Cleaning Up

My office, that is. I was asked to move out of my office the same month one of my articles graced the cover of the premier journal in my field Although faculty members are fleeing my department like fleas from a drowning dog, the interim department head needs my office. It’s the only faculty office in the building without a window, and I’m pretty sure nobody wants the space except the department head’s graduate students. But that’s none of my business.

And this essay isn’t about bitterness, anyway. It’s about the decisions we make in light of an ambiguous future. One of the costs of making moral choices is breaking the strong emotional ties to a prior life. My own future, if I have one, is necessarily rooted in the past. So I’ll start there, recognizing the inherent self-absorption of my approach. Which is nothing new for my regular readers.

For the better part of a decade, I was the model professor, if only from the standpoint of university administrators. I taught more courses than I was asked, completed more published research than nearly all my peers, and had an active record of service to various mainstream professional entities.

Then, realizing I had an obligation to the citizens paying me, I woke up and starting doing work of some import. As with most of the students in my classrooms, the citizens didn’t appreciate me, at least not upon initial inspection. Learning is difficult, especially when unlearning is required along the way.

I maintained abundant activity of high quality in the three expected arenas of instruction, scholarship, and service, and I added one more delicacy to my overflowing plate: social criticism. I began to write for the general public, most frequently in the form of guest commentaries in various newspapers. My first opinion piece was an accident: When the university president refused to answer the letters I sent directly to him, I sent one of the letters to the local morning daily paper, thinking they might pursue it as a news story. They published it as a guest commentary. That very day, the president of the university responded to my earlier letters. And not kindly, either.

I was hooked. For the next decade, my opinion pieces focused on various aspects of faith-based junk science, including creationism, illiteracy, denial of global climate change, and denial of limits to growth. Since most of my colleagues were (and are) swimming in the main stream, my approach allowed me to simultaneously offend my colleagues and the general public. In addition to writing for the taxpayers, I extended my service commitment to facilities of incarceration at the request of a new and soon-to-be dear friend.

In response to my newly discovered commitment to relevancy, and although I’d been the lowest-paid faculty member at my rank in the entire college for a decade, the administration soon ramped up the pressure. It wasn’t long before I was viewed as a pariah on campus, and the dean of my college went so far as to libel me. Soon enough, I was banned from teaching in my home department and my scholarship and service were routinely denigrated.

But my students were learning to think, an aspiration reputedly revered but actually despised at all the large, research-oriented institutions with which I am familiar. Real education makes people dangerous. They might go so far as to question the obedience-at-home, oppression-abroad mentality requisite to propping up an empire. My Socratic approach was successful according to the only metric that mattered to me: real learning. The kind that sticks in your craw after you’ve fed at the trough of knowledge. The kind that gives a person the ability, courage, confidence, and desire to question the answers. The kind that changes lives, one life at a time.

Imagine the bittersweet nature of my departure. Recognizing the costs of imperialism, no longer could I tolerate living at the apex of empire, a large city. Recognizing the moral imperative of living outside the main stream, I left the easy, civilized life for a turn at self-reliance in a small community. Recognizing I was doing good work, and doing it well, was insufficient grounds to keep doing it.

I’m not sure I’d do it again, considering the contrary choice of my best friend. I certainly understand why, given a choice, many people would rather die than live outside the industrial economy. I understand, too, why most people who spend time at the mud hut depart with a renewed commitment to civilized living. After all, culture has convinced most people they have a personal investment in maintaining the industrial economy, rather than bringing it down. And it’s clear to most of my visitors that this new life of mine is tough on the mind and even tougher on the body.

Judging from the overwhelmingly negative response to my departure from the hallowed halls, I chose the perfect age to change life pursuits. All people older than my 49 years (now 50, if you’re keeping score) claim they don’t have the energy, at their advanced age, to do what I’ve done. All people younger that I claim they don’t have the money to do what I’ve done (as if they could not join others, as I have done, by necessity and choice).

