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Kristen Cyr
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Penn State professor to present 'Climate Out of Control'

March 19, 2015

Christopher Uhl Christopher Uhl, Ph.D., professor of biology at Penn State University, will visit CCRI on March 27.

There's no shortage of scientific evidence to point to when it comes to climate change; Earth is heating up, and the environment is destabilizing. But biologist and Penn State Professor Christopher F. Uhl, Ph.D., promises to cover much more in his Biology Department-sponsored seminar on March 27 at the Flanagan Campus – even looking to end on a hopeful note.

Uhl, who describes himself as a product of the environmental awakening that happened during the 1960s and '70s, said that his talk will offer not just the scientific context of climate change, but will bring students into a larger conversation and exploration of the root causes of climate change. In Uhl's view, our abuse of Earth's "body" (in the form of climate destabilization) is occurring because "we humans are profoundly disconnected from our bodies, our emotions and the deeper meaning and purpose of our lives," he said.

To listen to Uhl and read pieces from his two groundbreaking books – "Developing Ecological Consciousness: The End of Separation" and "Teaching as if Life Matters: The Promise of a New Education Culture" – one encounters a form of scholarship not often associated with the hard sciences. Uhl leans as much on psychology, human ecology and philosophy as he does on biology, looking to seed conversations and shift perspectives instead of just citing studies and prescribing views. Much of this, he explained, came from an awakening he experienced during the 1990s, when he had been teaching at Penn State for some time.

"I was beginning to become aware of how comprehensively I had been conditioned throughout my entire life," he said of the way he was teaching at the time, which he considered a nadir. "I was just teaching the way I'd been taught, and it really wasn't working."

Finally, almost in desperation, Uhl retreated to the Pennsylvania mountains for a weeklong hike. "The hike helped me remember what it was that actually led me to fall in love with my larger body," he said, speaking of the planet he'd devoted his career to studying. "I realized that my conditioning, specifically as an academic, had filled me with fear to talk even in those terms – 'Mother Earth.' Especially in the sciences, we don't talk like that. We don't talk about love. If we can't understand it, if we can't study it, we're not interested," he said.

It's in this vein that Uhl now works to connect with students, helping them explore what it is about our current attitudes and beliefs that so often leave us feeling apathetic in the face of climate change. Once we understand this, Uhl said, we are in a position to be agents of change rather than passive spectators.

Uhl suggests that we might see current climate destabilization as Earth's way of waking us up. "Let's face it," he said, "we've been behaving like unruly, self-centered adolescents for quite a while now, and this crisis is our opportunity to finally begin to grow up into nurturing, generative adults. It's discomforting to step outside of patterned ways of responding to something, but if we're open to those moments and allow them to work on us and through us, they help us grow up," he said.

Drawing on his years of experience in the classroom as well as in the Amazon basin researching rainforest ecology, land use, deforestation and recovery, not to mention the slew of scientific publications he's authored, Uhl has a lot to say on the subjects of climate change and growing. He anticipates that his presentation on March 27, which is free and open to the public, will be broken into small "lecturettes," giving students an opportunity to respond and help shape the conversation.

"What I hope students will come away with is that as humans, we are always living within a story. It is our story that tells us who we are and why we're here. If our story is that we are merely skin-encapsulated egos who are separate from each other and from the Earth and that our job in life is to win – well, that is a story that gives us everything we've got, for better or for worse," he said. "But there is a new story that is now taking hold."

This new story is "grounded in the belief that healing is possible, that a more beautiful world is possible, that our highest calling in life is not separation but connection; not abuse but nurturance; not indifference but love," he said. Uhl also hopes to speak to some important questions about this story in his lecture, such as: How do we more fully articulate this story? How do we share it across time and space? And, finally, how do we actually live it?

Uhl's presentation will take place at noon on Friday, March 27, in Room 1334 at the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16