we Fix It? Interdisciplinary Studies 133B. John Foran, UCSB, 2019.
DOWNLOAD THE SYLLABUS as a Word Document: What’s Wrong with the World? How do we Fix It? Interdisciplinary Studies 133B. John Foran, UCSB, 2019.