Sustainabullies

Peter Wood

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Young, Green, and in Charge,” about students who become eco-administrators. The author interviewed sustainability coordinators in their twenties who “have graduated into environmental-operations positions that they helped to create at their colleges.”

The young staff members are characterized by the Chronicle as “the former activists” and “activists-turned administrators” who “have tempered their convictions to work for change within the system.” It seems they have to force themselves to separate their radical instincts (personal) from their administrative duties (professional), but they are worried about “selling out” and becoming the authorities they had always seen as the oppressors.

Should they be worried? Will they become “the Man”—career-driven instead of cause-driven? Or will they eventually realize that in the sustainability profession, radical instincts are the job? Peter Wood has written that sustainability generally has two different meanings:

(Definition 1) – The prudent use of resources with the needs of future generations in mind

(Definition 2) – A condition that arises when capitalism and hierarchy are abolished; individuals are made to see themselves as “citizens of the world”; and a new order materializes on the basis of eco-friendliness, social justice, and new forms of economic distribution.

The University of Delaware’s residence life director Kathleen Kerr is an avid proponent of sustainability in that second sense. Kerr is a leader of the movement to sustainabully students and has widely advertised that the goal of sustainability in higher education is to have “all students engaged as effective change agents in our sustainability challenges.” According to Kerr, students should move from “apathy” to “caring involvement” and should be “engaging in the challenges and solutions of sustainability” both globally and on their campus. Thus, activism and turning students into activists is the role of administrators.

Louise Gava, the sustainability coordinator at St. Lawrence University, intended to remain detached from advocacy in her professional position: "I drew a line in the sand where the coordinator will sit. I didn't draw that line in the right place at first, and two years in, I realize I'm still too radical."

Well, it’s good to know that it is possible for someone like Ms. Gava to realize there is such thing as being “too radical.” But does she say this because she sees the need to maintain academic seriousness in the university, or because she knows that extreme activism hinders the practical success of her political agenda? As Jeremy Friedman, a 22-year-old sustainability coordinator at NYU puts it, “My views are radical by any mainstream judgment. I could rabble-rouse if I wanted to. But I wanted to see things happen. My view was, let’s get to work.”

Ms. Gava says she misses being the radical activist: “It’s really fun to be burning things.” (Can you burn things without increasing your carbon footprint?)  “But when you look at the long-term goal, you have to be part of the system to change it. And it’s a very fine line. If you’re too integrated into the system, you can’t see what needs to be changed.”

Even if she is obligated to tone things down, Ms. Gava finds ways to compensate. She gets in a frenzy, “talking at a blistering pace when sustainability is the topic, throwing out environmental facts as if her next comment will keep a glacier from melting.” She tells the students in her course on locally produced foods and energy (sounding like another professor, whose goal—to make activists out of students—was frustrated by a blasé class), “You better be more radical than I am. We need both of us in this world.”

But as much as Gava and Friedman characterize their jobs as struggles to achieve work-life balance, the reality is that radicalism is the generator—or should we say windmill?—

 powering the creation of these administrative sustainability positions. Not only is political advocacy the motivator, it is also the hoped-for result. Radicalism ↔ sustainability jobs. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education is to be congratulated for its continuing and typically fawning coverage of the sustainability movement. If it weren’t for such assured journalistic bias, people like Ms. Gava would surely be more guarded, and we would miss such candor as “It’s really fun to be burning things.” The sustainability movement in truth has an extremely dark side, which encourages students to despise their own civilization and half dream of an environmental apocalypse that would purge the world of the things they don’t like, including capitalism and personal freedom (to the extent that free people consume and use resources.) 

Sustainability zealots realize the extremity of their views and seem, like Ms. Gava, Mr. Friedman, and Ms. Kerr to relish provoking others to go even further. They see the university as a realm of provocation and recruitment, not education—at least not education in the sense of disciplined rational inquiry in which propositions are examined skeptically and deliberatively. 

The Chronicle article also throws light on how the radical sustainability movement, like earlier waves of radicalism, seeks to recycle itself. It doesn’t just want to win ideological converts among the students; it wants to create institutional structures in which these students can find jobs. Ms. Gava and Mr. Friedman may worry a bit about having to moderate their radicalism to “get things done.” But their appointments all by themselves help to create a permanent interest group that will keep the movement alive no matter how flakey the science and how exploded the hypotheses. Institutionalizing an ideology creates a group of people whose livelihoods depend on keeping the ideology going.  The sustainability in some lights looks like   the tool of an ambitious elite attempting to grab political and economic power. The movement now needs to secure its transmission to a future generation and has acquired a torch-passing urgency. This wouldn’t be needed of course if the perils were as imminent and dire as the sustainabullies typically make them out. 

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