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S04 E05 – Futurism

Today’s guest is futurist, author and educator Bryan Alexander. Bryan is currently thinking loads about the intersection of education, technology and climate – so regular listeners will know why we’re so excited to have him on.

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Bryan Alexander’s sites

His books

  • Academia Next
  • Coming Soon: Universities on Fire by Bryan Alexander!

Bryan’s Favourite Books

  • War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze

Find all of our guests’ reading recommendations at our The Tao of WAO book club.



Important note: this is a lightly-edited AI transcription of the conversation. If you require verbatim quotations, please double-check against the audio!

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:24] Hello and welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I’m Doug Belshaw.

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:34] And I’m Laura Hilliger. This podcast season is currently partially unfunded. You can support this podcast and other We are open projects and products at

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:47] So today we’re really pleased to introduce our guest, who’s a futurist and author and an educator, Bryan Alexander. We’re going to see where this conversation leads us. But Bryan is currently thinking a lot about the intersection of education, technology and climate, so regular listeners will know why we’re so excited to have him on. Welcome, Bryan.

Bryan Alexander: [00:01:10] Thank you for hosting me. Really, really good to talk with both of you.

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:14] So, Bryan, we usually begin with all of our guests in kind of delving into their brain by finding out what might be their favourite book or books. Now, you’re an author yourself and I’m sure you’ve got lots and lots of favourite books, but do you want to kick off by maybe telling us a couple of your favourite books?

Bryan Alexander: [00:01:32] Sure. And this is always the kind of question that drives people nuts if they’re if they’re big fans of reading a lot, you know that they Oh, I have so many favourite books. So the one I was going to I was going to mention today is actually Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I picked in part for educational reasons. I read it in 10th grade because a teacher told me I couldn’t read it. Teacher said, You’re not capable of reading this book. So I had to set two. And I don’t I honestly don’t think they were trying to as a trick to get me to read it. I think they honestly thought it was it was too hard and and it was obviously.

Doug Belshaw: [00:02:10] Did you say 10th grade?

Bryan Alexander: [00:02:12] Yeah. And it was.

Doug Belshaw: [00:02:13] 10th grade for those on the US.

Bryan Alexander: [00:02:15] At that point. 15 or 16.

Doug Belshaw: [00:02:17] 15, 16. Okay.

Bryan Alexander: [00:02:18] So it was definitely the hardest book I read at that time in my life. And, and it’s magnificent. It’s, it’s just it’s just crammed full of incredible stories, just non-stop. And it’s I mean, there’s all kinds of things we can say about it, but I keep coming back to it in part because of that puckish reading experience, but also because it’s a it appeals to my life in all kinds of ways. One is that it’s such a deep dive into history. I mean, it’s a historical novel, but it’s also about history and how we exist in time. And so as a futurist, that really appeals to me. In fact, the last 200 pages or so is basically an extended essay on that question. But also it’s it has this incredible ability. It’s famous for this to zoom into minute personal scenes and then to zoom way back out to, you know, all of Europe and Russia at the same time. And and in my work, I have to do that kind of move. I have to think about individual campuses, individual institutions and problems, but also to take a look at global trends. And I think having that that ability to change scales from the micro to the meso to the macro is, is a great skill to have.

Laura Hilliger: [00:03:29] Do you think that have.

Doug Belshaw: [00:03:30] Laura have you read war and peace ?

Laura Hilliger: [00:03:32] Uh, I have not read War and Peace. I think that maybe in the 10th grade I picked it up and then decided without anybody telling me I couldn’t read it. I just decided I didn’t want to read it. And then maybe I was too young. And I will definitely I have it. So I should probably get it out of the anti library and into the library, but wanted to. Um, Bryan, I wanted to ask you, you just said that you think that having that skill to be able to zoom in and zoom out is a really good skill to have. Do you think it’s trainable, and if so, how might people actually train that?

Bryan Alexander: [00:04:08] I think it is trainable and it it’s needed because all too often people fail to make that jump in in higher education. Often you’ll see people who really focus closely on either their institution and generalise from that or on their profession. So someone who is a biologist focusing on the life sciences, for example. And so the ability to leap from that perspective up to a larger one can be very challenging. And then the opposite. People who can generalise from the big macro view and fail to actually notice individual contours and individual differences. I think it’s trainable in part through practice and getting people to look in, you know, depending on what people’s stance is and where they come from. Um, I mean, I do a lot of teaching my students how to do trends analysis, and so that forces them up into that macro picture and then also doing case studies and getting them to think about their own experience pushes them back to the micro level. But I think there are other ways to train it as well. And reading War and Peace might be one of the best.

Doug Belshaw: [00:05:12] There is something about reading fiction which takes you into a different state of consciousness or a different way of being receptive to to things. I think.

Bryan Alexander: [00:05:21] I think it does. There’s there’s a fascinating argument that Kim Stanley Robinson makes where he says that in many ways, historical fiction and science fiction are structurally identical in that both involve world building. And for the typical reader, that world building has to be extensive and it has to be convincing. And, you know, the average reader of a of a, you know, medieval murder mystery is probably not up on, say, trade routes across Central Europe in the 14th century. So you have to build that out and make that convincing. And the same is true if, you know, if we have the adventures of Doug Belshaw in the 31st century, we still have to build that universe out and make that credible. It’s an interesting argument, and I think it’s a it’s a powerful one. And one of the reasons I teach science fiction in almost every class I can is to get that kind of imaginative stretching, to get people to think that far out and to be that creative.

