Activists in the classroom

The following is a synopsis of a speech presented at the Bartlett School of Architecture, 31 May 2023

Education is now politicised, and too many academics wear their activism on their sleeves. Very often that pushes students into thinking that:

a) environmental activist responses are the official position and should be followed;
b) it encourages students to simply go along with what the tutor says because it is advocated with moral certainty (and, also because the students don’t want to rock the boat).

This approach has nothing to do with an open-minded engagement with ideas, which is the basis of education. Enquiry ought to be based on a range of opinions – some that you may be convinced by, others you might be appalled by – but in that way, you work out what you really think on an issue.

Let’s examine how we might critically engage with ideas and develop the ability to question and challenge positions with which we might disagree.

What follows will hopefully explore environmentalism from a perspective that takes issue with:
• The many of the ways that it is presented, and
• how it is disseminated and mainstreamed.
• How we think critically,
• how we exercise judgement and discrimination in what we do.

This presentation is not intended to suggest that there is anything particularly wrong with environmentalism or environmentalists per se, as individuals or through one’s personal beliefs. The problem comes with the mandates of an assumed consensual moral behaviour take hold, i.e, the ideological pushes and nudges, the single issue demands, the impositions, the lack of questioning often lead to many students (and staff) feeling obliged to express themselves through a prism of environmental and climate concerns.

The (W)rapper by Eric Owen Moss Architects, Los Angeles

In a recent article, the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright took to task a (not particularly attractive) building Los Angeles, known as the “(W)rapper.” It is a modern, concrete, Brutalist, office block and he asked the architect about the carbon footprint of the building. He replied:

“Is that the only measure of architecture now? Awards all focus on sustainability, but our conceptual conversations are more intricate than that. There’s a poetic point, an emotional point, an experiential point.”

You might struggle to find the poetry in the building, but surely he has a point about narrowing the scope of architectural appreciation to a priority single issue – “carbon.” But that single issue can have many tentacles: sustainability, energy saving, climate, pollution, natural materials, etc, etc..

Ironically, lots of people mentioning the “S” word (“sustainability”) are often open to and aware of the charge that they are greenwashing/tick-boxing. But that is often because answering without mentioning the S-word is often tantamount to discrediting yourself. Here, the architect in the article is morally lessened for refusing to conform to the “correct” ideals.

That said, the fact that many people “greenwash” – for example, that they use the word for effect – is explained by three things:

1 – They don’t understand what they are supposed to do
1 – Irony or world-weariness: that not everyone agrees with, or at least they don’t agree that they should be mandated to comply with, environmental diktats.
2 – It implies that there is a preponderance amongst many that they only need to engage cynically in eco-compliance issues.

These will tend to foster demoralisation of, even worse, cynicism rather than healthy skepticism.
NB: The original ancient Greek “cynics” rebelled against societal conventions and promoted self-sufficiency in relation to nature; whereas the contemporary understanding of cynicism (that I am referring to) is a corrosively negative philosophy. It is dangerous if cynicism is the result of the bureaucratic environmental moment. Cynicism is fed by a sense of nihilism.

Our contemporary period is regularly described through the lexicon of crises; from the “Covid crisis” to the “economic crisis”, from “cost-of-living” crisis to a “mental health crisis.” (If Charles Dickens was writing today, he’d start “A Tale of Two Cities” with: “it was the worst of times, it was the even-worse times.”).

That said, one crisis trumps them all and that is The Environmental Crisis or “ecological catastrophe”.

Last year UN Secretary-General António Guterres claimed that we are all facing “collective suicide.” He has also initiated other catch-phrases like:

• “We are on a highway to hell.”
• Last month he said that “The climate timebomb is ticking.”
• Last year – “A red alert for our planet.”

Recently, the American Psychological Association identified a condition in young people that represents “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Similarly, Professor David McClean, Strategic Lead for Embedding Sustainability at Robert Gordon University says that we risk “becoming overwhelmed about future predictions and harbouring a sense of hopelessness… eco anxiety, or chronic fear of environmental doom, has risen in our student populations over recent years.” What a surprise! Could it have something to do with those very academics “scaring the pants” off people, or Extinction Rebellion youth activists banging on about the impending end of the world.

