The victory of Greenthink on campus

James Howell thought university life would be filled with junk food, non-conformism and critical thinking. He was wrong.

James Howell

Topics Politics

On my first day at university in London this September, as I navigated my way through the throng of students hiding behind their MacBooks and Blackberries, I was struck by the omnipresence of recycling bins, posters advertising green student societies, and advice on how to live an eco-friendly student lifestyle.

I had thought that in joining an institution like Goldsmiths, University of London, which is known for being a progressive university – this is where the BritArt explosion happened in the 1990s and many famous writers, musicians and academics have studied and taught here – I would be immersing myself in a free-thinking, non-conformist, alternative atmosphere. I was wrong.

The Goldsmiths Students’ Union has signed on to the 10:10 campaign, which means it has pledged to cut the college’s carbon emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. A string of celebs, as well as sports clubs, big companies and schools have signed up to this rather fashionable campaign, which is supported by the UK Guardian. In fact, the campaign is backed by everyone from Number 10 to various local councils and MPs (1).

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Goldsmiths, too, had jumped on the bandwagon. Yet universities – or at least student bodies – are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be havens of non-conformism and plurality of thought. Right?

What was truly surprising to me is just how little questioning and challenging of orthodoxies happens on student campuses these days. That was once the staple of student life, but, today, when it comes to the effects of climate change, any student who chooses not to recycle their lecture notes is treated as deranged.

Around the UK, various green student societies have sprung up. At Goldsmiths, for instance, there’s the ‘Enviro-club’, which is ‘passionate about environmental issues’. At an event last year, the club put a sofa on the street and handed out free tea and cake to anyone willing to participate in ‘inspiring conversations about fruit, veg and gardening’ (2). Which is possibly the most inappropriate use of the word ‘inspiring’ ever.

Many campus ‘go green’ campaigns have catchy, silly names – but rather unworthy aims. The Student Switch Off is an energy-saving competition between halls of residence. Ten thousand students living in halls of residence across 33 universities have already signed up to become ‘Eco-Power Rangers’ and save energy by remembering to switch off lights, computers and so on (3). Don’t students have better things to think about?

At the University of Birmingham, a poster advertising the campaign enticed students to ‘Switch Off. Save Energy. Win Prizes.’ – such as tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I thought entering higher education was a first step into adult life, but apparently some think students need to be spoken to like children and treated to little prizes for remembering not to leave their TVs on standby.

Then there’s the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Degrees Cooler climate change programme, which aims at ‘greening universities and beyond through behaviour change’. Specifically the aim is to get both university students and staff to recycle more, use less energy, eat more sustainable local food and reduce non-essential flying (4). The NUS now sounds like an extension of the New Labour government, which, through the politics of behaviour, has infringed upon and tried to reshape our everyday decisions and lifestyles for more than a decade. The NUS is not interested in having proper debates about the kinds of issues raised on the Green Zone section of its website; it just wants to stuff students’ brains with Greenthink (5).

Degrees Cooler is run in conjunction with a number of organisations, including People & Planet, a national organisation which describes itself as the largest student group devoted to ‘ending world poverty, defending human rights and protecting the environment’. People & Planet has drawn up a Green League, rating UK universities on their environmental performance. Mimicking the university grading system, colleges receive first-, second- and third-class awards. But at the bottom of the league table are universities that ‘failed’ the People & Planet test or, even worse, did not ‘sit the exam’. In other words, this is a naming and shaming list drawn up by a bunch of smug eco-worriers (6).

While the greens are omnipresent on my campus, many of my fellow students don’t really pay too much attention to their propaganda. Yet, with recycling made easy – special bags are handed out at the student halls where I live and the recycling bin is just by the gate – many students do end up conforming to the green norm. Most don’t think twice about chucking Carling tins in one bag, newspapers in another and rinsed-out jars in a third. To me, this mindless compliance shows a curious separation between what is taught in the lecture hall (question the sources, weigh up every argument, check the facts) and what goes on in real life (lazy acceptance of the green orthodoxy and the need to change our lifestyles).

Some students, like myself, don’t like to be told that we must change our eco-sinning ways ‘or else’. Some young people go to university to be confronted with a range of ideas, to be allowed to question everything, and not simply to be told to conform, rinse out our Marmite pots and recycle our beer cans like ‘good students’. I always thought the combination of intellectual challenges and a lazy lifestyle is what every young person about to enter higher education dreams of. Instead, the air of conformism at university campuses encourages lazy thinking and paying an unhealthy amount of attention to things like your rubbish and your electricity meter.

And this is a real shame, because when else in life are you allowed to spend half your time learning and the other half wallowing around in mountains of washing up and bins stacked as high as possible after a night of boozing? The greens on campus are like a Big Mother telling you how to live, to sort your rubbish and switch off the telly – and they presume that you agree that, in the end, they know what’s best for you.

James Howell is a first-year student at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black reckoned that with the modern university, you get what you pay for. Emily Hill detected a degree of small-mindedness at British universities. Edward Hall described how students helped to undermine industrial action by British university lecturers. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) See the 10:10 campaign website here.

(2) See the Enviro Club page on the Goldsmiths Students’ Union website here.

(3) See the Student Switch Off website here.

(4) See the Degrees Cooler campaign.

(5) The Green Zone is here.

(6) View the Green League here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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