The Cultural Contradictions of Sustainability

William H. Young

NAS performs a great service by continually shining a critical spotlight on sustainability as the newest ideology within the American academy and by warning and showing that “there’s a lot more to sustainability than the environment.” Academia considers itself the avant-garde of a new and unconventional movement toward a utopian future. But the underlying ideas of sustainability hearken back to John Stuart Mill, who formed the mid-nineteenth-century bridge between classical liberalism and emerging collectivist states.

Mill shared the neo-Malthusian view of the finitude of the world’s resources and looked for a transition to a no-growth economy, which he called, in Book IV of Principles of Political Economy (1848), the “stationary state.” He was concerned with both the damaging effects on human character of the unremitting pursuit of possessions and the destructive consequences for the natural environment of open-ended economic growth. Mill supported a market economy, but opposed market distribution of income. He favored worker ownership of factories and a large government role relative to the economic system.

The sustainability ideology’s prescription for the American economy is “sustainable development.” Sustainability’s guru and the founder of ecological economics, Herman Daly, explained the vital difference between “growth” and “development” in Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (1996):

Sustainable development is…development without growth—that is without growth beyond the regeneration and absorption capacities of the environment. The path of future progress is development, not growth. [The vision of sustainable development] involves replacing the economic norm of quantitative expansion (growth) with that of qualitative improvement (development) as the path of future progress…There are enormous forces of denial aligned against this necessary shift in vision and analytic effort, and to overcome these forces requires a deep philosophical clarification, even religious renewal…

For over twenty-five years the concept of a steady-state economy has been at the center of my thinking and writing. John Stuart Mill…discussed this idea under the label “stationary state,” by which he meant a condition of zero growth…With the Industrial Revolution, the idea of a stationary state, and classical economics in general, was retired to history…Today the classical ghost of the stationary state has returned to the ball, uninvited, in the costume of sustainable development. Like Mill, I welcome its presence…If we now recognize that growth is physically limited, or even economically limited in that it is beginning to cost more than it is worth at the margin, then how will we lift poor people out of poverty? The answer is painfully simple: by population control, by redistribution of wealth and income, and by technical improvements in resource productivity. In sum, not by growth, but by development.

Sustainability thus requires some form of collectivism to implement its goals of social equity and justice.

The sustainability ideology displays some of the characteristics of mass movements, such as fascism, communism, and socialism. One characteristic is extreme faith in the future, which Eric Hoffer identified in The True Believer (1951):

No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future; unless it has a millennial component. So, too, an effective doctrine: as well as being a source of power, it must also claim to be a key to the book of the future. Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future.

“Faith in a holy cause,” Hoffer adds, “is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves…One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, ‘tomorrow’ looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant…” Finally, counsels Hoffer: “An active mass movement rejects the present and centers its interest on the future…The prime objective of the ascetic ideal preached by most movements is to breed contempt for the present. The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present...”

To its true believers, sustainability or sustainable development is a collectivist extravagant hope whose millennial reign will overcome the apocalypse of global warming and other perceived violations of nature as well as perceived “economic inequality” and “intergenerational inequity.” Our youth have been well prepared by their public schooling for the sustainability ideology, through indoctrination not only in environmentalism, but also in anti-capitalism.

The prominence of these doctrines in American public schools should cause us to wonder whether students understand the economic system that brought them the prosperity they now enjoy. The great sociologist Daniel Bell wrestled with similar irony in his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. He noted that while capitalism requires of its citizens self-control, disciplined work, and sacrifice, it has concurrently bred in them attitudes of entitlement, greed, and wastefulness. Russell Nieli quotes Bell in his recent remembrance of him:

Within the world of capitalist production, the general ethos, Bell wrote, is "still one of work, delayed gratification, career orientation, [and] devotion to the enterprise. Yet, on the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose promise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. … One is to be a 'straight' by day and a 'swinger' by night."

In the same way, there could be no sustainability movement without the freedoms afforded by capitalism, but the movement is itself inimical to capitalism. It is hostile to growth and predicated on utopianism. Yet sustainability advocates promote the spread of their ideas and seek “real change” in the real world.

Higher education should equip students with the analytic skills necessary to perceive these contradictions, so that they are ready to evaluate ideologies vying for their attention. Instead, American colleges and universities are giving students ready-made conclusions, including the sustainability mandate that offers a claim to virtue in exchange for total allegiance.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002). 

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