Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Strong critique of UTERN

There is something called UTERN - or University of Toronto Environmental Network - a collection of students who get to dispense a $30,000 student levy to other students to facilitate environmental projects or events. Is this a good or bad thing for student environmentalism? I will argue here that UTERN's existence is detrimental to student environmentalism because it de-politicizes it and creates an atmosphere in which student environmentalism is identified with a kind of apolitical non-controversial acceptance of the status quo.

UTERN refuses to take a stand against the tar sands, the central symbol of environmental destruction in Canada. Collectively UTERN will not condemn the tar sands - which became evident to me a couple of years ago at a showing of a film on the tar sands which many UTERN members attended. Not one of their number spoke up against it.

The status quo is entirely unacceptable however: we are in the midst of a climate crisis and students need to be more vigilent against it and the forces responsible for it - including the very corporations that run this university. The corporatization of U of T is a fundamental part of this story. Large multinational corporations such as Exxon Mobil and Barrick Gold can be view as neutral vehicles that can be steered in many directions - thus the concept of corporate social responsibility and "green capitalism" - or we can recognize that some industries are inherently unsustainable and cannot be reformed.

Extraction industries (oil, mining, etc) cannot be reformed because what they do will always damage the environment to a degree that is unacceptable. There is no such thing as "sustainable mining." But apolitical student environmentalism says neither yay nor nay on this question - it is not spoken of at all - with the result that the status quo - unsustainable mining - continues unabated and U of T is the training ground for it.

Students Against Climate Change was founded three years ago, at University of Toronto, in response to the climate crisis. Our hope was to encourage the kind of response that students in other countries have shown. Even in the United States students have demonstrated a stronger response to the environmental crisis than in Canada. Thousands of students rally for needed change in every other country than Canada. Here such movements barely exist and after three years it is obvious why: it has been killed by apolitical student environmentalism which shies away from controversey or taking a stand on anything.

SACC put on hundreds of events on climate change and related issues: films, lectures, conferences, etc. SACC did more of these events than any other group at U of T, before or sincce. The vast majority of those who attended were not students, however. They were over age 30 and from outside the university - mostly concerned citizens, activists, some university staff and faculty. The students were conspicuously absent from all those events - especially the students in UTERN. We collected the emails of about 4,500 people at these events over three years and perhaps less than 5% were students.

Some UTERN members have said that they reject street activism as ineffective. But without it those that are female among them would not be attending university or have the vote. Street activism has always been the vanguard of social and political change, as the womens' rights movement and civil rights movements demonstrate. This is apparently unknown to them or unappreciated by them. So is the fact that street activism is done as much to bring together communities as to effect social change politically.

So what do they do instead? Do they attend and organize educational events instead - conference, lectures, etc - on the subject of climate change? A small handful have done a few things like this, but not to any great degree. There is a growing climate change movement in Toronto, but they are conspicuously absent from this movement as well, according to the more serious activists. So what does UTERN do? Of what does their so-called "activism" consist? Merely attending classes and meetings and fun social events? In what way does that constitute activism?

Perhaps UTERN is merely a stepping stone for those seeking careers in the growing environmental - a field increasingly apolitical and devoid of spirit, absorbed into the corporate worldview that is most responsible for the environmental crisis. Or perhaps it is an elite social club, funded through a student levy which pays for its social events (food, transporation for outings, plan trips to conferences overseas, etc). Why go to a climate change conference in Europe when you don't attend them here and when such trips exacerbate climate change through emissions? What does this mean for the student environmental movement at Univesity of Toronto? It means that it does not exist, or more precisely it exists in small pockets that are fragmented and ineffective.

The University of Toronto has been taken over by the very corporations most responsible for environmental damage, but instead of challenging that, most of the students have chosen to turn a blind eye to it, and to allow themselves to be absorbed into a kind of unconscious "group think" that allows for the unsustainable status quo to continue unchallenged - and they have done this without even being aware of it.

They perhaps imagine that they will be hired by governments or coprorations and change them from the inside; but they will be changed by them. They already have been, it seems. Environmentalism has been co-opted and reduced to platitudes and feel good slogans with the words "green" and "sustainable" in them. The spirit and life has been taken out of it, resulting in greenwash of corporations. There is no response to factory farming or oil spills or the dumping of mine waste in rivers or climate injustice by UTERN. They seem to avoid so-called "politics", even though environmentalism is inherently political and to act apolitically is itself a political act, in cooperation with prevailing powers, in favour of the status quo. Not everyone on UTERN is of this mind, but most are. One wonders what they really hope to acheive.

UTERN reps have said they don't represent the student envionmental movement - they just fund it - but the direction they've taken is decidely against certain tactics and views and in favour of others. They have decided to cooperate with the Administration and the corporations that run them, and make student environmentalism into a vehicle for funding for themselves (UTERN members are paid or receive work-study grants) and careerism (resume-padding).

UTERN represents the death of real student environmentalism at University of Toronto. And this at the time when the climat crisis was never worse. We see now why it is so bad, and why it gets worse every year: UTERN is a microcosmic reflection of the indifference of the larger society which produced it - a society of in which the tars sand continues to expand.

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