Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The dirty truth about sustainability at Wash. U.

This post is a copy of my Op-Ed to Student Life, the student newspaper of Washington University.  To see the original post on StudLife's website, click here.

This past Monday, the Office of Sustainability released the new Wash.U. Sustainability Pledge (available at The pledge states that “Through each of us doing our part, the Washington University community can reduce our environmental impact and create a better future for generations to come.”

I love the idea of such a pledge, and I encourage the entire Washington University community to sign it. Given the dire threat climate change poses to our generation, we all share a moral responsibility to reduce our personal environmental impacts.

However, the rest of the Wash. U. administration seems to have missed the message about sustainability. While our school diligently works to promote personal lifestyle changes, many University decisions directly contradict its stated goal of long-term sustainability. And no Wash.U. policy is more hypocritical than our association with Peabody Energy CEO Greg Boyce.

Mr. Boyce is the leader of the world’s largest private coal company, and one of the arch-villains of the human race. Heard of Tony Hayward, the hated BP CEO during the Gulf Oil Spill? Well, Boyce is worse. His company has blown up mountains in the Appalachians, poisoned the water source of Navajo Indians at Black Mesa, and caused millions of cases of asthma and lung disease every single year, all in the pursuit of “cheap” energy from coal. And this doesn’t even include looming future climate catastrophes, caused largely by the carbon pollution from Mr. Boyce’s coal.

Unlike Tony Hayward, Mr. Boyce happens to be intimately connected to Washington University. He was recently appointed to our Board of Trustees, and Mr. Boyce’s company contributed $5 million to help found the Washington University Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. Apparently, the University’s mission to “be an exemplary institution in our home community” involves being buddy-buddy with the worst corporation in St. Louis.

In a lecture last fall, Mr. Boyce declared that the only way to eradicate global energy poverty was to triple coal-powered electricity throughout the developing world. He completely dismissed the idea that the coming climate chaos will disproportionately burden the world’s poor, and could easily eliminate all of the recent gains developing countries have made in health care, education and quality of life. In Mr. Boyce’s view, climate impacts such as the floods that devastated Pakistan, the increasing desertification of central African farmland, and the impending global water crises due to melting glaciers are nothing to worry about. No, our collective mission should be to provide the world with more coal, climate consequences be damned.

But Mr. Boyce is not content to simply ignore the terrible impacts of climate change. He has taken a leading role in exacerbating climate chaos. Last year, Mr. Boyce directed Peabody Energy to spend $5 million on lobbying Congress and other government agencies in an effort to block prospective climate legislation. Peabody’s all-out effort succeeded, and climate legislation failed. While Peabody spends millions to promote its “clean” coal technology to the public, Mr. Boyce refuses to even acknowledge that humans are causing climate change. For all this bravado, Rolling Stone just named him the public figure fourth most responsible for blocking progress on global warming. He finished just behind the well-known environmental champion Sarah Palin.

Although we may joke about Wash. U. being a “bubble,” we are not removed from the outside world. The University’s decisions and associations have consequences that reverberate throughout St. Louis and the nation. Because of its close relationship, Washington University has essentially endorsed Mr. Boyce’s political massacre of climate legislation. Considering University initiatives like I-CARES and the new Wash. U. Sustainability Pledge, which are supposedly designed to work towards a low carbon and sustainable future, this connection with Boyce is disgustingly hypocritical. Our school works diligently to promote personal sustainability, but by supporting Mr. Boyce and Peabody Energy, we have opposed any national effort to directly confront climate change.

I close with a message for the Washington University community: Please take the new sustainability pledge, but understand that sustainability involves a great deal more than purchasing reusable water bottles. All of us must go beyond simple lifestyle changes and fight for transformative social change, both at the national level and on campus. And what’s the first step we can take on our campus? We can demand the removal of Mr. Boyce from our Board of Trustees, and demand that the University support strong national action on climate change. This is something I, along with many others, have asked of Chancellor Wrighton. Now, I ask you to join me. Demand that Chancellor Wrighton stand with us, not with polluters like Mr. Boyce.


  1. Hey Adam,

    Well done. I really liked your post about sustainable agriculture. It's something that I've been researching as well, just mulling over what it would take create such a paradigm shift. It was shocking for me to find out that raising livestock for meat is a bigger source of CO2 emissions than transportation.

    I just started up my own blog at (not .com!), and it will cover ecological innovation. (I think I briefly mentioned to you a few months ago I wanted to start a website.) I hope to pursue various projects under the "Econova" umbrella related to climate change and sustainability issues.

    You should check it out!