(Note: Ironically, a report by UCL scientists [in 2014] said that “Alarmists’” claims about the impact of global warming are contributing to a loss of trust in climate scientists). When cynicism extends to actual science, then we have a problem. But actually, all-too-often, this is about political use of science, not the science itself.

Many environmentalists insist that the crisis is one of over-consumption and over-production. Antonio Guiterrez (again) is on hand to deliver the necessary scaremongering rhetoric: “We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption.” (a. he is speaking of water, which is 71% of earth’s surface; and b. he is literally using horror imagery which is clearly devised to scare us some more.) I imagine that no credible scientist – in the course of scientific inquiry – ever used rhetoric like that.

Meanwhile, the developing world’s lack of production and consumption, of water, but also of goods, services, infrastructure, social care, educational facilities, and survival goes on as normal, and is of little concern to these establishment commentators. The contemporary bias argues that underdevelopment and starvation are down to climate change, rather than a lack of development. Once you accept that climate change – which is apparently exacerbated by energy use, of course – is the cause of the coming apocalypse, then the developing world will have to face the logic of continuing underdevelopment because it is not going to be allowed to develop if it means using energy and resources. (See: Greens: The New neo-Colonialists)

Once human actions are deemed to be inherently causal of environmental destruction, then it is not so much of a logical leap to demand that there be fewer creatives… and fewer people. Indeed, one paper argues that, for the sake of the environmental reforms, the developing world should relinquish much of its sovereignty and implement “accountability mechanisms (to organisations) such as the World Bank Inspection Panel.”

There’s a lot of hyperbole and rhetoric – often unhelpful, biased and frightening – that has been endorsed, promoted and officially sanctioned (by the UN, the IPCC Summary Reports, IMF, et al). But this then cascades down into the education sector, professional life and the media: through the various dissemination layers.

Here’re a couple of examples of how environmental fears are conveyed.

Look for the logo – a black footprint – at the end of many TV programmes, from BBC’s Newsnight to Sky Sports. It sets the internal processes, the quality, and the acceptability of media environmental performance.

Albert is a major player within strategic media discourse. It says of itself: “We are leading a charge against climate change.” Sky, BBC, Channel 4, ITV, RTE, Channel 5, Discovery, S4C, signed up. To be left behind when the bandwagon rolls by is to be marginalised.

At COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in 2021 it launched its Climate Content Pledge that stated that all signatory broadcasters will make “content that helps everyone understand and navigate the path to net zero, and which inspires them to make greener choices.”

Indeed, if you want to participate with these major players, you have to follow the strictures set down and monitored and maintained by Albert. Channel 4, for example, has issued a directive to all independents pitching for commissions to say that they will look favourably on “provocative and irreverent content that will energise and empower audiences to live sustainably.” If you don’t agree with this mandate, then you either keep your mouth shut, or you don’t get any work.

A few years ago, it was agreed amongst a cabal of broadcast leaders that all output; from soap operas to news broadcasts, from sport to children’s cartoons, from comedy to serious drama must have environmental messaging. Notionally, Albert writes the script: “Collectively, our industry reaches millions of people every single day. That represents an unprecedented opportunity to shift mindsets. It’s a chance to shape society’s response to climate change.”

SKY, a national broadcaster works explicitly with the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (set up by the Cabinet Office and engaging the talents of Dominic Cummings, ex-chief advisor to Boris Johnson). It claims that “80 per cent of people supported the idea that broadcasters should use their influence to ‘nudge’ people in the right direction, whether through documentaries, advertising or environmental issues covered in the news.” Surely this should give us all a little pause for thought, maybe? What might this “right direction” be? You might not disagree… but maybe you have different aims, conflicting ambitions. Maybe you are more interested in lifting people out of poverty than arguing that they shouldn’t develop a fossil-fuelled industry, for example.


The FT, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Scotsman, The Times, Sun, Independent, agreed to relay the “correct message.” There has always been a distinction between News and Propaganda (The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines propaganda as “more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols”) and subliminal messaging has been banned for a long time. But now Albert hands out certificates when news programmes “normalise sustainable behaviour through (their) editorial content.”

Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy, one of the UK’s most high-profile newsmen is Albert’s “chair of news content” whose job it is to “explore how the climate change conversation is represented on screen.” Does anyone see a conflict here? No? Is that because it is deemed acceptable to preach environmentalism these days?

