• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Mediocre is the message

It's not what the scientists say, it's what average people hear and read.

August 28, 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the world's most prestigious assembly of climate scientists -- is preparing to issue the Synthesis Report from its Fifth Assessment Cycle.  That report has been submitted to member governments for comment.  After government comments have been reviewed and, as appropriate, incorporated, the final Synthesis Report will be issued on November 2 of this year.

All of which sounds officious and impressive and potentially suspenseful except, of course, for the fact that it's not.  Comment periods and resultant editing aside, we know what the fifth Synthesis Report will say.  It will say pretty much what the previous Synthesis Reports, and the various technical reports and assessments that fed into those syntheses, have all said -- "developed" human societies are actively engaged in changing climate on a global scale, in ways that are unhealthy for human society as a whole.  By the way, it's worse than we thought it was and it's getting worse faster than we thought it was and we're more certain than we thought we were so, in the final analysis, we're all screwed unless we drastically change the norms of human behavior -- unless we can agree on a significantly different conception of what it means to be "developed".

The report will deliver that message in the simplest terms its authors and editors can agree on, but that won't really matter.  The individual and societal actions which underlie climate change are too well-ingrained to be rapidly changed, or even readily discussed.  Accepted practices, "best practices", in all manner of economic, political and social activity all presume and reinforce a logic which has inexorably led us to our current location and direction on the road to disaster.  But folks don't want to acknowledge that.  They don't want to "believe" that.  Most Americans -- even most college-educated Americans -- prefer to stick to simple comfortable truths, even when those "truths" turn out to be fallacies. 

Those of us who try to deliver the message of sustainability to students who aren't already concerned with it try to sugar-coat the message.  The campus environment in which we operate pretty much requires us to.  Most of us are staff members, not faculty; we can't require students to pay attention to what we say, no matter how true our message.  We have to induce, attract, positively motivate students to pay attention to an unpleasant set of issues, so we often dial down the urgency and magnitude of sustainability.  We dial down our language regarding the climate crisis which is already becoming evident in many parts of North America.  We speak only in broad generalities about the water crisis which is fast becoming evident (faster in other parts of the US than the Northeast, where I'm located).  We say little about topsoil loss or ocean acidification or the -- unintentional but predictable -- development of drug-resistant microbes and pesticide-resistant pests, or about the accumulation of endocrine disruptors in human bodies.  We're reticent to speak openly and honestly about the destruction of the middle class in the USA and around the world.  We're terrified even to mention the possibility that military adventurism -- no matter how ostensibly noble its goals -- is inherently unsustainable in itself and creates a host of other sustainability-related knock-on problems.  Our success, at least in any meaningful timeframe, is judged more by out ability to engage numbers of students and generate "buzz" than by any other metric.

So we try to get students (and faculty, and other staff members, and alumni, but mostly students) to take first steps -- easy steps -- because doing something is better than doing nothing.  Because any decrease in unsustainable behavior is an improvement.  Because if we each do a little, it adds up to a lot -- especially if your definition of "a lot" is based on personal scale.  On a personal scale, if 10,000 people each decrease their negative environmental impacts by just one percent, that's like 100 people with zero environmental footprint!  Sounds pretty good.  Makes a good press release.  But it doesn't really mean anything at all.  On a planetary scale, if all seven billion people each decrease their negative environmental impacts by one percent, that adds up to -- think about it -- a one percent reduction in human environmental demand.  Not nearly enough to address the problem.  Just a speed-bump on the road to ruin on which we're all unintentionally accelerating. 

Getting a large majority of students to understand issues of scale, and issues of effect-at-a-distance, and non-linearity, and complexity, and systemic constraint is probably an impossible task.  It's certainly a task which would distract from efforts to achieve prestigious and gainful employment (a key motivator for most Greenback applicants).  But unless we can come up with a simple, attractive, easily understood and absorbed, codification of what "development" (or, on an individual level, "success") looks like, it's the most crucial task facing the higher education sector for the foreseeable future.

Most of which, I have to admit, became clearer to me earlier this summer when I happened to spend a night in a hotel.  Prominently displayed in the bathroom was a sign:


Dear Guest, Every day millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once.


A towel on the rack means, "I will use again."  A towel on the floor means, "Please replace."

Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth's vital resources.

None of which, of course, is entirely objectionable.  I mean, don't put me down as someone who insists that any towel I use even once must be immediately collected, laundered, bleached, tumble-dried and redeployed.  But the explicit message of the sign is that by using my towel a second (or even, Heaven forfend, a third!) time I will save the planet.  What hogwash!  What greenwash!  The fact that the clientele of a major US hotel chain (many, if not most, of them with University degrees) will look at such a sign and not be gob-smacked by the utter lack of proportionality is an indictment of what we all call "higher education".

And the implicit message of the sign, that individual "choice" -- however much that choice is more apparent than real, however much it's actually constrained by commercially-messaged societal norms -- is the highest of all possible values, is potentially even more destructive.

We, as educators, need to do far better.


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