Doug Belshaw: [00:06:21] I just hope that people haven’t got an image in their mind now of Doug Belshaw on the 31st century with some kind of Flash Gordon or me in some kind of Speedos. I just hope that that for me, it was people’s heads.

Laura Hilliger: [00:06:34] Yeah, it was Fry from Futurama.

Bryan Alexander: [00:06:36] Oh, oh, oh, oh, This is brutal. Oh, my gosh. But I’m. I’m not going to be able to unsee that now, Doug.

Doug Belshaw: [00:06:46] That’s why the books you want to throw into the mix.

Bryan Alexander: [00:06:49] The one book that I reread about every six months is a 1970s work of critical theory by Deleuze and Guattari called A Thousand Plateaus. And I read it and reread it because it is such a strange and rich and stimulating book. It’s a it’s a work of it’s kind of hard to describe because Deleuze and Guattari really invented their own, their own thing. You could call it Post-structuralist if you want. Postmodern doesn’t quite do it justice, but it’s it’s them building on some previous work of theirs, trying to analyse ways of thinking. And so this is where they develop the rhizome model most extensively, okay? And they come up with a whole series of philosophical ideas that are very challenging, very strange, very counterintuitive, very rich. But also it’s a strange book. And the opening page, they say this is not a traditional book. We don’t want you to read this in a linear sequence. We want you to play this book like a vinyl record. We want you to just dip, dip into it at different points. And it’s it’s it’s extraordinary. It’s it’s very rich. It’s very challenging. It reflects an astonishing amount of learning from from both of the authors. And it’s fun. So yeah I love that book.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:15] You dip into it every six months. You say just to kind of stimulate your thinking.

Bryan Alexander: [00:08:19] Get that scratch mix going.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:20] Yeah. Wow. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for sharing those two. Um, let’s get into your work now, and there’s anything else you want to, to say before we get into that?

Bryan Alexander: [00:08:32] I’ve got a doctorate in English and that always makes me want to assign more readings. So I’m going to. I’m going to heroically stop that impulse right now and go on.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:43] A couple of books right there. Very good.

Laura Hilliger: [00:08:44] I was actually just thinking I need a budget for my book buying because every time we have a guest on the Tao of WAO, well, I go out and buy the books they recommend. And because I just have to I mean, yes, I want to read both of those books. So.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:59] Well, interestingly, there’s an author called Ryan Holiday, who’s a stoic, stoic philosophy and this kind of thing, staff and marketing, I think. And I remember he has a newsletter called the just called the Reading List. And he says at the bottom, you know, any time someone recommends a book to him, he just goes and buys it immediately, no matter how much it costs. And the reason being that the amount of value you’re going to get from that book, no matter how much it costs, is way more than the sticker price, which I thought was. It changed my way of thinking about buying books anyway.

Bryan Alexander: [00:09:29] Mm hm.

Doug Belshaw: [00:09:30] Cool. All right, well, let’s start right from the beginning, because some people might not have been following your work, Might be hearing about you for the first time. Um, so let’s start with that label futurist. Um, I watch and watch my kids and also watch on television a lot of football or soccer as you call in America. And people have been looking back at the season and thinking about predictions and kind of going, Oh, well, look, you thought this team was going to win the league and they haven’t won the league or whatever. And and that’s kind of predicting the future or thinking, you know, what’s going to happen. Or someone might put a bet on a on a sporting match or something like that. Sure. But. To what extent is that different to what you’re doing as a futurist? Because you’re not just labelling yourself a futurist. You are part of a society of futurists, right?

Bryan Alexander: [00:10:21] Yes. Yes. I’m on the board of the Association of Professional Futurists and I do a lot of work with that group. This is a this is a chestnut topic for futurists to bash around. And and most professional futurists will say that’s not exactly what they do. They don’t do prediction per se. What they do is they try to help their clients think more strategically, more intelligently and more creatively about their future. And so that often involves helping them think through multiple possible futures for their organisation, their sector, their domain, their business, whatever, and then try to help plan for the best one so they can achieve it. Now, involved is often some form of prediction, although a lot of futurists hate the word, they’ll refer to it as the P word and then there are people who are not who are who are futurists in different senses, who will speak very confidently in a predictive sense. Michio Kaku, for example, talking about the future of science will say, Well, this is going to happen and this is going to happen straight up. So there’s a kind of grammatical level to it where you speak in a kind of perfect present. But I think most futurists now are are very conscious of the difficulty of prediction, and they try to basically improve our knowledge of the future, as it were. A good friend of mine, Peter Bishop, has a program called Teach the Future, and that’s its slogan is to get people teaching the future like we teach history. So to to remind people that in the classic words of the very, very bad movie Plan nine from outer space, we are all of us interested in the future because that is where will we be spending the rest of our lives? He But he points out that, you know, we have a lot of intellectual tools for trying to think about the future and we can teach them very readily. And also also just the fact of thinking about the future is actually that’s not an easy step to take for a lot of people.

