Failure of the universities: The culture gap is now near lethal

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Monday, September 26, 2022

“American collapse is 'hypercollapse,' made of bots and ‘fake news’ and hacked elections, not just demagogues and speeches, which are radicalizing people already left ignorant by failing education institutions and civic norms” (1)A group of concerned climate scientists said in a recent wide-ranging peer-reviewed article: “In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute” (2) . Despite this, the deep, decades-old, and frequently voiced concerns of the scientific community have been generally ignored (3-7). The warnings recently have been accompanied by the confusion and unnecessary deaths in the covid pandemic, the increases in authoritarian rule threatening democracy in the United States and other countries, and the refusal of world leaders to deal with escalating climate disruption or with the presence of vast nuclear arsenals. The latter is now highlighted by Putin’s possibly civilization-ending invasion of Ukraine for which he threatens to trigger a holocaust. All these events show something in common. They have jointly made crystal clear the utter failure of the educational system in the United States and most other rich countries to prepare people for the existential environmental threats that are consequences of the great acceleration – the recent surge in growth and technological capacity of the global human enterprise (8). As a single current example, how many “educated” people understand that the United States has been sinking vast amounts of money into “modernizing” its “nuclear triad” – its weaponry for fighting a nuclear war – thus increasing the odds of such a war, which would cause a terminal environmental collapse (9)?A half century ago, when Joan Diamond was studying education, one of the core questions in the graduate curriculum was whether educational institutions should be designed to reflect the current society or should be vehicles for social change. In the face of ecological overshoot, increasing inequity, threats to democracy and civil rights (as evidenced by the Supreme Court ending Roe v Wade) and signs, we believe, of having lost our moral compass, it seems clear that in too many leading universities the former looks to be what is prevalent now.It appears that most people don’t believe that a principal role of education should be to encourage social evolution to meet changing circumstances. To move schooling into that role there first needs to be discourse to determine what a healthy, sustainable society really needs, discourse that today is rare at best and that needs to be coupled with a clear vision of a compelling future, given the realities of the current human predicament.Culture gapOne main reason for the lack of that discourse may be that the culture gap – the chasm between what each individual knows and the collective information possessed by society as a whole (10-12) – has never been larger and never more dangerous. In the forager societies that were characteristic of the vast majority of human history, almost all adults understood how nearly everything “worked.” When PRE lived with the Inuit in 1952, every adult Inuit knew how komatiks (sleds) and igloos were constructed and seals were hunted, as well as the rest of their culture. Today in western culture none of us come remotely close to straddling the gap. Could you describe the electronics that make a cellphone work or how an automobile is constructed from raw materials? Could most educated people even briefly describe crucial elements whose knowledge might put them on the survival side of the gap? Could they at least have some grasp of ecosystem services, the second law of thermodynamics, exponential growth, how the Nazis took over Germany, nuclear weapons and nuclear winter, or (in the U.S.) how the South “won” the Civil War? Would they be familiar with the biology of race and gender or the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists? Does any aspect of today’s educational system have the goal of seeing that everyone ends up learning about and pursuing throughout life the aspects of culture that would make them understand the foundations of sustainability?It’s important to remember that public education was originally established as an agent of change. It was part of the institutionalization of western societies along with population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and separation of home from workplace. Public education was designed to provide the wage laborers the capitalist system demanded, workers who would be punctual and who could read and calculate for the increasingly industrialized world. It still fills that need. “Schools too often are carefully designed to prepare people for adult work roles, by socializing people to function well (and without complaint) in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation or public office” (13). Public schooling was not designed originally to produce “educated” people per se (14, 15) or as a way of somewhat reducing the already growing culture gap. It was a benefit for the rich rentier capitalists who employed wage earners, whose own children were educated privately, often in religious schools. That pattern of education-for-employment has changed too little today (16), as documented by even most of the wealthy. Flagship institutionsA major reason for that is that flagship educational institutions, colleges and universities pay relatively little attention to newly critical educational needs created by the acceleration. They don’t focus a major part of their efforts or influence on pre-college learning on what adults need to know to function positively in an increasingly complex endangered civilization. This failure is reflected down the school apparatus, which mostly does not begin to prepare children to deal even with those two changing systems in our society of prime personal interest: the legal and medical systems. Nor are most Americans given enough information to understand the nature and impacts of the hierarchical and inequitable structures of modern society and the current trend of steepening the hierarchy (17-20). It is difficult to learn in school how possibly to soften the impacts of inequity in the face of a storm of disinformation concerning those impacts, some both quite subtle and persistent such as the myth that different human groups possess importantly different genetic capabilities (21). The task is made more difficult in some American jurisdictions in 36 states where there are government-imposed legal barriers to passing on pertinent information about race and racism to children (https://bit.ly/3xyo8RN).The process of education itself has become a silo in western civilizations, within which curriculum design and implementation appear to be more important to specialists than content (22, 23). The content element in that silo generally reflects an Aristotelian approach to learning, which originally focused on the teaching of subjects that were thought to improve the intellectual and moral development of individuals (and, with industrialization, prepare them to be obedient wage slaves). It divides what is to be learned into separate “subjects” and at the college level into separate “departments” through which funds, faculty promotions and perks flow.Following AristotleStudents at all pre-college levels are generally expected to be educated, again following Aristotle, in age groups, apparently on the implicit assumption that all 10-year-olds have similar interests and capacities. That can be seen implicitly in education today, which lacking a clear involvement in the social dangers of the great acceleration, diverges from Aristotle and tends to view learning as something that ends with a certification at a certain age: high school diploma, bachelor’s or master’s degree, doctorate, or perhaps some post-doctoral training. A doctorate in biology earned in 1957 (as Paul Ehrlich's was) would be close to useless to society today unless continually updated with learning. Most of today’s biological knowledge would be incomprehensible to Aristotle, should he suddenly reappear. Formal retraining throughout a career does occur in some areas (for instance, aviation, partially in medicine) but currency in a rapidly evolving world depends largely on individual initiative, ability to depart from