In part one of this three-part post, I set up a comparison of two conferences that presented contrasting free-market approaches to the question of the most beneficial way for humanity to make use of economic resources. “The Big Footprint” conference at UCLA assessed the sustainability as essentially a “tyranny” in the making. I view the sustainability movement as something that generally overstates its claims and detracts from more important educational goals, but “tyranny?” I am not sure that is the best way to describe the mix of intellectual shortcuts, personal bullying, and other aggressive tactics we have seen so far. The Green Police are a campus nuisance, but they aren’t yet in control of everything and I doubt they ever will be.
The Campus Sustainability Movement
The root-and-branch denunciation of the sustainability movement I saw at the Big Footprint conference was not altogether new to me. I’ve read Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them, (2009) by Steve Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience and co-founder of the Free Enterprise Action Fund. Milloy was among the speakers, and he exemplifies the critique of sustainability as a response to a “green” political movement that threatens property rights, erodes economic growth, and compromises political freedom.
My own view is that whatever power the green political movement may attain is based on the enthusiasm of millions of Americans for its ideals, and that those who dislike the prospects of green political power need to spend some time understanding where that enthusiasm comes from. To a fairly large extent, it comes from schools and colleges.
I have been concerned for several years about the rapid propagation on campus of the sustainability movement—but I have steered clear of whether global warming exists and how the matter has played out in the larger political arena. Regardless of what one thinks about global warming or climate change, the sustainability movement in higher education is a phenomenon in its own right.
In April this year, the National Association of Scholars presented a statement synthesizing what we see as grounds for critical scrutiny of the movement. We made it clear that we are not against saving energy, but that “sustainability” has come to mean a lot more than that. It is a doctrine with a peculiarly blinkered view of scarcity. It emphasizes maximal conservation of resources and government regulation to the near exclusion of other approaches.
Sustainability’s advocates often malign “progress” and technological innovation (except that which produces the will-o’-the-wisp “green jobs”). The movement often merely assumes the things it needs to show, e.g. that developed countries have unsustainable levels of consumption. And in its campus incarnation, the sustainability movement has proven itself an enemy to free inquiry.
As it happened, one of the academics who found himself on the blunt end of the sustainability movement’s muscular dislike of dissent was at the conference: James Enstrom. I wrote about his case on Innovations in April, in “The Smog of Reprisal.”
Enstrom’s offense was to catch out the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in an act of bureaucratic hubris. CARB ignored Enstrom’s epidemiological work to the effect that “fine particulate pollution” had no significant effect on human mortality and relied instead on another study that asserted the opposite. Enstrom discovered that the rival study, riddled with scientific errors, was written by a man with fake credentials. But he found himself opposed by some of his UCLA colleagues—and promptly non-reappointed to the position he had held at UCLA for 34 years.
Enstrom was eager to talk with me, but not about his personal situation. What matters more to him is that another scientific committee has completed a draft report on “fine particulate pollution” that essentially reproduces his results. Better still, the report in its draft form is clearly written from a hostile perspective. The authors strain to reach conclusions that might vindicate CARB but are stuck with data that vindicates Enstrom. There is surely something sweet in watching your opponents reluctantly conceding that you were right all along.
It is hard to say whether this will persuade CARB to relinquish its hastily established regulations in this area, but it does underscore that the sustainability movement on campus plays hardball with those who fail to fall quietly in line with its edicts. Respect for academic freedom? Not so much.
When I wrote about the Enstrom case earlier, some of the comments illustrated the problem. Enstrom, I was told, had no academic freedom to begin with since he was a research professor, not a tenured member of the faculty. Enstrom, I was told, could be ignored because he had once received funding from Big Tobacco (he had not). The games of blame-the-victim, imagine-every-possible-exculpation-for-the-victimizers, and look-for-loopholes were instantly activated.
But none of that persiflage changes the basic situation. An honest scientist spoke up against scientific fraud and was fired as a consequence. The retro-engineering of the situation by his department to make it appear otherwise was full of the fine particulate matter of dissimulation.
This article first appeared on June 16 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.