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Sterling College Offers a Virtual Course on Surviving the Future

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Illustration - ROB DONNELLY
  • Rob Donnelly
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On January 6, a few hours before news broke that right-wing insurrectionists had taken over the U.S. Capitol, students in Sterling College's Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time course met for their first webinar to discuss the end of the world as we know it.

"As we know it" is a key part of that sentence, guest lecturer Nate Hagens explained. In his view, the growth-centered global economy is rapidly depleting natural resources and headed toward an inevitable and painful decline, a thesis he illustrated by clicking through slides full of colorful clip art during the Zoom session.

Hagens, a fellow with the Post Carbon Institute, said he believes that global peak oil production is already past, demonstrating the point with graphs shaped like an upside-down letter V. Our task now, he argued, is to manage the economy's descent, minimizing the damage where we can and building communities to withstand the changes. We need to see ourselves as "navigating the pathway between fantasy and doom," he suggested.

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"Before you do anything else, you have to cope with this reality, and it's hard. It takes time to process," Hagens said. "I grieved 15 years ago for this. And I still grieve every day."

The webinar kicked off the second iteration of Surviving the Future, which drew participants from as close as Vermont and as far as Germany, Chile and Hawaii. It's the first of a new slate of online classes to be offered by Sterling, which was founded in 1958 as a boarding school and moved into higher education in the 1970s.

Offering bachelor's degrees in ecology, environmental humanities, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and outdoor education, Sterling enrolls just 125 students on its Craftsbury campus. It's a federally recognized work college, meaning that students offset part of their tuition with a campus job. And the school has a long association with grassroots environmental activism, hosting programs and speakers devoted to causes such as food sovereignty.

The first Surviving the Future course launched in April 2020, shortly after the onset of the pandemic. The timing was coincidental but appropriate.

"We are not alive in normal times," course facilitator Shaun Chamberlin said in the January 6 webinar. "This is an incredibly exceptional moment in the history of the planet."

Chamberlin lives in England and has never been to Vermont — he swore off flying in 2002. A writer and environmental activist who uses the moniker Dark Optimism, he connected with Sterling over the work of his late mentor, David Fleming.

The course takes its name from Fleming's book Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, which Chamberlin edited after Fleming's death in 2010. Vermont's Chelsea Green Publishing released it in 2016, and a copy landed on the desk of Sterling president Matthew Derr.

The book arrived at a time when Derr was beginning to think beyond simply forestalling the impact of a warming planet.

"There's going to be a significant climate change ahead of us, and we're going to have to live into that, as well," Derr said in a phone interview. "What are the kinds of places and communities that we need to either conserve or create that are diverse and welcoming, and also connected to long-standing place and tradition? [Fleming's] writing is really interesting from that perspective."

A year after the book's release, Sterling held a symposium to discuss it, kicking off conversations that Derr wanted to continue. Sterling was developing an online education platform accessible to nondegree students, backed by a $1.5 million donation from an anonymous foundation. Surviving the Future fit as the first course offering.

The 2020 course enrolled 265 students from 27 countries. This year, Sterling limited enrollment to 100 and filled every spot. Participants paid for the course on a sliding scale, from $99 to $299, some with scholarships.

Chamberlin said in an interview that the course provides space for discussion among people who might live on opposite sides of the globe while sharing roughly the same concerns about the planet's future — although they may not agree on how to address those concerns. After hearing about the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Chamberlin said, the first thing he did was log on to the course forum to chat with participants, particularly those in the U.S., about what they were thinking and feeling.

Echoing many commentators, he suggested that polarization has produced a situation in which people have no shared consensus on reality. "Some people act in ways which seem completely unthinkable to other people, because they're acting in response to a different perceived reality," Chamberlin said. "That's why I think we feel that conversation is such an important thing to try [to] encourage a little more shared understanding of the moment that we live in."

It's from that shared understanding that Chamberlin believes solutions — or, more likely, mitigation efforts, survival strategies and community resilience — will be born.

"It's a bit like if you're on the Titanic and you've already hit the iceberg, and there's this huge hole in the side and water is pouring in. It's probably not the most productive use of your time to try and patch up the hole," Chamberlin said. "Maybe you want to be getting in the lifeboats, or maybe you want to have the band play your favorite song one last time, or help people, whatever it may be."

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of Americans agree that human behavior has had a role in causing the climate crisis, and 62 percent report feeling its effects in their own communities. But the conversations happening in the Surviving the Future course still might seem a little radical to some. Fleming's book predicts a "climacteric," which he describes as a profound change in human society that could "include deep deficits in energy, water and food" by 2040.

In his lecture, Hagens advised participants to invest in physical possessions such as land instead of currency and to make personal connections within their communities as much as possible. Other guest speakers and participants used the webinars and forums to discuss homesteading and grassroots community projects.

Mainstream institutions still tend to see ecology as a fringe interest, Chamberlin said. "Ultimately, if we don't reconcile ecological and economic reality, there's only one that's going to pull rank," he said. "Physics doesn't negotiate."

According to Derr, Sterling has always been on the forefront of environmental conversations. And, at a time when many small colleges are struggling to recruit and retain students, this one is happy with its sustainable size, he said.

With the campus' capacity maxed out at 125 students, any expansion of Sterling's educational offerings must happen virtually — or off-site. The college is now accepting applications for a new farming program in New Castle, Ky., a collaboration with the Berry Center located there.

As institutions of higher learning struggle to define the value of a liberal arts education in tough economic times (see "Major Fallout," page 26), Sterling has carved out a niche beyond the traditional model, drawing on a larger student pool.

"We need to be creating educational pathways that are lifelong," Derr said. "Designing [ecological education] solely for 17- to 21-year-olds who are coming out of American high schools — that will take a long time to have a direct impact on the way people think about the natural world and the choices they make in their own communities ... The type of education that Sterling offers can't just exist in Craftsbury."

Derr said the school is working with partners in Bhutan, Puerto Rico, India and the United Kingdom to develop more online continuing education courses, which will focus on the intersections of agriculture, ecology and education.

Chamberlin sees navigating the uncertain times ahead as an emotional exercise, as well as a physical and mental one. During the pandemic, he said, he's seen online comments and memes depicting humanity as the Earth's true virus. He rebukes such phrasing, along with other pessimistic apocalyptic thinking, in favor of continuing to find possibility in humanity.

"The doom impulse sucks people into this very dark imagining of the future, which isn't necessarily a reflection of their present but can disable the present by seeming so bleak and overwhelming," Chamberlin said. "But to acknowledge the darkness, for me, doesn't at all mean disappearing into despair. It can very much be a place that emboldens us to tell stories with our life that we want to tell."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Weather the Storm | Sterling College offers virtual course Surviving the Future"

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