past topics, and well-developed bullshit detectors (24).The dramatic increase in the potential sources of education in the great acceleration – movies, radio, TV, the web, have been recognized by educators, as has been the need for passing on more kinds of “literacy” (25, 26). Leave it to the flexible Finns to recognize the serious consequences of the rigid “learn your subjects” approach to teaching. Finland is formalizing a new system of teaching: “In Phenomenon Based Learning" (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects” (27, 28). There have been forays into this style of curriculum in the United States, but, none, to our knowledge, that have been adopted by school districts and states as the formal curriculum. There is observational evidence that we have moved in the opposite direction—one designed for standardized testing.Learning falls behindStarting with the need for literacy and numeracy for industrialization, the environmental demand for specific kinds of education has paralleled the great acceleration. But despite heroic efforts in a few areas such as the development of textbooks by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (29, 30), and a long interest in education in mathematics and its history (31) learning has fallen far behind need. There are small colleges and departments that directly tackle these issues but they are not mainstream and are often marginalized. Just think, for instance, of the clear widespread ignorance of simple exponential growth illustrated by discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and of demography in general.Basic questions like what is education, what should be its purpose, and how should it be supported, should be major topics of concern, in colleges and universities as well as elementary and high schools.But we can only touch on the basics here because of the immediate need for help from educational institutions both to close critical parts of the culture gap and to help mobilize civil society to deal with immediate existential threats to civilization. Educators need to provide leadership in explaining those threats in general, and right now because of Vladimir Putin, specifically to educate people to the world-ending possibilities of nuclear war. Indeed one of the most critical parts of the culture gap is the large number of people who, since 1945, remain ignorant of the potential impact of such a war and believe that wars fought with nuclear weapons are “winnable.” This ignorance is partly explicable because of a general failure of schools and public education to inform citizens of the risks leaders have taken, the near misses that civilization has lived through by pure luck, and the now increasing odds of total disaster. But can we attribute the absence today, in the face of much more serious consequences, of the protests and teach-ins that rocked universities during the Vietnam war to that failure of education, or purely to the lack of a draft?Able Archer 83It’s sometimes said that considering nuclear wars is thinking about the unthinkable, but many specialists have spent lots of time doing just that. For instance, military planning for a “protracted” nuclear war in which the U.S. “prevailed” and for which the American nuclear triad should be upgraded was much discussed during the Reagan administration (32, 33) and as a result of the “Able Archer 83” incident.Able Archer 83 was what some consider to have been a “near miss” in 1983 when Russians suspecting the regular NATO Able Archer maneuvers were a cover up for a sneak “first strike” nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet forces began readying for a nuclear response, but the issue never reached Leonid Brezhnev before the Russians determined there was no coming attack. He, like many in the American military hierarchy and unlike some of his subordinates, persisted in the view that a nuclear war would be insane – and impossible to win. If nothing else the Able Archer 83 incident underlines now how the fate of civilization rests precariously on personalities, ideologies, intelligence accuracy, misunderstandings, and many other features of human behavior and human cultures that make the very existence of weapons of mass destruction, nation states, and war itself increasingly problematic (11, 34, 35). But whether a “limited” nuclear war is possible is still discussed, even after the “Proud Prophet” war games long ago showed how unlikely it was to avoid escalation from use of “battlefield” weapons to complete strategic disaster (36-38).After a period of relative quiet on the issue, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has rekindled the debate, with at least on the political side, apparent great ignorance of the issues. The latest Pentagon budget, in which huge amounts of money are transferred to corporate oligarchs for that modernization of the useless and dangerous U.S. triad (9) suggests that such attitudes are alive and well at the higher levels of government in the United States. Vladimir Putin’s statements make it clear they are thriving among some in the Russian leadership as well.Existential threatsEducation systems around the world should be pressing to get people to understand what’s at stake with the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons, and not just because Putin threatens to use them. For example it seems certain that even today there are powerful people in the governments of India and Pakistan who believe nuclear weapon use is at least riskable and perhaps winnable (39), Should India and Pakistan have a nuclear exchange, it also seems likely civilization would perish (40). And behind the now immediate nuclear threat is an array of other existential threats (41), including other weapons of mass destruction, knowledge of which lies on the far side of the culture gap and are not explained even to everyone enrolled in research universities.One can learn important things from the state of those universities. Many of them, for instance, have business schools “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves” (42). Money issues control virtually everything at universities as they do in most “modern” societies. Stanford University’s academic senate gave a great lesson in the need to change the financing of higher education by refusing to divest from the fossil fuel industry because some senators were getting research support from them. The best short summary of what’s wrong with universities we have seen is that they are “too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going.” More or less the same is said here in a more amusing form.There are of course many efforts out there to transform education—especially the work of pioneering individual faculty who would like to change the world even if their institutions remain mired in the 19th century. Stanford led there by establishing its Human Biology Program in 1971 and the Center for Conservation Biology in the Biology Department in 1984. There have been established other well-meaning programs to foster “social transformation” (including efforts to develop “social innovation curricula” in business schools), and some initiatives designed to deal with the fundamentals of the existential threats. But a glance at the literature (e.g., (43-45) suggests changes in higher education even in rich countries are unlikely to be spearheaded by academics. Too many teachers themselves have little grasp of the nature or magnitude of the problems of growth mania, revealed by our species’ history (11). They don’t recognize how short is the time available to have a reasonable chance of solving the problems, or how early in school and public education dramatic changes to teach about them would be necessary. This is unsurprising since the teachers are, obviously, products of the broken system.Prominent buzzwordsMeanwhile mainstream higher education persists in making things worse. Stanford ironically recently created an example of how not to catch up with Finnish middle schools educationally. Recognizing that climate disruption was a major concern and that “sustainability” was becoming a prominent buzzword, a move developed, especially among engineers and geologists, to establish a new School of Sustainability –originally labelled the School of Sustainability and Climate. The idea was, of course, basically to raise money. Academically it was silly from the start, simply because it retained or added more departmental and other anti-intellectual organization to the university, rather than re-examining the institution’s entire structure, its role in a dissolving civilization, and the consequences of its means of support. It’s worth a glimpse at the new school’s current structure which shows both its siloing and the near absence of understanding of the basic issues of sustainability.For instance, the sine qua non of sustainability is humanely and equitably reducing the scale of the human enterprise, both the numbers of people and the average consumption per capita (46-48). As you can see there is not a hint of this in the new school’s structure and there are many hints of ignorance in its announcement. For instance the announcement says the school will “address the planet’s sustainability,” but Earth’s sustainability has never been thought to be even slightly in jeopardy (at least for the next few billion years). The social sciences division of the school will “discover the causes of sustainability challenges, innovate new solutions to these challenges.” Of course the causes are already extremely well known – maybe the school could “innovate an old solution” and get the business school closed down (or at least it could hire writers who know English.) We could go on about things like how much more important humanities (absent from the school) are to sustainability than geophysics, but we’ll spare you. The Doerr school is a monument to what’s wrong with universities as civilization circles the drain, and analyzing its structure would be a valuable learning experience for freshmen wishing to understand how close we are to going down that drain.Civil societyOn the other hand, obviously many non-pedants in civil society are deeply concerned and understand the need to shrink the scale of the human enterprise. Many couples globally are choosing to stop at one child or go childless, steps in rich countries that are are major personal contributions to sustainability (49). And there are many organizations in civil society that “get it” – from ZPG in the old days to Growthbusters, the Post-Carbon Institute, Population Media Center, Global Conservation, and the Global Footprint Network today. And of course there’s the MAHB that probably does more than those other fine NGOs to engage broad civil society. It doesn’t just serve those who already understand the existential threats, but also those who wish to understand them better and develop ways to counter them. The challenge is that scaling up these efforts, understanding the barriers, and converting their message into policy in the face of near boundless ignorance and organized denial, is not easy. But there is a lot of good stuff happening. Not at necessary scale. Too quiet. Sometimes too afraid. But sometimes not.Despite the manifest flaws in education that will need to be corrected if there ever is to be a Civilization 2.0, there are things universities could do now if they ever are awakened from their slumber. Where is the modern day equivalent of the teach-ins of the 70s —now needed on nuclear weapons history and potential impacts of other doomsday weapons, on climate disruption, on the scale of the human enterprise and population imperatives, on the genetic disinformation on race and gender, on the need to modernize the constitution, on extinction and and loss of ecosystem services, on the demographic and biodiversity elements of pandemics, on the financialization of value and the requirement for wealth redistribution, on the ethics of borders and sharing the burdens of refugees, on the roots of human dominance in the evolution of empathy, and on dozens of other topics about which most “educated” Americans are clueless? Where are the classes being canceled or suspended to make time for the development of new education attuned to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced? Where are the university presidents to give intellectual leadership in the worst time of human history, a time when the potential ultimate war is being fought in Europe and for the first time a global civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse? Why are universities not loudly criticizing the media’s “news” focus on political maneuvering, crime, celebrity doings, sporting events, gasoline prices (without mentioning the need to get them higher), and keeping the economic cancer growing while virtually ignoring the existential threats? Where are the students demonstrating as their futures are being mortgaged further each day by unsustainable population growth and over-consumption (48)? How many economics students organize protests over departments not teaching the obvious – that economists who think that population growth can continue indefinitely along with escalating universal wealth and consumption are daydream believers? One answer according to famed anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is that the overall cultural background in which the universities are embedded is inimical to leadership actions (50). In 2009 Sahlins suggested a part of the problem was the popularity of business courses. Could part of today’s more desperate problem be the overwhelming popularity of computer science?Our current education system –right up to the university—is trapped in reflecting society and missing the imperative to change human culture. As such it drives rather than solves the problems facing us, especially as it is so largely financed by politicians, and worse yet corporations and rentier capitalists, and their own sadly mis-educated products (think again economics departments and business schools and add in law schools). And as you can see, this system of support is loaded with pitfalls and contradictions. But we think universities should still speak from the lens of progressive human values and ecological well-being—to try to create the educational base for a strong, sustainable society with more equity, laws that evolve with the acceleration and do not overweight originalism), and near-universal well-being as goals. It is clear to us that getting key parts of the culture gap closed is an essential task for civil society if it aspires to those goals, and thus for a modernized educational apparatus led by universities and perhaps a vastly scaled up MAHB-type civil society to nurture it..References1. Haque U (2018) (Why) American collapse is extraordinary: Or, why America’s melting down faster than anyone believed. Eudaimonia.2. Lenton TM, et al. (2019) Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against. (Nature Publishing Group).3. Union of Concerned Scientists (1993) World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA).4. National Academy of Sciences USA (1993) A Joint Statement by Fifty-eight of the World's Scientific Academies. Population Summit of the World's Scientific Academies, (National Academy Press).5. Ceballos G, Ehrlich AH, & Ehrlich PR (2015) The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD).6. Ripple WJ, et al. (2017) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience 67(12):1026-1028.7. Rees WE (2020) Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase. Ecological Economics 169:106519.8. Steffen W, Broadgate W, Deutsch L, Gaffney O, & Ludwig C (2015) The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the great acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2(1):81-98.9. Kristensen HM, McKinzie M, & Postol TA (2017) How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.10. Ehrlich PR & Ehrlich AH (2010) The culture gap and its needed closures. International Journal of Environmental Studies 67(4):481-492.11. Ehrlich PR & Ehrlich AH (2022) Returning to “Normal”? Evolutionary Roots of the Human Prospect. BioScience 72(8):778=788.12. Ehrlich PR & Ornstein RE (2010) Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future (Rowman & Littlefield, New York, NY).13. Bowles S & Gintis H (2011) Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life (Haymarket Books).14. Katz MB (1976) The origins of public education: A reassessment. History of Education Quarterly 16(4):381-407.15. Carl J (2009) Industrialization and public education: Social cohesion and social stratification. International handbook of comparative education, (Springer), pp 503-518.16. Bills DB (2004) The sociology of education and work (Blackwell Pub.).17. Mayer J (2016) Dark money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (Anchor).18. Stevenson