Doug Belshaw: [00:12:25] It’s interesting that you talk about the kind of analogue between the history and the future. You’ve said that a couple of times. I remember reading a book called A History of Histories, and it was a book of historiography in the way that people think about the writing of history and how it’s done. And so you’re kind of working at a meta level thinking about the the future, just to make this a bit more tangible for people who are listening to this, who might not really get what we’re saying. And there’s a book that you published called Academia Next in 2020, which seems like a million years ago now, obviously. But you talked about different scenarios, right, for higher education. And and this is what one of the things that futurist is like. Here’s if trends go this way or trends go that way or if you know, so you talked about peak higher education, Health Care Nation. These are the titles of some of the chapters, as you know, Open Education, triumphant Renaissance, Augmented Campus Tutor and Retro campus. And so I guess you’re just thinking about, well, which way could things go? Looking back, are there any particular trends that you think You think we’ve gone one way rather than another in terms of higher education and any which you think are just way off beam? And maybe if we get into that, people can understand. Sure. How it works, if you see what I mean.

Bryan Alexander: [00:13:50] But let me let me set that up. The the the scenarios are the second half of the book. The first half of the book looks at trends. And so I need to explain that because that sets up the yeah, the scenarios. A trend is simply any force that exists in the present and in recent history that looks likely to shape the future. And the advantage of doing trends analysis is that you can back it up very carefully with evidence. And so a lot of my work is actually trends analysis. I mean, I publish a monthly report looking at present trends constantly, every day, do what’s called horizon scanning to look for information about current developments. And once you do this, you can do some kind of basic extrapolation, right? So you can point to say, you know, the rise in the use of a certain technology and say, all right, well, let’s imagine if that rise continues over the next few years. Or you could look at, say, one topic I’ll be talking about a bit more a decline in enrolment and let’s project forward. What if that decline continues? And so you can easily gain more data and then build a more refined extrapolation model off of that. So the first half of the book is looking at trends across multiple domains. Some of them are technological, some of them are demographic, economic, cultural, political, some of them are structural within higher education, for example. And just one caveat, academia next is focusing on the United States. So it involves in. National education to a small extent, but for reasons of scope, as well as the importance and complexity of American higher education, it focuses on the US that one book, so out of those trends was able to build out some of these scenarios and thank you very kindly listed them I think two that have simply borne out our health care nation and peak higher ed So Health Care nation again is a very, very distinctly American one because the United States has this unique way of funding health care, which is notorious in a lot of ways and widely disliked in the US. But we very carefully and militantly decided not to change it. Um, there’s a there’s a fun documentary about climate change. It’s a kind of mockumentary. It takes place in the future and it looks back at the early 21st century and says, Well, how did we get to this position of disaster? Well, we talked about the early 21st century, and we call it the age of Stupid. And that’s that’s the name of the documentary, the late, great Pete Postlethwaite is the is the narrator. And so it feels like that when it comes to health care. The reason this matters for higher education is several fold. One is that in in higher education, we spend a significant chunk of our curricula and research on the full spectrum of health care. So by full spectrum, I mean including, say, psychology and therapy, also including computer science for digital medical records, including hospital administration, as well as, of course, nursing and surgery and now famously public health. So all of that represents a chunk of higher education. And my my hypothesis for this scenario was following the trend of increasing investment in allied health care in the US. Projecting that forward, I imagined health care becoming the leading economic sector in the United States, taking, you know, representing the biggest swath of our entire macroeconomic investment. And one of the one of the other trends that powers that besides America’s snafu of financing is demographics. And we’ll come back to that a bit. But basically, the American population, like a lot of populations in the developed world, is getting older. And we know statistically the older humans get, the more health care they tend to consume. So if I put that hypothesis out there, what does a scenario of that kind of health care nation look like? And it means that higher education teaches a lot more in allied health, and that means, you know, bigger, more nursing programs, but also more interdisciplinary teaching. So more philosophy programs, for example, teaching more medical ethics, more literature, teaching literature of medicine. You think, for example, about Frankenstein as well as history, doing more history, including health care. It also means changes in primary and secondary school. Think of, you know, in the US we speak of undergrad education as pre-med. Imagine high school as having pre pre med. Also think too about more partnerships with health care sectors. So for example, campuses partnering with hospitals to exchange spaces two times of the year. All of this when I posted this scenario, it’s it’s borne out so far. Health care just continues to grow. The last semester, spring, actually the last academic year, we’ve seen enrolments in health care dip down a little bit. But for the previous two years, they had just boomed. So it’s still absolutely enormous. So that’s that’s one that seems pretty unremarkably true.

Doug Belshaw: [00:18:49] It’ll be interesting to see if, given the gargantuan size of the US military budget, even expanding under Biden, it’ll be interesting to see if some of that budget ends up getting directed towards health care or if it has been already. I don’t know.

Bryan Alexander: [00:19:06] Well, it can in a direct way and an indirect way. The direct way is that a chunk of the of the military budget, like the military budget for any country, is actually about health care, because even even a military force at peace has people who are sick or who are injured. And of course, the US is still fighting the longest war in our in our history. So we have that. The indirect way, though, is this interesting stance the US military has where the US military is very, very concerned about climate change. It has been under all administrations. And so one side effect or one dynamic within climate change is increasing stresses to human health. You know, global warming makes it more and more unpleasant, dangerous, if not fatal to live. Europe is now experiencing this with heat waves right now, as is the United States. And these are not the most dangerous countries to be in. But also there’s the there’s the impact on changing biomes. So as animals and plants migrate, they carry new diseases or. Disease are new to different biomes. So I think the military is going to be tracking this as well. Right. You’re right to point out the military growth under Biden. While the US does present as a very polarised polity and there’s a lot of truth to that in in foreign policy and military, we are often in practice quite unified and growing. The enormous American military machine is uncontested right now.

Laura Hilliger: [00:20:39] I think that when people mention the military budget of the United States, what they don’t realise is how much medical research, technological research, sociological research is funded through the US military. So it’s not you know, it’s not just it’s not just war machine. It is actually quite a bit of intellectual, intellectual research that’s that’s being funded through this one line item. And I think people don’t really understand that.

Bryan Alexander: [00:21:05] No, you’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of that and a lot of that gets outsourced, if you will, to civilian universities. I went to the University of Michigan, and I remember very vividly there was a controversy over physicists and others who were who were researching what was the cover story, explosions in grain silos. And it turned out that this was they were getting Pentagon money to do this. And this was really early development of fuel, air explosives, for example. Plus, you have we have institutes like DARPA. We have. And you’re so right to point in medical research. I mean, one of the sad facts of technological history that’s not really often discussed is that the experience of war is a huge stimulus for research and development in medical science. You know, you think about, for example, superglue, which came out of the Vietnam War as a quick wound healing. You know, you look at the 1860s where American medical practice had a huge overhaul, a massive boom. It’s a sad fact, but it’s it’s well, nevertheless, you’re absolutely right to mention that.

Doug Belshaw: [00:22:11] So you mentioned Health Care Nation. Another one, I think you said was peak higher education. I think we met each other through, you know, online. And I think we met twice offline now, haven’t we? Um, through the work that we’ve done in education. But maybe people have heard of peak oil. What do you mean by peak higher education and how, how do you feel that’s already starting to play out?

Bryan Alexander: [00:22:35] It’s played out for a decade now. I’m afraid when people use the peak model, they’re referring to basically a graph where the subject under consideration is rising and it reaches a peak and then it falls. So we speak about peak car, for example, where we’re assuming passing car ownership to some extent. Peak higher education is a model I came up with in 2013 and it refers to, in the United States, a long boom in enrolment starting in the early 1980s, where just the number of students enrolled just increased and increased and increased, and that along with that went expansions and faculty expansions and staff, physical plant expansions and campuses, the creation of new colleges and universities. And in 2012 it reached a peak. And starting in 2012, the number of students enrolled began to decline and that decline has occurred every year since. In fact, every semester since and for the first 7 or 8 years of that, it was a decline that few people noticed because it was about 1% each year and nobody was really excited about this. And then with Covid, it accelerated drastically. The undergraduate enrolment declined by roughly 4 or 5% in the two years the two great years of the pandemic. So we’re down now, depending on your measurement, 10 to 20% from that peak. And I projected this and not with any delight or pleasure.

Bryan Alexander: [00:24:00] And I added, I tried to explain how this worked and what could make it continue. So we think about anxiety over paying for college, which again, in the United States, we’re not exactly unique, but our system is still pretty rare. Britain is trying to catch up. I feel in some ways, although your own financing system with grants is is fairly distinct. But we we’ve invented this enormous bolus of student debt, which is now roughly $1.7 trillion. And we don’t really have a way of going back on it. The Biden administration right now is fumbling around, trying to figure out if they’re going to do some debt forgiveness. But even if they did, I’m not sure they will. But even if they did offer a significant amount of debt forgiveness, that whole bubble will continue to inflate because the drivers behind it are still present. And the Biden administration has no plans to to adjust them. And we could talk about the reasons behind that. We could talk about, say, state governments, for example, reducing the amount of funding they give to campuses on a per student basis. We can talk about the reasons for price increases in American higher education. But but the the fact of that of that peak having. Have been met and now we’re sliding down.

Bryan Alexander: [00:25:13] The wrong slide at the wrong side of it. Has implications for higher education, has implications for how we fund things. The main economic engine for propelling American colleges and universities is tuition and fees. And so, I mean, only a handful of schools have an endowment big enough to make money on. And state governments tend to support only a minority of a budget at best. So if that’s enrolment begins to drop, then the income begins to drop and you see the problem. And we’ve already seen signs of that with cutting economic cutting academic programs. And the usual pattern is cutting programs that don’t enrol a lot of students, and those tend to be in the arts and humanities. Sometimes the cuts are minor, still painful, but involving, say, forcing a program to stop offering majors, it still offers minors and still does service, general curriculum work. But and sometimes it involves not hiring again, faculty who are retired, not hiring in that line, or not hiring adjunct faculty as temporary faculty hired to teach one class at a time. Sometimes it involves actually getting rid of tenured faculty, and I’ve called that process after the operation in Chess, the Queen sacrifice. And I’ve seen that played out across hundreds of campuses in the United States. So it seems.

Doug Belshaw: [00:26:36] I’ve been following what you’ve written about that with interest, because as you say, this is you writing about the US market. But as I learned when I worked at Moodle, what happens in the US has ramifications and repercussions around around the world. And, and I thought, I thought interesting what you said earlier about health care nation and about, you know, the growth of the health care sector. You talked about philosophy, which is my original subject and all that kind of stuff, and the growth of that at the same time as peak higher education, meaning that those kinds of faculties and departments are being cut. It really pains me when I see history departments, philosophy departments, humanities departments being cut, especially as you’ve already said, they’re exactly the kind of skills people that we need to solve the coming crises. So yeah. Do you do you see any recognition of of that dynamic within higher education?

