Embracing the Commons in the Age of Trumpism

“As we enter the twenty-first century,” Thomas Berry observed in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000), “we are experiencing a moment of grace.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” is the understandable response. Certainly, anyone paying attention to the news these days has good reason to challenge this seemingly naive claim.

What Berry means, however, has less to do with a positive assessment of our current circumstances than with the narrow window of opportunity we have to turn back from the disastrous road we are on. We have an all too brief moment to transform our exploitation of the Earth and each other into a web of relationships that is, in Berry’s words, “mutually beneficial.” Unless we act now to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, Berry contends, we will become “impoverished in all that makes us human.”


These are important words to remember as we come to grips with a level of political polarization in our nation’s history unprecedented since at least the days of racial, ethnic, and class conflict in the 1890s, when lynchings, virulent opposition to immigration, and widespread  attacks on labor dominated the U.S. landscape. In particular, the threat that Trumpism poses to democracy is all too real, and the implications of “America First” for global efforts to stabilize the climate and confront inequality in the developing nations are alarming.

How should we respond? For those of us privileged enough to have the resources, it is all too easy to fall into despair and retreat into our respective cocoons. But that is moral cowardice and, at any rate, will end up being self-defeating. As Van Jones has pointed out, ” eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco-apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.”

What does it mean to embrace eco-equity? Conventional politics offers two opposing points of view: conservatism, in which the unfettered market is seen as the way forward, and progressivism, in which the expanded state is considered to be the solution. But the hard truth, as George Monbiot contends, is that “the market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state.” In Monbiot’s words, “One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

What are the commons? Monbiot provides an admirably concise explanation: the commons are “an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights.” It can, at least in theory, include land, water, air, knowledge, scientific research, and culture. Historically, the commons in pre-industrial England were an integral part of the manor. They existed as part of the estate owned by the lord of the manor, but to which the tenants and others held certain rights.

By definition, then, the commons as an idea holds itself over and against the concept of private and exclusive ownership. Perhaps the most compelling current example of the commons is the Missouri River, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans, have fought to protect against the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Knowing the clear risk that a potential oil spill could pose to the drinking water not only of their own people but also all those living downstream, the “water protectors” have taken a stand against the argument that the rights of corporations have precedent over the rights of all those whose lives depend on the commons, including those yet to be born.

To understand the crucial place of the commons in determining the future of what it means to be human, in short, is to see that the “moment of grace” to which Berry refers insists that we resist Trumpism and the corrosive atomization of community and radical individualism that it engenders. It is the most effective and humane way that we can bring about the kind of eco-equity Van Jones rightly views as the only viable option left for avoiding an otherwise inescapable eco-apocalypse.

Rethinking Financial Sustainability in Tough Times

Last week’s release of the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 raises an important question:  What does it mean for higher education to adopt sustainability as a core financial strategy?

As Andrea Putman and I discuss in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, a commitment to sustainability can both maximize the upside benefits and minimize the downside risks.  It can lead to a more efficient use of limited resources, higher productivity, the development of distributed leadership on campus, greater collaboration across organizational silos, strengthened trust with external stakeholders, and an enhanced brand value that makes it easier to recruit outstanding students, faculty, and staff and retain them, all of which can produce a significant competitive advantage for the institution.

Just as important, adopting sustainability as a core financial strategy means implementing a broader approach to investment. Higher education, if it intends to take its own long-term sustainability seriously, needs to focus on how increases in endowment spending can improve the well being of society and the environment.


Berea College in Kentucky

It’s pretty simple, actually.  Colleges and universities can only thrive if society and the biosphere are healthy. Any college or university that is so shortsighted as to pursue its ends without taking into account the interests of the larger community or ecosystem in which it is enmeshed will not thrive over the long haul. In the end, it will find itself forced, one way or the other, to deal with the fact that its future is inextricably linked to that of the larger web of social and ecological relations in which it is embedded. It is recognition of this interdependence, for example, that has driven Yale University to invest in the city of New Haven and Berea College to invest in the people and land of the Appalachian South.

College and university endowments, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, could be a powerful force for social and environmental good even as these institutions pursue their own self interest. Yet only 35% of the institutions surveyed in the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 invest in renewable energy and only 10% in community development funds.

If a healthy future is to be evenly distributed, higher education institutions must embrace a larger understanding of their mission and not confine themselves simply to growing their endowments while the communities around them come unraveled and the rapid degradation of the environment continues unabated.

One of the best ways that universities can have a positive effect on the environment and local economy is for them to set aside a certain proportion of their endowments to use as a revolving loan fund for cities and towns to use in communitywide energy efficiency retrofits. These loans have the potential for returns on investment as good as anything in the financial markets today.  Of course, considering the state of Wall Street, that’s not saying much.

In making such investments, universities and colleges not only can help reduce the carbon footprint of the community, but also keep dollars from flowing out of the community and into the pockets of the utility companies. These dollars will recirculate in the community, increasing spending and indirectly contributing to the creation of new jobs.  And, as Van Jones points out, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy also directly create new green collar jobs that can provide much needed economic stability during even the toughest of recessions.

Given the latest economic forecasts, it’s an idea worth considering.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.