Oil Disaster Should Spark Bold Reform
Co-authored with Sam Gill
July 6, 2010
As 20-somethings who grew up under the shadow of the Exxon-Valdez spill, we don’t agree with those who believe Deepwater Horizon will create lasting momentum for energy reform. Even the president recently compared the spill to the 9/11 attacks, saying it would shape “how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”
Far from an indelible mark on our national psyche, history tells us that the Gulf spill will be forgotten soon after the well is finally controlled.
Despite a succession of environmental catastrophes, our nation suffers from a short-term memory problem that inhibits sustained attention to addressing our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. The lesson should be clear: If we don’t act now, we never will.
We were 6 years old in March 1989, when the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska. The images that followed — more than 10 million gallons of oil gushing into Prince William Sound, birds coated in black muck, and oil-stained shorelines — remained etched in our young minds.
In elementary schools on opposite ends of the country, we learned about the spill and the cleanup, and environmental protection became the subject of countless classroom activities. Like our teachers and parents, we assumed the dire lesson of Exxon-Valdez would stay with our generation, making us lifelong warriors for a cleaner environment. But soon the images faded and, for many of our peers, the passion subsided.
Every generation experiences an environmental disaster that captures the national spotlight, occasionally forces congressional action, and then rapidly fades from public view.
A June 1969 fire in the Cuyahoga River helped spur the modern environmental movement and propelled creation of the Clean Water Act and the EPA.
March 1979 saw the meltdown at Three Mile Island, and in April 1986, Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, set off the worst nuclear disaster in history — killing dozens and sickening thousands more.
The power of these catastrophic moments derives from the way they put intense scenes of devastation on display, making it impossible to discount the costs of environmental negligence. The drama is critical. Polls show that issues such as jobs, the economy and national security routinely trump environmental concerns. Just three months ago, a Gallup/USA Today poll asked whether we should protect the environment if it risked economic growth, or focus on growth even if it harmed the environment. Over half (53 percent) chose the economy.
By the end of May, the numbers had reversed: 50 percent sided with the environment, and only 43 percent stuck with economic growth.
This same trend has created a rare opportunity for the prospect of a new energy bill —which only weeks ago had been left for dead. Recent polling by Joel Benenson, one of President Barack Obama’s pollsters, shows that support for clean energy and fossil fuel regulation enjoys substantially higher support now than in early May.
Energy and pollution reform suddenly appeals to voters far beyond the traditional “Green Base” of liberal Democrats. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of independents support an energy bill, as do a large minority of Republicans (45 percent — compared to 47 percent who oppose).
When major environmental disasters strike, we tend to treat them as if they accrue in our collective consciousness over time, each contributing to the overall reform cause.
But they are actually much more fleeting. They tend to provoke strong initial reactions but soon retreat from public view.
Deepwater Horizon may be the closest we’ll come to feeling the effects of our fossil fuel addiction here and now.
Now it’s time for Washington to capitalize on this moment before it passes — as it almost surely will. In time, we may erase the stain of oil from the Gulf. National support for energy reform is likely to fade much more quickly.
Katharine Wilkinson of Atlanta and Sam Gill of Minneapolis were Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford.
The Seminar Table
At the helm of Sewanee’s Seminar Tables are professors wholeheartedly committed not only to teaching but also to learning. They come to each class, each semester, with a fresh eye and willing ear. Believing they have as much to gain from attentive, open exchange as do the students, these teachers challenge their classes and welcome challenges in return. Sewanee is populated by deeply, personally invested professors who inspire their students to do hard, necessary work and who create a climate in which intellectual, moral, and emotional inquiry can flourish.
Texts serve as the shared foundations of seminar work and ground us in our academic task. From this grounding, oral and written discourse spring and a web of intellectual meaning and scholarly community can be crafted. Indeed, the true effectiveness of the Seminar Table lies in the conversation that takes place around it: readers converse with texts, readers converse with each other, readers and texts converse with the world – past, present, and future. This dialogue is rooted in questions posed by the teacher, raised by the students, and presented by the text itself. As we confront these questions and engage, oppose, or concur with the texts before us, writing becomes a way of life.
The ultimate aim of the Seminar Table is not for the professor to convey a set of predefined information, but for the group to grapple communally with complex, unwieldy questions that may defy concrete answers but demand consideration nonetheless. In doing so, seminar classes move beyond binary debate to collaborative reasoning – together. Holding objectivism and subjectivism not in opposition but in alliance, we embrace the ambiguity of examined life and gain the benefit of richer understanding.
Working with a small group of peers and sharing an investment in the texts and questions up for consideration allows a rich meaning-making, community-engendering process to take place. These weekly seminar meetings are often complemented by out-of-class exchanges: collaborative dinners at professors’ homes, festive gatherings at Shenanigan’s, treasured conversations at Stirling’s Coffeehouse. Through the intimacy of these experiences, a seminar of students and their professor becomes a community within the broader campus body, and these smaller, interlocking communities in turn enrich our larger one.
