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Moving Forward is the Only Option

by |May 26, 2020

This Sunday, the entire front page of the New York Times was filled with the names of a small fraction of the nearly 100,000 Americans already lost to COVID19. As intended, the page brought home the magnitude of the catastrophe. Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, which paradoxically begins by remembering those who have lost their lives to protect this very special nation. For my family, it is a time to open up our small beach bungalow, a block and a half from the ocean in Long Beach, New York. And so, we did that this past weekend, buying beach passes and walking the wonderful 2.2-mile boardwalk. But this was a different type of Memorial Day. One with masks, social distance and a determined effort to find the beauty that always persists on this planet and in the world we have created. On Memorial Day, Long Beach usually has a parade with marching bands, local notables and many local veterans. This year there can be no parade, but flags can be seen all over town.

It is hard to find joy when millions are in pain, out of work and hungry, and with a media filled with endless reports of spreading disease and governmental failure and dysfunction. And yet, every day we awaken and the challenges and work that existed before this pandemic have not magically disappeared. For me, that work is the challenge of global environmental sustainability: climate change, pollution, toxics, waste, loss of biodiversity and ecological destruction. Since I am not an expert in viruses or health policy and management, I trust my colleagues in those fields to address and help resolve the crisis that has us in lockdown. My focus will remain on environmental sustainability policy and management, a field that I have worked in since 1975, and one in which I have helped educate thousands of students who serve as sustainability professionals all over the world. I am in awe of the experts who are addressing the pandemic and of the health care workers who put themselves at risk to save our community. The rest of us have other responsibilities and even in these difficult times, we must live up to them.

Today, I will meet and help orient 45 new students who will begin the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy, a joint program of Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of International and Public Affairs. This will not be the usual orientation. The first year of the program took place at what was then Columbia’s Biosphere 2 Campus, in Oracle Arizona. When Columbia left Arizona one year later, we brought the program back to New York City and today we are welcoming our 19th class. In a typical year, I’d be greeting this class on the 15th floor of Columbia’s International Affairs Building with stunning views of the George Washington Bridge to the northwest, and the Empire State Building to the southeast. Today I am greeting the new class on Zoom, all of us waiting for the time when we can see the lights of this great city together, in real space rather than cyberspace. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York, and as this video from our recent virtual commencement indicates, our physical location is a key part of our identity.

But we will use technology to communicate and get to know each other and today start our journey together, despite the obstacles in our path. And as important as “place” is, people are more important. In the final analysis, Columbia, and all schools, are communities of teachers and students. Buildings and facilities are important, but who we are is more important than where we are. The students have already sent us video introductions describing what brought them to our school and their goals for their intensive year of study. I was deeply moved by their sense of mission, determination and hope for the future. They are our hope and the basis for my belief that with creativity, ingenuity and hard work, we can overcome the crisis of environmental sustainability.

Our program is unique because it requires environmental policy students to complete a full summer of environmental science courses designed and taught by some of the Earth Institute’s top environmental scientists. These courses are not designed for future scientists, but for future sustainability professionals: for policy analysts and managers. They include carefully crafted courses in environmental chemistry, hydrology, climatology, ecology and toxicology. The goal is that our graduates will serve as translators between environmental scientists and decision-makers of limited scientific literacy. In recent months, we have witnessed in real-time the price of scientific illiteracy in a complex high-tech global economy.

Over the past several months, our faculty have been redesigning their courses to be taught online and to students located in many places. For the time being, field trips to study ecology, sewage treatment plants and toxic waste sites must be replaced by experiences in cyberspace. Group work, a central feature of our program, will take place in Zoom breakout rooms, and while I assume happy hours without the faculty will still take place, they may be a little less happy.

I am grateful for the technology that enables our teaching and learning to continue, even as I lament its necessity. The dedication and persistence of our faculty and these new students inspire me and push me to work harder to ensure their success. We are slowly adjusting to the presence of this pandemic and along with the institutions we work for and the jurisdictions we work within, struggling to understand the risks we face and then deciding how to act in response to those risks. Until medical technology comes to our rescue, our way of life will continue to be radically different. The effort to politicize the response to the pandemic is disgusting and largely irrelevant. Individuals, families and communities will make their own decisions on these issues. As parents, my wife and I decided the age at which our daughters could cross the street, ride the bus or ride the subway on their own. Government can regulate and influence our behavior, but ultimately, we need to determine our tolerance for risk and weigh the costs and benefits.

As an educator and a manager, I know the advantages, indeed the necessity, of face-to-face contact. But over the past hundred days, I’ve learned how to teach classes and manage an organization without those advantages. I hope that most of the class that starts today will be together here in New York before the year ends. I hope that this spring, we will welcome back to campus the students who just graduated and toast their achievements. If a competent system of testing, tracing and isolation is established, our ability to gather in person will increase dramatically. Our government’s response to this pandemic has been incompetent. While it has been least competent at the federal level, no American government will win any awards here. That is not unusual in America — it takes a while to frame an active response to a crisis. Totalitarianism was on the march for years during the 1930s, but it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor to awaken us to the threat. One would think that 100,000 deaths in a hundred days would do it and perhaps it has. Polling data indicates that the public is far more cautious about engaging in public than some elected officials seem to be.

Memorial Day has passed, but we will be seeing many more memorials in the coming days. Someday, some of us will be here and will look back on this period and hopefully remember the lessons of 2020 and do better when the next virus hits. In the meantime, in cyberspace and hopefully soon in small face-to-face groups, we will continue our lives and our work. The crisis of environmental sustainability persists and moving forward to address that crisis is our only option.

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