“To Be, Rather Than to Seem:” False Promises of Sustainability

Driving up the last swell of mountain on Highway 421 towards Boone, North Carolina, a wind turbine pierces the horizon. The turbine is surrounded by sloping hills of trees and foliage that blanket your vision. This small corner of the Appalachian Mountains is charmed by its idyllic image comprised of a thriving forest and rural Appalachian life.

The Broyhill Wind turbine installed on ASU’s campus is 153 feet tall. Photo: Appalachian State University

The surrounding mountains also cradle Appalachian State University (ASU), a public educational institution that is part of the UNC System. ASU enrolls approximately 20,000 students in a town with a total residential population of 19,000 people.

ASU Emblem on B.B. Dougherty Hall, Photo: Ben Pluska

As you drive further into the town limits and onto campus, you pass a sign that reads, “Appalachian State University: Esse quam videri,” or in English, “To Be, Rather Than to Seem,” ASU’s motto.

Clearly, ASU cultivates an image echoing its surroundings – a haven of green, progressive, sustainability – and it certainly seems to fulfil it: the wind turbine, green-colored roof tops, solar panels, composting bins, electric cop cars, dormitory buildings named “dogwood,” and “New River,” as well as the abundant use of the word “sustain” on trash cans and paper towel dispensers. To a prospective student, a tourist on a weekend vacation, or a second homeowner from Florida, it would seem that Appalachian State University has achieved the climate utopia we are striving for in this epoch of anthropogenic climate catastrophe.

But Bekah Nielsen, Sarah Sandreuter, and Hannah Cullen, three climate justice organizers and ASU alumni (Department of Sustainable Development) living in Boone, encourage you to look a little closer at this apparent utopia. These three spent their undergraduate careers pushing ASU to meet their promises of sustainability alongside a group of activists known as the “Climate Action Collaborative” (CAC). I sat down with the three organizers to discuss their experiences.

Nielsen describes CAC as, “[an organization using the] theory of Just Transition [to] pressure App State University to do tangible things towards climate neutrality and environmental justice.” She went on to say that “it’s not like we’ve had one target this whole time. The finish line has been consistent, but the way to get there has changed.” Cullen elaborated to say, “the finish line has always been to [consistently] challenge the university, whether it’s how they spend their money or their relationship to Boone in Watauga County.”

The Rachel Carson Council Defines a Just Transition as:

“A holistic approach encompassing both the need to end the extractive economy and a vision for healthy, thriving, and connected local economies in its place. The term “just transition” was originally coined after labor unions and frontline communities joined forces for peace building in the 1990s, and a fundamental component is the belief that neither communities nor toxic-related workers should pay in the form of suffering health and economic effects.” (RCC 2019)

Sandreuter says that they are concerned about university administration and the pressure they face from the North Carolina State Government to grow. “In recent years, especially under new chancellorship, there’s been this expectation and pressure for App State to grow like other universities in North Carolina and other university systems around the country. But to have sustainability be one of your primary pillars of identity, and growth as what they see as necessary, there’s this conflict there.”

Nielsen echoed Sandreuter’s anxieties about ASU’s growth… “the UNC system is run like a business. And if you look at their strategic five-year plan, it says that all UNC schools are expected to increase student admissions 6 percent. It’s the same language as like, ‘by next quarter you need to increase profits by 6%.’ Students are viewed as dollars, not like living humans.”

Cullen believes that ASU and the UNC System’s relentless focus on growth reflects their disregard for injustices they knowingly perpetuate… “I think [growth is] one of the most pertinent causes for many kinds of injustice like housing insecurity, impacts on land, and [over-using] resources. But you can’t mow down the mountains. App State has a literal boundary of mountains all around it. It can’t grow like other [low land] universities. [And therefore] it cannot physically carry all the people it plans to, but they try to, and act like they can.”

The need for a growing student body also creates a need for more campus facilities. And even though the university faces physical barriers, as Cullen described, ASU administrators are still finding ways to spill over the mountain tops.