The simultaneously intellectual, moral, and emotional work conducted within the community of the Seminar Table helps prepare us for deeply ethical social engagement. Through texts and discussion, the seminar experience creates opportunities to develop deep empathy and to engage imaginatively with the world. What we learn as seminar students radiates concentrically back out, but this time beyond the bounds of classroom and campus to the global community of which we are a part and to which we have responsibilities.
Given the challenges of a complex and diverse world, the seminar experience does not attempt the impossible task of imparting upon students all the answers. Rather, our time around the Seminar Table prepares us to be lifelong learners and, in doing so, edifies us for our enduring undertaking: to investigate difficult problems, to grapple with questions that refuse easy resolution, and to do so not in isolation but in community. A Sewanee education cannot anticipate the challenges its graduates will face, but it can and does prepare us with the ability to approach those challenges with good hearts and disciplined minds.
Though we may be unaware of it at the time, when we take our last excursion into understanding, push our chairs away from the Seminar Table a final time, and pass through Sewanee’s stone gates and into the world beyond, we carry with us an education that will endure. The professors and students with whom we have shared rich academic and personal relationships will continue to inform our lives well into the future. Sewanee’s liberal arts experience, grounded in the Seminar Table’s many forms, allows us to remain focused on difficult, morally pressing problems, to deploy the capacities necessary to tackle them with sustained compassion and resolve, and to find therein a sense of interconnected humanity. It is at the Seminar Table, then, that we may find the true meaning of Ecce Quam Bonum, reaching deliberately past Sewanee’s bounds, and thus, indeed, become prepared for life. “Behold how good.”
link to book
Letter from Oxford: But Which Door?
“You’re a woman with a lot of options. You’re acting like the world’s backing you into a corner, bouncing from one thing to the next [...]. Maybe you should stop bouncing and pick something. What do you want?” – Toby to CJ, “The West Wing”
Central to American conventional wisdom on the benefits of being a Rhodes Scholar is expanded career opportunity. “So many doors are open to you now,” a second cousin applauds the week after the awards have been made. “You could be the president some day!” says a college friend, only partially in jest. And, without giving it much thought, a family friend remarks, “Well, your resume is now complete.” You are fairly certain all of these comments indicate something good—that this thing you’ve just received, made possible by your hard work but in large part thanks to a heavy dose of luck, will benefit your career and have a positive impact on your life. Yes, of course it will.
But as you breathe an exhausted sigh of relief and joy, suspicions begin to sneak in that you now have to live up to the potential the selection committee perceived in you, that you must do something terribly impressive with your life, that with so many doors open it may be hard to choose which one to walk through or which one is best suited to your strengths and weaknesses, and that if you end up twenty years down the road in a career that leaves you unhappy or unfulfilled, you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, once upon a time, at twenty-three, the world’s oyster was cracked open for you, just waiting to be (successfully) devoured. Louisiana hot sauce anyone?
Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar studies choice. Her research flies in the face of the notion that more choice is always better, always improves the well-being of the chooser. Too many varieties of jam, chocolate, or mustard can be de-motivating, even paralyzing; there are very real limits to the benefits derived from choice.
Working with two colleagues, Iyengar studied a group of college students in their final year of school as they went through the process of seeking out, applying for, and accepting jobs. The researchers categorized the students according to their choice making tendencies—as either “maximizers” or “satisficers”—and surveyed their experiences of searching for and taking up employment over that period. Their findings, outlined in a recent paper, indicate that students who felt compelled to consider a wider range of options—“maximizers”—tended to derive less satisfaction and enjoyment from their ultimate job choices (even in spite of 20% higher starting salaries) than did students who considered a narrower range of options—“satisficers.”*
Iyengar and her colleagues suggest that “maximizers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations, and creating mounting opportunity costs” (p. 148). In other words, “Even when they get what they want, maximizers may not always want what they get” (p. 149).
As a Rhodes Scholar considering the many doors available to me, I suspect I may resemble a Whole Foods shopper paralyzed by an immense selection of organic green teas. If able to overcome this paralysis and make a purchase, the careful shopper may return home, brew a pot of loose leaf, and find that, despite reviewing his options for 9-? minutes, a pang of dissatisfaction nags. This discontentment may sound like a contrived yuppie psychological ill—something to be written off because only the very privileged could suffer from it—but if the act of considering options really does undermine well-being and thus our potential to do good work in the world, the maximizers among us might benefit from paying greater heed to the choice process and its challenges.
Having a sense that, faced with tradeoffs, the more options we forgo, the “more” we are in effect giving up, some of us seek the escape of not having to choose. “I want to keep all my options open,” says a scholar who’d like to combine non-profit, academic, and business pursuits. Regarding summer plans, another scholar debates between working for a presidential primary campaign, interning at Google, or taking time to “think, read, and write”—but really desires to do all three. For me, this means resisting the disciplinarity of academia despite my hope of becoming a professor and university president—or maybe a….
For others, the solution is to go with prestige as a form of external approval. But, in many ways, the Rhodes is the end of this line. Yes, we may receive more awards or grants, but there is no external authority “out there” waiting to give us a pat on the back and reassure us that our hand has been well played. For a group of people who, in many ways, have gotten where they are by seeking to please and have received the constant confirmation that comes along with being a pleaser, the real challenge is being our own evaluators and finding our own sources of satisfaction.
