Never Waste a Good Cliche

Peter Wood

Why do so many college presidents fall in love with “sustainability”?

653 college and university presidents have now signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The pledge superficially commits their campuses to doing nice things for the environment. But scratch the surface of “sustainability” and you’ll find a world of odd ideas that have little to do with global temperatures or healthy ecosystems.  

In the world of economics, for example, the sustainability doctrine dispenses with the notion that growth brings prosperity, and opts instead for a model of optimal rationing of scarce resources. The sustainability doctrine also regards market-driven forms of distribution as inherently wasteful and generally favors approaches that involve experts making such decisions on behalf of consumers.

In the world of politics, the sustainability doctrine expresses sharp doubt about a system in which independent nations hold the power to make decisions on their own. A more sustainable world would be built on institutions that recognize human global interdependence and grants these institutions supervening legal authority. 

In the world of social relations, the sustainability doctrine aims at rooting out all forms of inequality, but especially racism and oppression of women. One version of this idea is that “exploitation” is the same, whether it is aimed at exploiting natural resources or people.   To create a “sustainable” world we need to end both. Moreover, such inequalities in human society foster an ethic of heedless consumption. A sustainable society would be one in which distinctions of status would be reduced to a minimum. 

Of course, many people fall into happy conformity with sustainability without paying much attention to where the argument leads. “Be nice to Mother Earth” sounds good. “Be mindful of the needs of future generations” sounds even better. This is the core idea of the UN’s Brundtland Commission which popularized the idea of sustainability in its 1987 report, Our Common Future. The report defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs.”  Who would disagree with such a goal?

But an anodyne goal doesn’t necessarily mean a wisely thought-out political program. As it has emerged, the sustainability program sells eco-responsibility but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms.  It has also gained a totalitarian character and more and more often lends itself to hindering scientific research that doesn’t line up with the sustainability orthodoxy. It censors dissent, foregoes responsible debate, and forces itself as a set of pre-determined and unquestionable views on young children.  Sustainability plays irresponsibly with apocalyptic imagery and uses the threat of eco-collapse to forestall debate even on proposals that have nothing, really nothing, to do with saving the planet. 

So you have to wonder why all those college presidents are signing up for the program. Possible explanations:

A.      They aren’t very deep thinkers. They just like the sound of “sustainability,” and enjoy being in front of a popular cause.

B.      They are cynics. They see where the movement is headed but calculate that it is to their advantage to play along.

C.      They are true believers. They know sustainability aims at radical, even utopian transformation of human society and they are all for it. 

I have occasionally run into people who hold another view which might be attributed to some college presidents:

D.      They are gamblers. They understand the sustainability movement has an extremist element, but they see themselves as capable of drawing what is good from it without getting trapped in its craziness. 

I don’t know whether this exhausts the possibilities. Perhaps it is better to consider concrete cases. If we want to understand why the individuals most entrusted with sustaining the integrity of American colleges and universities are willing to take a flyer on an outrageously ideological and anti-intellectual movement, we should listen to what some of these individuals have to say. 

Which brings me to Joan Stewart, president of Hamilton College in upstate New York. An NAS member forwarded the text of a “Dear Friends” letter President Stewart recently sent to the Hamilton College community. The letter is built on the conceit that “sustainability” is central to Hamilton College’s mission. I checked on whether President Stewart had signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, and yes, she is among the 653 signatories.  

Stewart’s letter conveys a warm and convivial tone. She is just back from a sabbatical leave studying 18th century French literature and culture, and is delighted to back on Hamilton’s beautiful campus. While explaining this, she artfully infiltrates versions of the word “sustain” twice. “Those six months [of the sabbatical] were, for me, sustaining.” And, reflecting on Hamilton College, “I feel strongly the responsibility to sustain this place and the experience it provides.” There is also the cognate word “sustenance” slipped in. The sabbatical provided “intellectual sustenance.”  

And then the real subject:   “And so I ask myself again, as I often have in the past, “What does it take to be a sustainable campus, a sustainable college?” 

I am not sure whether to applaud the artistry or marvel at the steel jaws of the trap buried beneath Hamilton’s clutter of autumn leaves. “A sustainable campus, a sustainable college” belong not to the language of gentle reverie but to a hard core ideological movement. The letter, as it turns out, is partly a pre-emptive defense of her decision not to install solar panels on an old campus building that is undergoing renovations. Along the way, we get introduced to some fascinating details of campus life circa 2009 such as “commencement regalia made of recyclable materials.”

But the more pressing question is whether in all this presidential persiflage, we catch a glimpse of President Stewart recognizing that her cherished metaphor of “sustainability” spills into matters beyond solar panels, and matters such as “geothermal heating systems, Zipcars, a community garden, [and] our food service’s farm-to-fork program?” Does she see the larger picture? 

I see no clear answer. The letter keeps rolling out variants of the “sustaining” trope. (“How do we sustain Hamilton as a premier institution…”) as it slides into other topics. Stewart favors efforts to “keep pace with new ideas,” which, given Hamilton College’s recent history, has a somewhat ominous ring. This was the college that invited Ward Churchill to speak post 9-11, and has accommodated itself nicely to a menagerie of far-left speakers and programs, while exiling the traditionalist Hamilton Institute from its campus. But the letter isn’t exercised on these matters.  Mostly it just unrolls the great carpet of platitudes expected from a liberal arts college president.  Hone the ability of students to think, share their knowledge, prepare them for work, etc. Diversity gets its usual plug. All those “diverse voices” help to “push Hamilton toward greater relevance.” But this business-as-usual social engineering doesn’t depend on the sustainability doctrine. 

At the end, however, President Stewart touches on the C major chord of the sustainability movement. She invokes the earth-friendly spirit of the Native Americans, who can teach us to care for those to come, “those our Oneida Nation neighbors call ‘the faces not yet born.’”

The letter inclines me to think the reason president Stewart signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment is closest to Answer A. She seems pretty much oblivious to the implications of the sustainability movement beyond taking some green initiatives with buildings and grounds. If so, it presents an arresting irony. The “sustainability” movement presents itself as seeing more deeply into the consequences of our policies and the interconnections of our actions than ordinary people do. It is call to be alert to the overlooked and unintended outcomes of short-term decisions. And yet it appears to be winning over college presidents who glide right past the complications and consequences. 

President Stewart offers a hymn to sustainability to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.”  There seems nothing larger here than a nursery rhyme. Of course, this may be all wrong. Perhaps President Stewart has fathomed “sustainability,” intends to embrace the larger transformational project, and has simply deferred the discussion to another time. The price of looking at individual cases is that much remains imponderable. 

But I like the close-up account we get from this letter, which shows how a college president can draw—what shall we call it? rhetorical sustenance?—from the sustainability movement without saying anything in particular. President Stewart’s letter is a good companion piece to the email from eco-radical Paul Ehlich, quoted the other day in Ashley Thorne’s What Good Are People?. We get the two ends of the sustainability spectrum: bland superficiality and ardent utopianism.  

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