Balliol Notes, Balliol College, Oxford


[Balliol is one of the oldest and most distinguished of Oxford Colleges — exceptional by any standard.  Its current students and alumni span the globe and link to colleges and universities of higher education, internet institutes,  and online learning throughout the world.  Its alumni keep in touch with one another and with the College in Oxford through a number of online newsletters and monthly updates from the college as well.]

Note under “Alumni Stories: Global Balliol,” Floreat Domus, (June 2022) p. 34. (PDF version).

Tim Weiskel, (1969)

social anthropologist, historian & student of global agriculture, USA

As human beings we live within a planetary ecosystem that we did not create, cannot control and must not destroy. Moreover, it seems that Earth is the only life-supporting planet in the known universe. This is a sobering fact about the precariousness of our place in space.

Yet, even more disturbing is the fact that in spite of all we now know about our vulnerable circumstance and despite our very best intentions, the social, economic and political institutions of our contemporary world are committed to operate – in their ‘default mode’ – so as to destroy the prospects for our future survival within the constraints of Earth’s ecosystem.

The institutions of which we are so proud and like to think we can control have in reality taken control of our behavior as a species. This is particularly troubling because these institutions are founded in law and in practice upon the principle of promoting perpetual growth and continued human expansion.

The trouble is – as ecologists have pointed out long ago – that this growth will not persist for any species in a finite ecosystem. It is a basic law of biological systems that no organism within them can grow without limit without destroying the system itself.

Starkly put, then, the question is simply this: can humans survive the anthropocene? Can we repurpose with sufficient speed our institutions so as to assure human continuity, rather than accelerate our demise? If we fail to redirect them away from their default modes of perpetual growth no amount of technological wizardry will spare us from the system-wide collapse towards which our global agriculture is now headed.

At Balliol in Oxford I completed two graduate degrees – one in Social Anthropology and the other in Modern History, concentrating upon European colonialism in Africa. After teaching history and anthropology at Yale and Harvard, I was granted an extended Luce Research Fellowship at Harvard Divinity School to examine environmental ethics and public policy. There I concentrated upon the ecology, ethics and trajectory of modern, petro-intensive agriculture.

Following a further year as part of a research team at the Rockefeller Foundation, I returned to Harvard to found and direct the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values (HSEV) – the first university-wide inter-faculty initiative designed to expand awareness of environmental ethics at Harvard.

This cumulative work underscored the urgent need for our civilisation to limit its growth and focus attention instead upon engineering a transition towards sustainability. The colonial legacy of ‘growth economics’ combined with a tragic and pervasive public misunderstanding of the petro-intensive ‘magic’ of the ‘green revolution’ has meant that modern cultures all over the world are on a collision course with Earth’s finite ecosystem. These interconnected crises are accelerating as the global food system is becoming ever-more dependent upon fossil fuel combustion, while recurrent pandemics impact the world’s poorest agricultural populations with increasing severity, and extreme weather and changes in the climate stress food production and global supply chains beyond the breaking point.

As a vehicle to foster global public awareness, we have created the weblog Transition-Studies.Net to expand understanding of the depth of the interlocking crises we now face as a human community. Through this weblog and links to other internet channels that are both interdisciplinary in character and international in scope we have sought to create new means of communicating around the world to address the collective human task of devising a just transition towards global sustainability.

T.C. Weiskel

See related:

and further:

Concerning the trends and evolving fatal “logic” of global agricultural production: