A disruptive idea to save the planet – And transform HE

Last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Brazilian professor and acclaimed meteorologist Carlos Nobre presented his visionary plan for the creation of an Amazon Institute of Technology (AMIT).

The idea of an ‘MIT of the jungle’ is not exactly new and the project is still far from breaking solid ground.

But regardless of its current stage of development, the simple idea of a ‘University of the Planet’ in the heart of the Amazon forest should be enough to instil in a wide array of enthusiasts – from researchers and practitioners in the field in global higher education to scientists, policymakers, climate and social activists around the world – an irresistible desire to reflect about the future of universities and their role in addressing climate change.

The plan for mobilising the seemingly infinite potential of modern technology and the multiple hyperconnected global networks of knowledge to save the single most consequential ecosystem of the planet is so ambitious and so daringly innovative that it is hard to ignore.

The creation of a research university that combines breakthrough knowledge – in the arts and sciences – and cross-disciplinary education, from both global and native indigenous contexts, to prevent a social and environmental apocalypse is both brilliant and disruptive.

On the one hand, AMIT evokes feelings of a 21st century version of Thomas Edison’s revolutionary light bulb invention. This aha! idea offers the beacon of light – an imagined but tangible focal point – that illuminates a path for action to be followed by a variety of stakeholders in academia, government, private and non-profit sectors.

To paraphrase economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato, the idea of a ‘University of the Amazon’ – similar to John F Kennedy's announcement of the Apollo Programme in 1961 – may provide the vision and purpose for a grandiose and world-mobilising “moonshot-like” effort to save the planet.

In the process, this ambitious idea may also offer new insights and motivations for academics and policymakers alike to think more deliberately about the broader purposes of universities and ‘global institutions of higher learning’ in today’s world.

As evidenced by several reports and recent international forums on post-secondary education – including last year’s World Higher Education Conference, organised by UNESCO – international higher education governance, strategies and practices are in desperate need of change. Worldwide, and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the field seems to be plagued by a generalised lack of funding and a lack of new ideas.

On the other hand, because it is so visionary and so difficult to refute, the idea of a global university in the largest remaining forest on Earth seems like an unavoidable call to action. The question is not whether or not we should embrace the idea, but how we can get it off the ground and make sure it will work.

If we – pretty much the entire scientific community, at least – agree that saving the Amazon will define the human and ecological fate of our planet, and if we also agree that science and global higher education networks must play a central role in this process, then we must logically agree that fulfilling Nobre’s vision is a mission that can neither be postponed nor fail.

Scientists and international higher education advocates must act now and must act correctly as the planet is likely not going to give us a second chance.

Reasons for optimism

The promising news for enthusiasts of a ‘Global University of the Amazon’ is that a number of seemingly disconnected factors suggest that the universe may be conspiring in favour of Professor Nobre and his colleagues lately.

On the global stage, the recent COP27 in Egypt reminded us that international conversations about climate are important, but not enough. Gatherings like COP, the World Economic Forum in Davos or the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh remain valuable platforms for world leaders in business, government, academia and non-profits to exchange knowledge and innovative practices in the global combat against climate change.

Moreover, it is undeniable that hosting those forums in person once again after years of pandemic and war-related disruptions has helped to reignite important cross-national, inter-sectoral and multidisciplinary engagements around climate and sustainability.

However, as many have already pointed out, it has become harder to justify the environmental costs of these large global summits. Flying thousands of politicians, executives, activists, scientists and journalists to the middle of the Egyptian desert to talk about climate for a few days makes just as much environmental sense as hosting a World Cup in Qatar or a Winter Olympics in Beijing.

More than sporadic, costly and often redundant conversations about climate, what the fight against global warming urgently needs are spaces where people can engage purposefully; Earth laboratories where experts, idealists, learners and practitioners from all disciplines and all corners of the world can coalesce to collaborate regularly, exchange knowledge freely and continuously and work collectively around clearly defined targets.

