Two June 27 articles in The Chronicle—”Field of Discord,” reporting on the difficulties Iowa State University had in hiring a director of sustainable agriculture, and “Colleges Atop Gas-Rich Shale Weigh Offers From Drillers”—use the word “reality” to refer to an economic situation that is being used to trump environmental and public-health concerns surrounding actions of entrenched industries, “conventional” agriculture, and natural-gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing. As a philosopher, I must object to the failure to distinguish ontologically objective reality—the reality of ocean “dead zones” produced by fertilizer runoff, polluted aquifers potentially resulting from “fracking” of subsurface shale, and human-health effects of antibiotic-saturated livestock feed—from the socially constructed reality of our collective belief in, and acquiescence to, the power of an abstract symbol.

We can trace the historical development of “money” from the establishment of precious metals as a convenient medium of exchange, freeing us from direct barter of goods, through promissory notes redeemable in tangible entities, to what has become a Platonic realm of mathematical fictions largely divorced from human actions that make sense in the concrete world of living organisms and functional ecosystems—the world that actually supports our lives in a biological sense. As John Searle points out in The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World (2010), our social constructs have only an ontologically subjective mode of existence—they “exist” only insofar as we humans maintain belief in them, and hence they are open to reconstruction at any time, to the extent that we recognize our own human agency in creating them in the first place. Given that the economic realm is now leading us to engage in actions that erode our very life-support system, it would seem to behoove academicians who understand this crucial ontological difference to speak up and demand a change.

Rather than standing their ground and speaking the truth about what they know, however, most university faculty members seem to be running scared. Administrators fear that professors who educate the public about the impact of gas drilling on the environment and local communities might have “angered the industry” and foreclosed the possibility of lucrative deal-making by their colleges; Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture goes directorless because the highly qualified candidate favored by the center’s advisory board might make “some farmers uncomfortable.” The dean of the agriculture school is reportedly even unwilling to acknowledge that “cows evolved to eat grass,” not corn—a notion that might be considered extremist in this day of obeisance to those who possess dollars instead of knowledge.

Waking ourselves up from our current enthrallment by this social construct, money, will not be easy, in light of the social inertia generated by continual mutual reinforcement of the belief system in which it plays a central role. But neither is it impossible—unlike rectifying the consequences of a wrecked environment, which we humans cannot undo simply by changing our minds and refusing to accept it. As Thomas Tomich, head of the sustainability program at the University of California at Davis, is quoted as saying, if we can’t address the topics that lie in the public interest, “Who’s going to do it?” Who indeed? Academicians have plenty of information regarding our objective reality floating around in their heads. Now it’s time for them to grow a spine and use it.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Letters to the Editor, Reality and Sustainability: A Philosopher’s View, by Ronnie Hawkins, Department of Philosophy, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Fla.