UNESCO-topia: Sustainability's Big Brother

Peter Wood

What color is sustainability? Most people would, without a second thought, say green. The sustainability movement certainly presents itself in shades of chartreuse and chlorophyll. But its real coloration is more complex. 

That’s because sustainability is not just about the environment. Its advocates on and off the campus make no mystery of this. They declare frequently and emphatically that the goals of sustainability are to replace market capitalism with a more earth-friendly form of economics, and to advance the cause of “social justice,” by advancing the social position of women, minorities, the inhabitants of the Global South, and other victims of the old hierarchical structures. 

It is strange how little the radicalism of the sustainability movement registers with the general public—or even with politicians and denizens of think tanks who are normally alert to the machinations of the ideological left. It is as though Americans have acquired a selective deafness. The sustainatopians announce at the top of their lungs, “We want to reduce greenhouse gases, eliminate capitalism, and revolutionize the social order!” And all that a good portion of the public hears is, “Oh, they favor burning less fossil fuels. That’s nice!” 

Perhaps the selective deafness could be explained as solid American pragmatism. We figure that a “cap and trade” proposal represents something real that, if passed, could substantially raise the price of just about everything other than the carrots in our backyard garden. But overturning capitalism in favor of some wooly theory of value conjured up by people out of thin air? Not a chance. And if those sustainatopians want to hitch some feminist, racial-preference, anti-globalist caboose to their train, it is no big deal.   It is just another instance of academic hyperventilation. 

I don’t trust walls made out of pragmatism. They are poorly defended against the tireless determination of ideologues. It usually turns out that, at a crucial moment, the pragmatists are willing to compromise away basic principles. Hence I have been looking for ways to alert people to the fuller spectrum of the sustainability movement. It is a movement that aims not just at saving the natural environment, but at remaking the social, cultural, and political environments.  Its proponents are entirely open about this agenda. And we should take them seriously.

For one thing, it is a profoundly anti-liberal vision. Sustainatopians do not credit ordinary people with the capacity to make appropriate choices. The sustainability vision involves a caste of wise people who know more and can make better decisions for us. Sustainable “solutions” are systematic solutions. They don’t stop with persuading a few people to voluntarily give up bottled water, food shipped from out of state, or coffee that lacks a “fair trade” label. They want that choice taken away in favor of having the “right” form of consumption imposed across the board.  What the sustainatopians want to do with relatively trivial consumer choices, they would also like to do with much more serious choices. They want to decide what kinds of communities we can live in. Ultimately they want to decide what kind of society we can have.

It would be one thing if these overreaching ideas were merely the scribbling of self-inflated college professors or the breathless pronouncements of undergraduates. But the radical vision of the sustainatopians isn’t limited to higher education. It has substantial international backing. The United Nations has hosted more than fifty conferences on sustainability topics in the last forty years, and nearly each one has embraced a more radical vision than the last. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has become the world’s biggest and most powerful proponent of the sustainability agenda in its most extreme form. 

UNESCO promotes the sustainability movement in countless ways.   A month from now at the World Climate Conference 3 in Geneva, UNESCO is holding a forum on “Gender and Climate Change.”  Gender and climate change? The connections do not exactly leap out. But UNESCO explains: 

The Forum will explore linkages between gender and climate issues, particularly in relation to the role of women as effective agents of change, and enhancing women’s capacities to address climate change.

This isn’t much to go on, but elsewhere UNESCO’s website refers the reader to the Women’s Environment & Development Organisation (WEDO) website, “For a healthy and peaceful planet, economic and social justice, and human rights for all.” WEDO in turn offers a “Training Manual on Gender and Climate Change” that is intended “to foster gender sensitive climate change policy-making.” The manual is actually the labor of Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA) “of which WEDO is a member.”  WEDO also links to an article by Kathleen Mogelgaard, climate program director at Population Action International, who explains in Grist magazine “why “Climate Change is Sexist.”   It is sexist because of “women’s historic disadvantages—limited access to resources, restricted rights, under-representation in decision making—have made them disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts.” Grist magazine claims to be “a Beacon in the Smog” and offers a citrus explanation of itself: “You know how some people make lemonade out of lemons? At Grist, we're making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse. “             

By the time we get to Mogelgaard, who actually explicates the link between gender and climate change, we are several steps away from UNESCO proper. But not really. UNESCO is the center of this universe of climate change aggrandizement. It is the organization that puts the oomph in all the elaborations, annexations, expansions, and hitchhikers that come with “climate change.” Climate change may be a real phenomenon (or maybe not—that’s another issue), but climate change aggrandizement is abundantly real. 

I started with gender and climate change simply because there is a conference on that around the corner, but UNESCO has lots of other options. Climate change and children. Climate change and secondary education. Climate change and journalism. One that bears particular scrutiny is called Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which has its own decade, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005-2014). UNESCO has a broad idea of how ESD should proceed:

Educating about climate change builds the skills and attitudes needed to question the way we think, the values we hold and the decisions we make in the context of sustainable development.

That seems pretty bland, but what “skills and attitudes” does UNESCO have in mind? What do we need to know to make responsible decisions about sustainable development? 

UNESCO’s answer comes in the form of eight “themes.” They are:

The eight UNESCO themes are as follows:

  1. Education for gender equality
  2. Education for health promotion
  3. Education for environmental stewardship
  4. Education for rural development
  5. Education for cultural diversity
  6. Education for peace and human security
  7. Education for sustainable urbanization
  8. Education for sustainable consumption

At the beginning of this essay, I asked “What color is sustainability?” You can find the green part, as item #3, “education for environmental stewardship.” The other seven each have their arguable connections to the environment (what doesn’t?) but they are essentially aimed at transforming society according to the wishes of people who entertain a particular vision of humanity. 

As it happens, UNESCO’s dream of social transformation is shared by many in the sustainatopian community. A good gauge of that is The Pelican Web Journal of Sustainable Development. I first saw the UNESCO list of themes for education for sustainable development on a Pelican Web Journal-sponsored listserv. The Pelican folks have a special angle on sustainability, as indicated by their mission statement, which begins:

There is overwhelming evidence that violence is the main obstacle to sustainable development. It is also well known that there is an intrinsic link between patriarchy and violence. Therefore, mitigating violence requires overcoming the patriarchal mindset in both secular and religious institutions.

Violence is the main obstacle to sustainable development?  Goodness. Well, violence and patriarchy. It seems that UNESCO’s interest in “gender and climate change” has hit a responsive chord. Pelican sets out with the philosophically ambitious idea of examining “all the significant dimensions of sustainable development in order to integrate the resulting multi-dimensional knowledge.” But its task seems to be eased a bit by its certainty that “phallocentric patriarchy” is the deep underlying problem. Those who want to examine the obstacles to sustainable development that arise from “Mimetic Violence in Patriarchal Religions,” for example, can examine Vol. 2, No. 4, (April 2006) of Pelican’s journal , Solidarity and Sustainability

It is hard to tell with something like this where one steps off the main path of what UNESCO hopes to encourage and onto a branch that leads into the thickets of ideological craziness. After a while, it isn’t clear that there is a main path. UNESCO seems to have kindled the hopes and dreams of ten thousand utopians, each with his own deep diagnosis of what ails humanity and each his own prescription for replacing human nature with a fantasy more to his liking. 

But let’s not be beguiled by that sense that sustainability sustains only ideological nuts. The UNESCO program is cut from the same cloth as the Presidents Climate Change Commitment, embraced by over 600 college and university presidents in the United States. What do they think that “integrating sustainability” into the college curriculum actually means? More courses on environmentally friendly farming?   No, the commitment itself plainly states that they have agreed to “meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society.” UNESCO simply spells out what that entails.  

Addressing global climate change in the view of the sustainatopians is just one small piece of their program—useful because it draws attention to the cause. The heart of the movement is not fixing the environment, but fixing humanity. Once we are properly educated for “sustainable development,” the environmental pieces will fall in place. 

Maybe we can afford to be amused at this pretension, but there is a cost, not least in the mis-education we now seem determined to impose on students.  

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