Tyranny or Theft? Part III

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  • June 29, 2011

I’ll conclude this three-part post on the sustainability movement and two recent conferences that critiqued it.

Assembling the Pieces

I cited the Enstrom case as a concrete instance of the much larger problem of the moral inflation of the sustainability movement. In the precincts of the higher education, and in education at all levels, sustainability tends to deal in certitudes, and it has very little patience for the unconvinced or the under-enthusiastic. Its proponents sometimes seem to think it is an ethical duty to punish dissenters, and the movement is chock full of sentiments about the obligation to get everyone on board.

Not long ago, Sustainability:  The Journal of Record held a roundtable of campus sustainability activists and asked them about “student engagement.” Sean Miller, director of education for the Earth Day Network, said he would like to see steps “guaranteeing every singled student that goes though the higher education institution has somehow engaged or is knowledgeable about sustainability.”  Kristy Jones, manager of Campus Climate Education & Action for the National Wildlife Federation, thought integrating “the message of sustainability into freshman orientation” would be a good step. Claire Roby, carbon-accounting coordinator for Clean Air-Cool Planet, emphasized the importance of “allowing a nonprofit to interact very closely with students or staff members” as way “to hold campuses accountable.”

There is no mistaking how well-meaning Mr. Miller, Ms. Jones, and Ms. Roby are in saying such things. And it is partly on that score that I found myself on the outskirts of the discussion at Big Footprint.

The analysis there of the movement emphasized its economic and political imperatives. At one level this is largely accurate. The sustainability movement is heir to the disappointments of European socialists and ex-communists. It sprang into existence in 1987 with the report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The connection to land-use planning, the commitment to extra-territorial regulation, and the readiness to by-pass democratic procedure are in the DNA of the sustainability movement. A great deal of its mischief, as in the persistently misleading pronouncements from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stems from the grounding of the sustainability movement in attitudes far removed from American political and cultural traditions.

But the traction that the movement has gained in the United States doesn’t have much to do with spontaneous admiration for UNESCO bureaucrats or international elites who jet around the world promoting massive transfers of wealth to impoverished nations. Those  ideas eventually find welcome in the minds of students who have worked their way deep inside the concept that they are now “citizens of the world.” The movement’s mass appeal lies elsewhere.

Sustainability is first of all an emotional summons—one that combines elemental fears with hopes of salvation. It draws heavily on Judeo-Christian imagery and a secularized, but not very deeply disguised, Christian narrative of a good creation corrupted by human sin and headed for disaster, which might be staved off through sufficient acts of penitence—like giving up the internal combustion engine, not to mention bottled water and cafeteria trays.

The religious narrative is interwoven with other strands of Western mythology. It isn’t hard to find Rousseau’s imaginary picture of man uncorrected by civilization filtering into the dreams of sustainatopians. The movement expresses a longing for lost innocence, for the “re-enchantment” of nature as one of its proponents puts it, and for an easily captured high ground on which alienation from mass consumerism can be played out as though it had positive content. Somehow we can feel better about ourselves if we believe the world is going to wrack and ruin because of the heedlessness and greed of others.

Stealing Time

Mine is a cultural analysis of sustainability. The movement thrives in higher education because it has connected with generational identity: It is the movement of a self-conscious cohort that finds moral leverage in it against their parents, who are castigated for their wasteful lifestyles. And it thrives because it is a substitute religion that demands a manageable degree of expiation, self-sacrifice, and guilt. The economic and political stuff are the caboose. The engine is belief.

“Thou shalt not steal” is embedded in this movement on both sides. The sustainability adepts see human use of resources as essentially theft—and the depredations of the past must be made good before we can be absolved.

But the movement’s critics see theft as well: theft of property rights and theft of political autonomy. That’s the main thing I took away from the Philadelphia conference, where one of the speakers illustrated the pernicious effects of collectivism by circulating an impressive aerial photograph of Scottsdale, Ariz. On one side of a boundary lay the barren desert of collectively owned tribal land, and on the other the lush and expensively improved holdings of private land owners.

The Eighth Commandment resonates through contemporary life in surprisingly complex ways. It is an edict in universal form, meant to apply to all people at all times. The anthropologist Robin Fox suggests in his new book The Tribal Imagination that the Ten Commandments might be best interpreted as the rules which a formerly nomadic tribal people needed in order to become a settled, civilized people who could live in some degree of amity with their neighbors.

That civilizational challenge remains, perhaps even more complexly demanding in our fluid, multicultural world. Sustainability offers a plaintive version of the idea that we can rid ourselves of these frictions through a more perfect purging of our acquisitiveness. It offers only a fantasy, however, no matter how much it dresses itself up as “scientific consensus.” Higher education at some point will have to shrug it off and get back to the work of seeing the world as it is. When it comes to education, indulging apocalyptic fantasies and dreams of Edenic restoration is just another form of pilfering, even if the students are willing accomplices.

This article originally appeared on June 16 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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