Is Penn State Greenwashed? Part I

Is Penn State Greenwashed?

Last week, Penn State Provost Nick Jones said, ““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.” Sounds great.

Jones has joined a growing number of university leaders openly recognizing that colleges and universities must play a role in confronting the human-environmental quagmire. Like the signatories of the Talloires Declaration, Halifax Declaration, Copernicus Charter, and the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), Jones has signaled a university-wide commitment to sustainability vis a vis the above specific issue areas of water, energy, and food. (Note: He and President Barron have NOT signed any of the above and have specifically refused to sign the ACUPCC.) We could parse “economical and sustainable” and “respects, protects and adapts” to death. I’m not going to now. (I might later.) I am going to take those as for-granted terms so we don’t get hung up. But they might be devils in the details. Or angels. I don’t know. Both? Experience will tell us as Penn State more explicitly shows us what’s going on. Suffice that right now, based on the several years of work, “We are…” moving into a deeper commitment to sustainability. Why?

Let’s face it. The undereducated plebes have not constructed the ecological nightmare of the global economy. Few people without college degrees have designed the technologies, policies, and programs that have created the ecological crises before us. Some say that ballooning human population and consumption compromise human well being, that ecosystems are declining, that human interference with the global climate, and the loss of biodiversity are the major issues. Said slightly differently they might be compromised potable/fresh water, human-caused climate change, widespread pollution and toxification, depletion and degradation of resources, and the destruction and degradation of habitat. These aren’t either/or ways of looking at the wicked problems we have created, but slightly different categorizations. What causes those things?

Fracking, deep sea mining, tar sands extraction, mountain top removal, power plants, mega dams, super-sized shipping containers, cars, urban and suburban sprawl, illegal hunting, legal hunting, industrial monocropping, deforestation to construct concentrated animal feeding operations, barely regulated free trade, predatory banking, speculative lending, legal betting on commodities, and on and on. This list can go on and on as it does in United Nations Environmental Program reports, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, red lists by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and more, These things we do are just the way things are. And the way things are has been deliberately and accidentally created by the most educated people in history. To my mind, this creates a question, the same one David Orr asked in the Worldwatch Institute’s 2010 State of the World : What’s higher education for now?

Jones and the cavalcade of university leaders pushing for sustainability are recognizing a few things. First, people with university educations have power. Aboriginal Australians, the Amish, and the African San have not made the global human-ecological crises. They also lead us into better ways of being. Second, as the environment in which people learn the skills and literacies and co-create the capacities for using them, universities have a moral responsibility to do something different. Third, this responsibility extends to those presently alive, to those unborn, and to other species and other species (“the environment”). Fourth, because the problems are global, the solutions should be applicable on a global scale. Fifth, the leadership of universities should create an environment that provides tools for understanding and change that create the requisite conditions for protection and adaptation (using Jones’ words). Sixth, commitment to sustainability as stated in the strategic plan will extend to and be embedded in curricula, student life, outreach and service, operations including housing, dining, energy use and production, procurement, and transportation, construction and renovation, land management, and the university’s financial investments and strategic partnerships.

University leaders going in this direction signal the rest of our society and economy that both must change. If that’s the case, then Jones is saying that the way that Penn State has not been committed to sustainability to the degree that it should have been. So what I want to do is get a sense for you and me on what’s been done in the above categories (curricula, research, operations, land use, etc.)

What do I suspect? Well, as someone who’s been in the area and worked with people at the former Center for Sustainability, as a graduate assistant tasked with figuring out who to know and why at Penn State regarding sustainability, now an employee of the Sustainability Institute, I think it’s a mixed bag. Over here, we have the development of courses in every college and most departments. Over there, dirty industry provides huge amounts of money in the Colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences and Agriculture. Over here there are student campaigns like Kleercut and Beyond Coal while there seems to be an eye-brow-raising rule that prevents Penn State from ceasing its investments in any particular sector, thereby hamstringing socially responsible investments. There are investments in solar energy but they lag way behind investments in fossil fuel. We have had members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change like Richard Alley, Michael E. Mann, and Petra Tschakert* (just migrated to University of West Australia) who have stated unequivocally that we need to take rapid action on climate change. Meanwhile, university leadership has made no public statement on Penn State’s climate- and energy-related goals. Penn State has an award-winning university-based recycling program called Mobius and the largest composting facility in the country. But we still sell bottled water at hundreds of times the price of the high-quality water available through its taps.

And then there is the elephant in the room if you’re a local. Penn State has conditionally sold a piece of land in Ferguson Township to the Toll Brothers. That land is on Zone 2 of a major water recharge zone for the region, the Harter Thomas well fields. Some of my friends and I have accursed Penn State of being full of it on sustainability because of this land sale and its threat to drinking water and its causing sprawl. Does this land sale mean that Jones is greenwashing?

The devil is in the details once again. So in the next blog post I’ll do a little rundown on Penn State’s sustainability actions by using something called the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment Rating System (STARS) which is created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). What you will see is a mixed bag of things. In some places, Penn State will stand out as an unequivocal leader—recycling for example. In others it will be okay—curriculum. And in still others—finances and investments—it will be behind.

In the post on this issue that follows, I’ll try to view the current Toll Brothers land problem in the context of some sustainability history at Penn State. These could include the creation and dissolution of the (dismantled) Science, Technology, and Society program and the iterations of the Center for Sustainability, the sale of the Circleville Farm, Chris Uhl’s work on the Green Destiny program, and the community protest of a natural gas pipeline. I hope all this will provide some context for us.

Finally, by looking at these together, I’ll try to provide some summary analysis and some opportunities for you and I to reflect. We can (mostly) figure out what the state of things have been and we can reflect on the state of things as they could have been and how they should be. If we want Jones to really invest Penn State in the “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations,” then we need to individually and collectively reflect on what that means to us as individuals and as publics (hat tip to RB for the plurality of the public), why we desire different courses of action, and how we will pursue these things. Let’s use this as an opportunity for all of us—not just Penn State—to move things along.


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