Tucked away in an intimate corner of a sleepy bookstore, an attentive crowd of 40 listened as Tim Allen, a University of Wisconsin botany professor, spoke of the possibility that our society will eventually prove unsustainable and may not survive.
Allen spoke Tuesday evening at Border’s Books, 3750 University Ave., about his upcoming book “Supply-Side Sustainability: Complexity in Ecological Systems”, which he co-wrote with Joseph Tainter and Thomas Hoekstra.
The book examines how to manage the world’s ecology and resources to avoid collapse. Using a “transdisiplinary” approach that combines the fields of both ecology and social science, the book takes a new approach to the old problem of resource depletion and societal decline.
Throughout his talk, Allen’s grim consternation about the “terrifying” crisis our fossil fuel economy faces in the near future was punctuated regularly with his sharp wit. Although a distinguished professor and accomplished pioneer of ecological hierarchy theory, Allen often exuded a child’s enthusiasm and sense of fun.
Allen argued that modern society must make the leap to a hydrogen economy, substituting an economy organized around oil to a system managed holistically.
“You need to manage for the whole ecological system, not for the things you get out of it….Then it will give you returns.”
Using the fall of Rome as an example, the book analyzes factors that cause societal collapse. It cautions that civilizations quickly and unexpectedly self-destruct if people never respond to problems like decreasing resource returns.
“When societies unravel, it happens really fast,” Allen warned. “And you don’t know it’s going to happen until it does.”
The author proudly admits his approach to ecological management is difficult to categorize politically, claiming, “both Democrats and Republicans will love and hate me.” He argues that politicians on both sides must exert a tremendous amount of political will to abandon a society run by oil. At the same time, Allen emphasized that government policies are not the sole answer to a complex problem.
“We need to go with nature,” Allen said, using the illustration of following water’s flow down a drain rather than swimming against it. “You want to use positive feedbacks, not a ratchet. Government is a ratchet. You can’t regulate your way to sustainability.”
After 33 years at UW, Allen is currently on sabbatical but plans to return next school year to teach Botany 240, Plants and Man. The class consists of topics ranging from the world food crisis to the intricate secrets to beer brewing.
The class is distinguished by a multimedia lecture that combines performance with instruction. Allen, who likens the art of lecture to theater, says, “The medium you use to convey a message is the message.” He points to the problem of motivation as the key difficulty to learning.
“Lecture should not inform students of the facts, it should excite the students to want to know the facts.”
Nikki Vullings, a graduate student studying botany and a Teaching Assistant in Allen’s undergraduate class, says, “No one could teach his Plants and Man course like he does. Teaching is very important to him and he is genuinely interested in making people think.”