Although apparently I made the right choice at the right time, getting out of the industrial economy before it reaches its overdue terminus — and there is no unburning this bridge, even if I wanted to — I have lost a majority of influence I might have had (as well as a majority of the ego-stoking limelight). Suddenly those three letters behind my name have lost their power. Because I am no longer active in the academy, I am not asked to deliver seminars at other institutions. I no longer teach classes through the honors college, which was willing to put up with my wacky ideas after my home department wasn’t. I’ve moved too far away to serve populations in facilities of incarceration. And, from a strictly personal perspective, I miss the inmates and honors students with whom I was fortunate to work. I think about them and their wisdom every single day as I move endless tons of dirt, plant trees in the orchard, and make innumerable other preparations for thriving in the post-carbon era.

At the most specific level, few people face the choice I had. The proverbial brass ring of academia — the tenured faculty position — is a rare find. Once ensconced in the easy life of the ivory tower, particularly at the level of full professor — or any other position for that matter, inside or outside academia — few people would consider the implications of their lives for other humans and the entire living planet. At a more general level, I am hard-pressed to come up with any other person who would leave a high-pay, low-work job for any reason, much less morality. It occurs to me that forfeiting the easy life of tenured professor for the challenge of living outside the mainstream is the wackiest idea I’ve had yet.

Clearing the final shelf of books, I turned to the last pages of my most comprehensive piece of social criticism, Letters to a Young Academic. The words seem a fitting finale to the chapter I’ve closed:

I launch this paper boat with a final bit of advice about the life of the mind: Never take it for granted, for it could be snatched away tomorrow. The life of an academician is challenging, to be sure. It demands stamina of the mind and occasionally of the body. It requires personal sacrifice for the common good, a profession on full public display, and a predisposition to swim upstream against a strong cultural current. It is not for the faint of heart or the feeble of mind.

But the rewards are supreme. You are allowed to live a life of leisure, in the historical sense: You choose the work you do. Through the lives of your students, you experience life and death and the wonderful emotional roller coaster of youth. As such, you can choose to remain forever young, if only vicariously. You have opportunities to serve as a mentor. And, if you are worthy and fortunate, somebody might endow you with that noblest of distinctions by calling you “teacher.”


This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin

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Comments 23

  • Dear Guy —

    Your situation reminds me a bit of that of Professor Norman Finkelstein, who criticized Alan Dershowitz with plagiarism and other academic misdeeds and was eventually denied tenure at DePaul University and lost his job. I communicated with Professor Finkelstein at the time and praised him for following his conscience and putting moral and ethical truth over self-interest. He told me at the time that what he missed most was losing the daily interactions with his students, many of whom plainly adored him.

    It appears that now Professor Non-Gratis Finkelstein travels the world delivering lectures on the same issues, but at a much larger scale of impact,

    I see a similar future for you, Guy, if you wish to pursue such activities. You might need a literary agent. You might think about writing a book about your past experiences and other topical books from your massive expertise in various aspects of collapse, and particularly the connections between ecology, economics, and institutional inertia, for starters.

    I can speak from personal experience that battling “the system” can be tiresome, depleting and sometimes discouraging. But you have no choice because you are burdened with conscience.

    Perhaps it may be a comfort to you, Guy, that nothing that has befallen you is totally unique to you. But you are clearly among the elite of intellectual, socially-conscious citizens of the world. You have given much already, but I suspect that you will have much more to offer and I expect that you will prosper and reap various rewards from your activism.

    I believe there is a genuine difference between academics and intellectuals. I suspect that many academics despise and fear powerful intellectuals because they fear comparison of what they are compared to what they could and should be.

    So, leaving behind academia could actually be a blessing and similar in effect to discarding dead weight that hinders you on your life’s journey.

    By the way, watching the news this morning on several television networks, I felt that doom is increasingly in the air. The economy is collapsing and yet Obama is still promising “recovery” and “growth”. The only growth possible will be short-term growth from the bottom to just above the bottom, but the peak of the past economy in real terms is like a peak gradually growing more distant in our rearview mirror.

    Panic is approaching.

    Keep working, Guy. Your greatest teaching is ahead of you.