In short, places that may one day fulfil the utopian visions of a global university, as depicted by celebrated analysts of the international higher education field like Ben Wildavsky and Bill Kirby.

In a similarly optimistic tone, the world’s most famous philanthropist Bill Gates advocates in his recent bestseller that in order to avoid a climate disaster humanity needs to find new ways to speed up innovation. For that to happen, renewed emphasis must be placed on building and investing in a dynamic infrastructure of knowledge that accelerates technological breakthroughs and enables faster, more effective and more solutions-oriented responses to the climate emergency.

Organisations and actors in this new ecosystem of climate innovation must be fundamentally diverse and collaborative in order to capitalise on human ingenuity from all fields and backgrounds. The members and parts of this new ‘knowledge infrastructure’ must also be highly adaptive and motivated by a common sense of urgency, risk-taking and direction.

The role of philanthropists

Interestingly – yet not coincidentally – Gates’ reawakened interest in climate action sheds light on a broader trend taking place, simultaneously, in the fields of environmental sustainability and higher education policy. What the global battle against climate change and the critical debates around the future of universities have in common is a shared disposition to revisit – and to a large extent to welcome – the role of philanthropists in helping to tackle these two coexisting crises.

Philanthropy’s role in first building and lately providing a lifeline to postsecondary education, scientific research and international student mobility is nothing new in the United States, where public funding and strategic governmental guidance for higher education has been lacking for decades. What is new is the increasing presence of philanthropic initiatives in reshaping the higher education landscape in other parts of the industrialised world and in developing nations.

Despite generalised scepticism about the rise of philanthropists, popularised by authors like Anand Giridharadas, it is hard to ignore the rising influence of philanthropists in the universe of global higher education. Around the world, a plethora of new foundations and non-profits have emerged lately, bypassing the absence of governmental vision and action in higher education with the creation of new scholarship programmes, grants, fellowships and incentives for academic exchange.

From their place as marginal players in the global higher education space, philanthropists are playing a bigger and bolder part in the formation and cultivation of national and cross-national networks of talent, science leadership and advocacy – particularly on sustainability issues.

Consequently, philanthropy is gradually occupying a more central role in the definition of national higher education policies and guidelines and even in the shaping of international scientific agreements. This is certainly the case in Brazil and other Amazonian states in South America, where non-profits like the Lemann Foundation have increased and diversified their portfolio of initiatives both in higher education and climate advocacy spaces.

In fact, the growing presence of philanthropists and independent endowments in higher education has been fundamental for the establishment of a whole new architecture of global institutional collaborations between universities and scholars around climate.

One example is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, created under the auspices of the United Nations and supported by a variety of international donors – Bill Gates included. Another notable case is the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC), an independent group of world-class universities formed in the World Economic Forum and captained by China’s Tsinghua University.

These new, independent and notably philanthropy-led coalitions of experts and universities around climate demonstrate that international scientific cooperation and academic exchange are no longer spheres where state agencies and national governments exert an uncontested monopoly.

The logic of superpower competition that prevailed during the Cold War – and is still quite alive in other sensitive areas of geopolitical disputes – is certainly not as evident in the present scenario of international climate cooperation, where a multitude of non-governmental (and deep-pocketed) actors seem to be willing and open to collaboration.

This recent emboldening of philanthropic engagement in both climate action and global higher education might be good news for proponents of a ‘University of the Amazon’. Propelled by unprecedented levels of wealth concentration, decades of governmental dysfunction and, most recently, underperforming stock markets, philanthropic donors should now be seriously considering taking on larger responsibilities and leading the efforts to prevent a planetary catastrophe.

After all, the comparative risks of investing in science and international academic collaborations around sustainability are rapidly diminishing. Failure to speed up innovation in strategic areas like green energy, farming, housing, transportation and higher education may very well cost the future of humanity. The risks of inaction in those different but interconnected areas are quickly surpassing the costs of investing in bold, global and “moonshot-like” missions to save the planet through science and knowledge.