In 2023, ASU began construction for what they call the “Innovation District,” a new addition to the campus that will house wonderful sounding things like the Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research, renewable energy labs, and workspaces for multidisciplinary projects. When construction began, the university clear-cut forests and burned the wood.

But aside from the decimation of these ancient forests, Nielsen also highlighted the oxymoronic nature of ASU’s plan… “Cutting trees and building buildings is not innovative. There are a lot of structural problems. They’re building faculty housing in the innovation district in an effort to address the housing crisis in Boone. But App State Students gobbling the town is driving housing prices up. And people aren’t being paid enough to afford to live here.”

Cullen likens this ostensible “innovation” to ASUs obsession with cosmetic, rather than systemic, change… “ASU cares more about things that look cool and flashy and what sounds sustainable in an email writeup rather than what creates meaningful change. For instance, the innovation district, the solar panels, and the wind turbine… anything but invest in what would get us away from climate catastrophe.”

Chart Depicting Representative Emission Pathways for ASU, Credit: Climate Action future of swift and meaningful Collaborative (2020)

To that end, The CAC has provided ASU many opportunities to invest in our future rather than optics and email write ups. In 2020, the Climate Action Collaborative published a “Just Climate Action Plan” (JCAP) in response to ASUs Office of Sustainability Climate Action Plan. The JCAP pushed ASU to imagine a divestment from extractive industries in their energy purchasing and consumption. ASU’s plan outlines a strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. But currently, ASU is only reducing carbon emissions by 1% per year, meaning the university will not become carbon neutral until 2115 (CAC JCAP 2020). The Just CAP states that meeting the 2050 goal would require annual emissions reduction rates of 3% per year. To add salt to the wound, one year of renewable energy use would cost a mere 1% of ASU’s yearly budget.

When the Climate Action Collaborative provided ASU with this data, campus administrators and the Office of Sustainability deemed it unfeasible. As Sandreuter described, “[there is an] issue of finger pointing, lack of accountability, and deflection across the university among those who have power. What I mean by that is, you go to the Board of Trustees and the Board of Trustees say that they don’t have any ability to make the changes that you need. You have to talk to the Office of Sustainability, you have to go to the Board of Governors, or you would have to go to the NC State legislator and flip the Senate, flip the House. It’s just really frustrating as students who attend this university and who want to make change and being constantly told that students don’t have the power. But professors and faculty have been really supportive and continuously remind us that what we’re doing is worthwhile and like necessary and like they see value in it, and they see like the possibility for it to be done.” A prime example of a supportive faculty body at ASU is the Department of Sustainable Development whose curriculum centers around critical development studies and systems science.

I ended our conversation by asking how ASU can truly be an institution that strives “to be, rather than to seem,” and a way forward in helping achieve this goal. Nielsen believes ASU should focus on “sustainable uses of land, capping      admissions, and student housing. Not just things that provide the university with advertising money, like football.” And as Cullen articulated, “don’t stop trying. I know there’s a lot of people on different campuses all around the country fighting for similar things. It feels hopeless and defeatist sometimes. But we can’t stop trying.”

Sandreuter believes ASU needs to reckon with its own identity… “these huge, larger than life systems that are attached to ASU (like the BOG, BOT, and State Legislators) make it feel like where do you even start? Where do you begin? Without getting out of the system, I just don’t see how any of these really radical and awesome and amazing ideas will ever happen. So ‘to be, rather than to seem’ is hard. The system is set up for ASU to seem. And never to be.”

Ben Pluska — RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Appalachian State University

RCC Fellow Ben Pluska is a Senior at Appalachian State University studying Sustainable Development and minoring in Film Studies. Ben is a research assistant under the mentorship of Dr. Rebecca Witter for the Environmental Justice Collaborative, a transdisciplinary research/activist project spanning multiple universities and environmental justice non-profits in North Carolina. The Co-Labs’ research focuses on how disproportionately impacted communities are getting to justice in the face of industrialized agriculture, energy development, and waste disposal in Eastern North Carolina.