A Letter to the Editor: What Sewanee can do to support action on climate change

Photo courtesy of google.com.

By Lauren Newman (C’18)
Sustainability Fellows Coordinator

In October, the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability (OESS) embarked on a journey to “The City of Bridges” to take part in the 2018 AASHE Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, more succinctly known as AASHE, hosts a conference each year, uniting staff, faculty, administrators, and students from colleges and universities across the U.S. to discuss various approaches to promote sustainability on their respective campuses.

As a new member of the OESS team, I was eager to attend the conference and be surrounded by so many like-minded people working to be active change makers at their institutions.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Global Goals: Rising to the Challenge,” calling attention to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently established by the United Nations. The SDGs are a bold framework that requires sustainable solutions that address the world’s most pressing problems.

It was powerful for the UN to take this stance on sustainability, placing a clear emphasis on human rights issues, and I believe it was timely for AASHE to choose the SDGs as the backdrop for this year’s conference.

I say this for several reasons, but most importantly because (1) a social justice lens is imperative for an equitable response to climate change and (2) institutions of higher education have a critical role in shaping our future world leaders. But let me take some time to break this down.

Heather Hackman, a dynamic woman passionate about climate justice, held a series of workshops during the AASHE conference, two of which I had the opportunity to attend. During each of her sessions, she created a compelling argument for the roles that systemic oppression and privilege play in our current climate crisis.

In the instance of environmental degradation, nature is something to be dominated (at it is often described in the feminine form) and we shouldn’t feel any need to stop the unsustainable extraction of resources because the human race is the superior species and, therefore, our actions are justified.

There are clear winners and losers when this justification is used—the winners being the elite few and the losers being the rest of humanity. The almost exclusively white elite continue to profit from the use of fossil fuels, and the marginalized populations, most notably in developing countries, face the consequences of pollution and stagnated economic growth.

When we begin to understand these implications, it becomes clear that a social justice/equity framework is imperative to combat our current climate crisis. We need sustainable cities and communities, clean and affordable energy alternatives, innovative approaches to industry, and responsible methods of production—and we need these solutions (and their costs) to be distributed equitably.

So where do colleges and universities fit in, and what specifically can Sewanee do as a small liberal arts institution in the rural south to work toward such globally-minded goals?

Students are sponges, their minds ready to soak up information. They have the energy and passion required to spark change. We see evidence of this with movements ranging from those led by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) during the civil rights era to the largely student-led March for Our Lives movement shedding light on the need for stricter gun control laws.

Sewanee has an obligation to support their students through supplying them with the knowledge and tools to address the world’s most pressing issues, but we must also see our current climate crisis as one of those issues.

Systemic problems call for systemic solutions, so we must all act together to work towards a more equitable, sustainable future. It is imperative for students, staff, faculty, administrators, and the greater Sewanee community to join forces and collaborate. We must create spaces where courageous conversations about class, gender, and white privilege take place, breaking down barriers of difference. Only then can we make the bold SDGs a reality.


  1. And, I quote:

    “We must create spaces where courageous conversations about class, gender, and white privilege take place, breaking down barriers of difference.”

    What the? I thought this was an article about climate science?

    If that little gem was not enough … ponder this beauty:

    “The almost exclusively white elite continue to profit from the use of fossil fuels, and the marginalized populations, most notably in developing countries, face the consequences of pollution and stagnated economic growth”

    If one didn’t know any better, you could get the idea that the UN was trying to use “climate change” as a means to achieve a global socialist utopia. Of course, this would be run by the well meaning and good intentioned global elites from the UN, and not the bad global elites that the UN demonizes.

    Luckily for the UN – “Students are sponges, their minds ready to soak up information”.

  2. I would be hard pressed to find a more incoherent summary of random thoughts than this letter. You remind me of an inebriated grasshopper jumping from one topic to the next trying to make some sort of connection between white privilege, gender inequality, climate change, and third-world economic challenges while bantering about how the University should some how dedicate resources to push a magical agenda that will somehow solve all of these issues.

    How did you get to Pittsburgh? Did you drive 10-11 hours in a car? Did you take a flight? Was the pilot a white man? Did you stay in a hotel or camp-out in a field, picking berries and rubbing sticks together? Was the hotel environmentally friendly? Did you actually use the shower in the hotel? Look at all of these horrible misuses of our precious resources, so just so you can attend some seminar? Hopefully you were mindful enough to offset the enormous carbon footprint you created on this trip.

    I am wondering who are you trying to convince in your argument? You see, I believe you started off with a noble cause – fighting climate change, but then you digressed and piled on every other social injustice that bothers you. Essentially you have attacked elite, whites, users of fossil fuels, and all developed nations. Then you turn to the institutions of higher learning for your solution. Who do you think funds these institutions? Take Sewanee – where do you think Sewanee gets its funding?

    I believe your opinion piece does more harm to the climate change argument than anything else.


  3. I think what the author of this article is trying to argue is that we can’t create an equitable solution to environmental degradation until we understand the underlying issues of why we have a climate crisis in the first place. We should see social justice issues and environmental justice issues as one and the same because it is a fact that low income individuals and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. We must address the institutions set in place that allow these injustices to take place and in order to do so we must recognize the intersectionality of the climate justice movement with the fight for gender and race equity. It all boils down to the exploitation of people and/or things that we have silenced or seen as less than. That is what makes the UN SDGs so powerful, because the goals hit at the root of the problem. Think about Project Drawdown, one of the most impactful solutions to mitigating climate change is the education of women…this is argued by Sewanee alum Katharine Wilkinson. If you haven’t read through that report, I highly recommend you do so.

    -Intersectionality Matters

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