Sustainability's Third Circle

Peter Wood

Around 1952, the brown treesnake ( Boiga irregularis) arrived on Guam from somewhere in the South Pacific, presumably as an accidental passenger on a cargo vessel. It settled in and multiplied. This snake’s invasion of Guam is a nightmarish instance of ecological disaster. The animal has devoured the whole populations of native species on the island, blown electrical generators, gulped down pets, and attacked children.

Guamians who take the long view, however, need not worry. The voracious brown treesnake cannot keep up its deprivations forever. Its pattern of consumption is unsustainable. Sooner or later it will run out of food and its numbers will crash.

"Sustainability" advocates, however, are seldom content to wait for Malthusian logic to kick in. Especially when it comes to human activity, they counsel forethought. Let's not wait until we humans are left like treesnakes on a lunar plain, with nothing left to eat. Of course, as one begins to think about what it means to sustain a civilization as opposed to a treesnake, the list of items one would want to conserve goes beyond the equivalent of tasty lizards, fruit bats, and sea fowl. One begins to think about arable land, water resources, power generation, and anything else we might wear out or use up; and then one starts to think about how we might invent and engineer our way beyond these limits.

The concept of "sustainability" is thus expandable. It can be pegged down to hard core empirical questions about such things as the "carrying capacity" of an piece of land, or it can become a sail for utopian dreams in which advocates imagine themselves transforming humanity itself by changing our appetites. On college campuses, you can find instances of both.

Arizona State University has two new undergraduate degree programs in sustainability starting this fall, a B.A. and B.S., both of which promise to introduce students to the concept "in the context of real-world problems, exploring the interaction of environmental, economic, and social systems." The curricula for the Arizona State programs has not been posted, so one can’t tell how much actual science, economics, and rigorous analysis of "social systems” might be entailed.

For the major to be more than just ideological priming, however, students will have to advance fairly deeply into mathematical modeling, market theory, biology, material science, and social theory. The faculty for the Arizona State program has the right credentials. It includes civil engineers, economists, biologists, biochemists, architects, an informatics expert, and even an archaeologist. If “sustainability” has a future as an academic subject, this is what its faculty should look like.

At the University of Delaware, by contrast, Kathleen Kerr, the head the residence life program has seized on the idea of sustainability to advocate for a program that has no science at all but a great deal of ideology. Kerr and Keith Edwards from Macalester College made a presentation in November 2007 at a “Tools for Social Justice” conference in Kansas City, Missouri.Their PowerPoint presentation is posted online on the Sustainability Web page of the American College Personnel Association. There we learn quite a bit. Kerr and Edwards debunk the "myths” that sustainability is mostly about the environment” and that “sustainability is primarily a scientific and technical problem.” Rather, in their view, sustainability has over a dozen "social justice aspects"

Environmental Racism
Fair Trade
Living Wage
Domestic Partnerships
Corporate Responsibility
Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Gender Equity
Water Rights
Human Rights Child Labor Issues
Affirmative Action
Multicultural Competence
Pollution and Farming Practices
Worker’s Rights
Sweatshop Labor

The list is almost whimsical. Why is "fair trade" a social justice issue bearing on sustainability, but not free trade, which has lifted billions of humans out of deep poverty? Why “domestic partnerships” but not stable heterosexual two-parent families? Why “multicultural competence” but not literacy and arithmetic that offer people a chance to wider their intellectual horizons? For that matter, why "water rights" and not mineral rights?

The answer to all these questions is pretty clear. Sustainability in Kerr’s and Edwards’ view is a campus on-ramp for the agenda of progressive left. The task of saving the planet appears too important to consider the views of capitalists, social conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, advocates of the traditional family, or a wide variety of other outlooks.

Near the beginning of Kerr’s and Edwards’ Powerpoint comes a slide titled “Triple Bottom Line” which shows three overlapping circles labeled “healthy environments,” “strong economies” and “social justice.” Where all three circles overlap appear the words “sustainable society.” Versions of this little diagram pop up in sustainability pronouncements around the world with the frequency of brown treesnakes in Guamian playgrounds. The Geography Association of the U.K. uses ellipses at vertices of triangles instead of overlapping circles. The International Association of Public Transport sticks with the circles but adds more words. The University of New Hampshire has a more baroque ensemble that includes a fourth bubble (“Climate System”) and a mysterious double-headed arrow that points the classroom and the community in opposite directions. Ithaca College goes for the stripped down model of three ovals, like a Ballantine beer bottle, or Borromean rings. The University of North Carolina giant-sizes the diagram so that the circles spill off the page.

