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Conversation #97: Brannon Andersen on Earth Education

A conversation between Brannon Andersen (Furman University) and Bart Everson (CAT+FD) on teaching, learning, problems facing humanity, and the "rapidly emerging transdisciplinary endeavour" of Earth System Science.
photo of Brannon Anderson

Dr. Brannon Andersen came to Furman in 1994 after completing his Ph.D. at Syracuse University, where he also was a senior geochemist studying leachate mitigation as part of the closure of the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island, NY. He is trained in geology but has morphed into an environmental scientist with a focus on biogeochemistry and sustainability science. Dr. Andersen believes in the transformative impact of undergraduate research experiences and has co-authored over 110 abstracts with undergraduate students that were presented at regional and national professional meetings. He has also published over 28 journal articles/book chapters and has been awarded over $2 million in external grants.  Dr. Andersen was profiled in Science Trends in 2017.


Bart Everson is a media artist and creative generalist at Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. His recent work draws on integrative learning, activism, critical perspectives on technology, and Earth-based spiritual paths.

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Bart Everson: I’m Bart Everson, and I’m super excited this week to be speaking with Dr. Brannon Andersen of Furman University. Good morning, Dr. Andersen.

Brannon Andersen: It’s good to be with you.

Bart Everson: Yes, fantastic. Let me introduce you to the folks who are listening. I know that looking on your faculty page that you came to Furman in 1994 after getting your PhD at Syracuse where you also were a senior geochemist studying something called leachate mitigation as part of the closure of the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island. Also, you are trained in geology, but apparently you’ve morphed into an environmental scientist with a focus on biogeochemistry and sustainable science, and you do a lot of undergraduate research which we also try to emphasize here at Xavier. I see that you’ve co-authored over 110 abstracts with undergraduate students presented at regional and national professional meetings. You’ve also published dozens of articles and book chapters and been awarded tons of grant money. It’s great to talk with you. Thanks for joining us.

Brannon Andersen: You’re welcome.

Bart Everson: One of the things I wanted to ask you about first is because our theme this year at our center is resilience. We’re trying to reach out to more earth educators because this is a very important term in your domain. You teach in the department of Earth and Environmental sciences there at Furman.

Brannon Andersen: We actually just changed the name of the department, so it is now Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences.

Bart Everson: Wow. Very neat. Well, you know, I was looking around and found an article, just very recently on Nature, that says “Earth system science is rapidly emerging and transdisciplinary.” And for those of us kind of just catching up, can you tell us what does this all encompass?

Brannon Andersen: Yeah, so that’s a really great question. You know, the transdisciplinary idea is pretty new, but I think where it’s coming from is the problems that we’re facing today as humanity are extraordinarily complex. They’re systemic, so they’re large systems-level questions like climate change. Once you get into it, and this is sort of how I’ve evolved over time. Once you start as a geologist, and then I did my masters degree in the Bahamas. Then in the Bahamas I got very interested in environmental science because of the issues with the reefs (although I didn’t study reefs) I worked with people who did, and so reefs and overfishing, biodiversity laws, things like that. Then as an environmental scientist, you learn all about the hills, I guess — what humans are doing to change the planet, how fast, and so on. Then you start to look for “what are the drivers? Why are we doing this?” Then you eventually start thinking about solutions and the solutions initially, as a trained scientist, you’re thinking small scale. So, how do we solve the biodiversity problem in a certain location? As you begin to look at larger scale issues like climate change, consumption, and microplastics in the ocean, one thing that has become very apparent to me is all of these problems are interrelated. The only way we can solve them is to get towards changes in societal values, but then that opens a can of worms, right? Because then it is not about science anymore, it’s about philosophy, ethics, religion, policy, economics, and english. How do we envision a future? You know, most science-fiction is apocalyptic, but why not have science-fiction that envisions a sustainable future and what that might be like? There are a few out there that do that. Stanley Robinson is a great example — he questions systemic-level problems in his novels. Art is another one, and music, it’s just amazing once you start delving into this. The short answer is that the answer to these problems don’t come from any one discipline. It’s not interdisciplinary because it has everybody bringing their expertise to a little problem and then solving it; it’s truly transdisciplinary because solving these large-scale, systemic problems requires everybody at the table. I think that is, to me intellectually as a scholar, extraordinarily exciting because I get to work with people. Initially I thought “oh cool, I get to work with biologists and chemists,” and now I work with english professors, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists, and I’m always learning something new. The breath of my reading has increased pretty dramatically, as well. That transdisciplinary, unfortunately, is not something universities are set up to do very well. We can barely do interdisciplinary. We’re still pretty siloed, and here is the siloed thing. In our department, we’ve worked very hard to hire people who’ve realized that the cross-department in interdisciplinarity is very difficult to do because of tenure requirements and promotions and all that. So, we just decided to be our own interdisciplinary department. We’ve hired an anthropologist with an integrated ecology program, and her specialty is ecological economics. We have a guy who is a watershed management specialist with both a policy and science background. Then we have a person who has a PhD in sustainability science, she comes out of a planning background. We’ve diversified our department even where we’ve hired a structural geologist, but she had a double major at the undergraduate level and the other major was anthropology. We were intentionally hiring people with a breath of interest and comfort of working with people outside their own discipline. That starts building that transdisciplinary model which I think is pretty critical for humanity today.

