Director's Note

This is the time for bold ideas, not bureaucratic tweaks. Those at the frontlines, those essential doers and thinkers have to be at the core of changes too urgent to wait. 

It is T-minus 10 years and counting, if the projections of thousands of the world’s best climate scientists are correct. (UN IPCC 2019 Report) New Jersey – New York City is already one of the hot zones where rising coastal waters are eroding shorelines, just like Miami and Louisiana. But you don’t need a scientist or weatherman to know the score. We feel the heat, the lack of rain, the extreme downpours of extreme weather that has hit our region bad. And low income, low option communities, especially of people of color who have dealt with generations of inequality, are hit the hardest time and time once again.

Indeed, this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is giving us a foreboding sense of the random, regular irregular disruptive impacts to come. Soon, we’ll all (but a few) be at the frontlines of grappling this hydra-headed hyper-monster of dis-ease, the climate roller coaster, and economic insecurity. Will fear and chaos “dominate and control”? Will we turn to a macho strongman? Will a new President be able to make an impactful enough difference?

Time is long overdue for universities to step up to this all-encompassing global challenge.

We are not just talking environmental studies majors here, nor more specialists in this or that disciplinary field, nor zero carbon foot-print plans—all good, but not good enough, all necessary, but not sufficient. You know: “Closing the barn door after the horses run out,” or “Rome burns while Nero fiddles” and we organize a leaky bucket brigade. “Too little, too late.”

And we can’t be just one campus but we must be many. We have to be all in, networked. And like scientists and engineers, we have to be collaborative. But most important we have to tell a story all can connect to—a public story that communicates across many cultures and many divides.

We have precious little time to get there. We have to learn by doing. How are we learning from the current crisis? Did we learn from Superstorm Sandy? Can we learn from Mother Nature? How can we shift towards Indigenous Local Knowledge? How can we hack “business as usual” within our campuses and our communities? Can we reorganize better and together?

Tentative, uncoordinated, often ill-informed responses put forth during this long pandemic moment with a tattered US public health system should prepare us to look ahead, past the looming economic catastrophe. Putting in place what can be provisionally called “crisis resilience participatory action studies” will be a smart, grounding move—indeed radically smart.

Disaster studies scholars have documented time-and-again, initial public and political responses are broad, generous, inclusive until the prevailing political culture kicks in—then the old patterns of structural racism, maximizing power, wealth, differentiation assert a new normative effect. The screwed get screwed again. Can’t we learn!?

Our challenge is to connect with the enormous natural wealth and human capacity we already have but are not tapping into and not quite aligning with. This is not the time to cutback and return to how we have been operating.

  • We need to shift our daily routines, start with doable changes, and focus together. 
  • We need to make tactical interventions, more and more.
  • We need to decolonize our frameworks and methodologies.
  • We need system-wide, longer-term, historic reimaginings. 

This is the time for bold ideas, not bureaucratic tweaks. Those at the frontlines, those essential doers and thinkers have to be at the core of changes too urgent to wait.

Jack Tchen | Price Institute | Rutgers-Newark

Jack.Tchen@Rutgers.edu