Sustainability’s War on Doubt

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. Reprinted with permission. 

“Sustainability” is like a religion. Or, sustainability is a religion.

Both claims come up often among critical observers of this powerful and popular social movement. Though secular, sustainability is like a religion in that it offers a view of the Earth as once pristine and pure but now fallen. It recognizes the sinfulness of humanity, offers forms of expiation and absolution, and puts these elements together in a master narrative of an impending catastrophe that will punish mankind for its iniquity.

The stronger claim, that sustainability is a religion, takes its warrant from the adherents to the movement who personify Earth as a deity. This claim also emphasizes the cult-like zealotry of sustainability advocates, who imagine they possess an accurate knowledge of the future that goes beyond what is actually knowable, and who regard any dissent from this orthodoxy as intolerable.

It’s easy to find examples of sustainability advocates who make clear that their doctrine is, in their own eyes, religious. The former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, has said, “For me the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”  When tens of thousands joined in the September 2014 “People’s Climate March,” the festivities included votaries of Mother Earth (presented as a giant grandmotherly puppet) and other neo-pagan worshippers offering obeisance to their gods.

Sustainability as Ideology

In our recent study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, my co-author Rachelle Peterson and I call sustainability an ideology with some religious overtones. Sustainability asks not just for belief but for the believer to conform his life to the doctrine, to recruit others to the belief, and to participate in some larger struggle to bring the world into alignment with the new vision.

I took up the critique of the sustainability movement in 2008 after encountering it at the University of Delaware. At the time, UD had instituted a mandatory program in its dorms that aimed to convince students of the insidious omnipresence of white racism, the need to create gay marriage, the value of sexual exploration, the ugliness of capitalism, and so on. UD called its efforts to indoctrinate students in progressive dogma a “sustainability” program. My colleagues and I, puzzled that we didn’t see much environmentalism in the program, decided to find out why. Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism is our fullest answer.

In brief, we found that “sustainability” is a term that encompasses not only a particularly aggressive form of environmentalism, but also a strong attack on market capitalism and a progressive vision of social justice. The proponents call this the “triple bottom line.”

It’s Not Just about Environmentalism

The green line, environmentalism, is the conspicuous public face of the movement and its emotional center. It is where the sustainability movement links up with the theory of anthropogenic global warming and where the movement gets its eschatology. But the other two lines are just as important.

The anti-capitalist or pro-socialist part provides the “deeper” analysis that informs the tactics of the movement. Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, is probably the most publicly visible enunciation of this theme. UD’s 2007 manifesto of sustainability said the same thing. For sustainability advocates, private property is inherently suspect, because it can be used in environmentally injudicious ways. Capitalism and free markets necessarily involve short-term thinking about resources and inevitably lead to over-consumption, heedless destruction of resources, and pollution. Moreover, capitalism is inequitable, enriching the few at the expense of the many.

This last concern of the sustainability advocates is crucial, for it lays open the logic of why conservation of resources is not enough. “Sustainability” is not so much a call for wise use of resources as it is a declaration against all forms of “exploitation.” Exploiting the animal, mineral, and vegetable resources of the planet is bad; but so is exploiting economic resources. The sustainability movement thus brings on board a fuzzy version of the Marxist idea that capitalism is essentially about human exploitation, totally ignoring the concepts of wealth creation, comparative advantage, and material progress.

From those two forms of exploitation—environmental and economic—it is a short hop to a third form, social exploitation. The third part of the triple bottom line is the sustainability movement’s ardent stand against invidious differences of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The “socially constructed” forms of exploitation must be cured as well.

When “Mountain Justice,” a sustainability activist group at Swarthmore College that wants Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, mobbed a board meeting at the college on May 4, 2013, one of the first speakers to whom they gave the commandeered microphone was Watufani M. Poe, from the Swarthmore Queer Union, to complain that an off-campus visitor had urinated near the Intercultural Center’s door. Board members might have been puzzled as to what this had to do with college investments in carbon-based energy stocks, but we who study the logic of the sustainability movement understood pretty well. In their view, such exploitation is all of one piece. And it all has to end.

The Origins, Tactics, and Costs of Sustainability of College Campuses

Our study reaches back to the origins of the sustainability movement, examining how it reached the American college campus, and then how it succeeded in reshaping college curricula. We also deal with the anatomy of the movement—its organizational structure, leaders, key sources of support, and goals.