Bryan Alexander: [00:27:32] I feel, I feel very similarly again, you know, my my background is English literature. And, you know, I taught in that in that role for years. And it doesn’t fill me with any delight or schadenfreude or self-hating dynamics. It makes me sad. And I wish the humanities would fight better, you know, fight for enrolment and fight for their status better. And it is a problem in that this is knowledge which our population deeply, deeply needs. But the knowledge, the educational experience isn’t isn’t necessarily gone. I think one of the transformations that’s not being remarked upon as much is the transformation of some of these humanities fields from being full degree granting programs to being service programs. So students definitely get exposed to it in an undergraduate curriculum and general education. They just are less likely to major in it. So I one can overstate the loss, but I think I think it is a loss and it’s it’s a serious problem when we come to climate change. I mean, for me, climate change is the ultimate transdisciplinary field or transdisciplinary topic. And again, the humanities have so much to contribute potentially and already literally with fields like the digital humanities and the environmental humanities. So any, any reductions to them is is foolish and dangerous.

Laura Hilliger: [00:28:58] Let’s actually talk a little bit about the connection between education and climate. And I have a question here that I would love to ask, which is as as you’ve been talking, you’ve been quite diplomatic and quite objective and balanced. I would love to know how your personal politics, your personal feelings, your personal beliefs around climate change play into the work you do. Whether there’s a thread that’s advocacy for you that you sort of you know, I think education is always advocacy in some form or fashion because I believe that the basis of all human problems always link back to education in some form or fashion. But if you have some some ideas about how your personal viewpoints actually tie into the work that you do and how you maybe advocate or what you advocate for in terms of the climate crisis, I’d just love to hear you talk about it.

Bryan Alexander: [00:29:55] Well, that’s a fantastic question and thank you for asking it, because there’s always I think this is true within many intellectual enterprises that you have this balance between wanting to advocate for your personal take on something or. But at the same time, you feel bound to present an objective reality. So, you know, as a doctor, do a patient, you might say, well, you’ve got to stop smoking or whatever. And I’m passionate about that. But also I can say it, here’s all the science, here’s the objective reality. And I also know you might not stop doing that. I part of my work with academics and climate change is simply to explore the full spectrum of what climate change may mean for colleges and universities. My new book on this called Universities on Fire, will be out this fall or winter, depending on on supply chain issues. And I spent a lot of time digging into all the different ramifications. And the book is in press right now. Don’t think oh, no, I missed this other ramification. I’ve got lots of stuff. So I’m continuing writing on this. But there’s but you know, you think about the research enterprise what we research and how there’s obviously, you know, you think about fields like earth science, you know, chemistry, atmospheric, but also you think about psychology, which is already having a research into climate grief or something called solastalgia. What happens when, you know, Doug, you mentioned, you know, your you and your children hiking Hadrian’s Wall. What happens when you hike it 30 years from now? And the the biological situation around it is different because it’s heated up.

Bryan Alexander: [00:31:38] And how do you deal with that psychologically? Sociologists are examining how human societies respond to climate and how we might learn from that. Looking ahead, political science is looking at things like how do we handle national sovereignty? You know, problems like what if Brazil stands out and is the only country not doing something for climate change? And because of their ownership of the Amazon, this is horrible. How do how do sovereignty work for this? And so, I mean, field after field looks into this, which leads to teaching, you know, the curricula, do we expand more and more classes, programs, majors, entire degrees, schools devoted to climate change, climate mitigation, climate adaptation? What happens to our physical campuses? So let me think. For example, do you ban fossil fuel burning vehicles? Do you start onshoring, if you will, power generation by putting wind turbines or solar, depending on where you are or geothermal, etcetera, You know, do you how do you change the building construction to reduce the amount of carbon that’s emitted? Do you try to change the diet that is served on campus? Because we know that the current food systems tend to generate methane as well as carbon dioxide and so on. So I mean, researching all and this is just scratching the surface. There’s a lot more to it and I’m happy to talk about that. But on the personal advocacy side right now, a lot of what I’m doing in academia is trying to get people to think about this at all because it’s really not on the table. If you look at at at at the programs for professional meetings, climate change just barely appears. If you look at discussions about core curricula, it’s just not on the table. And I’m fascinated by this. And I started kind of satirically to write an essay about this. Freud has a wonderful, wonderful essay called The Resistance to Psychoanalysis, which I recommend to everyone because it’s a very sarcastic piece where he asks, tries to figure out why people don’t pay attention to psychoanalysis or deny it. And he makes this clever jujitsu move where he says, Oh, it’s because they’re resisting it. And resistance is a mechanism of psychoanalysis. So by resisting it, they’re confirming it. So I’ve got two kind of sarcastic argument about this, but I do want higher education to pay attention and then to do things because if this is the most enormous crisis facing human civilisation of our century, surely, surely academia can do more about it. And that does that mean partnering with local communities to support them in transitioning off of fossil fuels? Does it involve partnering with local communities to do things like building seawalls? Do we create a climate corps at a global scale where we have you know, you think about how many students are involved in post-secondary education worldwide. Do we try to mobilise them into a group to try and do something? Do we do we break our often politically neutral stance and try to lobby nations to change their behaviour on this? I mean, I think there’s an enormous potential for this enormous sector to actually be involved or not, and that’s something which I’d like to advocate for.

Laura Hilliger: [00:34:53] I think I think that’s I’m making faces and shaking my head because I find it fascinating that we are actually having a conversation where we’re talking about the awareness of our own power to implement change in regards to the climate crisis. And I’m probably too close to it because I’ve been working with Greenpeace for over seven years. I’ve been a climate activist for a really long time. I do things in my own life like I’m I am aware and taking action and know young people who are out on the street every Friday and, you know, all of these movements, I’m so close to them. And so when I when I’m just reflecting how like the emotion that comes up in me, realising that there’s, you know, that that there is this giant sector that could be making massive changes even before we get to the policy stuff, even before we get to the like getting off fossil fuel stuff. I’m actually surprised that that your answer is about awareness is because like for me, it feels like everybody knows. Everybody knows we’re in this climate crisis. Everybody sees it playing in all of these different ways. The amount of weather events that we’ve had, I find it I just find it really surprising that people who have the power to implement sustainable changes, even, you know, even some of the examples you gave, like it’s, you know, the director of food services at university has the power to be able to make decisions at a level that actually matters and has impact. And and the fact that that we’re still advocating for people even to to think about the power that they have is. I just a big internal sigh.

Bryan Alexander: [00:36:37] Well, it’s it’s a this is a professional risk for for futurists that we have to look at the full range of possibilities and and and that can that leads from the utopian to the dystopian and we have to be aware of the human capacity for change. So I study social models of change all the time, institutional transformation. And I have to, as an analyst and as a forecaster, be prepared to say we may be living in the years of stupid, as I said before, and then as a as an advocate, as to the extent that I can to say, let’s not be stupid. I mean, I have to be I have to be absolutely fair. There are there are many academics who are interested and knowledgeable, but I think in many ways they lack traction. And partly because the past two years we’ve been convulsed with a terrible pandemic, a global scale. Right now, a lot of academia is thinking about the war in Ukraine. Also, depending on where you are, different nations are thinking very, very hard about racism and anti-racism, and that often will soak up a lot of attention. Well, especially I mentioned the financial pressures on American higher education. There’s that and those are worsening and that takes up some of your attention, right? So a lot of faculty, staff, students are trying to survive or they’re trying to accomplish their mission of researching French history or getting a degree in in nursing. So I think there’s a limited bandwidth issue here.

Doug Belshaw: [00:38:06] And also there’s we still live in a world where people can control what can and can’t be said. I think I read in some of your work, Bryan, actually, there’s a there’s a place in America I can’t remember where it is, but they’ve literally banned talk about climate change in their local council or whatever. Like you’re literally not allowed to talk about it, even though it’s, it’s affecting the coastline or whatever it is. And in Scotland, which is not too far away from where I live, I’m in the north of England. There was an exam question and people were asked, might there be any benefits to climate change? You know, just getting people to think critically. And that question was on the front page of newspapers and BBC, whatever, like how dare an exam board say there might be a benefit to a region? Well, where I live, Laura and I have been comparing notes. It’s been up to 39°C where Laura lives. It’s barely hitting 20 where I am. And so where I live is going to turn into this lovely place to go on vacation, um, because of climate change. But we can’t talk about that. We can only talk about the massive negative things. So as you say, certain things just soak up all of the debate. And so you can’t even have a rational conversation about about the issue.

Bryan Alexander: [00:39:22] It can, it can be that that politically shaped. So in various countries you have very active climate denial movements and you have and in parts of the developing world, you have that, of course, that, you know, India is a good example of this, where they’ll say, well, look, you know, we need to develop and we resent the developed world from telling us you can’t burn coal. Well, we need to burn coal. So some of our population can have electricity in a reliable level for the first time. You know, you look at China, which is a world leader in renewables, at the same time is a world leader in emitting fossil fuels. And, you know, I think the there’s also, as you said, the the sharp partisan divide on this, which really peels back and forth. In the US, we have this phenomenon called rolling coal. Laura, have you experienced this?

Laura Hilliger: [00:40:18] No, I’m sorry. I don’t know what that is.

Bryan Alexander: [00:40:21] It’s when you take a vehicle, usually a truck and, and you, you hack the exhaust and part of the engine in order to belch out more smoke and blacker smoke. And some trucks have done this. It’s to to raise a giant middle finger at climate change and to say you’re not going to take my, you know, my fossil fuel car away from me. In the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump was fixated on on how a hypothetical Green New Deal would take people’s hamburgers away from them. And always, always, always a savvy communicator. As every literature person knows, food is something which is not just essential for life, but crucial to our understanding of who we are. So zeroing in of food is really, really important, I think. I think one thing we’re likely to see if I can connect both of what both of what you’re saying is we’re likely to see political unrest on campuses as students, but also faculty and staff get active and take measures into their own hands. For example, petroleum engineering is one of the most lucrative fields in to be. In the world. It’s an incredibly rewarding financially well compensated field.

Bryan Alexander: [00:41:37] So we have faculty who teach petroleum engineering. We I’m expecting students as well as some faculty and staff to protest the existence of such professors on campus. I mean, think Andreas Malm, who is a Swedish activist and writer and an unbelievably prolific writer, he’s kind of notorious now for making the case for direct action against fossil fuel enterprises. He has a short book on this called How to Blow Up a Pipeline. And he has. But I recommend reading him as usual. He’s one of those Scandinavians who has a breathtakingly excellent grasp of English, more fluent than many English writers. It’s disturbing. But. But he makes the case. He said, Well, if you think about this, if you expect that climate change is likely to result in the deaths of millions. Surely that means we are now in the present justified in taking extreme measures. And so like forcing your cafeteria on campus not to serve meat anymore or, you know, having a strike where you prohibit faculty from teaching or taking money from fossil fuels. I expect to see more and more of that coming.

