Penn State and Greenwawashing Part 4: Founders and Critical Participation

The next few blogs are going to be free flowing on the idea of Penn State and sustainability and greenwashing. I’ll write about the impressions of the early years first. Then I’ll probably include some interview-type things with emails and conversations from some of the first sustainability champions at Penn State, and then move on to a final kind of personal assessment about this. Right now, it’s all wrapped up in the recent sale by Penn State of some land to the Toll Brothers for luxury student housing. But this is also just a way for me to clarify things for myself (and maybe you), walk through the complicated things in life (together?), and learn about this place—that I love. [I’m leaving “place” alone as an uncomplicated thing for now.]

You might wonder why I’m calling this post “Penn State and Greenwashing” when it’s not about greenwashing per se. It’s about the history of the concept of sustainability at Penn State. Critical participation. I’m committed to working where I am with a critical lens.

About fifteen or so years ago, I worked at Svoboda’s Books, an independent bookstore in State College. The store drew in a variety of intellectuals from the area of all stripes and proclivities. We had the best poetry and philosophy sections you could want outside of a big city. Critical environmental literature. Before sushi was in any way normal, we had a Sushi Club. When the Satanic Verses caused an uproar and fatwah was declared against Salman Rushdie, Svoboda’s hosted a reading of the book to support free speech. It was a place where people playing with big and sometimes controversial ideas came. Not status quo.

Svoboda’s was where I first encountered sustainability. Faculty and visiting scholars, activists, and authors came in and out of Svoboda’s every day. Over my three or so years of working there I met the people at Penn State (and their peers from elsewhere) who were doing sustainability and often giving a hard look at the aegis of what has been called “sustainable development.” Most of them were and remain fairly radical. They were sharp, insightful, and concerned about the domination of the planet by human beings and the ways that our beliefs and narratives guide us into destroying the biosphere and human relationships that support us.

The people I met were associated with Penn State’s Science, Technology, and

CfS and STS

Society program (STS) and the early Center for Sustainability. I cannot hope to do so much justice to all of them here. In the 90s, Barbara Anderson, Tania Slawecki, Rustam Roy, Ivan Illich, Dorothy Blair, and others were teaching and researching “for more ecologically sustainable ways of living” through “ecological design, industrial ecology, community sustainability, land stewardship, food security, permaculture, biodiversity and right livelihood” says their old website (pictured at right). There were also folks at other Commonwealth Campuses doing this work and related faculty at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center: Jim Hamilton, for example, through Shaver’s Creek programs and his teaching at Penn State Mont Alto.

Most of them don’t work at Penn State anymore. Barbara Anderson, who founded the Center for Sustainability, teaches zen at O-An Zendo. Blair retired but remains active in local and international environmental and food security issues (I have worked with her). Roy and Illich are both dead. A number of others moved on to other places. Slawecki still works at Penn State in Material Sciences. She lives in Lemont where she and Gene Bazan produce an incredible amount of food on a ¼ acre mini-farm called NeoTerra.

In the late 90s, sustainability at Penn State was rooted in critiques of western economic development, environmental degradation, and domination. This was coupled to solutions through conviviality and “appropriate technology.” Their fields of inquiry and teaching included critical analysis of agricultural, ecological, nutritional, and political approaches to increaseing food availability, transportation economics and environmental economics, environmental policy and management, the intersection of trade policy with environmental interests, and the importance of science and technology on regulation and conduct of environmental activities.

This means not only having environmental objectives but moving them “upstream” to the design stage. In principle, this approach is more cost effective and it also recognizes that all engineering transforms the environment and that all engineering needs to build in environmental objectives. Further, green engineering means working within the limits of the ecosystem. Faculty do basic and applied research in thin-film photovoltaic cells, green buildings, bio-intensive farming, living machines, and solar heating, as well as the social, environmental, and cultural implications of technologies.
Much of this remains and has been extended. But the spirit is different today than it was. For good and for ill.

For example, Illich criticized western development, economics, and technology. His critiques align with and presage today’s critiques by Naomi Klein, David Orr, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Gus Speth, Pope Francis, and many others. He was already aware that homo economicus, the modern economic man, was damaging the climate system in the 1970s. In the wake of the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, the folklore says that he and others gathered at his house and hatched The Development Dictionary, an edited volume that attacks notions like sustainable development as an instrument for globalization, free trade, the commoditization of people, and the continued objectification of nature as “the environment.” I highly suggest reading his essay “Needs” (and Toward a History of Needs and Medical Nemesis and Tools for Conviviality and…). I’m not sure who the public voice like this is today at Penn State, though Dana Stuchul houses and edits the International Journal of Illich Studies here.

I’ll do a quick channel of him now, one that’s a bit boorish to be him. I hope it suffices.

Illich would observe that because sustainability has become institutionalized at Penn State, it has become more problematic. Institutions commodify people. If we ask Wendell Berry’s question, “What are people for?” the institution will answer, “They are for the institution.” That institutionalization takes sustainability out of being a human value and into a technocratic value that serves an institutions viability in a system of mechanical institutions. Sustainability is removed from meaningful personal volition and into profession, accreditation, and institutional ends. Instead of it being something we realize and work out in shared life, we are given it as an object to consume, a badge/credential we wear, or a professional development goal. Participation in sustainability becomes participation in a program or policy—something to check off on a spreadsheet evaluation at work or an area of research—that must be accomplished through proper channels instead of through free work and association. To achieve sustainability means to become a more-credentialed and greened consumable object for the growing economy rather than a free person living in interpersonal dependence. It involves ever more education through schooling. Sustainability is just another way for schools of all kinds to declare that they are the creators of competency and literacy through their credentialing. If you want to save the world from humans, become more sustainability literate at (insert name of university of note). This, to Illich’s mind, was fairly preposterous. Just look around. The most educated people in the world are ruining the planet and one another. We are the shaped agents of the state and the market, the market and the state and the “most successful” among us are highly consumptive vandals of the local and international scene.

Local case in point: The rezoning of agricultural land in Ferguson Township to high density and its pending sale and conversion to luxury student housing. All of it on a water recharge area that once existed outside of the growth boundary. Perhaps it wasn’t a literal “commons” (as private property) but it served the commons very directly. It still will. Now it’s slated to be something else. Illich could have and would have riddled this project with holes as a corrosive attack on the commons by a land grant university (in name only he would probably say), part and parcel of a global anti-convivial juggernaut chewing up the planet in the name of “progress.” It is a little nick compared to the seizure of water and land by mining corporations or their support by banks, but it is damage nonetheless. I’m not sure offhand what he would suggest as a “solution.” It would not be technocratic.

There are a lot of nuances we could work out in those critiques. They are worthwhile. I’m not doing them here right now.

I wonder what some others from the early days might say about what’s up with sustainability here and the land dispute. I’ve reached out to Dorothy Blair, Tania Slawecki, and Barbara Anderson. I’ve known Dorothy for some years now and so I’ll talk with her soon and get her impressions about things. Barbara Anderson and I will talk, though I’m not sure how I’ll represent that. Slawecki has also emailed me back and I will see her soon. And if you were an early participant, let’s talk.


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