Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Greening of LMU: How Sustainable Do We Want to Be?

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By Robert Emmett

Date and Location: 9 July 2015, LMU, Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1, Munich.

Technological fixes are not going to solve the capitalism-climate collision in any transcendental, universal sense. We’re not greening ourselves out of the social-environmental challenges ahead with clever gadgets. Instead, as the authors of the Nature paper “Changing the Intellectual Climate” suggest, deep cultural and social transformations are called for. More than the idea of the university needs to be reformed: from the architecture to the menu at the Mensa, the curriculum to the interface of technology and research-transfer, wholesale practices in higher education must and are already being reformed. But just how does social innovation happen in a vast public institution such as LMU Munich? Policies and funding schemes may change, but these changes then emerge through social groups, from communities of people coming together.

If you look at the tapestry hanging on the wall of the Senatssaal of the elegant Hauptgebäude, you will notice human faces peeking back from inside the image of architectural ornaments. Social innovation is similarly a product of art and politics. Whimsy, imagination, and grueling work must have come together in weaving this tapestry before it came to hang on the wall of one of the most symbolically potent spaces of the university of Munich. New kinds of social relations have to become images and stories; earlier people had to build their ideas of utopia into city plans and architecture, even if universities and colleges built on top of and imitated monastic cloisters. We Anthropocene citizens-to-be are living in this medieval now.

Look closely: the childlike faces in this woven architecture appear just over the shoulder of the formally-dressed gentleman on the left (photo below). You and I are not a part of the conversation as we see this moment of mingling through a 28mm digital lens from a far corner of the room. At this depth of field, not even every person is in focus—hence a young geographer working on Human-Environment relations appears fuzzily in the left foreground. But we can wonder. What are all these people talking about? What knowledge is being transferred here?

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Participants gather for “Greening of LMU” event. Photograph: Robert Emmett.

These were some of the people gathering yesterday to discuss the “Greening of LMU,” or “How sustainable do we want to be?” It was an ambitious program with over one hundred people registered for the morning event, dozens of posters, and a line of speakers including core faculty of the Environment and Society doctoral program (Profs. Christof Mauch, Wolfram Mauser, and Markus Vogt) and representatives of the German federal government, one student group—the Student Network for Ethics in Economics and Practice (sneep)—graduate student programmers auditing the university’s energy use, and a leader from Freiburg’s “sustainable university” transformation from 2005 to present.

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Posters on display at “Greening of LMU.” Photograph: Robert Emmett.

Though a largely symbolic gathering with as-yet uncertain concrete outcomes, there are at least three hopeful signs: 1. Many people from LMU Munich attending the meeting found new allies, faculties, and programs committed to a great ecological and social transformation not limited to ideas of “sustainability.”  2. Organizers Lara Lütke-Spatz and others invited comment through large noticeboards where participants could articulate their wishes for LMU’s sustainability.  3. There is already a strong research agenda in sustainability at LMU Munich, represented both by the RCC but also by research in departments from Theology to Geography, American Studies, Anthropology, and many more.

So perhaps now the question is not “How green do we want to be?” but “How will we make social innovation happen in a vast public institution such as LMU Munich?” The structure of the event—who spoke on the program, how much time was allocated to open discussion, even the constraints of location—suggested there may be real institutional limits on how we engage this subject. Only one LMU student from the audience asked a question, for example: many more will likely need to speak out and be heard before we see institutional change. Change happens through public demands, struggle and concessions; from exchanges of power as well as changes in regimes of power.

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Student asks a question at “Greening of LMU.” Photograph: Robert Emmett.

Asking “How sustainable do we want to be?” on campus has created an opening, and the focus on the Paris climate conference means the stakes for answering this question will remain clearly in mind here in Europe. What happens next will take many more conversations, and much more than talking.

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