B (2019) Just Mercy (Movie Tie-In Edition): A Story of Justice and Redemption (One World).19. Eberhardt JL (2020) Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do (Penguin Books).20. Snyder T (2021) On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Random House).21. Feldman M & Riskin J (2022) Why biology is not destiny. New York Review.22. Prideaux D (2003) Curriculum design. Bmj 326(7383):268-270.23. Jacobs HH (1989) Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation (ERIC).24. Kluger B (2020) The Medical Bullshit Detector Part I: Untrustworthy Products and Unbelievable Ideas.25. Anstey M & Bull G (2004) The Literacy Labyrinth second edition. Frenchs Forest. New South Wales: Pearson Education Australia.26. Kulju P, et al. (2018) A review of multiliteracies pedagogy in primary classrooms. Language and Literacy 20(2):80-101.27. Silander P (2015) Phenomenon based learning. Retrieved August 1:2018.28. Symeonidis V & Schwarz JF (2016) Phenomenon-based teaching and learning through the pedagogical lenses of phenomenology: The recent curriculum reform in Finland. Forum Oświatowe, (University of Lower Silesia), pp 31–47-31–47.29. Glass B (1962) Renascent biology: A report on the AIBS biological sciences curriculum study. The School Review 70(1):16-43.30. Grobman AB (1984) AIBS News. BioScience:551-557.31. Kilpatrick J (2020) History of research in mathematics education. Encyclopedia of mathematics education:349-354.32. Rogers CR (1982) A psychologist looks at nuclear war: Its threat, its possible prevention. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 22(4):9-20.33. Halloran R (2008) Protracted Nuclear War. Air Force Magazine 91(3):57.34. Mastny V (2009) How Able Was “Able Archer”?: Nuclear Trigger and Intelligence in Perspective. Journal of Cold War Studies 11(1):108-123.35. Scott L (2013) Intelligence and the risk of nuclear war: Able Archer-83 revisited. Intelligence in the Cold War: What Difference did it Make?, (Routledge), pp 15-33.36. Pauly RB (2018) Would US Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and the Sources of Nuclear Restraint. International Security 43(2):151-192.37. Bracken P (2012) The second nuclear age: Strategy, danger, and the new power politics (Macmillan).38. Davis PK & Bennett BW (2022) Nuclear-Use Cases For Contemplating Crisis And Conflict On The Korean Peninsula. Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament:1-26.39. Jayaprakash N (2002) Winnable Nuclear War? Rhetoric and Reality. Economic and Political Weekly:196-198.40. Toon OB, et al. (2019) Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe. Science Advances 5(10):eaay5478.41. Bradshaw CJ, et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers in Conservation Science 1:61549:9.42. Parker M (2018) Shut Down the Business School (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL).43. Kumari R, Kwon K-S, Lee B-H, & Choi K (2019) Co-creation for social innovation in the ecosystem context: The role of higher educational institutions. Sustainability 12(1):307.44. Solís-Espallargas C, Ruiz-Morales J, Limón-Domínguez D, & Valderrama-Hernández R (2019) Sustainability in the university: A study of its presence in curricula, teachers and students of education. Sustainability 11(23):6620.45. Galego D, Soto W, Carrasco G, Amorim M, & Ferreira Dias M (2018) Embedding Social Innovation in Latin America Academic Curriculum. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Higher Education Advances, Valencia, Spain, pp 20-22.46. Ehrlich PR & Ehrlich AH (2013) Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B.47. Rees W (2020) The fractal biology of plague and the future of civilization. The Journal of Population and Sustainability Online 9 December.48. Dasgupta P, Dasgupta A, & Barrett S (2021) Population, Ecological Footprint and the Sustainable Development Goals. Environmental and Resource Economics:1-17.49. Wynes S & Nicholas KA (2017) The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environ Res Lett 12(7):074024.50. Sahlins M (2009) The Teach‐ins: Anti‐war protest in the Old Stoned Age. Anthropology Today 25(1):3-5.Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.Joan Diamond is the Executive Director of Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and of the Crans Foresight Analysis Nexus (FAN).Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

“American collapse is 'hypercollapse,' made of bots and ‘fake news’ and hacked elections, not just demagogues and speeches, which are radicalizing people already left ignorant by failing education institutions and civic norms” (1)A group of concerned climate scientists said in a recent wide-ranging peer-reviewed article: “In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute” (2) . Despite this, the deep, decades-old, and frequently voiced concerns of the scientific community have been generally ignored (3-7). The warnings recently have been accompanied by the confusion and unnecessary deaths in the covid pandemic, the increases in authoritarian rule threatening democracy in the United States and other countries, and the refusal of world leaders to deal with escalating climate disruption or with the presence of vast nuclear arsenals. The latter is now highlighted by Putin’s possibly civilization-ending invasion of Ukraine for which he threatens to trigger a holocaust. All these events show something in common. They have jointly made crystal clear the utter failure of the educational system in the United States and most other rich countries to prepare people for the existential environmental threats that are consequences of the great acceleration – the recent surge in growth and technological capacity of the global human enterprise (8). As a single current example, how many “educated” people understand that the United States has been sinking vast amounts of money into “modernizing” its “nuclear triad” – its weaponry for fighting a nuclear war – thus increasing the odds of such a war, which would cause a terminal environmental collapse (9)?A half century ago, when Joan Diamond was studying education, one of the core questions in the graduate curriculum was whether educational institutions should be designed to reflect the current society or should be vehicles for social change. In the face of ecological overshoot, increasing inequity, threats to democracy and civil rights (as evidenced by the Supreme Court ending Roe v Wade) and signs, we believe, of having lost our moral compass, it seems clear that in too many leading universities the former looks to be what is prevalent now.It appears that most people don’t believe that a principal role of education should be to encourage social evolution to meet changing circumstances. To move schooling into that role there first needs to be discourse to determine what a healthy, sustainable society really needs, discourse that today is rare at best and that needs to be coupled with a clear vision of a compelling future, given the realities of the current human predicament.Culture gapOne main reason for the lack of that discourse may be that the culture gap – the chasm between what each individual knows and the collective information possessed by society as a whole (10-12) – has never been larger and never more dangerous. In the forager societies that were characteristic of the vast majority of human history, almost all adults understood how nearly everything “worked.” When PRE lived with the Inuit in 1952, every adult Inuit knew how komatiks (sleds) and igloos were constructed and seals were hunted, as well as the rest of their culture. Today in western culture none of us come remotely close to straddling the gap. Could you describe the electronics that make a cellphone work or how an automobile is constructed from raw materials? Could most educated people even briefly describe crucial elements whose knowledge might put them on the survival side of the gap? Could they at least have some grasp of ecosystem services, the second law of thermodynamics, exponential growth, how the Nazis took over Germany, nuclear weapons and nuclear winter, or (in the U.S.) how the South “won” the Civil War? Would they be familiar with the biology of race and gender or the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists? Does any aspect of today’s educational system have the goal of seeing that everyone ends up learning about and pursuing throughout life the aspects of culture that would make them understand