Thursday, May 28, 2020
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UC Sustainability Initiatives Need to Encourage Deeper Change

By John McCollum

Earlier this week, I was pleased to hear that our UC President, Janet Napolitano, had messaged the UC campuses to ask for our collective participation in the UC system’s Cool Campus Challenge. Much of what the President asked us to do involves making a few simple cuts to our energy usage and consumption choices.  To prevent any misunderstanding, I want to make clear that I think this is a good thing.  Ultimately, some cuts will help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being spit into the atmosphere, and the program will most likely raise the environmental consciousness of students, faculty and staff.  This educational aspect is probably the biggest benefit we could hope for from this program.

And yet I’m left with strong skepticism about this program for several reasons. The most crucial element missing from this discussion is that of social class.  None of the organizations that are allowed to participate in the sustainability efforts at UCI confront the essential problems of attempting sustainability under global capitalism.  

Americans enjoy what appears to be a fairly healthy environment. However, we can attribute many of our environmental gains to offshoring production to the Global South, especially China and Mexico.  When production moves to these areas, corporations enjoy an escape from the few effective environmental regulations left in the United States and, pollution increases in the new home countries, threatening both ecosystems and human well-being.  

Most scholars attribute the movement of production to low wages, not a lack of environmental regulations.  Moreover, democratic movements face heavy repression when they attempt to speak out about the environmental abuses of multinational corporations.  Opponents of environmental movements increasingly resort to murder to silence environmental activists.  Furthermore, the growth of capital requires continually-increasing inputs of raw materials and energy.  Economic growth comes with a heavy environmental price, and the capitalist class captures most of the benefits, with little or no redistribution downward.

Moreover, the sustainability initiative only offers mild, technology-based solutions, rather than confronting the increasingly evident problems of global capitalism.  While I am as excited about the potential for technology to solve environmental problems as the next person, focusing our attention there distracts from the most destructive effects of the endless accumulation of profit under capitalism.  

These technological improvements do nothing to democratize the environmental movement, either.  Instead, our future is put into the hands of technocratic planners and, more importantly, the next wave of capitalist investors, eager to keep the greatest share of the benefits of technology to themselves.  The recent wave of attempts by utility companies to prevent homeowners from building or using their own home solar systems shows that this effort is well underway.

My last problem lies with the UC system’s stance in general towards one of the greatest threats to the global environment:  the military-industrial complex.  I learned recently that the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research will be sponsoring four students to visit the US Army Research Laboratory’s Open Campus Open House in Aberdeen, Maryland.  This is the same military that, lately, turned much of Iraq into a wasteland through the usage of depleted uranium weapons, deliberate destruction of civilian water infrastructure and its numerous bombing ranges and weapons testing grounds.  I fail to see how the UC system plans to create a net increase in sustainability while also providing support to a military which uses environmental destruction as a way to eliminate and control “undesirable” populations that it deems to be threats.

If the UC system is going to get serious about climate change, changing a few lightbulbs isn’t going to do it.  The sustainability initiative needs to encourage deep change in our political and economic system if we are ever going to stave off the worst effects of climate change and environmental destruction.


John McCollum is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the department of sociology. He can be reached at