You may (or may not) agree with the message, but you have to admit that politicised news reporting is suspect? Should there be outrage at the rise of social policy messaging by the mainstream media?

The ARB is a rather faceless organisation that prescribes architecture courses across the country. (“prescription” is soon to be called “accreditation”). But post-Grenfell, the ARB has been given a significant budget, more authority, and more power than it could ever have dreamed of.

They are now mandating “Learning Outcomes” (rather than more-flexible criteria) that states that Environmental Sustainability must now be included at every level of an Architecture undergraduate, postgraduate and professional diploma education.

One (early) stipulation stated that architecture students must be taught, inter alia:

• The principles of climate science
• The relationship between social sustainability, social justice and environmental sustainability
• How to design to preserve, integrate and enhance natural habitats which encourage biodiversity.
• Green infrastructure
• Renewable energy generation, offsetting, and decarbonisation.

If you have not been taught these political matters – and if you cannot demonstrate that you have learned to recite these environmental rules – then you will be refused access to the Register of Architects. In other words, you will not be allowed to qualify as an architect.

But what if you don’t agree with these criteria? What if you are critical of sustainability? What if you have different priorities and simply want to build buildings and not preach salvation? What if you – like the American architect mentioned above – think that aesthetics, beauty, functionality, materiality, context, etc, etc, are as, or more, important. If so, the curriculum simply becomes another battle ground of compelled speech. It is a place where you are meant to learn to defend your ideas, but instead you learn that there are certainly things that you shouldn’t say. Instead, you learn to say things you don’t necessarily believe in, in order to pass.

This puts students and tutors in an invidious position. You are meant – as part of your intellectual development – to explore and learn what you really believe in.

The new Learning Outcomes are a “nudge” (see, again, the Behavioural Insights Team’s “nudge theory”) to compel students to repeat a mantra. There may be ways of pretending to jump through these ARB hoops, but its environmental criteria will still be the frame of reference. As a result, the concept of academic freedom, has been eroded; and students and staff are no longer allowed to make up their own minds on certain environmental matters.

Instead of critical enquiry, environmental advocacy is the only permissible answer.

Backing this up is a veritable industry ready to support the new status quo, in order to receive funding, kudos, moral superiority, political authority, job security… or maybe, of course, because they believe it. For example, the institutional responses that came to the rescue of the ARB’s first “consultation” predominantly came from the environmental lobbyists, already firmly embedded in the mainstream of architectural discourse:

• Architects Declare,
• Architects Climate Action Network,
• Sheffield School of Architecture Students for Climate Action,
• Newcastle Students Climate Action Network, and
• Westminster University Climate Action Network.

Advance HE is a educational quango that used to be called the Higher Education Authority). It publishes guidance (with the Quality Assurance Agency) and, of late, it has set the criteria for the incorporation of Education for Sustainable Development within the broad syllabus for higher education. AdvanceHE trains lecturers to “embed sustainability within all subjects and subject matter.”

Just to remind readers, the university sector is not meant to have a national curriculum as such, that is the remit given to the school system. At least it used to be confined to schools.

At a university level, the concept, the practice, the meaning, of environmentalism and sustainability are “contested” areas of enquiry. (See writings by Michael Jacob, visiting researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment)

But from now on, AdvanceHE – effectively a third-party administration organisation peopled with bureaucrats – will certificate universities for being proactive in main-streaming sustainability across the curriculum. Universities will be penalised if they introduce environmentalism too flippantly. You cannot cross AdvanceHE’s diktat, which is an all-enveloping mandate. “Simply promoting a sustainability department or stand-alone sustainability course” could be seen as an insubordinate challenge.

Anyway, who are AdvanceHE? Well, even though their websites announces that “We are experts in higher education”, it is a common trait among many of these unknown, third-party influencing organsations, Advance HE are an amalgam of administrators. Hardly surprising, you might think, for an organisation that intervenes in higher education given that, on average, support staff outnumber teaching faculty in approximately three-quarters of all universities. It’s chairman is the ex- Director General at Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; the Chief Executive is the past-president of the Association of University Administrators, while its directorship boasts leading lights from Capita and Edexel.

Who are these people?

My case rests!




Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

Share This Post On
468 ad