the foundations of sustainability?It’s important to remember that public education was originally established as an agent of change. It was part of the institutionalization of western societies along with population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and separation of home from workplace. Public education was designed to provide the wage laborers the capitalist system demanded, workers who would be punctual and who could read and calculate for the increasingly industrialized world. It still fills that need. “Schools too often are carefully designed to prepare people for adult work roles, by socializing people to function well (and without complaint) in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation or public office” (13). Public schooling was not designed originally to produce “educated” people per se (14, 15) or as a way of somewhat reducing the already growing culture gap. It was a benefit for the rich rentier capitalists who employed wage earners, whose own children were educated privately, often in religious schools. That pattern of education-for-employment has changed too little today (16), as documented by even most of the wealthy. Flagship institutionsA major reason for that is that flagship educational institutions, colleges and universities pay relatively little attention to newly critical educational needs created by the acceleration. They don’t focus a major part of their efforts or influence on pre-college learning on what adults need to know to function positively in an increasingly complex endangered civilization. This failure is reflected down the school apparatus, which mostly does not begin to prepare children to deal even with those two changing systems in our society of prime personal interest: the legal and medical systems. Nor are most Americans given enough information to understand the nature and impacts of the hierarchical and inequitable structures of modern society and the current trend of steepening the hierarchy (17-20). It is difficult to learn in school how possibly to soften the impacts of inequity in the face of a storm of disinformation concerning those impacts, some both quite subtle and persistent such as the myth that different human groups possess importantly different genetic capabilities (21). The task is made more difficult in some American jurisdictions in 36 states where there are government-imposed legal barriers to passing on pertinent information about race and racism to children (https://bit.ly/3xyo8RN).The process of education itself has become a silo in western civilizations, within which curriculum design and implementation appear to be more important to specialists than content (22, 23). The content element in that silo generally reflects an Aristotelian approach to learning, which originally focused on the teaching of subjects that were thought to improve the intellectual and moral development of individuals (and, with industrialization, prepare them to be obedient wage slaves). It divides what is to be learned into separate “subjects” and at the college level into separate “departments” through which funds, faculty promotions and perks flow.Following AristotleStudents at all pre-college levels are generally expected to be educated, again following Aristotle, in age groups, apparently on the implicit assumption that all 10-year-olds have similar interests and capacities. That can be seen implicitly in education today, which lacking a clear involvement in the social dangers of the great acceleration, diverges from Aristotle and tends to view learning as something that ends with a certification at a certain age: high school diploma, bachelor’s or master’s degree, doctorate, or perhaps some post-doctoral training. A doctorate in biology earned in 1957 (as Paul Ehrlich's was) would be close to useless to society today unless continually updated with learning. Most of today’s biological knowledge would be incomprehensible to Aristotle, should he suddenly reappear. Formal retraining throughout a career does occur in some areas (for instance, aviation, partially in medicine) but currency in a rapidly evolving world depends largely on individual initiative, ability to depart from past topics, and well-developed bullshit detectors (24).The dramatic increase in the potential sources of education in the great acceleration – movies, radio, TV, the web, have been recognized by educators, as has been the need for passing on more kinds of “literacy” (25, 26). Leave it to the flexible Finns to recognize the serious consequences of the rigid “learn your subjects” approach to teaching. Finland is formalizing a new system of teaching: “In Phenomenon Based Learning" (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects” (27, 28). There have been forays into this style of curriculum in the United States, but, none, to our knowledge, that have been adopted by school districts and states as the formal curriculum. There is observational evidence that we have moved in the opposite direction—one designed for standardized testing.Learning falls behindStarting with the need for literacy and numeracy for industrialization, the environmental demand for specific kinds of education has paralleled the great acceleration. But despite heroic efforts in a few areas such as the development of textbooks by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (29, 30), and a long interest in education in mathematics and its history (31) learning has fallen far behind need. There are small colleges and departments that directly tackle these issues but they are not mainstream and are often marginalized. Just think, for instance, of the clear widespread ignorance of simple exponential growth illustrated by discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and of demography in general.Basic questions like what is education, what should be its purpose, and how should it be supported, should be major topics of concern, in colleges and universities as well as elementary and high schools.But we can only touch on the basics here because of the immediate need for help from educational institutions both to close critical parts of the culture gap and to help mobilize civil society to deal with immediate existential threats to civilization. Educators need to provide leadership in explaining those threats in general, and right now because of Vladimir Putin, specifically to educate people to the world-ending possibilities of nuclear war. Indeed one of the most critical parts of the culture gap is the large number of people who, since 1945, remain ignorant of the potential impact of such a war and believe that wars fought with nuclear weapons are “winnable.” This ignorance is partly explicable because of a general failure of schools and public education to inform citizens of the risks leaders have taken, the near misses that civilization has lived through by pure luck, and the now increasing odds of total disaster. But can we attribute the absence today, in the face of much more serious consequences, of the protests and teach-ins that rocked universities during the Vietnam war to that failure of education, or purely to the lack of a draft?Able Archer 83It’s sometimes said that considering nuclear wars is thinking about the unthinkable, but many specialists have spent lots of time doing just that. For instance, military planning for a “protracted” nuclear war in which the U.S. “prevailed” and for which the American nuclear triad should be upgraded was much discussed during the Reagan administration (32, 33) and as a result of the “Able Archer 83” incident.Able Archer 83 was what some consider to have been a “near miss” in 1983 when Russians suspecting the regular NATO Able Archer maneuvers were a cover up for a sneak “first strike” nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet forces began readying for a nuclear response, but the issue never reached Leonid Brezhnev before the Russians determined there was no coming attack. He, like many in the American military hierarchy and unlike some of his subordinates, persisted in the view that a nuclear war would be insane – and impossible to win. If nothing else the Able Archer 83 incident underlines now how the fate of civilization rests precariously on personalities, ideologies, intelligence accuracy, misunderstandings, and many other features of human behavior and human cultures that make the very existence of weapons of mass