Bart Everson: Wow. That does sound really interesting, really exciting. I tell people that I don’t really have a well-formed background. Technically I got a degree in communications, but I’ve always felt like I’m all over the place.

Brannon Andersen: Yeah, I’m with you.

Bart Everson: It’s great to hear about that maybe being an asset in some ways.

Brannon Andersen: It’s intellectual wandering, so that’s good.

Bart Everson: Yes, it is good. With such breadth, I think we might feel a little bit lost. I’m wondering, what are some classes that you actually teach?

Brannon Andersen: Well, again, I teach pretty traditional classes. My spin on them is not necessarily traditional, but I teach an introductory level environmental science class. We don’t use a textbook because I don’t feel that any of them are any good at the college level, so we use a planetary boundaries framework. I work with some people at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, and they do what’s called “social metabolism” — so the flow of material and energy through society. I use that as a framework to understand why we’re surpassing planetary boundaries. It’s a freshman-level class, it’s really challenging. I have to facilitate a lot of learning and get a [unclear] because it can be intimidating. I just remind them that I’m their guide, that I’m there for help. Then I teach, in sustainability science, I teach dynamic systems modeling, which uses a program software called “Stella” which is a dynamic modeling software, so it’s really cool. It’s truly object-oriented. I did object-oriented modeling way back when, but that was like writing little algorithms and you put them together in sequence. This is literally putting a box for a stock onto your screen and then a pipe for a flow, and then building these really complex models with feedback loops. Then the differential equations all run in the back, so you can open up the program itself and see it. The students don’t need that kind of background, but it’s really more for exploring how systems behave and how changes in policy can affect system behavior. So how can you stop exponential growth of extraction of a particular mineral, for example, through policy change?

I teach an environmental systems course which I teach with a biologist, and we look at intergenetic biomes and how human transformational landscape has affected biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and so on. I teach a pretty standard geochemistry class, so that’s my geology background. Every once in a while I teach a stratigraphy class, but less and less because I’m not really a geologist anymore. So, I’ve taught a class called environmental society which looks at policy and social opportunities for change in light of environmental change. Now I’m doing more and more reading and teaching on economic systems from a larger macroscale. Is capitalism viable anymore? What is degrowth, and how does degrowth fit into this [unclear]? What would a steady state of economy look like? Do we have enough mineral resources to actually have everybody live like Americans? Which we don’t, but we explore those kinds of issues. That class used to be team-taught, which was a lot of fun, so I team-taught that class with a religion professor (once a philosophy professor), an English professor, a sociologist, and a philosopher. That was a lot of fun, I learned an awful lot. I probably learned more than the students did in those classes. Every time I taught that course, it gave me a viewpoint or tools, but then gave back to my teaching — particularly environmental science. We talk about worldviews, and I can talk about ethical frameworks in a much more collegiate manner than I could prior to teaching with these people. I’ll be teaching this spring, of course, on degrowth. I work with a bunch of people in Europe who study degrowth and we have a research project going. I’ll be using a book on climate change and degrowth, and it’ll be more of a seminar type thing.

Bart Everson: That sounds interesting. I’m sure we could do a whole podcast and series on degrowth and the implications of that. I’m sure there are a lot of our listeners who aren’t familiar with that term, but rather than getting into that, I did want to ask about some of the things that you do kind of in your teaching with your students. I was going to say in the classroom, but I think all bets are off about how much time anyone is spending in the classroom with their students this year given the pandemic and so forth. You had mentioned something in our previous conversation that actually really intrigued me. You said that you had drawn some ideas from a couple books — Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent as well as Capra and Luisi’s Systems View of Life. Some of the ideas in there can get students thinking differently about some things.