Academe hasn’t seen this much creativity spent on dressing up a dull idea since the invention of the "Celebrate Diversity!" poster. Well, actually, it is some of the same creativity. Over on the Duke University sustainability page, the announcement of the Earth Day Bash on West Campus shows a picture of a cake decorated with an image of the earth and the motto,"Celebrating Sustainability." I give this month’s prize to theCalendar of Events at the University of Iowa's Sustainable Agriculture Program, which shows someone holding three apples arranged like the circle diagram and trusts the informed viewer to recognize the wordless image.

The widespread use of the diagram is another clue that “sustainability” is a more of a social movement, with its own symbols and passwords, than it is a nascent intellectual discipline. The popularity of the circle diagram surely lies in that third ring, whether it is labeled “social justice” or just “society.” It is an invitation to think that culture and society as open to systematic revision by people who better understand humanity’s long-term interests.

I don’t doubt that "society" is indeed a factor in sustainability. The first American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan,writing in 1851 about the Iroquois, observed that a society based on hunting wild game needed not only to maintain control over a wide territory but had to organize its institutions to accommodate a mobile and dispersed population. "Sustainability" has been a prominent theme in anthropology ever since. One lesson of this study -- popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed -- is that societies frequently make short-term decisions about their resource use that have disastrous long-term consequences. This is just as true of small-scale preindustrial societies as it is of mass-scale industrial ones. The spotted owl may not survive the American timber industry’s appetite for old growth forest, but the Maori ushered in the extinction of about half of New Zealand’s native vertebrates after their arrival c. 1250.

Perhaps another lesson to be drawn from the anthropological record is humility. Societies have often developed quite sophisticated adaptations to their environments only to be overwhelmed by unexpected developments. The ancient inhabitants of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon (AD 850-1250) were superb in managing their scarce water resources, but apparently couldn’t handle a series of decade-long droughts.But it seems unlikely the Anasazi elders could have helped the situation much by drawing circles in the sand at the bottom of their kivas and maundering on about “sustainability.” Humans are much better at adapting to new realities than they are at inventing perfected social orders that can withstand the vicissitudes of climate, catastrophe, war, and disease. Planning goes only so far.

I offer that somewhat rueful observation by way of getting back to where sustainability is going on American campuses today. On a great many campuses, educators have spotted an opportunity to promote the sustainability cause outside the traditional classroom. Once upon a time this meant recycling newspapers and helping to green-up the campus. Increasingly it means, as Kerr and Edwards put it in November, trying “systematically [to] incorporate social justice education on your campus.” What exactly is social justice education? They explain that it involves examining “the oppressive systems that have existed and continue to function in society” and helping students to “develop a libratory consciousness.”

This strikes me as pretty plainly an ideological program, not education in any liberal sense. So maybe the question ought to be: how far has this ideology spread in American higher education?

Debra Rowe, for example, is president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development as well as co-coordinator of the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, founded in December 2005. As Rowe explained at an event at Smith College in 2006, “We are the first generation capable of determining the habitability of the planet for humans and other species.” With this weight on our shoulders, said Rowe, we need to commit ourselves to “education for sustainable development.” The United Nations has “declared a Decade of Educational for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014.” ESD involves a lot of plain old environmental activism, but it also involves stuff the “U.S. public” doesn’t yet know about: “[The] public doesn’t know we can reduce human suffering, environmental degradation and social injustice now while building stronger economies.”

What Rowe represents is, in effect, the fusion of much of the progressivist political agenda with the relatively anodyne program of contemporary environmentalism. This fusion already occurred in Europe over the last decade in the increasingly strident pronouncements of Green Party activists. Now it is here, but it has acquired a more American character as it crossed the Atlantic. The difference is that in the United States, sustainability-ism has taken on the leafage of American utilitarianism. A good many sober-minded scholars and bureaucrats have looked at in terms of solving practical problems. The National Association of College and University Business officers (NACUBO), not known for giddy ideological stands, has joined HEASC and is holding its first Carbon-Neutral Conference at the end of March in College Park, Maryland. NACUBO has its own Campus Sustainability page, which has more to do with tracking systems and benchmarks than with overthrowing the capitalist world system. But I get the impression that NACUBO doesn’t much understand what kind of toboggan it has jumped on.

The sustainability movement does indeed have promising academic programs such as Arizona State’s, but the movement’s leaders aren’t interested in stopping there. They are committed to that third circle -- "social justice." In a good many cases, "social justice" translates into re-packaged hatred of Western institutions, from the marketplace to the traditional family, all of which are deemed "oppressive."

HEASC itself avows the ideological side of sustainability, seeking to “move sustainability to the center stage of higher education” to help “make a healthy, just and sustainable future a goal of all learning and practice.” Anyone who follows the links I’ve been sprinkling through this account will find a rapidly growing forest of Web sites, organizations, highly interconnected movement that includes many of the major higher education associations, such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards. While some of these organizations describe their commitments, as NACUBO does, in the language of recycling and conservation, some grab the third ring. ACPA is the most vociferous on “social justice,” which it hopes to promote in college residence halls around the country. But is the ideological side of the sustainability movement limited to the preaching of RA's and student activity czars?

