OP-ED: Paths to Sustainability–A Response to Dylan Walsh’s Open Letter to FES

This is a response to a recent op-ed by Dylan Walsh. To read Walsh’s op-ed click here.

What kinds of people does the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies hope to send out into the world?  This is the question that, although he didn’t ask it, seemed to underlie Dylan Walsh’s provocative and poignant op-ed.

The scene, so familiar to all of us students, plays out in Burke Auditorium.  A CEO speaks and we listen.  The lights are on, the shades are drawn, the view to West Rock blocked although it is sunny outside.  The metaphor that Burke presents us with is inescapable.  If you are in a lecture in that auditorium, you are on the inside.

Dylan rightly asks how we should engage in that environment.  Is hostility appropriate?  Is it even ethical to invite Nestle to sponsor a speaker series at Yale’s Environment School?

For now, the actual answers to those questions are less important than our uncertainty about them.  The School itself seems confused as to how to engage with an actor that harms the environment, even when that actor is the chairman of a coal company, as was the case at a talk last year.  As Dylan pointed out, the “collaborate with all actors of society” approach is part of the school’s mission.  How to breathe meaning into that line is not.

If there is one goal of our School it is to “sustain and restore the long-term health of the biosphere.”  In two years of graduate study, I have seen very few people draw a clear path to that goal or even explain what it means.  The School’s recent focus on climate change shows how much we are looking for a path – and even a better-defined goal.  No one is to blame for this, and yet everyone is to blame for this.

We are excellent diagnosticians and prognosticators.  We know the problems and the School’s young scientists are helping us know them better.  We predict sea level rise and temperature change, know the in’s and out’s of an argument between climate economists’ discount rate assumptions, and can tell you how large the Pacific gyre is (and probably find out without too much trouble what Nestle may have contributed to it).  But connecting that knowledge to action and that action to a path that leads directly toward our goal is where we, as a School for the Environment, do not fare so well.

We do a lot of things well, but ultimately the mirror that Dylan held up begs us to get better at change.  The Environment School does not offer a class on Change.  It’s a hard thing to teach.  But if our goal is sustainability, then we are changers or we are hypocrites.

If we really knew our goal, and knew the paths to get there, then we would have known how to engage at the Nestle lecture and all the other lectures like it.  We would have seen how near or far plastic water bottles are from our path, and would have been able to articulate it.

But that’s still engaging inside.  With the blinds closed and West Rock shut out.

I don’t know our path.  But there are a growing number of people both at this School and outside it who are presenting alternatives to the one we are on.  They aren’t always vocal but this Magazine does as good a job as any of giving them a voice.  The Internet, more broadly, is connecting them with each other, with others, and with new paths all the time (e.g. the growing number of collective consumption websites).

These people are breathing new meaning into words like community, gardening, planting, growing, voting, and consuming.  And they will ultimately be the leaders who help us to stop rushing to eat out of Styrofoam at the carts.  They are showing us how to connect the emails about much printing we do at the Environment School to our own printing habits.

These new sustainability leaders are presenting us with alternatives that will hopefully bridge the divide between our classrooms and our lives.  And they’re all presenting them outside the auditorium.

I don’t know what we should have done in the Nestle lecture series.  But, I have a feeling that the folks who honestly see a path – and are showing it to us by living it – know how they would have engaged in the auditorium that day; only, I doubt any of them were there.



  1. Nick Goldstein says:

    This conversation is indicative of the growing disconnect between the direction the faculty/administration is taking the school and the desires of its students and needs of the environmental movement. Market-based solutions may be one piece of the puzzle, but true progress requires challenging the status quo head-on, not working within it to achieve incremental diminution of its manifold failures. I know there are people at FES that are willing and eager to speak truth to power, but I suspect that they are anathematic to sitting through hours of greenwashing from CEOs and the gentle ego petting by faculty and classmates that it is all too often met with. Perhaps these change agents should make it a point to have their voices heard at these events, but something tells me they would quickly find themselves persona non grata at all but the most limpid of school-sponsored speaking engagements. As FES shifts ever closer to becoming a mere wing of SOM, the voices that clamor for civil society solutions become increasingly marginalized. This is a major problem, and it needs to be tackled by all members of the FES community, from the Dean, to the faculty, to the student body itself.

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  3. Richard Wallace says:

    I am old enough to remember when SOM was a renegade among business schools, and the criticism above about FES shifting “ever closer to becoming a mere wing of SOM” would have held different nad perhaps more positive meaning. (I received my MES in 1989, Ph.D. in 2000.)

    FES has experienced a sea change in its faculty and administration since I first arrived in 1989. Happily, it appears that the collective identity of the student body has changed less. From my perspective – grounded in interdisciplinarity and natural history, and now deep into a career founding and building environmental studies programs in higher education – I am heartened that the core identity of the student body has survived through the decades. I am concomitantly disenheartened by what I perceive to be the trends among the faculty and administration away from the school’s historical strengths in an integrative pedagogy that marries natural history with critical thinking towards a broad understanding of the nature of environmental and conservation problems.

    What is more troubling to me by far, though, is the apparent disconnect between student expectations and desires and the seeming lack of transparency in recent administrative decision making. That seems to beg for an exercise is communal self-identification that gives students a full voice in the school’s trajectory. Failing that, it calls for a forthright admission by the dean that where the interests of the students and the administration don’t meet, administrative goals trump student interests. The administrative tenets that then flow from those stated interests should become the basis for marketing and admissions strategies, so that in time the student body more closely resembles the goals and strategies desired by the faculty and administration.

    This may mean the death of the school I once knew and loved. But clarity in loss is better than ongoing frustration or anger at a lack of communication and understanding among the principal members of the school’s academic community.

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