PLANET U: ALLURE OF THE IVORY TOWER

We’d like to thank Professor M’Gonigle for lending the Terry Project an excerpt from his new book that he co-wrote with Justine Starke, entitled Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University.

Around the world, universities have long been centers for political discourse and catalysts for political action. Students were instrumental in the 1848 revolutions in Germany and Austria. In 1911 Chinese students led the struggle to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and later played a role in bringing Mao Zedong to power in 1949. In Japan student demonstrations in 1960 forced the resignation of the Kishi government. Student activism was omnipresent in the nationalist movement of former colonial nations such as India and Indonesia.(4)

Throughout the 1960s, countries around the world – from the United States to Vietnam, Britain to Brazil, Turkey to Canada – experienced an explosive student movement against nuclear armament, racial segregation, suppression of women’s rights, environmental degradation, and war. In India, in 1964, over 700 demonstrations rocked the university system. Over 100 of the demonstrations turned violent. (5) In Paris, in May 1968, a student demonstration led to the now-famous general strike and national uprising. These were the famous “days of the barricades.” Students call for a lecture hall to be made permanently available for political discourse, and their manifesto demanded an “outright rejection of the capitalist technocratic university.” (6)

Throughout the world, opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s was played out on dozens of campuses. At UBC Jerry Rubin, the radical American Yippie, addressed a protest rally (to which Rubin had brought a pig to symbolize repressive authority) then led a march that occupied the University Faculty Club. On the other side of the city of Vancouver, the founding in 1965 of Simon Fraser University created what quickly became a major hub of college activism in Western Canada. (7) Demonstrations were common as students sought to protect outspoken faculty, effectively stalling curriculum developments in the University’s early years. Through occupations and sit-ins, students and faculty propelled the administration into one initiative after another, erecting a whole faculty of interdisciplinary studies, creating one of the country’s first institutional daycare centers, and much more. (8) In 1967 in the capital city of Victoria, a week-long occupation took place in the University of Victoria’s administration building, as students unsuccessfully tried to reverse the University’s termination of the contracts of three popular professors. (9)

Since the ’70s, universities have been relatively quiet. But things may be beginning to change again as a new movement takes hold, a “sustainable campuses” movement. Like its predecessors, this movement is concerned about the most pressing issues of our time. But it also has a new role for the university – to be not just a site for making protests, but a place for creating precedents. This is Roja’s new mission. Though he left Chile, he did not lose his passion for social change, and he did not leave the university. Only today he has channeled it in a new direction, the burgeoning movement for campus sustainability. He is now a professor of agricultural science at the University of British Columbia. UBC is a big place, covering 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land at the Vancouver campus where it is home to some 43,000 students and over 10,000 faculty and staff. (10) As UBC develops its campus, Roja’s students draw on community-based techniques like participatory action research to try to make its development an explicity social, not just institutional, endeavor. Their special focus is the sustainability of the University’s food systems.

Universities have long been special places, places of both innovation and resistance. From the “protestant” monk to the heretical stargazer, academics have been at the center of historical change in the West for the past millennium. But the challenges facing universities in the new millennium are arguably the greatest ones yet. “Material growth has shot up to almost inconceivable levels,” says Rojas, “accompanied by unconscionable levels of hunger and poverty.” Decades ago, the question of how to redistribute the wealth of society was at the center of Roja’s world in Chile. Today Rojas is as concerned about ecological wealth as social justice. “The cake is bigger than ever,” says Rojas, “and it is redistributed more unfairly than ever …. But the cake is built from bad recipes ….”

For decades the environmental movement has worked to halt the momentum of planetary breakdown, and it has not succeeded. Instead, the breakdown has become systemic, scattered losses of individual species evolving into the wholesale decline in biodiversity, dirty air in industrial cities mushrooming into global climate change, inequities between developed and developing countries becoming entrenched as a globalized model of economic unsustainability. This book need not debate the severity of these problems – they are obvious.

We are certainly near – some would say past – the “tipping point,” where self-reinforcing ecological decline is irreversible. (11) The demands today are even greater, and the issues even more urgent than those that inspired such campus activism 40 years ago. The focus of this book is a prospective one – how to remake a world whose survival is at stake – and how we might do so quickly.

