I spent last week getting to, attending, and then getting back from this year's AASHE conference in Los Angeles. As I headed west, I had planned to post pretty much every day, giving my reactions to things I'd experienced at the conference. But as reality overcame expectation, I found I didn't really have anything to say on a daily basis. Indeed, it took me a while to form an opinion on the conference which -- like all conferences everywhere, it seems -- offered some interesting moments within a generally unremarkable context.
Speaking of context, let me clarify my personal one. Recently, I screened a speculative documentary about the impacts of climate change for a bunch of students. It looked at how local natural environmental events -- storms, floods, droughts, fires, species loss, etc. -- will likely be affected as global temperatures rise. Originally produced to air on TV, it took a moderately apocalyptic tone during the presentation of predicted outcomes, but then dialed that back a lot in the short final section about actions which might help avert the worst scenarios presented.
The students expressed an entirely predictable level of concern, verging on fear, after the screening. Pressed, they also described feeling effectively powerless to do anything about the problems described. That feeling of powerlessness was also predictable, since that's what similar groups of students (and individuals of all ilks) have expressed after seeing similar presentations. In this case, the powerlessness may have been somewhat amplified because this film -- perhaps more egregiously than some others -- presented only "solutions" which were either way too small to be seen as addressing a problem of the scale which had just been portrayed or way too science-fiction to bet society's future upon. Addressing the issues raised in appropriate scale -- identifying the practices which are at the heart of the problem, identifying the social elements (priorities and active parties) promoting those practices, and proposing societal-scale political/economic changes to create a new set of priorities (and probably a new set of agents) -- not only wasn't mentioned, it was scrupulously not even hinted at.
I pointed out to the audience that the reticence of the film-makers to focus on necessary societal change was hardly an accident. Since their target market was commercial TV, which is controlled (pretty much by definition) by corporate decision-makers, they didn't want to bite the hand that they hoped would feed them. Pointing the finger of blame at fossil fuel companies (which often sponsor insipid environmentally-focused programming as part of their green-washing efforts) seemed unlikely to please many broadcast executives. Raising awareness that our current globalized, corporate-dominated, economically-driven social model has led to behaviors that got us into this mess, and seems entirely unlikely to lead to future behaviors which will help get us out of it, seemed even more unlikely to curry favor with those broadcast executives who are themselves employed by subsidiaries of some of the largest, most dominant global corporations. If the medium is the message, then whoever owns the media owns the messages, pays the pipers, calls the tunes.
I guess my expectations for the AASHE 2012 conference should have been tempered by a similar set of considerations. After all, the theme of the conference was "Investing in the Future" -- a clearly business-toned message. Conference sponsors included Toyota (maker of the Prius, but also of the Sequoia SUV), Waste Management and NelNet. Toyota and WM I could kind of understand; a portion of the goods/services each offers is marketed in whole or in part on the basis of reducing environmental impacts. But NelNet? They're in the student loan business. A business which probably wouldn't exist -- and certainly wouldn't exist in anything like its current form -- if our model for higher education in this country were anything close to sustainable. Which couldn't survive in the absence of the implicit presumption that education is a private good measured by the increased earnings stream (and the increased product consumption it enables) accruing to college/university graduates. A business whose entire existence is directly tied to patterns of consumption and accumulative aspiration that can't be sustained on the one planet in the universe known to support life.
Like TV programs about environmental issues, national conferences (primarily) about environmental issues have to shape themselves so as not to be too irritating to corporate funders. And the folks who present at such conferences earn their daily bread (as a rule) working at institutions that can't afford to be too irritating to large corporate donors and the state politicians to whose campaigns major corporations (this year more than ever before) contribute.
I attended only conference sessions which described themselves as "advanced". (There were quite a few of these, so I missed more than I was able to attend.) My hope was that at least a couple of them would take a step back from mainstream campus sustainability practices; look at why we're doing what we're doing; look at why we're not doing what we're not doing; form explicit linkages between at least some dominant economic and political practices and the social, economic and environmental problems which result from them; and at least begin to frame a set of educational goals which might lead us toward a more sustainable future -- a future worth investing in the creation of.
For me, at least, that didn't happen. Perhaps, in that sort of a venue, it never can.