Behold the Fractal: a conversation with Matthew Kamakani Lynch, Part 1.

Guest interview in the Teaching Climate Change field notes blog*

Have you ever been in the mountains where there’s a thick fog and you can only see ten feet away? Learning about climate change was like that for me. That fog starts to thin…you can vaguely make out some shapes through it, and then I’m getting this sense that there’s an ominous threat there, and then it starts to peel back more, and I can see, that’s actually not fog that’s smoke! And actually, there’s a massive fire that is burning the next valley over! I can see and hear it, the intensity is building, it’s right there. I can start to sense the impacts and it’s barreling down at me, you know? All of a sudden I’m paying attention, and I’m starting to take action and investigate. I get up to the peak of a hill and when I get to the top of the hill … as I’m cresting that hill I’m beholding this vista of just …. desolation, like the Dragon Smaug has come.

This week I paused my scheduled interview transcription for the Teaching Climate Change field notes blog, in order to resituate the project in relationship to the transformative moment that the United States is in. I’ve been reckoning anew with systemic racism and white supremacy, mass incarceration, and police brutality. I consider myself an ally, and I think I’m fully aware that climate change is a social justice issue. But, I have a renewed understanding, kind of like a fog lifting in the Hobbit metaphor, above. That metaphor was a description of coming to understand the climate crisis, one of the questions I ask in the study. But, it also works to describe the realization I am having today, which Sierra Club blogger Hop Hopkins said most clearly:

“We’ll never stop climate change without ending white supremacy.”

I am committing to further examine my own privilege and to better understand and confront systemic racism in my own spheres of influence in academia. I will listen more, talk less, and find ways to make my actions match my intentions to ally with Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color, especially in academia and in climate activism.

Tangible steps that I can take as an academic include elevating voices of BIPOC faculty in this blog and the associated research study, as well as things that are in my daily work and spheres of influence: reading, writing, making course syllabi, assessments, hiring committees, co-authorship and co-facilitation, influencing professional organizations. I put reading first on this list, because it’s something I do every day (and because, how many revolutions come with such amazing booklists?) #LemonadeSyllabus #PopoloSyllabus. Yes, there is deeper structural work to be done in higher education: access, bias in teaching, assessment, funding, completion, student debt. But today I am also seeing potential for change in the small work of academia. (See#shutdownstem.)

When I feel confused or uncertain about what I am doing in the vast sea of this work, I call up my closest collaborator, Matthew Kamakani Lynch, and we have these epic conversations where we map out the institutional landscape and bring our respective skillsets to bear on the mission and vision of the University. The Hobbit metaphor that I opened with was his description of coming to understand the climate crisis. It’s also not a bad metaphor for our team: a group of assembled specialists, a little bit rag-tag but smart, loyal, committed, determined. Matt is Frodo, and I’m Bilbo Baggins, the trusty curriculum specialist. We have an energy coordinator moving the needle on net zero campuses, a living-lab coordinator who does waste audits and installs water refill stations, an administrative assistant, and a team of interns who do data-tracking. As the university system’s Office of Sustainability, we are indeed on a Quest: to catalyze institutional transformation.

In the years we have worked together, I had never really asked Matt, “how did you come to understand the changes occurring in Earth’s climate?” which is the first question in my interview protocol. Like others I have interviewed, Matt described seeing An Inconvenient Truth at the old Varsity Theatre in Honolulu, which is now an awesome community organization and co-working space. At the time, he was interested in eating organic food, and the film got his attention and helped him see through the fog that he described. The cresting of the hill, in the metaphor, was his reading of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells, and the several months of pretty serious climate-related depression that followed. Matt describes this period:

“I’m cresting that hill reading Wallace-Wells and I’m beholding this vista of just desolation, climate disruption. It’s devastating to me. I’m overwhelmed. It’s crushing. In this metaphor, I collapse under that weight, and then you guys — my team — are there to catch me and make sure I don’t fall off the cliff; you basically help me to come back up and through that process. You know how in a movie someone passes out and they have a dream that is the two hour movie but then they wake up and three minutes have passed in real time? That’s what those months felt like. In that dream state, while you were catching me, there is this, um, almost surreal experience of connecting different experiences I’ve had, connecting different dots, which is an emergent understanding, this bubbling up, this rising of a fractal way of understanding things.”

Here, the Hobbit metaphor, which could become embarrassing, (and who would be Gandalf?) switches to a Matrix metaphor. “When I come to, I actually have this clarity, and through the desolation, I can see what’s actually going on underneath it. It’s like this clarity gives me an enhanced agency, and I can see others who have it.”

What I find interesting about this response is not Neo or Trinity or Agents Smith, but the Matrix itself. In this moment of re-understanding the climate crisis, I’m thinking: what if White Supremacy is the Matrix?.

(Then I found this awesome blog post by Melissa Ballard which unpacks an activist interpretation of the film.) The Black characters of Morpheus and the Oracle seem to be saying, Look at This Again, this reality, this intersection of race and society, climate change, reality, the planet, the future. Reality. And then, look once more, because you still don’t get it.

