by Stephen Mulkey
Kennebec Journal op-ed
So now what? Clearly we are in deep trouble and truly meaningful environmental progress in the near term is no longer a reasonable expectation. Compromise and wonky engagement continue to fail. Expecting progress on climate change and sustainability from Congress is off the table, now and possibly for the extended future. With Barack Obama, we elected Miles Davis, but we got Kenny G.
When I arrived at Unity College in July 2011, I found an institution in financial trouble and inwardly focused. Cost-cutting was the only financial strategy, and this is a formula for extinction. The college had experienced two years of significant declines in enrollment and went on to experience a third. Faculty and staff salaries were in the basement, and the physical plant was far from adequate for an institution of higher learning.
We have turned the corner on all of these shortcomings and our enrollment is surging. Why? I believe that it is because we embraced extreme change and chose to speak with integrity, honesty and courage. These fundamental spiritual principles, most importantly honesty, have carried us to a new future. Put simply, the college had everything to gain and little to lose by facing our situation honestly and acting decisively.
Standing on the ethical high ground has served us well. We have not sugar-coated our message, and we have not flinched in the face of withering criticism. We are not wonky. We speak with conviction and clarity, and we now stride the national stage.
We are the first college in the nation to divest from fossil fuels, and we are the first to adopt sustainability science as a framework for all of our academic programming. This is built on transdisciplinary programming, a powerful new pedagogy that is necessary to train the next generation of sustainability leaders. Our national brand is growing, and we are making our message felt by institutions and constituents far beyond Maine.
From this experience, I recommend 10 things for the environmental activist community:
• Base everything we do on the ethical imperative of sustainability. Occupy the ethical high ground. Stop compromising and seeking the middle ground on the foundational issues related to sustainability. These are extreme times, and we need strong, courageous, decisive action that will be viewed as extreme by those supporting the status quo. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than establishing a sustainable future for our children. The status quo of business as usual is simply unacceptable. We have everything to gain, and little to lose.
• Go on the offensive and adopt a vision that extends well beyond five years and the election and funding cycle. Become strategic rather than disorganized and tactical. Stop seeing our mission as holding the line, or preventing more damage by the opposition. Instead, leapfrog the argument and aggressively propose explicit, major change. Do not engage in the details of the minor challenges to the environment. Instead, demand change that will serve our children and our grandchildren. Do not waste time with organizations that support the status quo. Any institutional strategic plan should lay the groundwork for radical change beyond its five-year lifespan. It should not be viewed as an end in itself. The policy and conservation initiatives that we should seek must have 2100 as their target.
• Merge financially and politically with allies and don’t sweat the small stuff. Adopt the 80 percent rule. If we agree with 80 percent of our allies’ message and mission, then ignore the remainder and join them. Progressives must stop the tyranny of democracy and agree to disagree while taking action. In Maine and in much of the environmental community, there are far too many NGOs with overlapping missions and philanthropic needs. This is simply ridiculous. Executive directors need to share authority or step down.
• Understand and embrace cultural cognition. Get expert marketing and messaging management from professionals who passionately share our vision of the future. The Republican party does this very well.
• Focus on adaptation as well as mitigation, and quit having the absurd academic argument about one diluting the other. We need both. Now. Proactive adaptation is far less expensive than reactive adaptation. Mitigation is usually less expensive than any form of adaptation.
• Become aggressive and direct about seeking funds from the 1 percent. Organize and seek them out, and do not compromise our message. Educate them. Become insistent and persistent about seeking resources from those with the means to truly make a difference. Most will reject us. All we need is a few with significant wealth who are willing to contribute to a sustainable future.
• Focus on sophisticated management rather than pure conservation and preservation. Preserving nature as it is, or was, is not a realistic goal. We should seek to manage ecosystems for form and function. Give up our sacred cows in the conservation movement. Shed a tear and move on.
• Take direction from those who can lead. Our voices are important, and we can make them heard. Then step off the soapbox and become a worker among workers. We need everyone’s hands, as well as their passions. None of us has the truth in a corner, but some are able to lead. Follow them.
• Long-term extreme change must include a new economy that is not diversified on fossil fuels and is not driven by a mandate for continuous growth. Many in the opposition will interpret this as an assault on the primacy of capitalism. They are correct. Unregulated and unmanaged capitalism is not consistent with the future of civilization. Have the courage to say so and demand a better way.
• Have faith and take care of ourselves and those we love. Whenever I am asked where one should go to escape climate change, I give the same answer that Bill McKibben does: Anyplace there is a strong community. Build strong communities.
Stephen Mulkey is president of Unity College, a private college in rural Maine that provides students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources.