Existential Threat

April 2021

Not very long ago the place I work, the University of New Brunswick (UNB), announced its latest Strategic Plan: UNB Toward 2030. As with all strategic plans, this one defined the goals that are to shape actions moving forward. It also offered a little more, which tells us something about the evolution of paradoxical thinking now in place at a Canadian University.

In the Plan we learn the following.

“As we approach 2030, UNB aspires to be financially and environmentally sustainable, and working toward a carbon-neutral future.”

“In achieving these goals, we will prepare citizens with the critical thinking, empathy and skills to solve societal problems.”

Further along is the section on “Transformative education for the future. Preparing students to thrive.” And how will this preparation occur? Through key actions, including this one. “Embrace Indigenous knowledges.”

I rather like the part about preparing our citizens to think critically because thinking is important. I can imagine many scenarios where thinking or not thinking can be the difference between living and not living. I wonder, however, which idea will win out going forward? Will it be critical thinking or carbon-neutral? Will it be “embrace indigenous knowledges” or critical thinking? We might get lucky and discover that always, with certainty, and after extensive critical though, that a carbon-neutral future is the way to go. Similarly, embracing indigenous knowledge – all of it – may well be the thinking person’s conclusion.

But what if UNB isn’t lucky?

Imagine a student - one that, in the spirt of the Strategic Plan, has been taught and encouraged to think in a critical way – finds the volition to challenge or simply voice a few questions?

“Why set carbon-neutral as a goal?” he may ask.

The answer this student receives, I strongly suspect, will match closely that given in the Fall of 2020 by then U.S. presidential nominee Joseph Biden during the second presidential debate with Donald Trump:

“Climate change, climate warming, global warming is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it. And we are told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time. We are going to pass the point of no return with in the next 8 to 10 years.”

This is the prevailing premise, the widely disseminated certainty driving today’s motivation to eliminate humanity’s access to fossil fuels as an energy source.

Should this student take my course on human spaceflight he would recognize the Joe Biden warning in the essays written by his fellow classmates. In response to the question. “Why put people into space?”, the vast majority would confidently admit the need to seek out a new planet to live because this one – our Earth – will soon be destroyed by our very own selfish efforts to sustain “a good life”. And if he were to hear my recent conversation with a young student embarking on a PhD in biology, he would learn of her sincere reluctance to bring a child into a dying and overpopulated world.

The carbon-neutral plan. The Joseph Biden warning. The concerns of his fellow students. All this may well weigh on the mind of this critical thinker, yet he may still question. Maybe he wonders about the 200-year contribution fossil fuels have made to human flourishing, or he has discovered the concept of energy density, or recognizes that you cannot carry wind in a bucket. With such thoughts, how will he be accepted within the University? Will he be labeled a critical thinker or a climate change denier?

Imagine further that this student finds a trace of merit in comments made by Donald Trump in that same debate.

“I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds, it’s very intermittent.”


“But solar doesn’t quite have it yet. It’s not powerful yet to really run our big, beautiful factories that we need to compete with the world.”

On a campus where the wearer of a Donald Trump MAGA (Make America Great Again) baseball cap can drive a professor to pursue an intellectually free safe space, how would this inquisitive student be received if he speaks positively about even a single sentence uttered by Donald Trump? Would he now be a climate change denier and a racist? Would he find that concern about intermittency of wind is not at all a concern because – “we” all know - Trump lies about everything?

And now what about embracing Indigenous knowledges? A student may wonder about, may even be confused by such wording in a Strategic Plan. Do we embrace all of them or just some of them? And why embrace this knowledge? Because it is true or for other reasons? Might not critical thinking elicit the response, “whoa, we don’t want to embrace that Indigenous knowledge, because they got it wrong!” A critical thinker may detect an inappropriateness with “Embrace Indigenous Knowledges”; for the same reason it would be inappropriate for a Strategic Plan to declare “God exists”. Really, is the discussion now over? Ask our friend Frances Widdowson if the discussion is over.

“A University of choice where everyone belongs” the Strategic Plan boldly declares. I wonder?

And I wonder if this Plan is an existential threat to a good education.