Swamped: Florida's Earth Charter U

Ashley Thorne

Florida Gulf Coast University, established in the late 90s and perched on the southwest side of the Sunshine State, embraces three core values: sustainability, diversity, and excellence. With palm-tree-lined walkways, a library overlooking a man-made lake, and the beach only a half hour’s drive away, it makes sense for the university to be thinking about its relationship with nature. But FGCU doesn’t merely encourage environmental stewardship; it has made “sustainability” the chief theme it wants to impress upon students. 

FGCU was established in controversy over the effects it would have on the land in the Fort Myers area. And indeed, its creation led to suburban development and the drying up of waterways. To compensate for its toll on the environment, the university decided to exalt the values of environmental protection and sustainability. It is presumably easier to be a vigorous advocate of swamps after you have drained your own.  

Sustainability has a starring role in the university’s mission statement and guiding principles. The mission states that FGCU continuously “practices and promotes environmental sustainability,” while deeply committed to the “noble ideals” of “the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.” Included in the university’s guiding principles is the hope of cultivating in students a certain kind of religious fervor:  

Integral to the University's philosophy is instilling in students an environmental consciousness that balances their economic and social aspirations with the imperative for ecological sustainability. 

Second, Florida Gulf Coast U requires all students to take a course called the University Colloquium: A Sustainable Future as the means of instilling "an ecological perspective" and “community awareness and involvement” in students (two of FGCU’s nine university-wide student learning outcomes). The course treats sustainability as having “environmental, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic, and political influences.” This concept is more commonly expressed by the Triple Bottom Line Venn diagram with three overlapping circles labeled environment, society, and economy.  

Required reading for the course is a 2008 FGCU publication, the University Colloquium Reader, available at the FGCU bookstore for $33 used – not purchasable elsewhere. State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World, a publication by the Worldwatch Institute, is also required reading. Students take field trips to places such as the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and they must participate in ten hours of mandatory service projects. Upon completion of the Colloquium, students take an assessment to measure how well they learned “an ecological perspective” and “community awareness and involvement” for the university’s student learning outcomes (SLO) records.  

In addition to teaching the highly contested idea of anthropogenic global warming; engaging in voluntyranny; mandating student action on behalf of the “imperative for ecological sustainability”; and buying in to the self-justifying mediocrity of the outcomes movement; FGCU’s eco-education has a specific political agenda: promoting the Earth Charter.  

The Earth Charter is a United Nations document. It was the brainchild of the 1987 Brundtland Commission (which officially defined sustainable development) and was written in 1994 by Mikhail Gorbachev and the chairman of the UN’s Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, Maurice Strong. Today it is regarded as the consensus statement of principles on sustainability and world peace. Organizations representing millions of people, including several dozen American universities, have endorsed it.  

An article on the Earth Charter website praises Florida Gulf Coast University for using the Earth Charter as the “unifying principle” of the curriculum. The article tells about the University’s Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education (CESE), the main department behind the drive to infuse sustainability and the Earth Charter into FGCU academics. The Center: 

works toward realizing the dream of a sustainable and peaceful future for Earth through scholarship, education, and action. The Center advances understanding and achievement of the goals of environmental and sustainability education through innovative educational research methods, emergent eco-pedagogies, and educational philosophy and practice based on ethics of care and sustainability.  

“Activism” is one of the Center’s “key areas of emphasis.” So it seems only right that CESE’s cites as its inspiration Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring jumpstarted the environmental movement.  

David Orr, author of the influential education-for-sustainability book Earth in Mind, is the co-chair of the Center’s Board of Advisors. NAS President Peter Wood took notice of Orr in his lecture in Switzerland last summer entitled, “The Sustainability Movement in the American University.” He observed Orr’s curious declaration in Earth in Mind that “The planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.”  

Orr’s prescription for the planet reminds me of a strange hippie concert I attended in someone’s home last year by the illustrious Bryan Bowers, an “autoharp master and storyteller.” Wearing a stained t-shirt and a bristly white beard, Bryan pulled up a stool and serenaded the group with classics such as “Hot Buttered Rum” and induced the audience to participate in call and response songs like “Little Liza Jane.” He told stories of his trips to Alaska while he plucked on the autoharp and asked a lady he called “my woman” over for a duet. By the end of the evening he had everyone cooing to folk hymns that bore frightening resemblance to “Kumbaya.” Recalling his gig, I’m not sure we desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. 