Doug Belshaw: [00:42:49] I mean, this is the fascinating thing and it kind of feeds in. I wanted to make sure before we finish that, we talked about you pretty much predicting the pandemic in your last book just as it was starting. So, you know, we weren’t able to deal with the pandemic as best we could because we didn’t fully think through the ramifications and what it would take to actually be prepared and put in the resources and the preparedness, etcetera, suddenly for climate change. So in that last book, academia on page 23, you know, you imagined a major pandemic striking the world and all this kind of stuff. And I guess from your point of view, it was just another thing on the list of like, these things might happen in the next century. And this one is very, very likely to happen, you know, statistically likely to happen. And it must be amazing when you go and talk to universities that some of them don’t have any preparedness. And then you’re basically saying the same thing about climate as well. Wow.

Bryan Alexander: [00:43:51] Well, this is another risk of futures work is if people don’t listen or they don’t or they don’t take steps. I mean, so this is the now notorious page 23 where and I wrote I wrote that in around 2018 or so. And this is people ever since have asked me, you know, what dark forces are you in league with? Or, you know, what did you know? And and the fact is that futurists as well as public health people have been forecasting pandemics since 1990. And they’ve been. Right. You know, you think about SARS, you think about MERS, you think about, you know, far more terrifyingly Ebola and other diseases, not to mention, you know, the persistence of malaria. And, you know, you can watch a film like Contagion, which I always recommend because it’s a it’s a superb film which models in many ways, you know, the outbreak of such a such a pandemic. The irony of a film like Contagion is that it presents the American CDC as heroic and flawless, which now is a disaster. But the people have been thinking about this. To what extent is is the climate crisis, is the Covid experience a kind of dress rehearsal for how we respond to the climate crisis? Is it or is it a diagnostic? What is it revealed about humanity’s capacity to respond? The great philosopher of science, Bruno Latour, has an interesting article about this from about a year and a half ago. And in some ways, I mean, there are some things we can let coldly and analytically and see that that are true. For example, international collaboration was paltry. We had some, but we tended to respond to the pandemic on a national basis. You know, you think about, say, Russia or China and the US celebrating their own national brand of of of vaccine. You know, you could think about the Johnson administration, sorry to say, fumbling its way around, but but doing so for for Britain. You know you think about Brazil right now where Bolsonaro may lose an election simply because he was so he mishandled the pandemic so badly that it’s actually costing him and so on. We could also think about the the politicisation of science, that science became openly, openly political in in a wide range of ways. I mean, anti-vax people, of course, you know, being anti-science, that kind of thing. But also we’ve seen, you know, a lot of scientists take openly political stances. In 2020, we saw quite a few public health people say that police violence against black people in the United States is a pandemic or is an epidemic and needs to be stopped. And the Biden administration’s, you know, claim to follow the science has clearly not been followed. And so political, you know, politics is, if you’ll forgive the terrible word choice here, has trumped science repeatedly. So looking ahead, I think those are things that we should expect. But at the same time, at the same time, we can look at the creation of the of the vaccine, which is which is astonishing. I mean, a historical development. And it’s had incredible life saving benefits already in an incredible hurry. And I think people would celebrate it more, actually, if not for the fact that Trump was the leader of it in the United States. But it’s but I think that that points out to the fact that we are constantly creative, constantly innovative, thinking about ways to respond. So when we talk about ways, for example, of structuring seawalls or how do you minus a seawall, how do you change architecture of a city when sea levels rise? Do we think about floating buildings, buildings on stilts when we think about ways of moving agriculture? So you look at Canada, for example, and say this is going to be a breadbasket for the world in some ways. All right. Well, how do we fertilise that? How do we develop the soil? How do we protect all of that? There’s a lot of invention, much less if you. just just glance into geoengineering. Forget for a second the politics and the dangers. Just forget the huge amount of invention. You know, there are multiple ways of seeding oceans, multiple spaceborne platforms, atmospheric injection. I mean, that is a key takeaway from Covid is that we are massively inventive species. And and yet I can be sad. I mean, we we fumbled the pandemic badly. You know, the death toll in the world is past 6 million and the number is probably double that once we take a look at at bad data about this. You know, in the US, we passed a million. It’s probably 1.4 million. And the the terrible spectre of long Covid is now apparently something that we’re just embracing where, you know, maybe 20% of people who get infected have some form of lung.

Doug Belshaw: [00:48:35] Yeah, in the UK it’s 2 million people, 400,000 people out of work. And, you know, no one’s really doing anything about it. There’s a member of my family who has long Covid and can’t work. It’s. It’s crazy. Fine. We’re going to have to wrap up in a moment. But there’s a there’s a couple of things I’ve definitely taken away from. From this amongst many, which is, you know, the timescales on which our systems work aren’t in tune with the challenges that we face. So, you know, we’ve touched on politics. We’ve kept it to one side, but we’ve got four and five year kind of rolling terms, which means that politicians are never looking at the long term kind of stuff. We’ve got banks openly saying that their loan books are on average six years and therefore just these things aren’t in tune with the the long period of time that we need to spend thinking about this stuff. And the other thing is just the way that you’ve very kind of eloquently talked about having to be dispassionate about all of the different scenarios that could play out whilst at the same time having strong views and trying to advocate for certain ways of the way the world should be and and the way that we can trends can be accelerated because of emergencies. And the thing which is the thing which I’ll take away is what trends are we actually trying to get going even in a small way so that they can be accelerated, given an emergency? Someone who I follow became a crane driver of those really tall cranes because she realises that come reconstruction, because of climate change, there’s going to need be need for lots of people to be able to reconstruct things with cranes.