    Stan Moore

  • Surely that hoarding of empty space and the desire for a new conservation building altogether, coupled with the bullying of non-environmental science Natural Resources students with only brick and board bookcases, led to the much deserved promotion to Dean. What about all that modern vacancy for vacuous minds over in the FCS annex? Couldn’t you put in for a window space over there? The hot air would make the wintertime quite cozy!

  • “But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,-Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.-But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.” HDT

  • I think Stan is right in this…

    “I believe there is a genuine difference between academics and intellectuals. I suspect that many academics despise and fear powerful intellectuals because they fear comparison of what they are compared to what they could and should be.”

    I’ve noticed as well that many academics are so narrowly focused on their areas of specialization that they can be pretty lousy at connecting the dots and grasping any but the mainstream (bogus) version of the big issues. As your story shows, Guy, it seems you almost have to get out of academia to be free to think freely — unless you’re content just to keep your insights to yourself.

  • As Upton Sinclair said:

    “It is difficult to convince a man of something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

    When I was younger and less well paid, I used to think that was funny, but glib. But now I believe it’s the bedrock truth. As I become less well-paid once again I’m finding it much more tempting to extricate myself. I think, Guy, that you are part of a tiny sliver that is able to actually set aside “privilege” rather than waiting to have it taken from you.

    Even in academic cultural anthropology, where there is a great deal less hostility against the kinds of critiques you make, heaven forbid anyone actually act upon it seriously.

  • Like most people born into western industrial society, I knew no different and accepted gross aberrantion as normality.

    It took many years of being abused by the empire to discover the truth, but I now understand that I was lied to, almost from birth.

    I now understand that the main purpose of formal education is to provide students with enough information (and perhaps skill) for them to be useful to the empire, whilst preventing them from gaining access to information that would make them dangerous to the empire.

    Many universities are now full of bought-and-paid-for lackies of corporations, and many so-called educational institutions are simply business enterprises that have sold out to the highest bidder, often churning out courses in idiocy (such as tourism), profitting from misrepresentation, effectively not only robbing the next generation financially, but also robbing them of much opportunity of a decent future.

    Good on you Guy for standing up to the bullies. Standing up for truth has never been easy. And at least we can take some comfort from knowing those who are clinging tightly to the handrails on the ‘Titanic’ are soon going to pay a very high price for their arrogance and stupidity.

  • “I am hard-pressed to come up with any other person who would leave a high-pay, less-work job for any reason, much less morality.”

    Well. I know a man. Fifteen years ago he left a high-prestige pastorate in an up-scale southwestern city to start at the bottom as a financial advisor; left the lord’s vineyard for the devil’s workshop. Made enough money to get his daughter’s through college and to buy a piece of land. The smell of corporate looting and a growing recognition of the sorry impact making money and spending it is having on the natural world became repulsive enough to prompt a decision to quit.

    Where these decisions lead we do not know. But acting according to the best light we have at the time is the best we can do. We don’t know where this “long strange trip” is gonna end; but we play out our little part. We hoe out our row!

  • just discovered your powerful blog 2 weeks ago; first post.

    Guy your transparency here is very much appreciated!

    ‘breaking the strong emotional ties to a prior life. My own future, if I have one, is necessarily rooted in the past.’

    we are all shortly going to make an emotion laden break with our past, by choice much more so in your case, & for a few; or ‘kicking & screaming’ & worse, unfortunately for most. bravo for your; ‘You choose the work you do’.

    one quibble; i’d like to hang on to that ‘civilized’ word, to describe your ‘mud hut type’ lifestyle.


    nice post Stan.

  • Persons, groups and organizations have their own agendas. A member of a group has to have an agenda that meshes wtih that of the group. If the person’s agenda changes, the person has a limited range of choices: hide one’s own agenda (as in the case of atheist “Catholic” pruests), change the group’s agenda, or leave the group.

    When the group is enmeshed is a wider society, and is dependent on that society (as in the case of academic institutions dependent on public funding) it perforce reflects the society’s attitudes: a jaundiced view greets departures from that group’s norms. If such variances succeed is modifying group attitudes, either the group will have to break from the society that sustains it, or the society itself will have to partake of the transformation.

