Writing a Manifesto
with fisherman-poet-teacher Scott T. Starbuck
“ Not everything that is faced can be solved,
but nothing can be solved until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
I started the Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education research project in the halcyon January of 2020. I am nearing the fiftieth post, which means the fiftieth interview, which means that it is time to move into analysis. The blog has been an example of “live field notes” as a research practice. It is scary to think out loud, but reflecting in a shareable way on the research interviews has had many benefits, such as:
• putting timely information out there quickly;
• capturing in depth consideration of each interview before looking for synthesis and patterns;
• noticing other thoughts I was thinking and what I was reading at the time with hyperlinks bookmarking my reading path;
- getting really present to a roller coaster of world events that I never anticipated.
I had the simple idea to talk with faculty about how they integrate climate change information across different academic disciplines, and how this influences their work, mental health, and professional identities. But I had no idea what was coming. My awareness has shifted from the green endeavors of campus sustainability to topics like: ecosystem collapse, near-term social collapse, nuclear war, climate anxiety, eco-fascism, fire, flood, hurricane, inflation, pandemic, genocide, ecocide, suicide, omnicide. It’s Everything Everywhere All and Once and I am deep in the Bagel.
I have been curious for some time now that some of my colleagues could care so much about the climate crisis while others seemed to be tuning it out and leaving it, still, to the environmental studies department that’s been teaching this bad news for thirty years. I used to be concerned that students had misperceptions in their climate literacy, like thinking that global warming was caused by the hole in the ozone layer. But now that seems almost cute. Who cares! It’s all gotten so much more complex. And scary.
But the original questions I was asking are more, not less, relevant: there are one million people just in the U.S. with some kind of faculty position, serving as knowledge brokers for nearly 19 million college students. We are also becoming counselor, social worker, guide and environmental grief doula to the students who end up on our class rosters for whatever course it is we teach. It matters, a lot, what college faculty really know, think, feel, and do about climate change. So of course, I’m not the only one asking this question and trying to understand what the faculty role means in these times.
Meeting Scott Starbuck reminded me how much fun academic conferences like AASHE and ASLE and AESS used to be when they were 3-D (and produced a sick amount of carbon and waste). There is no Zoom equivalent of a cup of coffee going cold in one hand while I’m holding an ugly tote bag in the crick of my elbow and a laptop in my armpit while pushing a wheely-bag with my toe and deciding to skip the next session because this person is just so cool. Because, like, he’s thinking just what I’m thinking and we could really help each other and it’s just so thrilling in such a nerdy way.
My new friend, Scott T. Starbuck, was a commercial fisherman and charter boat captain before becoming a poet and a professor of creative writing at Mesa College in San Diego. He has taught poetry workshops at many colleges including the past three years at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Since 2013 he has authored the Trees, Fish, and Dreams Climateblog.
For a recent sabbatical project, Scott studied climate change curriculum in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia in order to “get a sense of what other professors were doing in their courses.” He kept a log of everything he read for an entire semester — 187 pages documenting 30+ hours a week of study. I wish I had done that, because I have logged some long hours down rabbit holes. His blog is a fast-paced record of a poet/teacher/fisherman witnessing the destruction of Earth’s climate in real-time offering “Updated Best Practices for Climate Crisis”. He has also written an award-winning book of poetry. And a Manifesto on the significance of poetry and the humanities, which ends thus:
Without committed poets, brainwashed and/or distracted millions of the wealthiest, most politically powerful, and otherwise privileged humans are unable to recognize physical reality around them, and conscience and/or spirit-reality inside them. Poet Wallace Stevens wrote,
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
I have always wanted to write a Manifesto! It’s actually an assignment that I’ve used with students. I took it from A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, in which Sarah Jaquette Ray says, “Everybody should write a manifesto, and repeat as needed as your life advances” (77). (I also found that those change agents at Swarthmore learn how to write manifestos!)
After writing his 187+ page research log, Scott is super clear about what needs to happen in higher ed: “of course we have to prepare students for more satisfying work and more money, that’s why they come to the college, but we also have to teach them about water security, food security, and community building.” He also emphasizes the importance of establishing a commitment to nonviolence before embarking on this work with students, who can end up angry and bitter. Following Roger Hallam, he uses the phrase “at current trajectory” frequently, to emphasize that while the climate models (and headlines) tell us what to prepare for, we don’t know exactly what will happen, or how people will react. This is where teachers can still have influence, in the way we react and how we carry the ground truths of climate destruction.
“Many faculty are just so overwhelmed with things going on in their classes that they haven’t really been able to wade through the whole spectrum of response to climate and how serious it is.”