Moreover, the ‘legacy premiums’ for generous philanthropists willing to chip into the global war against climate change have never been as attainable as they are today. As Professor William G Tierney articulates in his compelling argument for a profound re-imagination of higher education after COVID-19, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”.

The role of politics

National governments, state agencies and public treasuries may no longer be the uncontested front runners shaping innovative transformations in sustainability or higher education. But, of course, local, regional and global politics continue to matter quite a lot.

A few months ago, the mere suggestion of creating an institute of technology in the Amazon would have been laughable, if not criminal.

In Brazil – which accounts for 60% of the Amazonian territory shared with eight other South American nations – former president Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters spent the last four years ostracising people like Nobre. Science and scientists alike were systematically defunded and attacked. Deforestation, illegal mining and the atrocious genocide of indigenous populations not only increased at a record pace during Bolsonaro’s presidency but were largely incentivised by a rhetoric of distrust in science, environmentalism and civil rights.

Diplomatic relations between Brazil and other Amazonian states have also dwindled in the past decade, fuelled in part by Bolsonaro’s deficient foreign policy and the former president’s unique talent of making enemies both in the region and around the world. Social uprisings in Colombia, persisting political instability in Peru, the deepening of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 in the region all contributed to aggravating an inhospitable environment for cross-border collaboration around climate.

But things may be changing. As Marcelo Knobel and Elizabeth Balbachevsky commented in a recent article in University World News, the scientific community in Brazil has greeted newly-elected p=President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with “cautious optimism”.

Indeed, in his first 30 days in office, Lula has signalled a new era for Brazilian scientists, educators and environmental advocates. In a meeting with rectors of all the federal universities, held in the presidential palace days after his inauguration, Lula reaffirmed his commitment to academic freedom and university autonomy.

More decisively, the president announced a substantial pay rise when it comes to federal research fellowships and the revamping of key governmental agencies, like CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) and CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development), whose budgets had been slashed since 2016.

Both agencies, founded in the 1950s, have been the bedrock of Brazil’s national scientific strategy, international academic cooperation and large state-led research infrastructure – which is still unmatched in Latin America.

In addition to making peace with the academic community, Lula has placed climate issues (in general) and the sustainable development of the Amazon (in particular) at the top of his domestic and international agenda. Lula nominated Marina Silva – a long-time, world-renowned and Amazon-born environmentalist – to lead the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Right after his inauguration, Lula also created a new Ministry of Indigenous People. Although national in scope, the new ministry’s actions will likely prioritise the vast Amazon territory, which hosts the largest indigenous reservations and the most vulnerable communities.

Lula’s alliance with the ‘peoples of the forest’ is more than a symbolic move. Bringing indigenous leaders and high-profile conservationists to the centre of power will be indispensable for Brazil to regain the credibility it has lost in recent years among very important international stakeholders.

The priority of climate issues in the presidential agenda can be seen in Lula’s first international appointments since he was re-elected. Last November, only weeks after his election, Lula not only attended COP27, but made sure to be accompanied by Silva and a large delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental activists – most of whom are directly involved with initiatives in the Amazon.

A few weeks later, Brazil submitted to UN Secretary General António Guterres an official bid to host the 2025 COP30 in the Amazon.

In his second week in office, Lula signed a decree to reactivate the Amazon Fund, a US$630 million credit line to combat deforestation and one of the pillars of Brazil’s diplomatic relations with the European Union – relations which had also been tarnished during the Bolsonaro era.

Furthermore, the agenda of Lula’s upcoming visits to Washington and Beijing – capitals of Brazil’s two most important commercial partners – will no doubt be filled with talks about climate, and inevitably the Amazon.

Also in January, Lula visited Uruguay and Argentina, where he announced his intention to reinvigorate the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and other platforms for pan-Latin American collaboration. This coming together with countries in South and Central America will be critical not only to reactivate regional economic integration, but also to reignite long-stalled strategic dialogues around climate, security and social policy – issues that inevitably intersect in the Amazon, the geographic and socio-environmental epicentre of the continent.