destruction, nation states, and war itself increasingly problematic (11, 34, 35). But whether a “limited” nuclear war is possible is still discussed, even after the “Proud Prophet” war games long ago showed how unlikely it was to avoid escalation from use of “battlefield” weapons to complete strategic disaster (36-38).After a period of relative quiet on the issue, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has rekindled the debate, with at least on the political side, apparent great ignorance of the issues. The latest Pentagon budget, in which huge amounts of money are transferred to corporate oligarchs for that modernization of the useless and dangerous U.S. triad (9) suggests that such attitudes are alive and well at the higher levels of government in the United States. Vladimir Putin’s statements make it clear they are thriving among some in the Russian leadership as well.Existential threatsEducation systems around the world should be pressing to get people to understand what’s at stake with the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons, and not just because Putin threatens to use them. For example it seems certain that even today there are powerful people in the governments of India and Pakistan who believe nuclear weapon use is at least riskable and perhaps winnable (39), Should India and Pakistan have a nuclear exchange, it also seems likely civilization would perish (40). And behind the now immediate nuclear threat is an array of other existential threats (41), including other weapons of mass destruction, knowledge of which lies on the far side of the culture gap and are not explained even to everyone enrolled in research universities.One can learn important things from the state of those universities. Many of them, for instance, have business schools “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves” (42). Money issues control virtually everything at universities as they do in most “modern” societies. Stanford University’s academic senate gave a great lesson in the need to change the financing of higher education by refusing to divest from the fossil fuel industry because some senators were getting research support from them. The best short summary of what’s wrong with universities we have seen is that they are “too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going.” More or less the same is said here in a more amusing form.There are of course many efforts out there to transform education—especially the work of pioneering individual faculty who would like to change the world even if their institutions remain mired in the 19th century. Stanford led there by establishing its Human Biology Program in 1971 and the Center for Conservation Biology in the Biology Department in 1984. There have been established other well-meaning programs to foster “social transformation” (including efforts to develop “social innovation curricula” in business schools), and some initiatives designed to deal with the fundamentals of the existential threats. But a glance at the literature (e.g., (43-45) suggests changes in higher education even in rich countries are unlikely to be spearheaded by academics. Too many teachers themselves have little grasp of the nature or magnitude of the problems of growth mania, revealed by our species’ history (11). They don’t recognize how short is the time available to have a reasonable chance of solving the problems, or how early in school and public education dramatic changes to teach about them would be necessary. This is unsurprising since the teachers are, obviously, products of the broken system.Prominent buzzwordsMeanwhile mainstream higher education persists in making things worse. Stanford ironically recently created an example of how not to catch up with Finnish middle schools educationally. Recognizing that climate disruption was a major concern and that “sustainability” was becoming a prominent buzzword, a move developed, especially among engineers and geologists, to establish a new School of Sustainability –originally labelled the School of Sustainability and Climate. The idea was, of course, basically to raise money. Academically it was silly from the start, simply because it retained or added more departmental and other anti-intellectual organization to the university, rather than re-examining the institution’s entire structure, its role in a dissolving civilization, and the consequences of its means of support. It’s worth a glimpse at the new school’s current structure which shows both its siloing and the near absence of understanding of the basic issues of sustainability.For instance, the sine qua non of sustainability is humanely and equitably reducing the scale of the human enterprise, both the numbers of people and the average consumption per capita (46-48). As you can see there is not a hint of this in the new school’s structure and there are many hints of ignorance in its announcement. For instance the announcement says the school will “address the planet’s sustainability,” but Earth’s sustainability has never been thought to be even slightly in jeopardy (at least for the next few billion years). The social sciences division of the school will “discover the causes of sustainability challenges, innovate new solutions to these challenges.” Of course the causes are already extremely well known – maybe the school could “innovate an old solution” and get the business school closed down (or at least it could hire writers who know English.) We could go on about things like how much more important humanities (absent from the school) are to sustainability than geophysics, but we’ll spare you. The Doerr school is a monument to what’s wrong with universities as civilization circles the drain, and analyzing its structure would be a valuable learning experience for freshmen wishing to understand how close we are to going down that drain.Civil societyOn the other hand, obviously many non-pedants in civil society are deeply concerned and understand the need to shrink the scale of the human enterprise. Many couples globally are choosing to stop at one child or go childless, steps in rich countries that are are major personal contributions to sustainability (49). And there are many organizations in civil society that “get it” – from ZPG in the old days to Growthbusters, the Post-Carbon Institute, Population Media Center, Global Conservation, and the Global Footprint Network today. And of course there’s the MAHB that probably does more than those other fine NGOs to engage broad civil society. It doesn’t just serve those who already understand the existential threats, but also those who wish to understand them better and develop ways to counter them. The challenge is that scaling up these efforts, understanding the barriers, and converting their message into policy in the face of near boundless ignorance and organized denial, is not easy. But there is a lot of good stuff happening. Not at necessary scale. Too quiet. Sometimes too afraid. But sometimes not.Despite the manifest flaws in education that will need to be corrected if there ever is to be a Civilization 2.0, there are things universities could do now if they ever are awakened from their slumber. Where is the modern day equivalent of the teach-ins of the 70s —now needed on nuclear weapons history and potential impacts of other doomsday weapons, on climate disruption, on the scale of the human enterprise and population imperatives, on the genetic disinformation on race and gender, on the need to modernize the constitution, on extinction and and loss of ecosystem services, on the demographic and biodiversity elements of pandemics, on the financialization of value and the requirement for wealth redistribution, on the ethics of borders and sharing the burdens of refugees, on the roots of human dominance in the evolution of empathy, and on dozens of other topics about which most “educated” Americans are clueless? Where are the classes being canceled or suspended to make time for the development of new education attuned to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced? Where are the university presidents to give intellectual leadership in the worst time of human history, a time when the potential ultimate war is being fought in Europe and for the first time a global civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse? Why are universities not loudly criticizing the media’s “news” focus on political