Here at Oxford, I often struggle with the necessity of giving up options or settling on something less than “perfection.” I endeavor to think through and clarify what “success” would mean for me personally and on a variety of fronts. I consider the ways choice paralysis could impact not only my career but my relationship decisions as well. I attempt to align values and goals, interests and responsibilities, and to create a coherent mosaic of often discrete and at times contradictory elements. And I find this process all the more difficult given a general dearth of mentorship here.
So which door should we choose? Or, as a beginning step, which doors should we remove from consideration? Frustratingly, I have no answers to these questions, and perhaps my personal answers would have no relevance to others. I do know that while we have big, multifaceted dreams, the hard reality is we must take small steps to get there. (The trick here, of course, is discerning which small steps to take.) A steady mosaic of life won’t be achieved by age twenty-six. It took a succession of efforts—some small, some large—to reach this point in our lives. Can we learn to be satisfied with the reality that we can only pass through one door at a time, or will we eternally search for the mirage of a door that leads simultaneously to two rooms?
I also suspect we may find comfort and aid within the Rhodes community (or some semblance thereof) itself. With so many interdisciplinarily-minded, schizophrenically-passionate people about, we are bound, at the very least, to find companions in our efforts to sort through these challenges, if not excellent sources of guidance and sanity. Though our lives are singular, we are bound together by the search to create a career and a life that pulls together a diversity of interests, brings positive change to the world, and achieves balance amidst the many open doors. In the end, this may be the real gift, the true opportunity made available by the Rhodes.
Wait a second. I think perhaps that conclusion is too neat and tidy—too wrap-up-the-valedictory-and-send-graduates-off-into-the-worldfull-of-hope, too lifestyle-magazine-I-learned-to-embrace-life’s-challenges-by-finding-joy-in-the-little-things. I began working on this piece last Trinity term in an effort to make some sense of this aspect of the “Rhodes experience,” and that closing line is what I told myself (and any potential readers) when I first put pen to paper. And I do think there’s some truth to it. But a couple seasons later, I’m still stuck, and not for lack of trying. In fact, during a Labor Day gathering, two 2005 scholars and I mapped out and analyzed the post-Oxford range of possibilities. Despite our best attempt to impose form on this amorphous challenge, we were left with more questions than answers. To be frank, I think many of us are stuck, and the resources for unsticking are in short supply.
Nearing the end of Michaelmas during this, our second year at Oxford, the days are growing short and cold and most of my classmates and I are beginning to sort out what comes next. Some may postpone such decisions for another year or two as they pursue D.Phils. Of late, a handful of firms have emerged from the mentorship abyss to help us with this choice, hosting recruiting events and hoping to inform and woo potential applicants. In the case of Google, this took the form of an extravagant party in London. As many things do, these happenings have elicited pointed e-mails on the Rhodes listserv or, at the very least, biting comments amidst more lighthearted postings. Are America’s “best and brightest” mindlessly or, worse, greedily “selling out”? In my mind, the better question is this: are we successfully preparing students to tackle complex problems in an increasingly complex world while leaving them high and dry on how best to apply their newfound knowledge and skills?
Poring over public sector job postings, openings for newly minted graduate students that aren’t essentially paper pushing or research-based seem few and far between. For those scholars looking to leave academic study, the question arises: where are jobs that would challenge me intellectually, provide an avenue for working on high-level problems, and allow me to have an impact? Should I do something entrepreneurial (try my hand at a writing career, for instance, or, a crowd favorite, “start my own non-profit”) or look for a position well within the establishment? Should I follow my idealistic side or my pragmatic side, and could the two be aligned? Are my expectations just totally unrealistic? What can I do now that will prepare me for and launch me into the things I see myself doing in ten or twenty years? Many of us feel we have a strong set of qualities and skills to “bring to the table.” But where is the table?
So while confronting choice paralysis, many scholars also seem to be encountering a discouraging dearth of immediate opportunities, and both struggles are further entrenched by a simultaneous shortage of guidance. As I have suggested, we can certainly be each other’s greatest supporters and advisees in many aspects of life, but when it comes to taking the next step, even self-reliant self-starters need the input of more experienced mentors. As we squeeze out of Oxford rich and wonderful experiences, we are haunted by anxiety about what comes afterwards and we flip through the AARS directory—filled with people who’ve somehow managed to make this transition!—looking for suggestions it doesn’t contain.
In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” the speaker appeals to his beloved: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” On the topic of youthful love, the choice is clear: embrace! But for those of us haunted by time’s winged chariot in another sense—that our years to make an impact are finite—what should be our response? While I acknowledge that attending an intimate liberal arts college biased me in favor of mentorship, I wonder: Can we move beyond choice paralysis without genuine guidance and counsel? Or are we destined to depart Oxford nagged by the question: Which door?
* Iyengar, S. S.,Wells, R. E. & Schwartz, B. (2006) “Doing better but feeling worse.” Psychological
Science, 17:2, 143-150.
Oxford University’s “dreaming spires.” Image Credit: James Morrissey.
© Katharine K. Wilkinson