Although recent, the change in Brazilian leadership and its renewed emphasis on climate action have been welcomed in other Amazonian nations, especially Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

These three Pacific countries have suffered their fair share of political unrest and social calamities in the past decade – many of which are the result, in one way or the other, of drastic changes in the environment. Leaders in these nations know that, more than ever, political stability in this highly volatile region depends less on popular charisma and much more on sound socio-environmental policies, which must be designed and implemented in coordination with bordering countries.

A University of the Planet

Imagine calling on the top researchers and technicians currently working in the booming field of artificial intelligence to map the Amazon’s unparalleled biodiversity in order to develop new life-saving medicine, green fertilisers and revolutionary renewable materials – while also combating deforestation, mining and illegal border traffic.

Imagine bringing together the world’s top engineers, native experts and a new generation of curious and ambitious international graduate students to design and build a carbon-free university campus using strictly zero-emission techniques – and as a by-product providing innovative insights for housing, transportation and city planners around the world.

Imagine inviting the world’s leading jurists, social entrepreneurs and political scientists to mediate year-long and globally-broadcasted town halls between loggers, indigenous leaders, miners, small and large farmers, conservationists, cross-border refugees, border patrollers and local authorities in the Amazon.

Imagine mobilising over a century of knowledge and practice in the field of international education, bringing together philanthropists, faculty and higher education policymakers, and devising grants, scholarships and academic mobility programmes so that students and scholars from the Amazon and around the world can come to a ‘University of the Planet’ to take part in a deeply transformative educational experience.

Imagine bringing to a remote and isolated college in the heart of the Amazon forest the world’s most visionary thinkers and educators – the John Deweys and Paulo Freires of today – to develop and implement new curricula, new 21st-century-ready learning experiences, newpathways for lifelong education and, in time, creating a whole new civilisational contract with the planet.

Now imagine not doing any of that. Or worse: imagine not even trying to do it.

To be fair, Nobre’s project of an Amazon Institute of Technology makes no reference to the daydreams sketched above. AMIT, moreover, may have several flaws and may never come to complete fruition. Bringing in technology and ‘experts’ to fix the problems of the most complex ecosystem known to mankind may actually be a terribly arrogant idea. It may very well end up as just another tragic human (most likely old white man) attempt to colonise nature.

But to put it in the words of political scientist Benedict Anderson, the problem with a disruptive idea like a ‘Global University of the Amazon’ is that “it challenges us to confront the imaginable”. It compels us to action.

Alas, it might be easy to avoid or ignore things we cannot imagine. But once we are able to imagine something – even if this ‘something’ is rather utopian – reason puts us in the uncomfortable situation in which we must choose between fulfilling this imagined idea or accepting the increasingly risky mediocracy of a reality of which we disapprove.

The fact that we can associate with the idea of a ‘University of the Planet’ – share it, even if only at an imaginary level – makes it particularly inspiring. ‘Colonising’ the forest with knowledge, reason and global education is certainly an incredibly ambitious and potentially very bad idea. But if done right, a “moonshot” mission to rescue the “lungs of the Earth” and its people may actually work.

An ‘MIT of the jungle’ may very well be the best shot we have at saving the planet – and, in the process, transforming higher education.

Dr Frederico Menino is a sociologist and international education enthusiast with over a decade of professional and academic experience in the fields of international student mobility, scientific diplomacy and philanthropy. Menino obtained his PhD in sociology and higher education studies from the New School for Social Research (New York), and his masters degree in political science from the University of São Paulo. Between 2012 and 2017, Menino served as education aide for the Brazilian foreign ministry in New York, where he supervised the flagship scholarship programme Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science without Borders). Menino was also a member of the inaugural global admissions team at Schwarzman Scholars, where he led the recruitment of young leaders from Latin America, Africa and Europe to a competitive fellowship programme at Tsinghua University, China.