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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sustainability and The Art of War

“On dispersive ground, fight not. On facile ground, halt not. On contentious ground, attack not. On open ground, do not try to block the enemy’s way. On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your allies. On serious ground, gather in plunder. In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march. On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem. On desperate ground, fight.”
-       “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu. 544 BC

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

This is one of the very rare occasions when it’s good to be old, a well-used punching bag, or an old Timex watch (takes a licking and keeps on ticking).

Or a paratrooper.

“We’re paratroopers; we’re supposed to be surrounded,” said Major Richard Winters during the US Army’s historic defense of Bastogne, France in WWII.

Or a sustainabilista.

I survived watching solar panels being uninstalled from the White House by Ronald Reagan, the EPA and Clean Water Act being dismantled, and Reagan’s EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch telling enviros they were “nothingburgers.”  She later had to resign EPA in disgrace after multiple scandals. 

But President Reagan looks better every day.

I survived Jeb Bush becoming my governor and remodeling Florida higher education literally on the back of a cocktail napkin and gutting affirmative action in a failed attempt to create “One Florida.” But after he installed a Board of Regents trained by Lynne Cheney’s right wing American Council of Trustees and Alumni they left sustainability alone because it made economic sense. 

Jeb Bush is looking better every day.

I survived being told by my chancellor that our proposed zero-waste goal was “duplicitous” and that he opposed carbon neutrality as “unattainable.” He’s an ardent advocate of both now—and president of a university that is a STARS Gold sustainability leader.

And then this happened

No doubt the Trumping Of America presents a clear and present danger to many of the things sustainability stands for and aspires to. We are all heartsick over the current and future impacts being felt by people of color and all under represented folk. The violence and hatred on campus and in our communities is sickening. I have told several of our now terrified students of color that I have their back. FEELS SO INADEQUATE. I am trembling with anger over what they are facing, and what they will face. And Earth itself is giving strong signals that we are entering a red zone as the planet moves to fry the infection (us) in less time than Stephen Hawking’s predicted 1,000-year Hospice for Humanity.

There’s no “but” coming here. This is among the darkest of times I’ve ever seen. And I suspect it will get worse before it gets better.

So when in the darkness, turn to history for light.

Sun Tzu’s guidance above is among many wise lessons his "Art of War" has taught leaders of all stripe over the centuries. But today’s battlefield is complex and not well understood.

For instance, I know—we all know—good and intelligent people that are neither racist nor deny climate change but voted for Trump or de facto equivalent. And we are all, left and right, looking within our own souls, talking to our friends, family, and scanning the horizon for signs of the correct path forward.

Yet the outward indicators of which battlefield we’re on, how to respond, and even who we are struggling with present complicated, conflicting, and contentious signals.

How did the same people who voted for Barack Obama twice and still give him high approval ratings install Donald Trump and his kind? Did sustainability and other liberal causes contribute to Leftie overreach? Are we truly the elitists the Right condemns? Did we learn everything we think we know from our insular Facebook echo chambers and so eschew substantive dialogue?

We have met the enemy, and he is us?

Among the most troubling question for me: what does sustainability have in common with Donald Trump’s supporters? Answer: both factions are overwhelmingly white.

So we have to ask ourselves if sustainability’s much criticized white-centricity is a fatal flaw in our doctrine, one we have not significantly addressed, and is among the causative maladies contributing to where we stand today?

Yes, there are "bad guys" and bad motives on "the other side" too--and I am angry about that and fight back the urge to punch someone's lights out every day. But a clearer head tells me to focus on what I can change. And there are plenty of faux pas on "my team" too.

Personally, I gave myself 48 hours post-election to grieve and be angry (still working on that), through the holidays for soul searching (this blog is at least helping me…), but I started inventorying tools in the toolbox right away. 

As an old friend always said, “every morning people wake up looking for breakfast.” Get back to work.

And this is where sustainabilistas’ history of being able to take a punch pays off. We’ve been struggling uphill since the beginning and have the scars and survivor skills to prove it. 

Putting them to work is key.

Surveying the carnage

First, sustainabilistas' lack of diversity combined with the increased threats facing underrepresented people place us firmly on Sun Tzu’s “ground of intersecting highways, [so] join hands with your allies.”

For instance, a few years ago we transformed our Energy & Climate program into the Energy & Climate Justice program and hired an incredible leader who is steeped and skilled in that sphere. First up was an Eco-Social Leadership training that drew white students together with students of color to look at Van Jones et al leadership and historical perspectives. We got a big response.

Of the many positive results are improved mutual respect and understanding across cultural perspectives—and more students of color working with us—and more white students working in cultural communities. The white students remark, “I didn’t realize how much the black students knew about environmental problems.” The black and Hispanic students remark they “didn’t appreciate how much the white kids knew about social justice.”  


Also left standing on the battlefield is the nation’s biggest and most diverse demographic group: Millennials.  Add to them Gen-Zs, also still standing. Together, they are our undergrad and grad student base.

And their vote was overwhelmingly blue. We already know their values and vision are defined by positive purpose, rejection of business as usual, concern for and action on climate change, and personal integrity. We survey our incoming freshman every year and are finding ~90% are concerned about their carbon footprint and that of the universities—and want to do something about both.

These are higher education’s customers for the foreseeable future. And as a nation, we grow more diverse every day. More “intersecting highways.”

Structurally there are many positive systems that have survived and may even prosper going forward. Clean energy systems aren’t going away; there are too many market forces driving down the cost of renewables so that they are even cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. Too many state mandates that the Feds can’t change. And frankly too much consumer demand—even in Florida where Trump won the presidential vote those same voters rejected a sneaky anti-renewable energy amendment the fossil pushers were trying to slide into law. 