Not at all. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education speaks to a much broader set of concerns than dormitories and has hundreds of member colleges and universities as well as business members, NGOs, and government agencies. AASHE “defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” (Oddly, its symbol is a single ash leaf, rather than the nearly ubiquitous triad of circles.) AASHE aims to take this “encompassing” view to “all sectors of higher education -- from governance and operations to curriculum and outreach” and it serves as “a professional home” for a new breed of campus bureaucrat, “campus sustainability coordinators and directors.”

Earlier I described the sustainability as a “movement,” but it is clearly a movement that is already partly institutionalized. It has its own class of paid workers whose interest in advancing the cause is inseparable from their interest in sustaining their own careers and pursuing the usual challenges of acquiring staff and accreting budgets. It is hard to tell how many of these college offices have already been established. A Google search suggests something in the hundreds. Presumably AASHE’s list of member colleges and universities is a close match.

The typical college or university sustainability office draws attention to campus conservation efforts and academic courses (such as Natural Resource Economics). Some stop there, but many add to the mix some elements of social activism rooted in the “social justice” agenda. The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability includes as a goal making the university a “model” of “social equity,” which it defines as hiring goals “to ensure the university reflects society’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity … a livable wage and benefits, including benefit packages for spouses and domestic partners of university employees.” The University of New Hampshire’s sustainability office is less specific but it too promotes “social justice” by “increasing student exposure to humanistic treatment of particular issues of justice.” The jargon of Kathleen Kerr and ACPA find their way into many of these sustainability office Web sites.

Sustainability bureaucrats are not the whole picture of this campus development. Beyond them lies the land of the hard-core campus activists, such as the Sustainable Campuses Project and the Sierra Youth Coalition -- a Canadian venture which foreground “the intersections between sustainability and anti-oppression work.” Anti-oppression work takes us back to Kerr and Edwards’ list, notched up yet a few more degrees. Sustainability for the Sierra Youth Coalition, for example, includes working for the liberation of “womyn, genderqueer, transgender, and intersexed people,” struggling against ableism, and overcoming whiteness.

There is rich vein of colorful pronouncements by student groups in the U.S., but quoting such stuff has the drawback of making the phenomena look merely silly. I would rather end on a more admonitory note. The idea of sustainability isn’t new. I alluded to the 19th century prophet of non-sustainablity, Thomas Malthus, and to the anthropologistLewis Henry Morgan, but surely the figure who rolls all the elements of the sustainability movement into one geodesic ball is Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). Fuller summarized his life project as the attempt to discover, “Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?” Fuller’s environmentalism was held together with the gossamer logic of utopian dreams, and naturally he gained an enthusiastic following in the 1970s when the first wave of environmentalism hit. Fuller is an interesting and quirky figure, but it is hard to say that he made much progress with his basic question. He failed because his scientific objectives always blurred into his salvational dreams. His fitting monument was Biosphere 2, the giant glass terrarium in the Arizona desert whose supporters wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in a hapless search for a practical agenda. During the first biosphere “mission,” most of the animals and all of the pollinating insects died, and the volunteer humans emerged in none too great shape.

No doubt many of today’s sustainability advocates believe they are embarked on a more practical enterprise. Some are. Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton’s recent book,Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University,for example, is a compendium on setting goals for such things as campus gas emissions, electronic switches, and light bulbs. But for many others, the conservation initiatives and empirical research are perilously blended with the pursuit of “social justice,” at the cost of clarity and coherence. Few of these advocates venture to say what “social justice” is, preferring a vague commitment to ridding humanity of every painful “inequity” to the awkwardness of admitting that “social justice” typically means nothing more than the menu of causes currently favored by the political Left.

For those who take global sustainability as a serious scientific and intellectual problem, this snacking at the social justice table is a bad idea. The legitimate questions about how humanity can best thrive in a world beset with environmental challenges deserve to be answered with open-minded inquiry, rigorous pursuit of the facts, robust debate, and attentiveness to the full range of possible answers. We are ill-served by an approach that forecloses whole lines of investigation and that demands allegiance to political nostrums -- some of them of negligible relevance -- before the science has even begun.

American higher education is a bit like Guam in having no natural defenses against certain kinds of predators. Treesnakes aren’t a worry here but illiberal ideologies are, especially those that present themselves at first as thoughtful responses to practical problems. In recent years, President Bush has been strongly criticized for allegedly silencing science that cut against his policies or ignoring unwelcome findings. It is a hard irony of our times that American higher education is in the midst of an ideological enthusiasm that promises to do the very same thing.

This article originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed on April 28, 2008. 

Image: Morris Industries

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