So now what? An open letter to the environmental community after the midterm elections

To my environmentally minded friends:

Clearly we are in deep trouble and truly meaningful legislative progress in the near term is no longer a reasonable expectation. Expecting progress on climate change and sustainability from Congress is off the table, now and possibly for the extended future. Compromise and wonky engagement continue to fail. With Obama we elected Miles Davis, but we got Kenny G.

When I arrived at Unity College in July of 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 ten things for the activist community:

(1) 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.

(2) Go on the offensive and adopt a compelling and positive 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 minor environmental arguments and aggressively propose explicit, major, positive change.  Give people a hopeful, positive vision.  Integrate environmental goals with economic populism that serves the working class and poor.  Do not waste your time with organizations that support the status quo. Any institutional strategic plan should lay the groundwork for radical change beyond its five year lifespan, and should not be viewed as an end in itself.  Demand change that will serve our children and our grandchildren. Policy and conservation initiatives must have 2100 as their target.

(3) Merge financially and politically with your allies and don’t sweat the small stuff. Adopt the 80% rule. If you agree with 80% of your 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.

(4) Understand and embrace cultural cognition. Get expert marketing and messaging management from professionals who passionately share our vision of the future. The messenger matters as much as the message.  If you haven’t noticed, the Republican party does this very well.

(5) 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.

(6) Become aggressive and direct about seeking funds from the 1%. Organize and seek them out, and do not compromise your 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.

(7) Focus on sophisticated resource management rather than pure conservation and preservation. Preserving nature as it is, or was, is increasingly not a realistic goal. We should seek to manage ecosystems for form and function, while restoring nature when possible and appropriate. Learn when it is time to give up your sacred cows in the conservation movement. Shed a tear and move on.

(8) Take direction from those who can lead. Your voice is important and you can make it heard. Then step off your soapbox and become a worker among workers. We need your hands, as well as your passions.  None of us have the truth in a corner, but some are able to lead.  Follow them.

(9) 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 unrestrained capitalism is not consistent with the future of civilization. Have the courage to say so and demand a better way.

(10) Have faith and take care of yourself and those that you 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, president
Unity College .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey is an environmental scientist dedicated to developing undergraduate and graduate programming to build society's capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Mulkey was the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 through 2015. His leadership and forward-looking vision resulted in Unity College being the first college in the U.S. to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the U.S. to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming. Mulkey believes that higher education has an ethical duty to prepare generations of graduates for the extreme sustainability and climate change challenges of this century. After taking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent over twenty years as a forest ecologist affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mulkey has served as tenured faculty at three doctoral granting universities.