Word: many Trumpers are not climate deniers or racists. Deal with it.

Tools in the toolbox

AASHE is working on a summary of largely business case arguments that we have probably all used over the years--and need to refresh anew. Even in the best of times, failure to cover the business aspects of any sustainability pitch quickly—and correctly—will doom it to the dustbin. The good news is most sustainabilistas are practiced at drawing out how:
  • Sustainability improves organizational efficiency, decreases operational costs, and reduces risk.
    • The staple of resource conservation’s business arguments: cost savings, reduced maintenance, and increasing focus on resiliency. All are solid and largely credible arguments campus administrators respond to well.
  • Sustainability catalyzes increased giving and new funding sources.
    • Campus advancement, research and even athletics are seeing new money and donor/sponsor intent in this quickly growing development arena. Indeed, if donor intent matches the huge spike in enviro group memberships post-election, this is a major emphasis going forward.
  • Sustainability helps attract, retain, and motivate top students and employees.
    • The Princeton Review has for several years surveyed prospective freshman and found about 2/3 make college choice, in part, based on their sense of campus green.
  • Sustainability strengthens community relations and facilitates new partnerships.
    • Every campus is mindful of its town-gown relations and the need to leverage efforts across community groups. Sustainability is a big focus of most US local governments. Community groups love partnering with campus folks. Go get 'em.
  • Sustainability education including exposure to diverse voices and people prepares students for career success and responsible citizenship.
    • Campuses get the double benefit of engaging students where they want to learn—sustainability—and fostering better cross-cultural relations through a diverse sustainability conversation that gives voice to perspectives from diverse backgrounds so everybody learns more. Likewise, those students are more successful navigating increasingly diverse workplaces--and global markets-- when they move into their careers. This is the place where sustainabilistas need to double down: we have got to bridge our diversity and inclusion gap or risk irrelevance, period.
  • Sustainability research and education demonstrates relevance in addressing grand challenges and helps unify the campus around a shared sense of purpose.
    • Back to the Millennials and Gen Zs: They are shopping for purpose, relevance, and a way forward in a world beset with life threatening challenges. Universities that don’t respond to their customers will decline. Smart campus leaders get all this—and are looking at how to respond to the new political climate without getting run over. Delivering relevant content to your customer is always a good idea.

“In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.”

One thing campuses are not good at, in my experience, is moving forward in times of uncertainty. Risk aversion can be a good thing generally, but campuses take that to an extreme. In these very uncertain and damn scary times, sustainabilistas must present solid facts and compelling vision. Our nation is looking for direction. The structural constants are solid. The need is great. Our customers are aligned. The structures are in place. If we present as weak and troubled, we will be.

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

We’ve all heard this Sun Tzu quote a million times. But we continue to hunker down on Facebook and scorn those with whom we disagree anyway. If there is good news from this election, it is we are talking with those we disagree with more than ever. Both sides are talking. The media is helping facilitate that convo in more effective ways. They better. They are taking fire from all sides.

“In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march.”

And here we are on very, very difficult ground. If we surrender, it’s over. If we freeze we’ll be frozen. If we go back, we can’t. There is only one way to go: forward. It may be a terrible slog. Bad things are going to happen to good people. We will have to fight off bad things, bad attitudes and crippling despondence—or worse—along the way. But "we will never surrender," Winston Churchill reminds us.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

If we hate those who are hateful, we become haters. I fail that test regularly and catch myself doing it. Gotta stop. An old political colleague of mine with whom I have survived many battles always asked those with whom we were struggling to explain their positions simply so he could understand them. In so doing he signaled humility and respect. He was very good at extracting their core perspectives. He never hated opponents, he sought to understand them. Then he was better at being understood. Stephan Covey framed it, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We are right where we are supposed to be

Sustainabilistas are paratroopers too. We floated down into the middle of campuses 10-15 years ago to take on the status quo. We’ve been surrounded ever since; we signed up to be. A few of us have broken through the lines in some places, but we are trying to create change in the institution of higher education that does not change well. We have used the tools we created or found to get this far. Now we need to create new tools and find new allies.

This election delivered both.

It’s really shitty now for our underrepresented brothers and sisters. Terrifying and awful. We must stand with them, reach out to new friends, forge new tools, and use the proven ones we have. The Entire Question is in the balance.

It's been in the balance before. Sadly, I'm old enough to have survived that too. I remember how distraught this nation was when the Soviet Union passed us in the Space Race, we danced with death in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the specter of nuclear war sent me as a grade schooler into the school basement rehearsing for the nuclear attack I grew up expecting. 

Then President Kennedy backed Russia off of Cuba and launched the US quest to "put a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth." The nation was energized. JFK challenged us: "we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Turns out it was damn hard, but we did it. 

And even a year after JFK died, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act after years of civil rights struggle.

We will rise again. New leaders are already emerging.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Twenty five centuries later, Sun Tzu's wisdom continues to shine a very bright light on the most permanent truth from The Art of War: Peace is better.

Indeed, you are welcome in my house anytime, no matter who you voted for. You can find me here:

Peace be with you.


 - Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Sun Tzu.


  1. Dave, your heart beats strongly here. Sounds alot like, "Don't Mourn, Organize!" I have more to say about the concept of "customers" and "war and sustainability" to be shared off line. Thanks for pouring yourself into this effort and shining your bright light.


  2. "If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him." Sun Tzu

    Thanks for the synthesis spanning 2500 years. Keep marching.


  3. Thank you, Dave. You are a beacon of sense in a very uncertain time.

  4. Thanks for the reminder that we have much and many people to care for in the next year or two.

    After signing a petition last week regarding a transition team nominee, I had second thoughts on recalling a quote from Napoleon: "Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake".