Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Greenpeace Commons

I might be going out on a limb here, but most of me feels like I am not.

If you walk into the Dana Building on Central Campus, which houses the School of Natural Resources and Environment, you will notice that the student commons area is called the Ford Commons. Ford...the automotive corporation. Cognitive dissonance smacks me in the face so much so that I avoid turning my gaze to that part of the commons when I am there. 

I wonder, what if a school calling itself that of "natural resources and the environment" named its commons something like the Greenpeace Commons. How might that be received? What would that say about the intentions of the school?

To the (supposedly) "neutral" observer, I sense that putting the word "Greenpeace" anywhere sends a repulsive shiver up their spine. I mean, Greenpeace? Those "radical" environmentalists? Those people that claim that corporations are "ruining" the environment not only for us but for every human to come in the future, not to mention the non-human life and elements that make up complex ecology? If they are radical, they are clearly not "objective". And if they are not objective, then they lose all credibility...because we really like the idea of objectivity (when we agree with what the data mean for our lives, and if we don't then we say the "process" is wrong).

But on the same token, naming a gathering spot for students the Ford Commons is not neutral. First, it assumes that symbols are neutral, which they are clearly not. Symbols are representative, just like the Keystone XL pipeline would be a massive symbol of how deeply ingrained ecological and social degradation are in this culture. Second, and more importantly, it assumes that corporations, like Ford, are neutral and beneficent and magnanimous and respectful and fully concerned about ecological issues. It assumes that the F150, or F250, or F350, or any similarly massive vehicle can be owned by anyone, even if they have no recognisable need for something like it. It assumes that their concern for the environment is on par with their concern for money and power. While they may be concerned with the environment, and employ one or two people that try to keep the company in line with the legal regulations that currently exist, their concern for the environment is no where near the concern shown by a group like Greenpeace. What should the School of Natural Resources and Environment be concerned about? Money from corporations? Or what they teach to students?

This speaks to larger cultural and educational issues. Institutions and organisations like the University of Michigan, and its schools and colleges, thrive on corporate funding. A massive chunk of their multi-billion dollar endowments are invested in corporations, and thus, universities might never divest from corporations that profit from war-making and ecological degradation. As David Noble writes about in his tome America by Design, colleges like engineering colleges stemmed from corporate interest, and engineering curricula were determined from the outset by the interest of corporations; universities are their lifeblood.

Greenpeace is repulsive to people because what they advocate for is fundamentally against an ecologically degrading culture. But a small step to cultural change might be to change the name of the commons in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment to something else, to remind students that we are not here to protect Ford, but rather to protect the interests of groups that actually care--a more holistic, thoughtful, and sustaining future.


  1. This is my comment. I have no interest in renaming a common room because I don't think it's necessary. Averting your gaze, or the idea of reminding students which groups are important, are illustrative of one of the problems that plagues our society. Instead of fostering a a collaborative environment, to understand conflicting positions, we instead blind ourselves to the ideas of others and viciously defend our own parochial values. I get it, this behaviour is human nature. And sometimes ideals are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Sure, groups on both sides of the fence serve their purpose, and I’m not saying they shouldn't exist. But I don’t think people need help choosing a side, and our focus shouldn't be on making sure they choose what we think is the ‘right’ one. Instead, maybe we should try to encourage people embrace the plurality of ideas and work together. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll accomplish something.

  2. I agree with you fully, Jason. But, I guess all I am saying is that words matter, and what we call things matter in how we perceive the issues and who we think is adequately concerned about them. Naming a cabinet department the "Department of Peace" is much more powerful than naming a cabinet department the "Department of Defense" or "Department of War" if the end goal is peace.

    Advertising your ethic as something else is misleading, and furthermore, there are just some things that do not, cannot, exist in an ecologically sustainable world.

    1. Well now you are just advocating honesty, which frankly, we can't expect from anyone.