maneuvering, crime, celebrity doings, sporting events, gasoline prices (without mentioning the need to get them higher), and keeping the economic cancer growing while virtually ignoring the existential threats? Where are the students demonstrating as their futures are being mortgaged further each day by unsustainable population growth and over-consumption (48)? How many economics students organize protests over departments not teaching the obvious – that economists who think that population growth can continue indefinitely along with escalating universal wealth and consumption are daydream believers? One answer according to famed anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is that the overall cultural background in which the universities are embedded is inimical to leadership actions (50). In 2009 Sahlins suggested a part of the problem was the popularity of business courses. Could part of today’s more desperate problem be the overwhelming popularity of computer science?Our current education system –right up to the university—is trapped in reflecting society and missing the imperative to change human culture. As such it drives rather than solves the problems facing us, especially as it is so largely financed by politicians, and worse yet corporations and rentier capitalists, and their own sadly mis-educated products (think again economics departments and business schools and add in law schools). And as you can see, this system of support is loaded with pitfalls and contradictions. But we think universities should still speak from the lens of progressive human values and ecological well-being—to try to create the educational base for a strong, sustainable society with more equity, laws that evolve with the acceleration and do not overweight originalism), and near-universal well-being as goals. It is clear to us that getting key parts of the culture gap closed is an essential task for civil society if it aspires to those goals, and thus for a modernized educational apparatus led by universities and perhaps a vastly scaled up MAHB-type civil society to nurture it..References1. Haque U (2018) (Why) American collapse is extraordinary: Or, why America’s melting down faster than anyone believed. Eudaimonia.2. Lenton TM, et al. (2019) Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against. (Nature Publishing Group).3. Union of Concerned Scientists (1993) World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA).4. 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The midterm culture war over plant-based meat

Amanda Northrop/Vox Nebraska’s next governor made his fortune in bacon and racked up pollution complaints along the way. Now he’s turning his sights on alternative meat. Last week, Nebraskans elected Republican businessman Jim Pillen to be the state’s next governor. It’s no surprise he won: Nebraska has picked a Republican in every gubernatorial election since 1998. But what made Pillen’s campaign so peculiar — and alarming to those who care about animal welfare and climate change — is that no other political candidate has campaigned so vehemently against veggie burgers and soy milk. Throughout his campaign, Pillen vowed to “stand up to radicals who want to use red tape and fake meat to put Nebraska out of business,” and promised to work to pass laws that ban plant-based food producers from using words like “meat” and “milk” on their packaging. While Pillen has a financial interest in such a ban — he runs Pillen Family Farms, the nation’s 16th largest pork company — “fake meat,” or more accurately, plant-based meat, currently poses little actual threat to Nebraska’s farmers, as it accounts for just 1.4 percent of US meat retail sales. Plant-based milks like oat milk or almond milk have captured a much bigger share of the dairy aisle — around 16 percent — but the dairy industry says it’s a minor factor in the decline of milk sales. Pillen also has a financial interest in maintaining Nebraska’s hands-off regulatory landscape: His giant hog operations have been trailed by air and water pollution complaints since the 1990s. Pillen’s campaign did not respond to an interview request for this story. The real aim, it seems, of his vitriol toward bean burgers — a tactic increasingly deployed by Republican politicians — is to ensnare plant-based meat into the culture war and further cleave an already divided electorate. Real meat is for real Americans, while the stuff made from plants is touted by “coastal billionaires,” Pillen’s campaign asserted. The same message lit up right-wing media last year when the Daily Mail speculated — with zero evidence — that President Joe Biden’s climate change plan might limit red meat consumption. (What became the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed a year and a half later, didn’t touch meat; ensuring an abundant, cheap meat supply is a goal that still has bipartisan consensus in the US.) The message resurfaced this summer when Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene nonsensically warned that the government was going to surveil and “zap” people who eat cheeseburgers. Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, who served as the White House physician for five years and who won reelection last week along with Greene, tweeted “I will NEVER eat one of those FAKE burgers made in a LAB. Eat too many and you’ll turn into a SOCIALIST DEMOCRAT. Real BEEF for me!!” I will NEVER eat one of those FAKE burgers made in a LAB. Eat too many and you’ll turn into a SOCIALIST DEMOCRAT. Real BEEF for me!!— Ronny Jackson (@RonnyJacksonTX) November 5, 2022 Alarmism over imagined threats to meat consumption is nothing new. In 2012, an internal USDA newsletter about the agency’s sustainability efforts mentioned Meatless Mondays, which prompted pushback from congressional Republicans. But the sparring over meat has escalated in recent years, which is terrible news for the planet. Leading environmental researchers warn that even if we do stop all fossil fuel use, we’re still cooked if we don’t change what we eat. Agriculture accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat, dairy, and eggs making up the bulk of those emissions. And farmers won’t be spared from the effects of a changing climate. Extreme weather events, like droughts, wildfires, and floods, can destroy harvests and kill farmed animals. Rising temperatures and changing ecosystems lower livestock productivity, reduce crop yields, and degrade nutritional quality. Dragging plant-based meat into the culture war could also hurt Nebraska farmers’ bottom line in another way: The state is devoting more acreage to crops that go into plant-based meat. Late last year, the ingredient company Puris, which subcontracts for Beyond Meat, told the Independent it had increased pea production in Nebraska by 81 percent from 2019 to 2021 and expected further growth in the state. (The farmer interviewed also raises cattle and joked that he’s grabbing “both of these markets.”) Nebraska is also a leader in growing beans, a longtime staple of plant-based products. Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs — a Nebraska-based nonprofit that works to improve quality of life for small farmers and rural citizens — said farmers in the state don’t see plant-based meat as a significant threat. “It might be a humorous line in a conversation or a political punchline that gets good laughs and cheers,” he told me. “I don’t hear anybody having serious conversations about it.” Hladik’s family farms corn, soybeans, and cattle, and he raises animals himself that he sells directly to consumers. Grant Schulte/AP Governor-elect Jim Pillen at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on January 18. According to Graham Christensen, a corn and soybean farmer and the head of a renewable energy company in Nebraska, plant-based meat and other issues invoked by Pillen — like state agriculture regulation, the EPA’s clean water rule, and the Biden administration’s conservation programs — are trotted out as boogeymen to distract from problems wrought by large meat producers like the governor-elect. “This is a psychological scheme that has been deployed over and over on good rural Nebraska people and beyond, in order to allow business to go forward as is,” said Christensen, who isn’t a fan of plant-based meat but agrees the US needs to cut back on meat consumption. What most worries farmers and advocates like Hladik and Christensen, more