Brannon Andersen: I’ll start with the environmental systems class. Trying to get students out of their own head is sort of really shifting their framework in a really radical way to get them to say “Oh wait, there’s other ways of looking at things.” So we, Greg and I who teach this course, have this little stick we do every year. It’s about “are you really you?” So we start off like “you’re walking across campus and you’re a reduced carbon-being walking around in a 21% oxygen atmosphere. Why doesn’t your nose fall off on the way to class and start decaying? Or your fingers or whatever. That always gives them pause, and then we talk about energy and how you’re a system so you have to have energy coming in and energy going out. As long as energy is coming in, you can keep yourself going, but the moment you stop taking in energy, you’re dead. This idea of “you’re an energy processor that basically transforms,” you’re an entropy machine really. Then we start talking a little bit about you being alive but your skin cells die, why don’t you drown in your own skin cells? We of course think about this. Then we start saying it’s because you’re not really you — you’re a walking colonial organism. You have bacteria in you, fungi, mites, and all kinds of things crawling on your skin and in your gut. Everything that largely keeps you pretty healthy. You think you’re an individual, but you’re really this walking colonial organism. Then we use a biogeochemical framework. Which atom lasts the longest in your body? It turns out it is phosphorus. Even in your bones, an atom of phosphorus hangs about for maybe 7-10 years, and then it is gone — it gets replaced. Your whole body is turning over every 7-10 years, or less for carbon and stuff. Then the question is “are you really you?” because your whole system replaces itself 7,8,9 times through your lifetime or more depending upon the element. That comes to Capra’s idea that you’re a stable pattern moving through time and space. You’re deeply interconnected to all these other organisms both on you and around you. That is where we start talking about the interdependent web of being and thinking about the systems dynamics modeling. I take this off in terms of the idea of radical individualism and what that means. You’re not even really an individual, and you’re wholly connected to other people, the planetary system, energy from the sun, you can just go on and on. You’re part of this deep interdependent web of being — that’s Jeremy Lent’s idea. Both of these guys would argue that radical individualism is one of the bigger problems we face because we’re not individuals at all. We can never really rely on ourselves alone for anything. Like Jeremy Lent would say, much of the environmental and social problems that we’re facing are to a large degree because of this radical individualism and our lack of awareness that we are part of this larger, interdependent web of being. We’re sort of an artifact of western thinking, and he goes through the whole history of that which I find really fascinating. It does tend to get my students to rethink positions on things because they’re sort of locked into this certain culture that we have today. My goal is to get them to question that. If you really want to have solutions — in large part to sustainability — you have to think way outside the box. It’s very interesting also, Patrick Denene wrote a book about why individualism failed. He comes from a very different perspective but then stops at the very same conclusion with the radical individualism being a large problem we’re facing. He doesn’t go as far to say we should rethink in terms of an interdependent web of being or Jeremy Lent’s (not sure what he said), so taking an Eastern philosophical bent towards understanding that we are all connected. Also, holism versus dualism, which is really interesting. In my 112 class and my 242 class, environmental science and social systems modeling, we spent a fair amount of time just kind of contemplating what that would mean in terms of sustainability solutions. Largely, I point out, to achieve a sustainable world, it depends upon what our societal growth goals are. Our goal is to be radically individualistic and be growth oriented. There's nothing else we can possibly do to solve these problems. The system that causes the problems is not likely to solve it. So, having that shift in framework to understanding that you are part of this larger web of being, I think, is really the first step for our students to begin to think of systems in a very different way.

Bart Everson: Thank you for that. Thank you for making some of those connections. That sounds like a class I would love to take, by the way. It is consonant with a number of spiritual teachings that I've encountered. The political and philosophical ramifications seem staggering and very interesting. One theme that you've mentioned several times now is kind of addressing problems/looking at problems and the crises that we're facing — not just as individuals, but as humanity as a whole, we might say. In connection with that, one thing I keep hearing about in certain activist circles and so forth, is this idea of a just transition. I understood from you that you actually had connected this with black liberation struggles, and so forth. Again, this may be a term that is not widely familiar to our listeners. So can you tell us what does this just transition refer to and how do you teach it?