In getting to this situation, our political and economic institutions have clearly failed us. Past actions have not halted, or even slowed, the trajectory of global ecological and social decline. Indeed, the pace has picked up. New approaches are needed. This book is about making more visible an incredibly important institution that, surprisingly, remains invisible. In so doing, it starts from a simple, but logical, realization: we cannot have a sustainable world where universities promote unsustainability. But neither can we change the university without also changing the world; the two are entwined. This realization is at the heart of this book, and it leads to an intriguing question: Which comes first. Yet despite this inextricable linkage, few people stop to ponder the relationship between the actions of the university and the trajectory of planetary change. A gap exists between what we learn for tomorrow and what tomorrow needs from us today. This situation is all the more significant when one considers how, in the past half-century, a massive “higher education industry” has emerged without anyone seeming to notice. Even though its scale and influence is arguably unmatched by any other industry on the planet, social critics pay it almost no heed, especially in comparison with the attention put on other sectors such as transportation and health.

Changing the world by creating a sustainable university is admittedly a strange idea, as if a university here or there could make much difference to these huge global problems, especially where only a scattered handful of people yet see its potential. Quite the contrary, the time has come round again for the university to take its place as a vehicle of social change. Indeed, one might ask how we could have overlooked it for so long. The possibilities for universities are enormous, and an increasing number of people believe that a collective responsibility exists to make them manifest. As forest activist Ingmar Lee notes, “UVic is one of the biggest consumers of forest products on Vancouver Island, a free-thinking university buying into the destruction of our magnificent forests. If we convert its actions in B.C., we can send our models to Alberta, Saskatchewan, right across Canada and around the world. That is what universities are for. We have to learn to overcome the forces of destruction, and we have to do it right, right here.”

To appreciate what is possible, one must first take time to reflect on what the university is. Most importantly, the university is unique, and in many ways. For example, universities are rooted in local places, yet are well networked globally. With their departments of history and schools of planning, they are actively connected to the past but also shape the future. In space and time, they transcend boundaries. With their senior professors and junior students, they also connect society’s elders with its youth. With their interdisciplinary studies and many learned associations, they connect across intellectual and geographic boundaries and are thus participants across space. In this world, universities provide a relatively open public space. But they are also specific places.

The crisis of sustainability is at root a crisis of losing these places, that is, physical territories that are also emanations of local powers — local habitats, local neighborhoods, local cultures, local forests and fisheries, and rural communities.
These individual losses add up to a threat of losing our collective place, the planet. Reinvigorating local places may just be the key to sustaining our global future. “Think globally, act locally” was the mantra decades ago, but we never learned how. It is time to do so, and for that we must go back to school. When we do, there are plenty of teachers to turn to.

FOOTNOTES:

(4) Philip G. Altbach, “India and the World University Crisis,” in The Student Revolution, edited by Philip G. Altbach, Bombay: Popular Press, 1970.

(5) Hugh Johnston, Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

(6) “The Struggle Site,” Paris ’68, [online], [Cited July 25, 2005], 2005, .

(7) Johnston, Ibid, p. 128.

(8) Ibid, and James Harding, “The New Left in BC,” in The New Left in Canada, Dimitrios J. Roussopoulos, ed., Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1970.

(9) Peter L. Smith, A Multitude of the Wise: UVic Remembered, Victoria: The Alumni Association of the University of Victoria, 1993, pp. 162-163; “Taylor Refuses Last Student Plea,” The Martlet, Victoria: University of Victoria Students’ Society, April 7, 1967, 1.

(10) University of British Columbia, Facts and Figures [online], [Cited October 19, 2005], and .

(11) James Lovelock. The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity, London: Allen Lane, 2006.

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Michael M`Gonigle, Professor and Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Victoria, is a co-founder of Greenpeace International. Professor M`gonigle will be speaking at the UBC Sustainability Conference which runs January 19th & 20th, 2007. For more information, please see: http://www.ams.ubc.ca/student_life/resource_groups/sec/what-sus.html

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