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Professor, students call for curricula focus, divestment, sustainability

Brian Henning brings challenge on campus and in community.

On campus and in the community, Brian Henning teaches about the intersection of philosophy, ethics and environmental sustainability, and raises challenges about curricula, investments and energy sources.

Brian, who is professor of philosophy, ethics and environmental issues at Gonzaga University, said there are technical aspects to decarbonizing transportation and energy—like electric cars and solar energy—but technical solutions are not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“Many people sacrifice at the altar of consumption,” he said, “but those at the top are often not happier. 

“While technical problems need technical solutions, moral problems require moral solutions, changing our underlying attitudes, assumptions and beliefs,” he said. “We as humans need to live in a way that mutually benefits other forms of life on earth, rather than conquering them,” he added.

In the Jesuit tradition of philosophy, Brian even asks if “sustainability” is an adequate goal.
Something sustainable can be done indefinitely, but sustainability provides no way of knowing what is in fact worth doing. There are many forms of human living that may be sustainable, but are not good, he said.

“Is late stage consumer society sustainable?  What does a good life look like?  What is our relationship with the natural world?” Brian asked.  “If we do sustainable things to survive, we also need conversations about ethics and values.”

Born in Twin Falls, Idaho, raised in Boise and studying in Seattle and New York City, his early education was public, but all his undergraduate and graduate education was at Jesuit schools.  He appreciates that Gonzaga and the Jesuits have kept philosophy alive, requiring it for all students.

For him, Jesuit education is rich in dialogue.  In contrast, some universities avoid religion and others require one brand of religious thought, but “Jesuits are willing to embrace the value of difficult conversations.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree at Seattle University and completed two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree in philosophy from Fordham University in New York City. After teaching five years at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, he came to Gonzaga in 2008.

Brian has four emphases outside of class:
• He helped found and worked with Gonzaga’s Advisory Council on Stewardship and Sustainability from 2008 to 2015. Since 2015, he has focused on the Cataldo Project: Sustainability Across the Curriculum Initiative.
• He is the faculty leader of the Fossil Free Gonzaga campaign to divest Gonzaga’s endowment of fossil-fuel investments.
• In 2017, he helped found 350 Spokane, a local branch of the international grassroots climate action group
• He gives community presentations on his recent book, Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change.

Brian notes that recent developments in Catholic and Jesuit thinking on the environment may require making ecology more central to Gonzaga’s curricula.
1) Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ “On Care for Our Common Home,” says climate change is a threat to life on this planet and vulnerable people, making ecology central to Catholic social teaching.
2) Jesuits affirmed in General Congregation 35 (GC35) in 2008 that care for and right relation with creation are fundamental to the Jesuit charism. 
3) The 2011 Special Report of the Society of Jesus’ Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, “Healing a Broken World,” reinforces GC35.
4) In the new Western Province of the Society of Jesus—combining the Oregon (the Northwest) and California provinces—environmental concerns are central.

“Jesuits say justice is about a right relationship with the Creator, with others and with creation.  Social justice and environmental justice are both critical,” he said.

Brian said that according to Laudato Si, every aspect of creation has “intrinsic value,” a concept from environmental ethics that “something has value in and for its own sake—humans, animals, plants, species, ecosystems—not merely for its usefulness to human beings,” he explained. “Anthropocentrism values things based solely on their use by humans.

“Technologies alone will not resolve the climate crisis. Christians know the climate crisis is a symptom of deeper problems of human society—selfishness and consumerism,” he said.

In the campaign for fossil fuel divestment at Gonzaga University, Brian and several hundred students call for reconsidering certain investments of endowment funds, which help provide scholarships and build buildings.

“If profits come from the sale of carbon fuels that cause climate change and harm poor people, it’s contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus and Gonzaga University,” he said.

GU’s investment policy allows it to exclude investments contrary to its values.  So students have studied the investments and challenged the Board of Trustees. There is a divestment resolution before the Faculty Senate, and the trustees themselves have a task force studying the investments.

Brian said that in the 1990s, the socially responsible investment movement asked people to invest in businesses compatible with their values or not to invest in companies inconsistent with their values—such as related to labor practices, civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights and weapons manufacture.

Another approach has been to invest in corporations to engage in shareholder activism, voting to influence their behavior, Brian said.

Large corporations, however, have found ways to resist shareholder resolutions, and the increase in mutual funds investing in many corporations makes shareholder activism difficult.

“Some fossil fuel companies were bad actors, hiding internal documents, like tobacco companies did when they hid reports on research that said tobacco was addictive and caused cancer. 

Brian said that when Exxon-Mobil found in the 1970s that their products cause climate change, they buried the research and funded efforts for decades to sow doubts in the science.
“Given past experience, shareholder activism may not change the behavior of some companies.  Divestment is a reasonable response,” he said.

“Our focus is to build a commitment to divest over a reasonable period. Some say divestment is hard because there is oil in everything, like plastics.  So we are targeting companies that own fossil fuels, not companies that use it,” Brian added.
“We target the problem, not the company, to motivate companies to stop extracting oil, coal and gas,” he said.

Divestment worked in the 1980s to pressure the South African government to move away from apartheid rule.

“Now we are glad to be on the right side of history, ending a racist regime.  Now we need to be on the right side of history by divesting from fossil fuel,” said Brian.

A year ago, he helped found 350 Spokane, citizens working on the grassroots level, connecting with the international 350 climate action group.  They are working for the City of Spokane to update its Sustainability Action Plan, to include, along with goals and measuring the city’s footprint, a climate action plan. Its goal is to reduce greenhouse gases to 30 percent of the 2005 level by 2030 and do a greenhouse gas inventory.

“The magnitude of the problem actually requires the city to reduce the gasses to 80 percent of the 2005 levels,” he said.  “In Spokane, we need to embrace a goal of 100 percent of electricity coming from fossil-free fuels as citizens in Edmonds, Whatcom County and Portland have done.  “

350 Spokane, which now has more than 400 members, is gathering signatures on a petition calling for the city to update its Sustainability Action Plan and to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity, so the city council knows the community cares.

For information, call 313-5885, email or visit

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