“Penn State will lead in the creation of comprehensive solutions to the fundamental challenges of providing safe and abundant water, clean and accessible energy and plentiful and nutritious food, in an economical and sustainable manner that respects, protects and adapts to the environment for future generations.”
Nick Jones, Penn State Provost [Read on here.]
As someone working at the Penn State Sustainability Institute, that statement is great. As a citizen invested in the healthy future of the human-nature relationship, this is even better. What could I possibly want to write about besides how much it bolsters my hope. And it does. It bolsters my hope that one of the largest research universities in the country is going to put sustainability deep into its core, that it will transform our knowledge about and relationships to one another and nature in ways that ensure that we will collectively flourish.
When I started at Penn State as an undergraduate, I remember when sustainability was this totally subversive word. It was like it could only be shown on special ID badges by agents working in a shadow university. All these weird subversive types were allying with Ivan Illich and Rustam Roy and some others to do the unthinkable, like set up dispersed renewable energy and build native gardens and wetlands to create beauty, food, habitat, and manage stormwater. Now those ideas, while not mainstream, are fully part of a large subculture that is only growing. I grew up with these people. Like it or not, I am their legacy. So what’s to worry about with Nick Jones’ statement.
Greenwashing. Yes. Greenwashing. If you don’t know what this is, it’s the equivalent of whitewashing an issue but with green. It’s creating a false environmentally-friendly or ecologically-conscious image to cover something up. Think of natural gas companies using green and blue in their logos to evoke plants or Dasani water (Coke product) talking about their plant-based bottles or Pepsi’s Ecofina. Basically, it’s junk. It’s image. It’s a veneer of environmentalism.
So the question before us with Nick Jones’s statement is something like this: Is his statement on the strategic plan about sustainability greenwashing? I’m not going to pretend that I am in a position to comprehensively assess every aspect of every part of Penn State and its sustainability impacts. I can’t say that I know with a remarkable degree of accuracy that Penn State will fulfill its vision of sustainability as “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations.” I also will not pretend to speak for the other employees of the Sustainability Institute much less its leadership about anything. I’m just going to talk about this issue from my point as someone who is steeped in and invested in sustainability as a guiding concept in his personal, civic and professional life.
Here’s a guiding principle. It applies to the movements of which I’m a part, the actual institute where I work, the place where I live, and so on. “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it,” said Mark Twain. None of what I’m going to write will be mean-spirited nor weak nor pandering. It’s meant to provide sunshine through careful thought. It’s like what former chief justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” I hope that my words can provide some sunlight and that they are, in the truest sense, patriotic.
In case you think I’m a Penn State shill, you should know that I’ve stood up quite a few times. The best two recent examples have to do with the Sandusky child rape scandal when I did a week-long one-man sit-in for justice, healing, and caring. The other has been calling out Penn State for its overly cozy relationships with natural gas companies. But I’ve also worked with people there on the previous Sustainability Plan and to get things like the water bottle filling stations in place. Critic, activist, and pragmatist.
In the coming couple of posts I’ll try to work through this. Because I don’t think it’s an either/or. It’s not that it’s so complicated. It’s that Penn State is an institution invested in the new economy and the old economy. It is the status quo and it’s not the status quo. It’s a matter of perspective that I’ll reserve judgement on ‘til the last post. So stay tuned.