    However, as James Howard Kunstler has sagely noted, “But the psychology of previous investment is a curious thing. It compounds itself insidiously, and now we not only suffer from our misinvestments in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future, but we also suffer from the political investment in continuing to pretend that everything is okay.” And that leads to what he describes as attempts to “sustain the unsustainable”.

    Considering the extensiveness and intensiveness of an investment of well nigh two centuries’ in industrial soriety and empire, people will continue pursuing Business As Usual until they are no longer able to do so: only then they will start scrambling for the alnernatives.

  • Guy,

    Perhaps the greatest thing you could do was what you’ve recently done: stand up to the mainstream ignorance, and choose the ethical way even at great personal cost.

    I’m guessing you’ll have many future crossroads, but your recent actions of exiting the mainstream and striking out on a new path more in harmony with the natural world sounds pretty life-defining in my book.

    Those who knew you, i.e. peers, students, inmates etc., can’t but (if even just privately) admire the courage it took to do what you’ve done.

    Best wishes into the future. I shall remain a regular visitor to your blog.

  • First visit to this fine blog site. You blog was poignant and bittersweet. The surprisingly good comments above will anchor me, most especially Stan”s fine missive.But Guy, what choices did you have given your bias and conscience? You miss the money, the interactions with young minds, the status, the yakety yak in the faculty lounge and it seems puttering in the garden isn’t giving you the jazzing you seem to need. So get busy making some changes. I am ex military and have friends in academe and I see many parallels in both. Both have their bureaucracies with tiered authority, standard SOPs, and tight member networks and any chicken that steps out of line is likely to have his feathers pecked out. But feathers grow back. The future of academe, especially state funded academe is anything but promising as state budgets implode and those juicy salaries and pensions may be SHTF in the near future, state constitutional protections notwithstanding. You may yet have the last word. Hugh in WY

  • I’m glad you never went ‘celebrity’ on us.

    Far too many Grrreen Frauds on the market already.

    BTW, I’m right behind you… piss off tribal elders and see how long your academic freedom lasts 😉

  • Glenn Greenwald describes what a collapsing empire looks like (these days):

    Guy’s call to action beomes more relevant by the minute…

  • “At a more general level, I am hard-pressed to come up with any other person who would leave a high-pay, low-work job for any reason, much less morality.”

    I respect what you’ve done, Guy, but don’t think you’re alone. I know countless people who have left high-pay, low-work jobs, usually based on a conviction of morality. In fact, there are few other motivations strong enough to commit such an act.

    Now I’m off to bed so I can rise early and continue my no-pay, high-work job.

  • I have just discovered this wonderful blog – I don’t know how I’ve missed it! I’m looking forward to reading past and future entries.

    I put a link and some excerpts, comment #85 at Climate Progress:

    One of your commenters above said:

    “I’ve noticed as well that many academics are so narrowly focused on their areas of specialization that they can be pretty lousy at connecting the dots and grasping any but the mainstream (bogus) version of the big issues.”

    I have a similar experience in a lonely quest to add another vitally important piece to the collapse of civilization – and having no luck getting professionals or academic researchers to recognize the dire imminence of the ozone problem. Ozone is toxic to vegetation and the background levels are now so high, and the cumulative damage to long- lived species like trees so extensive, that we are in danger of losing most vegetative life species on land – just as the acidification of the ocean threatens the food chain in the oceans.

    I think it is critical that people realize widespread crop failure is on the horizon if we continue to burn fuel – which is probably why they refuse to acknowledge it.

    I post photographs and links to research on this topic at

    Suggestions welcome.

  • Good luck outside of the hallowed walls. I left about 10 years ago and don’t regret it.

    In thinking about how to make academia better, the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is requiring professors spend a certain amount of time outside of the academic system. I can’t think of any other way of changing the mindset of entitlement to federal handouts. It would also improve the relevancy issue, even if that relevancy will be tailored in most cases to furthering the industrial mindset.

  • In reply to Gail: ‘Ozone is toxic to vegetation and the background levels are now so high, and the cumulative damage to long- lived species like trees so extensive, that we are in danger of losing most vegetative life species on land – just as the acidification of the ocean threatens the food chain in the oceans.’

    I have personally been highlighting these issues for over a decade, as have many others. The fact of the matter is ordinary people are not interested because they cannot understand the implications, and those in a position to do something about such matters (politiicans, mayors, city councillors etc.) are mostly in such positions to further their own personal agendas … which are normally acquisition of money and power.

    Only when people start falling over in the streets from pollution and the fishing boats return to ports empty will those in power possibly respond -and then it will probably be with bigger lies than the lies they already tell. Indeed, people in China are falling over in the streets (and committing suicide) and the government still presses ahead with increased industrialisation and increased unsustainability.

    Sorry not to offer much hope, but I’ve been at this game a long time and have seen and experienced how the empire works. George Orwell recognised it 70 years ago, Aldous Huxley recognised it 90 years ago and Jonathan Swift recognised it a couple of hundred years ago!

  • Kevin Moore, I appreciate your response! I realize I am a neophyte at this – and have been humbled to learn that others (such as Charles Little who wrote The Dying of the Trees) have been working hard for decades to educate people about this problem, while I was oblivious frankly, until about 2 years ago.

    Once I noticed the trees were all dying then I educated myself and in the process found out more than I ever wanted to know about climate change and peak oil. I do think it’s probably too late for much of our civilization and other species we destroy – but even so, I try every day to do what I can to reveal this problem since as long as we have nuts and seeds there is a solution, maybe not to climate change or peak oil, but on a shorter term, to the damage from ozone, which survives for a much shorter duration in the atmosphere than CO2.

    Any links to research or other information you can send me would be greatly appreciated!

    thanks again,

  • Dear Guy,

    I’ve been reading your posts over at Energy Bulletin. I’m delighted to now follow you here and look forward to reading future posts. In the meantime, I’ll go back through your archives.

    Thanks, and best of luck to you,


  • RIP:

    Matt Simmons died yesterday at his home.

    We must carry on in his memory.

    Double D

  • Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments. I’m tooting your horns, not mine, when I conclude that the discussion at this blog is among the best in the blogosphere.

    A few responses are warranted. Probably more, actually, but I’ll stick to a few.

    Stan Moore, thanks for your excellent suggestions. I searched vigorously for an agent. When finally I found one, she stuck with me for about eight months before realizing she couldn’t make a living at it. I contacted Norm Finkelstein and he had no further advice for me. If anybody knows an agent out there, for bookings especially, please let me know. Better yet, let the agent know and have him/her contact me pronto 🙂

    Mike your knowledge of Thoreau is staggering. You humble me.

    John Feeney, I certainly agree with your comment about the intellectual constraints of academia. Now we need to convince the students to get out, before their minds are rotted by narrow-minded academic culture.

    Robin Datta, thanks for the reminder about Kunstler’s superb line. Reason fails us when it comes to what economists call sunk costs.

    goinggreen, I absolutely agree with your comment about helping academicians find some real-world roots. I wrote about it here.

    sam, John Andersen, Gail, and Jb, thanks for your first-time comments.

  • But my friend! I agree that your situation is quite like the one experienced by Finkelstein: NEVER FORGET THAT THE REAL FUNCTION OF ACADEMIC WORLD IS PROVIDING IDEOLOGICAL SUPPORT AND MORAL JUSTIFICATION TO THE POWER: THAT’S WHY THEY PAY TO ACADEMICS. Do not feel sad: you’re just leaving hipocresy behind. Unless you’re a sacred cow (like Chomsky), you can not go around TELLING THE TRUTH.

    If you do not obey and follow the “unique thinking”, then you’re a pariah, less than nothing.

    And I understand you perfectly. There are some things I can not tell in public, but I’ve been in a very similar situation (four times, in fact, and the four times I rebuilt my life from ashes). After all that, now I regret for being so nervous and worried: it was not so bad.

    So, breathe deeply two or three times, eat something and sleep well. And after that, continue growing food and sharpening your knife.