Everybody believes that their own issues are the most important in the world, and nobody believes it more than environmentalists. At a workshop of the Smart & Sustainable Campuses Conference that I attended this April, the presenter showed us a slide that represents the prospect of human civilization: a pair of train tracks going into the sea with an ominous moon pulling the rising tide. “There are six billion of us on that train,” the presenter said, “is all we are doing painting the seats green?” Everyone of us at that conference believed that this was indeed where civilization was headed. Our consumption of fossil fuels was causing climate change to slowly kill us, our production of waste was overwhelming the planet’s ability to absorb it, and we are eating up resources far faster than the earth can replenish them. As far as we know, and we know a lot more than we used to, we are all cooked. Even more agonizing though is the fact that we are the only ones, at our institutions at least, who seem to care. As sustainability professionals in higher education, we have the technical know-how and the passion to make a difference, but very few of us have the kind of power and influence at our institutions to turn things around. We are all scrambling to get our administrators to look up for one minute and see where we are headed. After all, what could be more important than saving the Earth?
Well guess what, we are not that important. University presidents, it turns out, are worrying about the rising cost of higher education and its deteriorating value rather than sustainability. Developments such as MOOCs are making classrooms obsolete as instruction becomes available at practically no cost to the masses regardless of distance. A whole host of interest groups are clamoring for resources on campus, from diversity to wellness to financial aid, and sustainability is just another issue among many. In the political arena, governments are worried about terrorism, jobs being shipped overseas, the broken health care system, and its trillions of dollars of debt. Sustainability is somewhere at the bottom of their lists.
The sustainability coalition needs allies. Clearly, it is not enough to do this alone in our siloed Offices of Sustainability or Departments of Environmental Protection. We need to become relevant to our institutions, even valued. Most of us are fairly new to our positions; the field didn’t even exist ten years ago. We are underpaid, our offices are under staffed, and a whole slew of us cannot find jobs. We talked about how the movement will fail if we don’t engage a broader spectrum of the population, especially minorities. We talked about how important it is to engage with other organizations such as the campus diversity office, religious groups, cultural groups, community organizations, and other advocacy groups. But the truth is, most of us are so busy in our own corners that we haven’t even thought about collaborating with other groups. In fact, other groups often saw us as competing with them for resources. There is also the pervasive perception that we just deal with recycling and facilities issues and are rather less important than their fight for human rights or social justice.
After three days of conferencing, it occurred to me that perhaps what we have failed to do is get in the trenches with our potential allies. I’m not talking about discussions about how waste is disproportionately dumped on minority and low-income communities, but actually getting out there, and caring about something other than our own issues as a way of making friends. We are always trying to persuade people to our cause–we want other groups to show up to our Earth Day rally, to get dirty at our stream clean-up, and to volunteer at our events promoting sustainability. But when was the last time we supported one of their causes? Have we marched with them in a gay pride parade? Have we sent our volunteers to friendship inner city children? Have we pounded the pavement with our activist-minded brothers and sisters to get votes for candidates that support their cause? Or are we so busy trying to convince others that our issue is more important? If we want others to support our causes, doesn’t it make sense that we should try to support theirs?
There are so many groups out there whose work benefits ours. Health workers are fighting the trend of obesity and getting people to eat healthier and be more active. Neighborhood and community advocates would love to see more walkable streets, cleaned up parks that harbor more than drug-dealers, and community planning that is family friendly. Educators would love to connect what they are teaching in the classroom with the outside world. Poverty fighters are working to get fresh food to inner city neighborhoods, provide training for jobs, and make cheap mass transit available to everyone. Women, minority, and LGBT advocates want equal access for their constituents and reduce the white patriarchal system that has oppressed both them and the environment. Even Conservatives are in favor of creating green jobs and home grown clean energy. Our aim is the same as theirs–to create a more equitable, just, and healthy society. Instead of asking what these groups can do for us, why don’t we ask what we can do for them for a change?
Many of these groups use policy at the local and national level to advance their agendas. Environmentalists, particularly those in the sustainability movement, have increasingly shied away from political engagement. We have become comfortable in our strategy of behavior change and working with people who are predisposed to our message. We have been so occupied getting people to set back their thermostats, carpool to work, and recycle their waste that we have forgotten that change requires a lot more than individual behavior modification. We need to be out there with our activist brothers and sisters and reengage at the policy level. Can you imagine where the women’s movement would be if all they did was advocate for husbands to not beat their wives without also advocating for legislation that would punish wife beaters? Can you imagine what the gay rights movement would look like if they focused on educating people to accept gays without also pushing for policies that would grant gay couples the same privileges as opposite sex couples? By focusing on individual actions, environmentalists have become inward looking and isolated, disengaged from the political process and other change groups who could help our cause.
But ultimately, the most important reason to unite with other groups is that we all espouse the same cause. There are not environmental problems and social justice problems, it is all the same problem. Issues such as racism, poverty, global ecological destruction, all stem from the inequitable distribution of resources. Consider the fact that Americans make up just four percent of the world’s population but consume 25 percent of the world’s energy.[i] And of that four percent, a mere one percent owns 43 percent of the country’s financial wealth.[ii] This means that despite the burgeoning global human population, only a small portion of that population is creating the majority of the environmental impact. Even China, who manufactures products mainly for American consumption, consumes ten times less resources per capita than the average American.[iii] As many as 2.8 billion people on the planet earns less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water.[iv] It is not inconceivable that if the wealth of the earth was distributed equally, then everyone, all six billion of us, could have our basic needs met and still have some left over to ensure the survival of our non-human brothers and sisters. It is this system that we need to fight, this system that funnels the riches of the earth into the hands of a few, this system where natural capital is wasted through the excesses of a minority instead of providing for the majority.
Environmentalists need to work with other groups to create the change that we all desire. In my recent article “Why I Don’t Like the Word Sustainability” I suggest that one of the problems with sustainability is that its goal is to maintain the status quo. But has it been established that the status quo is good? We talk about sustainable development, but is development the be all end all of human civilization? Development could refer to progress in knowledge, happiness, or social equity, but in most cases, sustainable development refers to economic growth. And who benefits from that growth? Even if it can be sustained indefinitely growth alone does not lead to knowledge, happiness, or social equity. Michael Heiman in his essay “Education for Sustainable Development: Addressing the Oxymoron” writes, “We cannot change our relationship with nature until we change the social relations of production, as the same system that exploits nature also exploits human labor.” Individual waste and consumption cannot be overcome until we address the system of production and unequal distribution which currently defines our relationship with nature and with each other.
The way out of this system is not easy, and calls for nothing less than a revolution in human relations, the way that the American revolution changed the way governments related to the people. The birth of modern democracy was a systemic change that had nothing to do with making the existing system at the time more sustainable. We need another revolution where the power of the employer over the employee, of the rich over the poor, of man over nature, are overturned. To quote Heiman again, “In the process of decomodifying as much as we can decomodify, and removing the social drivers for material growth–namely market relations and social inequality, or more precisely, growth to address social unrest–we will likely end up with sustainable socialism rather than sustainable capitalism.” I’d like to cut out sustainability all together, and call it eco-socialism. As loaded and unpopular as the word socialism is, what I’m trying to express is an alternative to a system that oppresses both nature and dispossessed human populations. This is not an environmentalist agenda, or a labor agenda, or feminist agenda, but an agenda that we all need to work together at if we want to create a better world.