Since the 1970s, climate education has been primarily the burden, responsibility, purview, and domain of the academic discipline of Environmental Studies and Sciences, usually considered a STEM field. Many of these faculty came of age themselves in the environmental movement at their colleges, majored in sciences in order to contribute and to save the planet. Their science has been inspiring and impeccable, arriving at an irrefutable consensus about the catastrophe that is coming, that is already arriving. They know the desolation that Wallace-Wells describes. But what if this science really is missing a vital factor? ie: Justice. Equality. Reconciliation. Conciliation. Transformation.

I interviewed Matt at ten in the evening, via Zoom with a pink and purple galactic starscape behind him. When I asked him to explain the connections he saw between the protests and rioting following the murder of George Floyd in police custody, he told me a story of long-time. Though I generally try to keep this blog under 1400 words, this one is going to be more like a 12 minute read. But I think it’s a pretty good synthesis of how we ended up at this critical juncture.

“The protests are a response to police brutality and mass incarceration, and under that is a response to 400 years of oppression, which goes back to the origins of slavery which are interlinked with the origins of the U.S. economic system,” Matt began. “The super short version is that the peoples who populated what became the United States had survived over a thousand years of really painful intergenerational separation within themselves, from their own places. There’s a branch of the human family that, a couple thousand years ago, got this idea that they were better than everyone else, or separate, or somehow different or apart, which on the European continent becomes the nobility, oppressing its own people and creating a serfdom, an underclass of peoples that they could control and utilize to consolidate and expand their source of power and influence.” (More about this here.)

A number of events in European history compound this situation, from the ideas of the man Jesus, interpreted by Councils and Popes and followed by the black plague and the Inquisition. A 200-year period of persecution had suddenly stamped out European indigenous identity, largely through the burning, drowning, and torture of millions of women, who were called “witches.” As Lyla June writes in “Reclaiming our Indigenous European Roots” “Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on.”

Matt continues the story, “so the peoples who come to the Americas in search of a better life carried with them this deep intergenerational trauma. You have to be badly damaged to not be able to recognize peoples and places as your family, to see other peoples as different and separate and apart from you.”

The traumatized settlers expand this chasm of separation through economics. “Cotton as a crop begets a whole slave industry which creates a blueprint for the uniquely brutal brand of capitalism that the U.S. has deployed, so a lot of the best practices in business that we carry today have their origins in the slave plantations.” Things like daily quotas at Amazon warehouses, data-driven production and assessment practices. In slavery, the means of production was enforced with physical violence and policing. (More on this here). Which leads into the reasoning to defund or abolish the police, which is really to say, let’s construct a new system for public safety over property protection.

“And so you can see how this separation of self from place and self from others is the root cause of unfettered extractive economic growth, which causes the emissions, which drives the bio-geo-chemical changes in the earth’s atmosphere to create climate disruption.” It’s like mirror-problems, how the separation of self from people and places becomes a climate crisis in one direction and mass incarceration and police brutality in another direction. Healing that root cause of separation may be the most essential piece to climate education.

Another reason I chose to interview Matt at this time is that he is one of the facilitators of our campus Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) initiative, one of 24 such programs at higher education institutions in the U.S.. TRHT is a project of the American Association of Colleges & Universities with the goal to “to prepare the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies and dismantle the belief in the hierarchy of human value.”

Coming around again to the Matrix metaphor, Matt describes the vision of Dr. Gail Christopher, the designer and leader of the initiative. “You know, she actually reminds me of the Oracle, that character” (played by Gloria Foster and later in the trilogy by Mary Alice, the Oracle is an enigmatic computer program which intimates that its true purpose is to “bring balance to the equations of the Matrix”.). According to Matt, Dr. Christopher chose the word Transformation intentionally for the project, instead of Reconciliation (as was done in South Africa, after apartheid) or Conciliation, as Mark Charles, a Native American scholar and independent candidate for president, proposes because there is no acceptable previous state to return to. We are going somewhere new. According to Matt, The vision of TRHT is to envision “what will our world look like when the false notion of a hierarchy of human value has been jettisoned?”

Western science has answered the question about the changes in the earth’s atmosphere. Yet a different question might yield additional information, another angle might unlock a new solution, or even have a butterfly-type of effect. What if racial harmony influenced the energy patterns of bees? What if space-time reality actually runs in a different direction where the future is in the past? Quantum Physics — the mind-bending physics of University departments — tells us that such things are not only possible, but actual. Climate educators need to be talking to physicists, philosophers, and historians about teaching climate change, and collaborating more effectively with BIPOC colleagues, writers, activists, and practitioners, to address the common roots of climate change and systemic racism.

It’s so simple and so complicated at the same time. It comes back to the critical thinking and reductionist methods of western science, and the separation of self and place, self and other, Art and Math, everything and everything else. “You need both!” Matt emphasized, “You need not only the deep dive into separate disciplines but also those who can synthesize it, who can behold the fractal within it.”

Behold the Fractal. Credit: Stefan Keller, Pixabay

In Part 2, sometime soon, we’ll loop back to Matt for a further conversation about fractals and sustainability. Meanwhile, stay away from the Blue pill

Matthew Kamakani Lynch is the Director of Sustainability Initiatives at the University of Hawaii System. Because he is not a faculty member, he is not included in the formal study, so I have chosen to use his real name, with his permission. Follow him at medium.com@mklynch

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