Let’s stop kidding ourselves about our campus environmental sustainability programs. Their main function is not institutional transformation to seriously reduce our environmental impact. Their function is to make us feel better about ourselves, even as we continue to wreck the environment.
Real sustainability, given our true environmental crisis, would require substantial institutional changes in everybody’s expectations and practices. But most sustainability programs in higher education—like everywhere else—are piecemeal, marginal, token. We recycle cardboard and plastic here, hold “green” campus events there. Students have sustainability clubs, dorms have sustainability reps, and staff have sustainability committees. Occasionally an administrator produces a planning report promising to achieve to carbon neutrality by three decades from now. Then business as usual chugs along as if the problem were solved. Think of this as “therapeutic ‘sustainability.’” It functions as the organized management of appearances and feelings, not the hard institutional changes that real sustainability would require. It also sounds good on promotional materials for prospective students and donors.
Do not blame school offices of sustainability. Their staff are generally educated and committed—and often frustrated, I have found, by how constrained their work is. So what produces therapeutic “sustainability”? People want to feel good about themselves and the organizations they lead, work for, and enroll at. But complex organizations are rarely great at making needed systemic changes, except when facing an immediate existential threat, such as a pandemic. While few appear to regard global overheating and environmental ruin as a true existential threat, most have heard enough to know that something ought to be done by somebody to “save the planet.” That is where token recycling, green events, and planning reports come in. It appears that somebody on our team is trying, so we can feel better about our institutions and ourselves, even though little of substance changes. We happily believe our own greenwashing fraud.