Whose Air Do You Share? Global Studies for the 21st Century

50 years ago, on June 10, 1963, at the height of the Cold War, in his commencement address at the American University in Washington, DC, titled A Strategy of Peace, President John F. Kennedy reminded us:

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

We breathe about 15 times per minute, which are 15 opportunities to explore what connects us most vitally to the rest of the world (breathing deeply is also a great mindfulness training to cultivate mindful teaching and learning). This is a great definition of global studies and education for the 21st century more generally, which will become increasingly global, complex, interdependent and challenging. The more we globalize education, the better prepared we will be for success and resilience in the 21st century – personally, professionally, and as global citizens.

‘We’ve all probably breathed in one of Einstein’s E = mc2 molecules by now.’

We already know that we are all stardust and each of us inhales about 40 atoms of Cleopatra’s last breath with every breath we take. Now, Joe Hanson breaks down the science of it. (Maria Popova, Explore, April 10, 2013)

David Foster Wallace makes a very similar argument about the real meaning and value of real education, but using fish swimming in water instead of humans breathing the air of the earth’s atmosphere:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” […]

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

‘If fish were scientists, suggests our colleague T. F. H. Allen, the last thing they would discover would be water.’

‘Imagine a deep-sea fish at the bottom of the ocean,’ lectured Sir Oliver. ‘It is surrounded by water; it lives in water; it breathes water. Now, what is the last thing that fish would discover? I am inclined to believe that the last thing the fish would be aware of would be water.’

When you replace ‘water’ in the above quote with ‘air’ and ‘energy’ or with ‘culture’ and many other fundamental components of life on earth, you get a powerful model for global studies: Create paradigms and programs that systematically focus on the greatest challenges of the 21st century, engage in transdisciplinary, cross-cultural and comparative research and analysis, and articulate the most effective responses to those challenges.

This approach reverses the conventional perspective. Instead of explaining how unlikely phenomena become more likely, it shows just how unlikely is what most people seemingly take for granted, in order to make us aware and remind ourselves over and over of ‘what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us’ (David Foster Wallace), in the hope of protecting and conserving what is most important for resilience and well-being in the Anthropocene.

For more on fish, water, and other elements showing just how completely we are in and of this world, read this fabulous book by paleontologist and professor of anatomy, Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3,5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2009). You don’t have to be a postmodernist to realize that we are ‘always already there,’ since in some very important ways ‘we’ have already always been here. Just as we are always already located in time and space and materiality/planetarity and inextricably woven into the fabric of life (short: in nature), so are we always already positioned in culture and language, enmeshed in our beliefs, interests, values and preferences. There is no neutrality in this world. Everything we do and don’t do has consequences whether we know and like it or not. Third culture intellectuals, who systematically integrate the two cultures of the humanities and the sciences, have prepared the ground for global studies in the 21st century.

The classical four elements – earth, water, air, and fire – serve as a good metaphor and model of transdisciplinary and transformative global education structured around ‘problem-focused programs,’ such as ‘a water program’ (Mark Taylor). As they emphasize the materiality and hence the planetarity of our individual and collective lives, they complement and sometimes counter more conventional understandings and practices of globalization and its sometimes excessive emphasis on virtuality.

Nonrenewable and renewable natural resources are necessary for our survival and at the foundation of all of our wealth, income and power. Real wealth and power is derived from the transformation of natural resources through energy and labor into goods, services and capital. Energy is the ‘master resource,’ the resource of resources, as it allows us to transform one material into another. The core challenge of the 21st century, according to a strong and growing scientific consensus, is how to achieve sustainability and resilience in the face of an increasing overshoot of global carrying capacity that depletes resources, degrades ecosystem services, constrains economic activity, and contributes to the escalation of conflicts.

All these global challenges converge into global climate disruption, making it the defining issue of the 21st century. At this point we come full circle as energy depletion and climate disruption are but two sides of the same coin – the global system – with increasingly severe impacts on earth’s energy, atmosphere, water, and soil, i.e. the fossil fuels we burn, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Instead of making the transition from conventional fuels to renewable energy, the global system shifts from conventional to unconventional fuels, accelerating climate disruption and ushering in the ‘third carbon age’ (Michael Klare).

Why should you care about what kind of world you are living in? As US inventor, engineer, and businessman Charles F. Kettering argued,

My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.

As you ponder this question, listen to ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police from 1983, and please note the smoking cigarette at the beginning of this clip:

This entry was posted in Academics, Advocacy, Community, Study Abroad, Transdisciplinary, What We're Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *