Earth Day Thoughts on the Campus Sustainability Movement

Peter Wood

The dominant ideology on American college campuses in 2010 is sustainability.  It wraps together environmental alarmism, anti-capitalism, and a potpourri of “social justice” claims on behalf of women and minorities. If Greenland’s glaciers melt, Third World women will be hurt worst.  UNESCO spends a lot of time and money teasing out the causal chain between fossil fuel burned in Ohio and political oppression in Ouagadougou.

Uncovering supposedly hidden connections is, of course, an activity wonderfully well suited to intellectuals. It flatters their vanity. They can see further and deeper than the uninitiated—or at least they imagine so. This was a significant part of the appeal of Marxism. It offered a way of seeing through the facts to a supposedly coherent explanation of how everything fit together.  While it is best to speak of Marxism in the past tense since it has no mass following anywhere today, it does of course linger in a few places.  It is a sub-strata of academic feminism; it is the unacknowledged creed of ACORN-style activists; it is twisted into the DNA of many history and English departments; and it provides a goodly share of the “theory” that underwrites the amour propre of culturally disaffected college professors.  One doesn’t have to be a self-professed Marxist to find aid and comfort in Marxist analysis.  It can be worn as the intellectual equivalent of an arm band, and taken off on those occasions when the professor actually has something of interest to say.

Sustainability likewise is not, on the whole, a Marxist movement.  The Marxism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, was to the contrary an ideology that triumphantly celebrated human mastery of the earth and the industrial revolution.  Dominating nature was always very much part of the Marxist vision. 

But sustainability does have a more than coincidental resemblance to Marxism.  One of the sustainability movement’s pioneers was Murray Bookchin, a former Stalinist turned anarchist, who in 1962 turned his attention to industrial pollution.  In a book titled Our Synthetic Environment, published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber, Bookchin began to lay out a case that capitalism’s oppression of people was embodied in its poisoning of air and water.  Bookchin himself was too odd and prickly a figure to command much of a following, but his key ideas were picked up by some radical environmentalist groups, such as Earth First!  (The exclamation point is part of the name.)

Environmentalism in the 1960s had other more mainstream advocates, including Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, whose work culminated in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Glenn Ricketts has an excellent short history of the movement, “The Roots of Sustainability,” in the current issue of Academic Questions.  Ricketts is understandably skeptical of Bookchin’s actual influence, as few if any activists actually credited the crazy anarchist as a source.  But there is a touch of Bookchinism even in the entirely mainstream writings of Barry Commoner, whose “First Law of Ecology” is that “everything is connected to everything else.”

Commoner was a biologist and knew the value of phrasing ideas as though they were a matter of science, even when they are not.  The idea that “everything is connected to everything else” is not science; it is not even true, unless we are speaking of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and even then, the physics is uncertain.  But “everything is connected to everything else” [EICTEE] does nicely carry forward into much more accessible rhetoric Bookchin’s basic trope:  that the relations among people as part of a social order are ultimately on the same plane of analysis as the relation of humanity to the natural world.

Bookchin’s ghostly shadow shows up in other parts of the sustainability movement too.  The organization founded in 1993 by Senator John Kerry and Teresa Heinz to bring the sustainability movement to American higher education is named “Second Nature,” which has nothing obvious to do with sustainability until you know that “second nature” was a key term in Bookchin’s wooly analysis of environmental matters.

But back to EICTEE.  What about that idea that that human social relations and the relation of humanity to the natural world belong on the same plane of analysis?  Is it true?  The answer is rather important, since pretty much the entire sustainability movement assumes that it is true.  The reason that the sustainability movement can range freely from concern over pollution and global warming to issues of economic organization and matters such as racism and women’s rights is that it treats all of these as not merely connected by UNESCO-style chains of cause-and-effect but also by a pseudo principle that, deep down, these are all instances of a single phenomenon:  oppression.  To cure the oppression of Mother Earth, we must simultaneously rid the world of man’s inhumanity to man.

Some advocates have no difficulty getting right to this utopian ideal.  For most, no doubt, it is submerged beneath the surface of the movement, in its inner logic.  But it is certainly there, unifying culture and nature into a fundamental whole.

On this basis, the sustainability movement is heir to a tradition of ideologies that promise liberation, not just from the present inequities of social life but from the human condition itself.  What would life be like if we were liberated from all social hierarchy?  We don’t know, because the situation is purely imaginary.  Moreover, the sustainability movement itself moves in the opposite direction from actually abolishing hierarchy.  It views ordinary humans as too wasteful and destructive to be trusted with their own destinies or with the fate of the planet.  Instead, the movement imagines a trans-national elite of people who possess the superior insight as to what is good for the planet and for humanity. UNESCO is one model for this elite, and the cadres of activists who crowd the world environmental summits—Kyoto, Rio, Copenhagen, etc.—is another.

Earth Day is for everyone—sort of.  But it is especially for the American colleges and universities that have begun to align themselves with this post-Marxist vision of training a new global elite who will possess the self-discipline and superior insight to tell the rest of us how to live.

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