What can colleges and universities be doing to better equip faculty? Scott and I had a lot of resonance on the following four recommendations:
1. Don’t water things down, don’t look away from suffering, don’t bullshit students. He said: “I’m going to bring compassion: here’s the range of what people are suggesting, here’s how we are going to talk about those ideas, and here’s how we are going to integrate them into what we are studying.” Scott quotes a lot of poets and great writers, like the James Baldwin lines at the top of this essay. He recognizes the emotions that will come up in class and that students sometimes break down. “Grieving is a natural process. There’s a place after it but you can’t shortcut it. As a poet, emotion is core, but one said,
“You must be willingly fallible to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.” — William Stafford
2. Provide faculty some time and space (ideally at least one course release, if not an entire sabbatical) to understand the complex scope of climate destruction and impacts to students’ futures. He said, “People need a certain space and time to have authentic communication….At my community college teaching load is five courses, so professors are extremely overwhelmed. They need some kind of retreat where people can be themselves, be in nature, and sit around a fire and talk about what scares them the most about this and what is most helpful. Then they can take THAT into how things are going to look.”
3. Get over yourself, your career, ego, and intellectual territory. Scott said, “There is too much concern about ego and power and territory, which are all completely irrelevant in a crisis….If you are in a boat that’s sinking, none of that matters. It’s more like who’s making the radio call? Who is starting the bilge pumps? But for that kind of teamwork to happen there needs to be trust and honesty and openness and that takes a while. I don’t think our administrators see a place for that.”
As I reflect on Scott’s recommendations, I think about some of the experiences that have contributed the most to my climate awareness and ability to absorb, carry, and share information with others. Climate work requires us to open certain boxes inside ourselves that, in order to function in the world, we pretty much have to keep shut. The pool of worry is so full, and one should not swim in this alone.
In addition to scientific conferences and powerpoints, journal articles and books, I have been deeply affected by experiences such as Animas Valley’s Soulcraft Intensive; The Council on the Uncertain Future; mentoring and council with the Daré Community held for 30 years by Deena Metzger; and by ceremony and sweatlodge, which the writer Stan Rushworth, a Cherokee elder and enrolled citizen of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, told me is called, t a chi na da, “the place of wonders and miracles”.
I don’t talk or write about these things. I consider them “personal work” or part of a private spiritual path. But how can I hold these experiences so separate, when they have meant so much, and helped me to stay the path of this witnessing? I don’t imagine that we would have a sweatlodge on campus, but couldn’t we invite a little bit more of wonders and miracles?
To help them rise to the challenges of this time, we must transform the academic culture and acculturation that faculty live and breathe, sometimes for entire forty-year careers (I’m in year 23, and gasping). Academia can be soul-sucking, but the good parts are worth fighting for.
I want to know more about how we talk on campus about racial justice, climate justice, indigenous knowledge systems, and going beyond the land acknowledgement.
Which brings me Scott’s fourth recommendation: self-care. He said, “I have five climate-themed classes this semester and I couldn’t do the Climate Conversations Zoom calls, or the activist work, or the blog if I didn’t have a place to recharge the soul. Self-care work is so important. Otherwise you burn out, stop, get depressed, get overwhelmed.”
Slowly it dawns on me that self-care means soul-care. How else can “the greatest existential threat to humanity” (as president Biden put it) be met?
Another thing that Scott Starbuck and I have in common (and Stan Rushworth, as well) is teaching in a community college, which is so well suited to meet both intellectual needs and practical skills. The community college is where people will come in a disaster, and it will be where they come to learn how to grow food and protect water and survive heatwaves, work on renewable energy systems and alternative transportation and engineering around sea level rise. It is where they will come to practice, protect and preserve their cultures.
Scott said, “we can’t hope to continue community college and university education as it has been for the last 100 years. it’s going to have to adapt into more meaningful patterns.” As someone who has taught in a wide variety of college environments, he knows that “Community college students tend to be more at risk than university students in a range of situations. For them to have healthy responses to learning about climate change, counseling is going to be an essential part of the process. The role for community colleges will be to protect the emotional, psychological, and financial health of students.
He concluded, “We don’t know what the future holds, but I hope there will be community colleges.”
It’s not surprising that interviewing a poet would inspire a manifesto. Faculty are translating the greatest existential threat to humanity for a generation who are stepping into their adult lives. Poetry, creative writing, and the humanities are as essential as science and engineering. As Scott put it,
“The situation in the world requires the very best that everybody has to offer.”
A Faculty Manifesto
1. Colleges and Universities must shift focus from jobs to water security, food security, and community building, with a commitment to nonviolence. Community colleges, in particular, are well positioned to meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations.
2. Faculty need time and space to connect with each other and understand the scope and complexity of the climate crisis.
3. We are all in this together and need to set down ego and competition to transform academic culture from competition to collaboration.
4. Self-care is soul-care and all forms of renewal are valued. Do what is needed to recharge.
It is inspiring and fun to meet friends like Scott Starbuck who share the curiosity and commitment to teaching shared by all the faculty interviewed here. Scott is retiring at the end of this month, which means more poetry and walks and fish for him, and hopefully some helpful and wise reflections for the rest of us now and then.
Check out Trees, Fish, and Dreams Climateblog by Scott Starbuck