Doug Belshaw: [00:50:16] Like. That kind of level of thinking that I really appreciate with you and her and other people like that.

Bryan Alexander: [00:50:23] Well well, thank you. I would, you know, think about climate migration and what that means for campus. So if where you are now, Doug, is going to become a nice, balmy Italian landscape in a couple of decades. So so for some people, they can say, well, I’m fine. You know, you know, we talk to campuses that are on on elevations, but not depending on glaciers. They say, well, we’re going to be fine. Yes, maybe you will be. It depends on what happens. Laura is thinking now, you know, about, say, diseases jumping over water quality is a huge. But just set that aside for a second. And we’re looking at millions of migrants. Climate migrants. If you if you just look at the globe and you just look at the equatorial regions, you realise how many people are living in Nigeria, for example, or Eastern Africa or in Bangladesh, and think about how badly they’re going to suffer and how migration is the logical response. You think how badly Europe and the United States have recently responded to tens of thousands or just thousands of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa? What happens when you have a million people cross your shores or tens of millions? Right. So I think that that that academy that’s in a nice physical location that doesn’t think it’s going to be that threatened, has to start planning. Now, do you, for example, offer physical housing, you know, for climate migrants, you know, perhaps you do that in exchange basis with a university or college that’s in danger of shutting down because of too much heat or being subsumed by the waves? Or do you offer to teach online virtually for climate migrants? I remember during a few years ago, during the Mooch frenzy, there were people who were criticising MOOCs for teaching online and bragging about teaching migrants. But the fact is that migrants have a tremendous need for post-secondary education when they move to a new country to learn about that country, its history, its politics, its language, but also their own professional needs to to reskill or to declare themselves for a new situation or to change jobs to become a train driver In in Norway, for example. We have. So do we now plan to take all of our lessons from Covid, from what we learned about teaching online and take that forward so we can offer the best possible pedagogical experience? We have to be thinking on this generational timeline. My new book looks out to the year 2100. I think that’s a challenge for people who think in six month or three month increments, but it’s a challenge that we have to be up to and we have to face because the people that Lara is talking about, the people who are going to Extinction Rebellion or to the Sunrise movement, who are coming out every Friday to protest, they’re the vanguard. We’re going to see more and more of them. And we have to be ready in the academic community to respond and to take that forward at the very least, not to mention to take a leadership role on a planetary scale.

Laura Hilliger: [00:53:10] Yes, I just did the mind blown gesture for those of you who can’t see me. Bryan, I want to talk to you about 70 other things, but imagine you have quite a bit to do. So I actually do have a final question for you, and it is whether or not you have ever met your doppelganger and whether or not doppelganger is your favourite German word.

Bryan Alexander: [00:53:38] Well, the question comes up because I did my dissertation on doppelgangers in romantic era British literature. And yes, I have met a double and I’ve seen several because I have those of you who are listening to this, I have a fairly distinct appearance. I have a lot of hair, including a big beard. And I’m also physically I look like an alien from a high gravity planet. I’m fairly squat a weightlifter. So I’ve met several and one of them is a good friend, Steve Brunette is an IT guy and also a fantastic electronic musician in North Carolina. And he and I look disturbingly alike. In fact, we have a couple of selfies of the two of us, which if you search for the term double or doppelganger, actually appear.

Laura Hilliger: [00:54:29] Really? Okay. Well, I know what I’m doing this afternoon.

Bryan Alexander: [00:54:31] Well, let’s have fun with it. But it’s tricky because doppelgangers are usually bad news. Yeah, they’re almost always fatal. So it’s either my favourite or second favourite German word, the other being, of course, the great German word schadenfreude. You know, pleasure in the suffering of others, which is something that, you know, just to have a word like that says so much. Yeah, but I have to say here, what I’ve enjoyed is the pleasure of having a fine intellectual conversation with the two of you. Thank you very much for hosting me and being great, great.

Doug Belshaw: [00:55:03] Thank you, Bryan. And we’re looking forward to your new book coming out. When did you say it was and what was the title again?

Bryan Alexander: [00:55:07] The title is Universities on Fire, and It’s coming out from Johns Hopkins University Press, and it should be out later this year. Again, depending on on on all kinds of supply chain issues.

Doug Belshaw: [00:55:18] And for people who want to find out more about you and to follow your work, where’s the best place to go?

Bryan Alexander: [00:55:23] Well, my blog is a solid place, Also, if you want to get a sense of all my different research projects, you can go to And if you want to follow me on Twitter I’m Bryan Alexander and those are some of the major ways.

Doug Belshaw: [00:55:42] Great and that’s Bryan with a Y. Excellent.

Bryan Alexander: [00:55:44] It is definitely.

Doug Belshaw: [00:55:45] We’re going to have to get you back for round two because this was fantastic. I very much enjoyed it. Thank you.

Bryan Alexander: [00:55:50] Thank you both. Look forward to it.