OP-ED: Positive Environmentalism – An Open Letter to Faculty, Staff, Alumni and Students of FES

Update: SAGE has published a response to this letter here.

Kim Jeffery, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, sat comfortably on-stage. He had come to Burke Auditorium to discuss extended producer responsibility initiatives underway at his company.

During his talk Mr. Jeffery mentioned that Nestlé Waters is pushing for a national recycling rate for PET bottles of 60 percent by 2018. He praised such ambition.

Summarized below are two of the more memorable audience questions from that April 2 discussion:

  1. I have seen you speak before, Mr. Jeffery. I appreciate your transparency. It’s always a pleasure.
  2. It has come to my attention that medical groups are now viewing sugar as one of the most dangerous drugs in America. Why doesn’t Nestlé Waters use this fact more explicitly and effectively in its advertising?

The first question quite obviously is not a question. One of FES’s own tenured and named full professors posed the second question, opening ample space for Mr. Jeffery to continue praising what seemed the irreproachable conduct of the company that he leads.

The full hour passed in quiet deference. Nestlé co-sponsors the lecture series.

The FES mission is broad and pliant. It describes the need to “collaborate with all sectors.” There is no doubt that the private sector will be a central – perhaps the central – chrysalis in which evolution toward a more sustainable and just world takes place. But these changes won’t occur without prodding.

Nestlé has much to answer for, including whether streamlining the behemoth bottled water enterprise can ever constitute a genuine approach to sustainability; or how the company plans to deal with the steady and vehement social backlash in the small towns where plants are sited.

The company’s wealth and power both invite and justify a higher degree of scrutiny.

Our community must be open-minded but not credulous, respectful but not agreeable. I rarely see this distinction manifested in public forums, and for this failure I implicate alumni (myself included), current students, faculty and administration.

Disagreement often serves as crucible to progress. We should encourage more public disagreement.

I also believe that faculty, hired for their superior curiosity and insight, carry the greatest responsibility as agitators. This is their job. It is one reason why they have tenure. The administration should be overtly and actively supportive of this critical process.

This letter is not intended to pillory particular individuals or groups, but to raise an issue that I believe merits greater attention.

Martin Luther King Jr. differentiated “a negative peace which is the absence of tension [from] a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” To borrow from Dr. King, Nestlé epitomizes negative environmentalism, and Mr. Jeffery’s willingness to sit in Burke Auditorium and discuss the environment does not make Nestlé Waters an environmental ally, or even an agreeable company.

A failure to cultivate positive environmentalism, even if this entails tension and discomfort, is a failure of individual and institutional leadership.

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.

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8 Comments

  1. Excellent point and thanks for bringing up this issue. Being an alumni that sat through so many of those talks and didn’t speak up, I feel guilty.

    I hope your article will start a constructive discussion at the school.

  2. Amit Ashkenazy says:

    We actually had quite a different conversation with Mr. Jeffery just moments before in the Industrial Ecology class. some of the issues raised included the morality of privatization of water, the questionable assumptions regarding fixed preferences in light of his own description of how he virtually created the industry from scratch, and the need to ban bottled beverages industries along with BMW and a few others. Let the revolution begin!!!

    • Dylan Walsh says:

      Thanks, Amit. I had heard that there was a conversation before, and that’s an important clarification: there is plenty of worthwhile argument that goes on in classrooms — smaller, private venues. But public conversations should be equally full of skepticism and debate. I don’t see this.

      In fact, public conversations should be held to a higher standard of critical inquiry than classes. The latter are spaces for experimentation, for the winnowing of ideas. The former are more often venues designed for the advocacy of ideology, for the proposal of well formulated and clearly thought out positions. It’s here that people need to be questioned.

      Thanks for reading, and engaging!

  3. Pingback: Op-Ed: Paths to Sustainability–A Reponse to Dylan Walsh’s Open Letter to FES

  4. Max Song says:

    Hi Dylan, great job!!! I agree that people should be more humble in front of sustainability~

  5. Adrian Horotan says:

    Sounds like a lethargic afternoon at FES. Thanks for ringing the alarm bell.

    Two comments:

    1. I assume you were there – what stopped you from asking the tough questions?

    2. Saying it is the faculty’s responsibility to corner the speakers on campus is ridiculous. It is the responsibility of anyone who cares.

    • Dylan Walsh says:

      Adrian,
      You seem to dismiss the specifics of my article without taking any time to consider larger issues around the presence of Nestle on our campus. I’m not asking for widespread approval that Nestle = bad. I don’t really care about Nestle. What I care about is the purpose of FES, which is rarely discussed, and certainly not with students, faculty, staff and administration in the same room.

      In response, I hope to overtly raise some larger questions. Jake Seligman also does a good job with this (http://sagemagazine.org/?p=3665).

      1. I assume you were there – what stopped you from asking the tough questions?
      There are numerous reasons I didn’t ask ‘the tough questions,’ and my faltering provided some of the motivation for this opinion piece.

      Introspection aside, enough other students have described a similar experience to indicate this isn’t exclusively an instance of personal failure. And nor is that the point of the article: what can we, as a community, do to ask our guest speakers harder question? This anecdote is meant to raise larger, more worthy issues.

      I’m not unique in expressing my discomfort with Nestle’s lecture. This discomfort deserves public discussion – yes, with Kim Jeffery, but, more important, within the FES community. There was widespread complaint in 2010 when Bjorn Lomborg ‘exploited’ the Yale name to film his lecture tour counterpoint to An Inconvenient Truth (http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2010/apr/30/environmentalists-talk-filmed-for-documentary/). Why? There was not as much complaint about Nestle’s presentation this year. Why not?

      Lomborg and Nestle are not directly comparable, but we as a school place the acceptability of people and their work along a spectrum. This placement implicitly describes the direction of our school, its educational precepts.

      The school’s direction and precepts should not be implicit. They should be talked about explicitly, frequently, even if specifics cannot be agreed upon. I understand that in its mission FES “prepares new leadership and creates new knowledge to sustain and restore the long-term health of the biosphere and the well-being of its people.” But I don’t know what this would look like, and nor have I heard this talked about. Seems like some definition is in order — definition through discussion and disagreement.

      2. Saying it is the faculty’s responsibility to corner the speakers on campus is ridiculous. It is the responsibility of anyone who cares.
      I never said it is the faculty’s job to corner people on campus. Again, I didn’t intend the narrow discussion of Nestle to be the focus of my piece. I do think if faculty express enough interest to attend a talk and then ask a question, it should be a real question. Asking the CEO of a company why he’s not talking more about how much good he’s doing really does not seem like a question to me.

  6. Advait Mohole says:

    Dylan,

    I am a student in the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India. I am studying Environment Management.

    It is indeed desired, that public forums should cultivate more open minded discussions, but even in halls of learning where we are taught to not only learn new things but to also cultivate a questioning nature, most of the times it is only in private classroom sessions here that we find the Indian Forest Service officers agreeing to their failure in managing India’s forests and the wildlife, while a rhetoric is fed to us during open discourse.

    The ability to ask harsh albeit warranted questions is limited to such private sessions.

    I have shared your experience.

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