“The people who lie the most are nearly always the clumsiest at it, and they’re easier to fool with lies than most other people, too.” Dashiell Hammett puts these words into the mouth of a minor character in The Thin Man. The sentence tumbles off the page, not least because of Hammett’s 30-year affair with Lillian Hellman. An apologist for Stalin, Hellman’s writings will forever be fixed in place by Mary McCarthy’s dagger: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hammett himself had joined the Communist Party in 1937, after he had ceased to write novels, and he remained active in Communist front groups after the war. In effect, he chose a life of public lying in the company of a practiced political liar.
This is an oblique way to my subject. My colleague Rachelle Peterson and I have just published Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. It is a long unpacking of the campus movement that grew out of concerns over global warming and other assaults on the environment. We trace the history of the movement, the changes it has brought to the curriculum, how it has swayed faculty research, and what it costs, among other matters.
But to say that the movement is higher education’s “new” fundamentalism, suggests there was a previous occupant at that address. Perhaps there was. Sustainability pretty much occupies the space that Marxism held on campus from the 1960s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Like Marxism, sustainability is a secular faith; like Marxism it has the aura of intellectual sophistication -- not everyone can understand its paradoxes and recondite principles; like Marxism it disdains the marketplace and looks down on “consumerism” as diverting humanity from better ends; like Marxism, sustainability praises “democracy” in a superficial manner but puts its real stock in rule by a privileged elite. Think of Al Gore in his mansions, and the international jet set of Climate Change savants. Like Marxism, sustainability prefers revolution to reform, but is willing to take half-steps. Like Marxism, sustainability seeks to re-architect human nature, finding human beings as they are unworthy of the kingdom it will build. Like Marxism, sustainability is a vision of history in which a decisive inflection point lies just ahead of us, and we the living have the opportunity to get on “the right side of history” if we are smart enough to listen the movement’s prophets. Like Marxism, sustainability pictures itself a global movement, transcending the boundaries -- and the laws -- of nations.
There are no doubt more comparisons that could be rolled out, but those will do. A new utopian doctrine has arrived right on the heels of one that could no longer summon much credibility even in that discount dime-store of stale ideas, the American university.
The timing of the succession is part of the story. New ideological ventures are always cropping up on campus. Some have a vogue for a year or two and wink out. The Nuclear Freeze movement? The Population Bomb? Sustainability was launched in 1987 with a UN report, Our Common Future, usually called the Brundtland Commission report, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
It was a perfectly empty idea in that no one could know with any certainty what the “needs” of future generations might be. Air, water, and food, for sure, but what else? In the eighteenth century, no one could foresee the need of future generations for large-scale coal production or the later need for large-scale petroleum production. And no one in the nineteenth century saw the needs in the twentieth century for nuclear energy, millions of miles of paved roads, or materials such as plastics. Several of the seventeen rare earth elements are now indispensable. Only one of them, yttrium, was known before 1800, but there was virtually no use for any of them before the mid-1960s when color TV created a demand for the element europium.
The vagueness of the mandate for development that doesn’t compromise the prospects of future generations was ideal for a woolly UN project. But it would probably have died the death of ten thousand committee hearings if not for two or three coincidences. The first came in the following spring, when NASA scientist James Hansen in a perfectly staged Congressional hearing announced that “global warming” was upon us and spelled imminent doom. Suddenly sustainability had an apocalyptic threat to call its own. The second coincidence was the fall of Soviet communism. And the third was the need of American higher education for a new narrative.
Today, there are 1,438 college and university programs on sustainability around the world -- but 89 percent of them are in the U.S. and there is at least one in every state. Our college curricula are saturated with the subject. Yale alone offers more than 400 courses it designates as sustainability courses. Yale is Yale, but tiny Middlebury College also offers more than 400 sustainability courses. Cornell offers 290. These aren’t courses in one department. They sprawl across the curriculum. At Yale 36 of the 145 academic departments offer sustainability courses. At Middlebury it is 37 of 51. At Cornell 54 of 79 departments offer sustainability courses.
Course offerings are just the tip of the anything-but-melting iceberg. As we show in out report, sustainability is a faith that has changed virtually every part of the contemporary college, from the catalog to the compost heap. It rests on some very dubious premises. But never mind that. “The people who lie the most are nearly always the clumsiest at it, and they’re easier to fool with lies than most other people, too.”