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  • Getting to Green

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

... be very afraid!
September 25, 2008 - 3:04pm

Like everybody else, I'm following what's happening in Washington with regard to the possible bailout of financial markets. What strikes most me is the paucity of actual thought involved -- in the proposed solution (spend lots of taxpayer money to buy assets which the market currently considers worthless), in the sales pitch (if you don't do this right now, America turns into a third-world country -- trust us both to understand the problem and to administer the solution without oversight), and in the lack of substantive press coverage (will Democrats? won't Republicans? which presidential candidate will get blame or credit?). Note that nowhere in this list does even the possibility of some action other than massive outright corporate welfare appear.

Even after Henry Paulson promoted sales of US stocks to overseas sovereign wealth funds, after Bank of America, Barclay's, Wachovia, and Warren Buffett (among others) are hailed as white knights for purchasing corporate stock at fire-sale prices, the idea that the US Government (remember -- that's you and me) might get something of potential value for its (I mean "our") money doesn't appear to be on the radar screen. Instead, our collective attention is directed to whether John McCain's suspension of his campaign fund-raising will be seen as statesmanship or political theater.

How does this all relate to higher education and sustainability? More closely than I originally realized.

First, recognize that the economic dimension is as present in the overall sustainability picture as the environmental and social ones. Financing is the procedural lubricant that allows us to do anything of real scale. If the financial markets don't work, getting any other sort of effort off the ground is virtually impossible. The way things have worked in the recent past is clearly not sustainable (systems in the process of crashing and burning are rarely described using that term), but some sort of functioning financial system is a necessity.

Second, from a marketing perspective, I think the American populace might be coming a bit out of its long-term pattern of reflexively rejecting any proposition which takes more than thirty seconds to explain. I may be over-optimistic, but the fact that simplistic arguments are meeting with skepticism raises the possibility of an upside. Sustainability issues don't yet fit well onto an emotion-laden bumper sticker (and if they ever do, it's way too late for all of us). For years, we've been talking too long, and too abstractly, to generate much political momentum. Maybe -- just maybe -- the broader audience is developing an attention span sufficient to let our message compete against the nay-sayers.

And as regards higher education, just be glad you're not a laissez-faire business professor whose entire curriculum is based on the ideology that all is for the best in the least-regulated of all possible markets. Think of all the back-pedaling and rewriting you'd be looking at. Now there's something to be really afraid of!


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