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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.

Sub-critical mass
February 11, 2008 - 4:03pm

Erin O’Connor, an English prof at Penn, blogs about higher ed, sometimes from a position politically to the right of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Last Friday, her post spoke about the sustainability groundswell on campuses as a “stealth ideological movement.” This in spite of the fact that proponents of sustainability have been doing everything we can to get on people’s radar screens, and the movement (hey! we’ve achieved movement status!) is so ideological — O’Connor also repeatedly uses ‘political’ as a synonym — that flavors of it appear in the platforms of John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and a vast majority of world leaders outside the USA.

O’Connor starts with a short paragraph linking PETA members to terrorists who firebomb researchers’ homes. The cause of animal rights has no bearing on the remainder of the post, but the image — firebombing innocent academic researchers — serves its purpose. O’Connor’s brush is now fully tarred and ready for use on her intended target. Mission accomplished.

A majority of the post is devoted to Focus the Nation, the nationwide teach-in at the end of last month. O’Connor claims to have found it “scary.” She must be easily frightened.

As evidence of what was wrong (and apparently scary) about FtN, O’Connor quotes at length a published article from Brown philosophy prof Felicia Ackerman, explaining why she didn’t participate. The reasons are simple and non-controversial — climate change is off her topic, she’s not qualified, there are other profs who would do a better job, she has other priorities — but none of them particularly supports O’Connor’s explicit inferences of political harangues, wastage of student time, or impositions on academic freedom. The imposition on academic freedom is particularly emphasized by O’Connor, and the AAUP is called on for redress. This, even though Ackerman compared the FtN invitation to “the frequent e-mails offering Viagra at a reduced price.” If she found the invitation imposing in any way, it doesn’t show.

Ackerman even makes the point that the subject of global warming is beyond her expertise. She states, “I am not disputing the scientific consensus about the technical aspects of climate change. As a non-scientist, I would have to be a crackpot to think that I know more than scientists about scientific matters.” O’Connor, on the other hand, apparently feels no such compunction. Instead, she rails about “people who try to peddle anthropogenic global warming as a settled truth -- it’s not,” and “questionable science.” This, in spite of the fact that the National Academy of Sciences has said for years that the truth of global warming is about as unsettled as the truth of gravity. Of course, the lack of support in her quoted material needn’t stop O’Connor from arriving at her preconceived conclusions, and it doesn’t.

The remainder of the post consists of an attack on the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which O’Connor says “enjoins college presidents to pledge to make their campuses climate neutral within two years while integrating ’sustainability education’ into the curriculum.” The flaws in this description are so numerous and so profound that I hardly know where to start.

First, the PCC doesn’t “enjoin” anybody to do anything. To “enjoin” is to issue an injunction — a judicial order prohibiting a specific party from taking a specific action. Parties and actions aside, “enjoin” implies coercion, not invitation. Signing the PCC is an entirely voluntary act.

Second, PCC signatories are not pledging to make their campuses climate neutral within two years. Even though O’Connor makes a major point of the irresponsibility of just such a commitment, it’s a figment of someone’s fertile imagination. What the college presidents are pledging to do is to come up with a plan to achieve climate (really, carbon) neutrality. The plan is due in two years, but the target date for achieving neutrality is clearly and explicitly left up to each college or university.

Finally, the words “sustainability education” don’t appear anywhere in the text of the PCC. If O’Connor is quoting, and she well may be, it’s not from the source she seems to imply. Maybe it’s from some other source. One that she’s actually read.

Ironically, O’Connor wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, back in July of 2006, on the subject of faculty members and blogging. Her thoughts on the subject seem well-founded, and I recommend the article to anyone so inclined. I only wish that she had re-read her own words:

Scholars who blog should accept that their writing affects their professional image. If they take controversial stances, they will be criticized. If they behave badly online, their reputations will suffer. Academic freedom protects the tenured (a fast-shrinking group) from punishment when speaking out — but it does not and should not protect them from the unforgiving sorting process that is the marketplace of ideas.


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