In David Orr’s newest book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, he inveighs against the “many problems generated by unfettered capitalism, such as unfair distribution of wealth.” He believes in the kind of sustainability that sells eco-stewardship but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms.

The director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education is Peter Blaze Corcoran, a professor of environmental studies at FGCU and a trailblazer in multiple sustainability organizations, such as University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF), UNESCO’s Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership (GHESP), and—you have to love these acronyms—the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Here’s where the connection to the Earth Charter comes in. Corcoran serves as Senior Advisor to the Costa Rica chapter of Earth Charter International, and he has published two books, The Earth Charter in Action: Toward a Sustainable World (2005), and A Voice for Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter, a collection of Earth Charter-themed poems, essays, and stories. He coordinates FGCU’s mandatory environmentalism course.  

As director of the CESE, he worked with his buddy Rick Clugston—who is on the CESE board of advisors and serves on the Earth Charter International Council—to take part in “Earth Charter scholarship.” The Center received a grant from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (Steven Rockefeller was the chair of the Earth Charter Drafting Committee) to gather a group of scholars to set “the scholarly agenda for Earth Charter education.”   

But should the agenda of the Earth Charter be taught in the classroom?  

The Charter uses typical United Nations language. The Preamble begins, “We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history.” It teaches that “in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny,” and gives a call to action: “We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”  

The Earth Charter has four pillars with four principles each – of particular note are ones under “Social and Economic Justice” (with my comments): 

  • Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner. a. Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations. [Equitable distribution of wealth means anti-capitalism, or like robbing the rich to feed the poor.] 
  • Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development [“No, you can’t help with sustainable development – we already have too many men.”] and ensure universal access to education, health care and economic opportunity. [As we’ve seen, universal healthcare is already becoming reality in the United States.]  
  • Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities. [We reject all discrimination...except on the behalf of indigenous peoples and minorities.] 

Corcoran realizes that endorsing the Earth Charter with such enthusiasm has its risks. In a 2007 article, “Infusing the Earth Charter into Research and Curriculum,” he wrote: 

because the Earth Charter is normative, it arouses concern about how values are taught and about whose values are taught. These are vitally important questions to address in the tradition of academic freedom and critical inquiry.  

Yes, I agree. How do you reconcile endorsing such a political document with the university’s responsibility to honor academic freedom and freedom of inquiry? Corcoran answers: 

However, we believe that sustainability is the great moral question of our time, the meta-narrative of the twenty-first century. And we believe it is a moral responsibility of universities to study and teach sustainable living. Infusing the Earth Charter into research and curriculum at Florida Gulf Coast University has helped us to assume this sober responsibility. 

The great moral question of our time? FGCU exalts sustainability as a form of religion. Instead of helping students know right from wrong and truth from lies, it anxiously seeks to instill an “environmental consciousness.” The university is even trying to make penance for its own existence on that reclaimed swamp land. Salvation in the sustainability gospel comes through behavior modification—not from being more kind to other humans but from activism on behalf of all “life forms.” 

The National Association of Scholars appreciates the rich diversity of institutions of higher education in the United States. There are many colleges that have a stated religious affiliation. Perhaps there is a place for a university that has a cult-like devotion to a fanatical UN pronouncement. We disagree with the principles that Florida Gulf Coast University espouses, but we appreciate its truth in advertising.  If a student wishes to spend four years seeking a degree in the context of this kind of illusory mumbo-jumbo, he should be free to do so.  

\It’s worth noting, however, that FGCU is a public entity supported by the state of >Florida. This means that public resources are being used to fund a sectarian cult. Study of the biological world is a worthy academic pursuit, but worship of “sustainability,” with its bitter hostility toward capitalism and Western culture, makes for a foolish investment for taxpayers in the land of mangroves, pelicans, and sun-drenched beaches.    

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