Brannon Andersen: The just transition would say/says that the current extractivist economy, which I first learned about when I was at a Green Academy conference in coma Zagreb, Croatia talking with people (primarily other scholars from South America). South America is getting extracted quite heavily for gold, oil, and soybeans. They kept talking about extractivist economies and they explained that to me. So, the just transition basically says capitalism is an extractivist economy. The goal is growth at all costs, both social and environmental. If you have to trample people, if you have to travel the environment, anything to win. It becomes very militaristic because you have to defend your resources or defend the access to resources. They would say that we need to transition to a regenerative economy that focuses on both the well being of people and the planet. Again, this comes back to recognizing that as humans we are wholly dependent on the planet to survive. It's not dualistic, we're part of this larger interconnected web of being. There’s a spiritual dimension to that. It forces you to grapple with the issue of racism and inequality on both small and large scales because you can't have a sustainable world that has massive inequity. That's just not possible. So to say, “Oh, well, I'm more sustainable because I live in a 7000 square foot house but it's powered by solar panels” is not really sustainability. This is part of the issue — it’s like, how do you equal things out? You're never going to have perfect equality, but people should have some basic human rights. You should have access to clean water and sanitation, access to electricity, access to food security, and access to safe and fair housing. There’s certain things that many of us take for granted that the ‘just transition’ would say, “look at the rest of the world, and try and figure out why it's not like that.” Then they would come back and say “well it's because people on the planet are exploited by the current political and economic system,” which is neoliberal. It’s capitalism, which focuses on extractivism and the idea is growth at all costs, so that all has to change. It has to change justly. It’s about access to power — who has a say in these decisions at both the local and the global scale. It's a difficult read. It's a little tiny pamphlet. It’s not more than about 20 pages. Particularly if you're an old, white dude like I am, it really makes you look in the mirror and say, “I'm part of the problem.” How do you break free of that? What do you need to do? I'm still working through that. I like the ‘just transition’ because when I have my students read it, they're mostly well off white kids from the suburbs, and it makes them feel really uncomfortable when they read it. I tell them that's the point. You should be uncomfortable when you read this. You should understand that your ability to sit in an air conditioned classroom with a nice LED projector, your laptop, your nice clothing, and your cars come at the expense of other people. It’s not to make you feel guilty because then you just wallow in guilt. The idea to look for solutions to bring more equity to the world and being aware of it, I think, is the first step. How you dismantle the current system and build a new system that's a big question, but I think being aware of it, is the first step. I think the protests we're seeing right now are phenomenal. You see people of all creeds and races getting together and protesting together. I’m a child of the 60s and early 70s, that just didn't happen in the past as much. That gives me hope because I think, particularly the people I'm teaching, I've seen a big shift in my students over the years. If I would’ve taught the ‘just transition’ 15 years ago, I would’ve been dropped out of the university, probably. Now, the students feel uncomfortable, but we kind of spend the whole term coming back to that idea, addressing those, and thinking about what can be done. It’s also helpful that my colleagues are really good at this kind of stuff because we hired interdisciplinary people from different backgrounds, so I can always go to them. If I came to the point where I was like, “I'm not really sure how to address a question that a student has raised,” I can go to them for help. It is a really interesting idea of what a regenerative economy would look like. That dovetails very well with my degrowth research and so on. It’s like you have to live smaller. What does that mean? Does that mean back to the stone age? No, not at all. It does question the scale and the idea of sufficiency rather than excess. The current system pushes you to have more always, but more what and why? Does it really make you feel better? What really makes you happy? Mostly, it’s your social connections or your friendships or going to a concert together, which we can’t do anymore right now, but eventually we will get to go back, but hang out. It's not that new toy you got that's nice for a little while, but that loses its luster pretty quickly. So, an idea of ‘just transitions’ also, a lot of people have a lot of stuff, but they're also drowning in debt. Is that fair? That’s part of that equity issue. Then if you have people trying to get to that level and they can't, then they feel blocked. That’s not right either. This whole idea of shifting the whole social-societal goal for wellbeing and justice, I think, that's the ‘just transition.’ It's a challenging read, but I really keep coming back to it because it's enlightening. It fits very well with the idea of sustainability and environmental and social justice because they're two sides of the same coin.

Bart Everson: Great. I should mention that we’ll include links in the show notes to some of the sources that we’ve mentioned in our discussion. I wanted to thank you for your time. In this discussion/conversation, we've touched on a lot of different things, and our listeners, of course, teach in a wide variety of disciplines. The topics that you've kind of touched on here today, I think almost anybody coming from almost any discipline, teaching almost any class might find something here to connect with. The stakes are high, so if we're not educating our students about these things, these crises this world, then what are we doing? I have to wonder.

Brannon Andersen: I would agree with that very much.

Bart Everson: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with our listeners. I did want to mention anybody listening to this, if you found this conversation interesting, please do subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Give us a rating or review, that's always helpful to help people find the time to contact. Dr Brandon Anderson, thank you so much.

Brannon Andersen: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

Transcribed by Maya Madise

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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