than the rise of plant-based meat, is the rapid consolidation of the meat and feed industries, which has squeezed out smaller farmers, as well as the scourge of air and water pollution across the Midwest that’s been caused largely by industrialized agriculture. Pillen, who has inveighed against “environmental crazies” and “the assault on modern agriculture,” is unlikely to address either. Pillen’s not wrong that what he calls modern agriculture, a euphemism for large-scale, industrialized animal agriculture, is under attack. But in Nebraska, it’s not necessarily from the specter of plant-based meat or the Biden administration, which has largely taken the same hands-off approach to agricultural pollution that Pillen advocates. Rather, it’s often from Nebraskans angry that their state government has known about its water pollution problem for decades and has only allowed it to get worse. “Don’t tell me how to farm” Nebraska is home to around 100 million farmed animals, fattened up with a lot of corn and soybeans. An even bigger proportion of the state’s corn production goes to make ethanol that’s blended with gasoline, which researchers say is an inefficient use of land. Most farmers apply nitrogen-based fertilizers to make the corn and soybeans grow as big and fast as possible, which means they usually need less land to grow more feed than organic farmers — a good thing. But the synthetic fertilizer comes with a steep public health toll: Nitrogen from fertilizer leaks out as nitrate into groundwater, which some 85 percent of Nebraskans rely on for drinking water. Researchers have found that areas with high nitrate levels have higher rates of childhood cancer and birth defects, and high nitrate levels are linked to colorectal cancer and thyroid disease. Rain, as well as water used to irrigate crops, also carries nitrogen off the land and into rivers and streams, which can kill off fish and pollute waterways. The other major source of nitrogen pollution comes from farmed animals themselves. Farmers spread their manure onto crops as a natural fertilizer, but some of it — like the synthetic stuff — leaches into waterways and groundwater. Nati Harnik/AP A farmer applies fertilizer to a field near Gretna, Nebraska. According to a damning recent investigation by the Flatwater Free Press, 59 of Nebraska’s 500 or so public water systems have violated the EPA’s nitrate limit of 10 parts per million since 2010 — a limit some researchers argue is still unsafe for children. There are some practical, win-win solutions that Christensen and Hladik would like to see farmers take up to reduce nitrogen pollution, like planting trees and shrubs between cropland and waterways to prevent nitrate runoff, and cover-cropping — planting certain crops alongside corn and soy that can absorb nitrogen or reduce reliance on fertilizer. Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa, told me the benefits of these practices will be limited because they’re voluntary and most farmers will only employ them if they get subsidies, which come and go. Secchi, Christensen, and Hladik all agree that what’s really needed is regulatory activity and enforcement, such as improving water pollution monitoring and testing, permitting livestock farms so they’re further from homes and schools, fining repeat polluters, and requiring farmers to better manage manure. But given the outsized political influence meat and animal feed producers wield in the state, it’s a lot to hope for, even at the local level. Nebraska has 23 natural resource districts, or NRDs — local governmental bodies made up of elected boards with the goal of improving water quality (among other issues). One elected NRD member, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told me most NRDs are stacked with farmers or others involved in agriculture who resist reform. “I hear this almost every board meeting: ‘Don’t tell me how to farm,’” they told me. The NRDs also have little to no enforcement authority: they can issue cease-and-desist orders that, if violated, can result in fines. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) has more authority, but Hladik said it’s underfunded and understaffed. Even if it had people and money, it would need a mandate from the governor to clean up Nebraska’s wells and waterways. So far, that hasn’t come to pass; neither the NDEE nor any of Nebraska’s 23 NRDs have ever issued a cease-and-desist order or fine for excessive nitrogen fertilizer or manure application, according to the Flatwater Free Press. Meanwhile, cities, towns, and individuals have spent millions to treat water. Water quality will likely worsen in the coming years, as Costco recently set up hundreds of barns and an enormous slaughter complex in the state to raise and process nearly 100 million chickens each year. The Nebraska Association of Resources Districts did not respond to an interview request for this story. NDEE, responding to a request for comment, said in an emailed statement that it is “committed to an integrated approach to nutrient reduction that incorporates science-based and cost-effective targeted management practices” and that it “adheres to state statutory requirements and enacts regulatory authority through the department’s rules and regulations.” Getty Images/iStockphoto/Kelli Jo Piglets on a farm in Nebraska. Pillen, who has been on the receiving end of numerous state and citizen complaints against his business, benefits from Nebraska’s weak regulatory environment. In 1997, he received a complaint from the state over odors from one of his facilities. In 2000, a group of 18 plaintiffs sued over the stench of his hog operations, reporting a “musty hog shit smell” that “chokes you.” One woman said she felt she was a prisoner in her house, while another plaintiff complained that they couldn’t spend any time outside with their children and grandchildren. In 2013, a group of more than 100 people opposed new hog barns Pillen wanted to set up in Butler County, and two years later Pillen was cited for water pollution in another county. “It’s really like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse to elect a guy like that,” said Secchi. The NRD member I spoke to used the same phrase when I asked them what they think of a Pillen governorship, as did a farmer. Pillen and his family have received at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2019, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidies database. We can’t afford to drag meat into the culture war Pillen has entered the political arena during a moment in which agricultural policy is returning to the national political stage; President Biden even mentioned cover crops in his first address to Congress. This is a welcome turn of events. But agriculture is full of counterintuitive trade-offs, and blanket statements made by red-meat conservatives like Pillen, and sometimes by progressive advocates of organic agriculture, only serve to degrade the discourse on a complex, critical issue. With a global population hitting 8 billion people on a heating planet, we need to be able to ask why we’re growing so much corn to produce so much meat — and ethanol — in the first place, without the conversation devolving to pithy campaign slogans. America’s meat consumption, at more than 250 pounds per person per year, is simply unsustainable at current levels. If we raised fewer animals in a more ecologically sound fashion, and opted for more plant-based meat, or occasionally swapped meat for Nebraska-grown beans, we wouldn’t need to grow so much animal feed that pollutes waterways and endangers rural communities. It’d be far easier to manage the mountains of waste generated in the US each year by nearly 10 billion animals that makes rural life increasingly unbearable for some. Less meat doesn’t mean rejecting agriculture, but rather rethinking what we devote precious land to — a rethinking that could also help struggling farmers economically diversify, as Christensen told me. It’s all but guaranteed Pillen would’ve won without his polarizing comments on meat alternatives and his anti-regulatory ethos. But the culture war-ification of meat — intended to shore up rural identity and needlessly divide voters — is something to keep an eye on as the climate footprint of what we eat becomes increasingly impossible to ignore, and essential for policymakers to address.

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