Verbum Ultimum: Symbolic Sustainability

Performance is no substitute for true sustainability.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/26/19 2:10am

Given Dartmouth’s proximity to the Connecticut River and the White and Green Mountains, it’s easy to see why the outdoors is such a big part of campus culture. It’s even in our motto, “vox clamantis in deserto” — “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” Almost every student’s first experience with Dartmouth — First Year Trips — is an outdoor one. And that focus on the outdoors continues while back on campus. The Dartmouth Outing Club, the oldest and largest college outing club in the U.S., boasts over 1,500 student members. Students walk around campus clad in flannels and Patagonia jackets and go for runs, hikes and ski trips. This is a campus that clearly values its connection to the outdoors.

But as we reflect back on Earth Week, we want to turn attention to protecting that environment. As threats to the environment increase, Dartmouth’s outdoor culture has the potential to serve as a catalyst for sustainable change. But that culture in and of itself isn’t enough to avert environmental degradation. In some cases it even backfires, encouraging performative sustainability over concrete action — and that puts the environment at risk.

Symbolic activism risks undermining truly significant efforts at sustainability. One case of this is the campaign for Dartmouth to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. As of 2016, Dartmouth’s direct holdings in the fossil fuel-related assets amounted to $43 million. Though the College likely invests more indirectly, that figure still makes up a tiny fraction of Dartmouth’s $5.5 billion endowment. And that’s nothing to say of the $4.5 trillion value of the global fossil-fuel financial market. Given the scale of the problem, divestment by Dartmouth would do little to stem the flow of investment revenue to the fossil-fuel industry, especially since others would quickly buy up the stock. 

Divestment is a largely symbolic act. We laud efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption since climate change is both real and increasingly threatening. But divestment won’t substantially reduce carbon emissions. It might raise awareness of climate change, but it does little in and of itself to combat unsustainable practices. And by spending energy on symbolic actions, how much less energy goes towards advancing concrete solutions?

Dartmouth still has room to reduce its environmental impacts, but on both the institutional and student levels, the College has begun to take concrete steps towards sustainability.

On the academic front, Dartmouth professors and students work to understand climate change, pollution and environmental degradation. The College has reexamined its own energy system: Dartmouth recently announced plans to replace its current fossil-fuel heating plant with one that relies on renewable biomass fuel, part of a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent from their 2010 levels by 2050. Granted, the College should take a more ambitious timeline on emissions reduction, but pragmatic steps like the new heating plant still deserve praise. Students, too, have taken initiative, whether through the student-led introduction of reusable food containers or the DOC’s recent efforts to offset its carbon emissions. These changes aren’t always as publicized as things like symbolic divestment. But their beneficial impact for the planet is far and away greater.

Ultimately, transitioning to more sustainable systems will come with a cost. That cost is both monetary — the new proposed heating plant is estimated to cost over $200 million — and societal — the way people use energy, food and transport, among other things, will need to change. There’s no way around it. In its mission statement, Dartmouth says it aspires to educate students for “responsible leadership.” And in the modern day, when the most pressing global issues are ones that require transnational collective action, that means tackling environmental issues. The “College on the Hill” should serve as an example to others, and that extends to sustainability. By exemplifying sustainable progress, Dartmouth will offer something far more impactful than any symbolic show of support.

Dartmouth has shown itself plenty willing to adopt the appearance and imagery of an outdoorsy, sustainable place, and both the institution and its students have taken some real action to help the environment. But the transition to a sustainable Dartmouth will require substantial changes at a substantial cost. Symbolic gestures aren’t enough. Are we willing to go beyond performance and make the actual sacrifices needed for a sustainable future?

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the production executive editor and the editor-in-chief.