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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Turn the other cheek?

If we are to arm ourselves and our leaders with effective defenses against the coming air raids we have to stop taking sides.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

Me mother was a Murray. Full on Irish. Maybe that’s what programmed my DNA to carpet bomb attackers first and sue for peace with whoever is left.

This year my genes strain to engage against the increasing media strafings of campus sustainability and related practices like diversity, recycling, and divestment.

Open the bomb bay doors?


One major fusillade came from George Will’s column in the Washington Post.

The Pulitzer Prize winning writer sniped that campus sustainability amounted to a new brand of fundamentalism and propaganda that bloats campus administrations and thereby drives up the cost of college. Campus sustainability had, in Mr. Will’s view,  “gone from a minor thread of campus activism to becoming the master narrative of what ‘liberal education’ should seek to accomplish.” 

Then he went all scorched Earth.

To combat this, Mr. Will wrote, campuses should “eliminate every [campus staff] position whose title contains the word “sustainability,” — and, while we are at it, kill off every position with, “diversity,” “multicultural” or “inclusivity” in their work plan too.

Wow, talk about collateral damage. Well, if I am going to be KIA, let me die alongside our brothers and sisters in the diversity, multicultural and inclusivity movements.  Hard to love any folks more than those.

Several of us felt the need to parry Mr. Will’s thrust. The University of Arizona’s seasoned campus sustainability veteran Ben Champion chose to use the attack as an opportunity to create a vision for peace, not war.

“The snapshot of campus sustainability efforts depicted by George Will … is not one we recognize… As society is increasingly challenged by environmental change and its costs to current and future generations, campus sustainability efforts offer increasing value to our students and the broader Tucson community. This is exactly the kind of innovative, efficiency-seeking and entrepreneurial spirit in education that can be embraced by progressive and conservative thinkers alike.

Nicely done. But my recycling friends are getting shot up too.

An October New York Times Op-Ed tore into recycling as unsustainable financially, among other faults.

“Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.”

In response, the National Recycling Coalition launched the bombers and began  carpet-bombing in retaliation.

And through the year, the campus fossil fuels divestment movement has drawn rational and marginalizing opponents alike. And many combatants have responded back and forth.

Is this the start of WWIII?

New rules of engagement

A wayward turn of my life back in the day landed me firmly in enemy infested political territory; chairman of the local county commission. Great experience—as long as I could stand it. Wisely, the people had a shorter fuse and cast me out.

But political trench warfare, ad hominems, and illegal campaign tactics taught me something I try to remember that can neutralize my Irish DNA: restraint. That is, when attacked, think about responding but:
  • Don't do it unless you have to and can turn it to your advantage. Apply a high bar to whether you absolutely have to respond so as not to give the attack an extended news cycle and de facto legitimacy.
  •  Never never never repeat the attacker’s criticisms and try not to mention the attacker by name in the response very much. Why help build their brand?
  • Never never never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. That is, going after the media that carries these attacks is a loser. You are not going to outgun Big Media, the Lamestream Media, Corporate Media, or whatever snarky label you cook up to suggest that the media is a conspiracy funded by whatever bad guy to distort truth. Even Fox News…
  • If you do respond be positive, make suggestions for improvements, be a leader, not a brawler.
In short: make love, not war.

All we are saying is give peace a chance…

This may sound counter-intuitive or may be just plain wrong, but if we are to arm ourselves and our leaders with effective defenses against the coming air raids we have to stop taking sides.


To avoid Armageddon, our campus leaders need a new paradigm that’s effective in a political world dominated by ideological one-liners instead of logic and reason: truthiness.  They need a political positioning system that maps their successful journeys with senators, business leaders, wealthy donors, and community leaders who may be more akin to Mr. Will’s worldview. We risk leaving our leaders defenseless if we don’t design and deliver new tools they can apply in the new political dynamics.

These are not tools of appeasement or apology nor are they the same tools we give them to support on-campus sustainability efforts. Green buildings, renewable energy and student preferences etc. are all valuable on-campus tools to advance sustainability. However, in the bombastic, partisan political world off-campus, these just fuel the ideological fires burning in polemic politics that regards sustainability as little more than progressive propaganda that must be snuffed out.

Instead, we and our campus leaders must remain dogmatically agnostic in the public realm lest we be branded of one ilk or the other. Indeed, we will be told to roll back sustainability if we cannot reframe it as an outcome laden with benefits consistent with campus mission—and devoid of blame for the many plights society now faces.

Obviously, what is done is done. The question now is: what are we going to do to fix things.

Today’s campus leaders need to showcase how a sustainability track solves vexing problems facing the campus, the community, and society at large—without the blame game.

Yet this limited liability approach may not be our natural tendency. Remembering my Irish genes. We know that modern climate change, for instance, has an anthropogenic root and we are quick to argue with or dismiss those that disagree.  However, a significant fraction of our business and political leadership don’t think people are frying the planet—or maybe that the planet is even frying at all.

Do we want our leaders to spend time fighting that fight? Our job is to capture new territory by legitimizing sustainability action as mainstream and consistent with the central mission of the campus.

Two thousand years ago Sun Tzu wrote in the classic warfare tome, The Art of War, "the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." Embraced by famous warriors and political strategists alike, nothing Sun Tzu wrote about conflict has changed in 2,000 years.

Let’s play to win sustainability actions, not arguments.

Ready the firing squad

Some may want to offer me a last smoke before my execution for saying this, but we must realize our attackers are not all wrong. There are valid arguments on both sides of most debates that are easily lost in the fog of war. And if we engage in combat, we don’t engage in dialogue.

At least for this sustainabilista, I have been guilty of overreach; trying to conquer too much territory with a sustainability argument.

I mean, do I really need my brain surgeons’ or musicians’ education to focus much on sustainability? Do we really want to become so stringent in campus discourse that confronting dissenting ideas is chilled by political correctness limits on free speech? Have we become so focused on the measurable resource conservation elements of sustainability (e.g. recycling rates, GHG emissions, etc) that we lose sight of social justice and remain missioned by white majority practitioners imprisoned in privilege? When campus sustainabilistas are ~90% white, how can we say we represent or even understand the balance needed on campus or in society?

I fight every day with my ego and DNA to get over myself. Not winning those fights enough but fortunately I have plenty of reinforcements from folks that realize we don’t do our friends any favors by bullshitting them. Some of the people I love the most are the ones that are hardest on me because tough love is honest love.

Campus sustainability has an honest heart and wants to accomplish honest and good things. If we engage in war then that’s where we’ll be.

Remember that happiness thing?

I’ve gushed before about sustainabilistas needing more fun and happiness in our lives if we are to live long and prosper doing this work. Exactly two years ago I rambled:

“Sustainability professionals are no good to the world dead, depressed, or dependent.  We have too much life to affirm, too many lives to help. Life is good. Let's get some.

My take-home is to play my git-box more, turn down some of the bad habits, turn up the volume on compassion, remember I can’t fix everything—and kick serious ass on the problems I can. Tune in and turn up the music of life.”

And war, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Peace be with you.


- I published a more respectable and in-depth version of this topic in the October 2015 issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record. I borrowed some of that article for this blog with the permission of the magazine. Thanks.

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