Toward A New Campus Environmentalism

by Meggie McGuire

Photo: Marta Pisarczyk

I’m proud that Wesleyan has such a dynamic environmental movement. Hard work on the part of EON, the administration and a lot of passionate students has helped us make some small, but important efforts to become a more sustainable campus. I don’t need to relay this here, the Wesleyan website does plenty of boasting about our efforts to be environmentally friendly (check out http://www.wesleyan.edu/sustainability for more info on how fucking green we are).

That being said, individual (or in this case, campus) greening is largely ineffective if not paired with larger structural changes.  In nearly every arena of sustainability, individual consumption has a negligible impact. Less than 10% of water usage and less than 3% of waste output is by individual consumers. Even in terms of energy consumption, individuals account for less than a quarter of the total [1]. The real environmentally destructive culprit is not you, the lady down the street who doesn’t recycle or even Wesleyan collectively, but larger industrial systems which are consuming more energy and resources and releasing more waste and emissions than any of us could even dream of matching. Yes, Wesleyan embodies the lifestyle choices of over 2,700 individuals, but even this is minute when put in perspective. So, let’s make Wesleyan as green as can be, but our task doesn’t end there. Everything we count on in our daily lives necessitates the existence of larger, far more environmentally destructive institutions. And sadly, all of us “consuming green” is not enough to change this in and of itself, so don’t succumb to green guilt. Strive to live as low-impact as possible but do it because it’s the right thing to do. Living simply is good for the soul, but is not, by itself, a catalyst for substantial change.


In order to halt the destruction of the earth we MUST confront the systems which led us into this situation in the first place. I’m talking about larger cultural attitudes which view the natural world and our fellow-human beings as resources to be exploited and profited from, and I’m talking about the c-word…. Capitalism.  The notion that Green Capitalism can solve the environmental crisis is just as deluded and distracting as the idea that we can solve the water crisis by taking shorter showers.  Not only does Green Capitalism not solve the most pressing environmental problems, it allows the enterprising capitalists among us to profit from these false solutions. Tadzio Mueller and Alexis Passadakis’ 20 Theses Against Green Capitalism says it better than I could: “Green Capitalism won’t challenge the power of those who actually produce most greenhouse gases: the energy companies, airlines and carmakers, industrial agriculture, but will simply shower them with more money to help maintain their profit rates by making small ecological changes that will be too little, too late.”[2] In order to solve the environmental crisis, we must think outside of the narrow framework in which our society currently operates.
One of the worst side-effects of efforts championing Green Capitalism as the ultimate solution is greenwashing. I’m sure you’ve seen creepy ads by Monsanto, BP, and other disgusting corporations bragging about the strides they’ve made to become more sustainable. As sad as I am to lump us in with such bad company, Wesleyan does some greenwashing of its own. Anyone else notice that the 1kW Photo Voltaic solar panel was installed on the admissions building? Remember how Bon Appetite’s shameless efforts to be recognized as the Most Vegetarian Friendly College did not actually correlate with improvements in the vegetarian/vegan food? (veg-washing?) Did you notice that one of the stated goals of the Green Fund is to “increase the visibility of environmentally responsible practices”? The truth is, our snazzy sustainability website and the cute Green Report review of sustainability at Wesleyan, does not a sustainable university make. Once again- the Green Fund and all of these administrative efforts are awesome. But let’s make sure we’re taking these steps because as a campus we care about the world around us, not because it will boost applicants or put us on some “most green campus” list. Let’s not just be cosmetically green, but actually green. That will speak for itself.
Don’t get me wrong- campus sustainability is critically important. As students with a relatively large amount of say in how our campus is run, we have the powerful opportunity to shape Wesleyan into a microcosm of the sustainable world we are working toward (at least to the degree that economics and the admins will allow). What I’m advocating for is that we continue these important efforts, while simultaneously thinking on a larger, more radical scale. As students we have unusually large amounts of disposable free time which we can either use for drunken exploits or for aiding larger social movements (or, even better, for both). We are also surrounded by some extremely smart, engaged people, many of whom will hold considerable power in the future. Let’s take advantage of all of this, not just to make small campus-centric changes, but larger impacts we can be proud of.
There are a few groups on campus already working toward larger causes- the Wesleyan 350 campaign and the EON Greenpeace Climate Campaign Committee come immediately to mind. However, I’d love to see some groups focusing on issues other than climate change, like ending mountaintop removal coal-mining, or saving our oceans from pollution or overfishing, or halting deforestation and the disappearance of important ecosystems and species . These are all of comparable importance for the future of this species . These are all of comparable importance for the future of this planet and the human beings who live on it.
This is not simply a ranting critique, but a call to action. I’ve talked to several others who agree that Wesleyan needs a radical environmental voice. If you’re curious, interested or even pissed off, send me an email at mmcguire@weslyan.edu. Think about this, talk to me and let’s get some shit started.

[1] http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/07/08
[2] http://climateactioncafe.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/20-theses-against-green-capitalism/

Photo: Katherine Bascom

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