• Getting to Green

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


More puzzlement

For quite a while now, I've been experiencing a heightening sense of conflict relating to my job duties. While I've sensed the general pattern for a while, the specifics are only now becoming clear in my mind.

June 16, 2011

For quite a while now, I've been experiencing a heightening sense of conflict relating to my job duties. While I've sensed the general pattern for a while, the specifics are only now becoming clear in my mind.

Yesterday, I sat in on a conference call organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The main speaker was Naomi Oreskes, and the topic was based on her recent book (well,it's half hers), Merchants of Doubt. The subtitle (how a handful of scientists obscured the truth from tobacco smoke to global warming) pretty much sums up the message. The tale told by Oreskes and co-author Erik Conway is convincing even if (as with the narrative of any controversy) some folks can quibble with specific statements. In a nutshell, her message is that any sufficiently wealthy industry can render recent scientific discoveries ineffective for decades, if that's what continued profitability requires. Market mechanisms operate well in situations where sufficient information (knowledge) is available -- if you don't want those mechanisms to operate, block out the information.

The day before yesterday, I read an article by a couple of sociologists which confirmed, based on ten years' worth of Gallup surveys, that individual American attitudes about global warming aren't really tested against science of any sort -- they're based entirely on political ideology. That's why cognitive approaches (think Al Gore) don't work well. The whole idea that greenhouse gases created (directly and indirectly) as a result of industrial capitalism could be destabilizing the environment on which capitalism (and the human race) depends would imply a huge failure of market mechanisms and a need for government intervention. Since (the Great Recession notwithstanding) it's become an article of faith for many that market mechanisms don't fail and that government intervention is never the solution to anything, it's an article of faith for about half of US citizens that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or at least a fallacy.

Then, this morning, I was reading Time magazine in my dentist's office waiting room. An article called out five destructive myths in the way most folks think (and the mainstream media talk and write) about the current economic situation. Four of the five were unsurprising, but the last one grabbed my attention. It seems that entrepreneurship levels in the USA dropped significantly around 1980 -- just when the financial services sector started to get huge. Chicken-vs-egg causality arguments aside, the correlation makes sense; it certainly corroborates my own individual experience. Financial services (investment banking) as an industry is entirely dependent on industrial capitalism -- increasingly, global industrial capitalism. Recent successes in globalization are tied to the increased mobility of capital. Everything is tied to everything.

After my dental appointment, I came on campus. Greenback U, like so many institutions of higher education, is struggling financially. As a result, we're cozying up to as much private sector capital as we can find. Much of it (of course) comes from the financial services sector. (Insert Willie Sutton reference here.) Any employee who points out that the corporate money those development folks worked so hard to get comes directly as a result of the industrial behaviors which are ruining the environment, the economy and society at large will be as popular as a polecat at a garden party.

A purist might simply walk away from campus and work towards sustainability in some other venue -- one where the truth dare speak its name. But I don't know any other venue in which I can have as much impact as I believe I can here at Greenback. Perhaps some other college or university, but the simple case is that Greenback's increased dependence on corporate funding is hardly the exception. A handful of truly well-endowed institutions aside, it's pretty much the rule.

So the conflict I'm experiencing is tied to my perception that the institution within which I'm working is increasingly dependent (in effect, already fully dependent) on the continuation of patterns of behavior which are the root cause of the problem I'm being employed to address.

A puzzlement, indeed.


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