Advocates of sustainability often complain about the supposed failure of capitalist enterprises to acknowledge the true costs of their products. But when it comes to the costs of pursuing sustainability, colleges and universities are even more opaque. Typically, they announce that sustainability initiatives pay for themselves with energy savings. Until now, it seems that no one has looked behind these declarations.

In our report, we examine the sustainability costs and savings at Middlebury College. We found the gross costs are almost $5 million per year and the net costs are $3.7 million. Much of the cost is the result of the college’s effort to achieve “carbon neutrality.” It pledged to do that by signing the “American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment,” as have 696 other colleges and universities. If, on average, all of those schools are spending at the rate of Middlebury, that would add up to a net expense of $3.4 billion per year. The real number is probably much higher. Middlebury is quite small, and there are also many colleges and universities, including Harvard, that haven’t signed the Climate Commitment but are nonetheless spending heavily on their own sustainability initiatives.

I mention these few facts to make clear that our study of the movement is anchored in concrete detail. We have something to say about the character of this movement beyond the collection of facts, but we proceed from finely grained observations of the particular courses, campuses, programs, and events that make up the lived experience of sustainability in higher education.

Unnatural Silence and the Noble Lie

That experience is often characterized by an unnerving and unnatural lack of dissent. One reader brushed aside my worries about the muzzling of dissent by noting the “difference between silencing the opposition and moving on.” In his view, “society,” having settled the key questions about anthropogenic global warming, economics, and social justice, has wisely decided to move on, “while teaching the next generation what we know.”

The leaders of the sustainability movement have adopted the tactic of treating their opponents as a disreputable fringe. In July 2014, the BBC Trust chastised BBC journalists for allowing skeptics of global warming to be interviewed. This, according to the report, was an “over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality.”

My co-author Rachelle recently attended the première of the documentary, Merchants of Doubt, which treats global warming skeptics as cynical hirelings of the fossil fuel industry. The screening at Columbia University was followed by a panel discussion in which New York Times climate change reporter Justin Gillis agreed with the need to keep the gate closed. “Journalists care about the truth—that’s my only care in life, to find the truth,” Gillis added. “To act as if the evidence is half and half is to tell a lie. I refuse to perpetuate that lie.”

This determination to exclude dissent is a variation of the “noble lie.” The guardians of sustainability orthodoxy see their censorship of opposing views not as an act of self-interest and an effort to protect a doctrine from intellectual challenge, but as an effort to protect the vulnerable public from misinformation and confusion. That rationale can be glimpsed in the famous “Climategate” episode of 2009. When someone disclosed a cache of emails from Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, it became apparent that several prominent climate scientists had orchestrated a campaign to prevent the publication of the work of other scientists whose research contradicted parts of the “climate consensus.” These enforcers of orthodoxy went so far as to force the resignations of journal editors who defied their efforts.

The noble lie in cases like these is that permitting the publication of dissenting views will distract dangerously from the important work at hand. In effect, we need to win the war and not waste time questioning whether it is a war worth fighting. But this rationale sits awkwardly beside the claim that all the basic questions have been settled and that we can “move on” to teach the answers to the next generation.

Faith and Foolishness

Which is it?  Are the dissenters a meaningless fringe? Or are they dangerous heretics?

In my experience, the rationale for exclusion shifts easily between the two. This is good evidence of the bad faith behind it. The champions of sustainability want to claim the authority of settled science and, unhindered by the need to address countervailing evidence, hasten to the political and economic expedients that flow from their unchallenged premises: divestment, cap and trade, carbon taxes, elimination of coal, electric cars, publicly subsidized green energy, no-growth boundaries, regional tax-base sharing, and a host of other proposals.

As closed as the BBC and the New York Times are to expressions of alternative views, the typical college campus is worse. We have spent a year scouring the nation for a college campus willing to hold a public debate on the premises of the sustainability movement. In a few cases, we gained a tentative acceptance only to have it cancelled, usually without explanation. When an explanation has been offered, it has turned out that no one could be found willing to represent the pro-sustainability position because to agree to debate it implied the existence of contrary arguments and evidence worthy of consideration.

The prophets and saints of sustainability seem certain that they know what lies ahead. They know how much carbon dioxide—350 parts per million—the Earth’s atmosphere can hold before catastrophic global warming overtakes us. They know which resources should remain in the ground: four-fifths of all fossil fuels. They know what technologies the future will depend on: solar and wind generation.

None of these views rests on a secure scientific footing, though they are often paraded as backed by solid science. But they have astonishing currency—enough to undermine the ideals of academic and intellectual freedom on campus.

Image: Flicker

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