What Good Are People?

Ashley Thorne

“Sustainability” sells eco-responsibility but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms. In our ongoing coverage of the campus-based sustainability movement, we take note of two ominous new developments. 

First, a group led by Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University, has created an initiative called Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB, pronounced “mob”—seriously). The MAHB’s online presence began this summer when it launched a blog, a forum and a website hosted by Stanford. It doesn’t have a concise mission statement, but in a letter inviting people to get involved, Ehrlich wrote that the MAHB aimed “to expose society to the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-equity-power issues, and to sponsor broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people.”

Even some of the friends of the MAHB think such a strung-together mission is hugely unrealistic. One called it “utopian, way too ambitious.” The blog offers another attempt to define what the MAHB does:

the MAHB will to re-frame people's definitions of, and solutions to, sustainability problems. The MAHB would encourage a global discussion about what human goals should be (i.e., "what people are for") and examine how cultural change can be steered toward creation of a sustainable society.

Ah, so the MAHB wants to know “what people are for.” Good question. Since the beginning of time people have asked and tried to answer the eternal question, “what is the meaning of life?” So is the MAHB simply an extension of that philosophical conversation?

Not so much. In characterizing MAHB, perhaps it’s easiest to say what the initiative seeks to combat: “population growth, over-consumption by the rich, and the deployment of environmentally malign technologies.” The name MAHB was chosen on purpose to reflect the concept that a greedy mob is trampling on the earth, and that our “human behavior... requires rapid modification.”

What kind of modifications the MAHB has in mind is not exactly specified, but from its list of pernicious trends, we can safely assume that the MAHB advocates having fewer children, buying fewer things, and boycotting all non-green technology. It seems that the MAHB has already determined “what people are for,” and that now it’s time to modify human behavior to fit that mold.

Keep in mind that the MAHB was instigated primarily by Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb, which wrongly predicted that “in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” due to overpopulation.Ehrlich famously lost a bet with the economist Julian L. Simon over the future prices of five commodities chosen by Ehrlich (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten.) Ehrlich, believing that earth was running out of resources, bet that prices would rise from 1980 to 1990. He lost decisively. But academe has been willing to overlook these petty miscalculations, as it has overlooked Bill Ayers’ petty terrorism.  

Ehrlich is joined by a core team of seven men and one woman: Tom Burns, Don Kennedy, Nina Witoszek, Steve Schneider, Robert Brulle, Douglass Carmichael, Michael Shanks, and Eugene Rosa. They are all professors of environmental science or sociology, except for Carmichael, who is a consultant and psychotherapist. The MAHB is designed as a collaborative research project, and its current goal is to conduct a UN-type “world megaconference” in 2011. Ehrlich explains in his invitation that the MAHB is patterned after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, except that MAHB will incorporate mechanisms for people from around the world to “discuss what humanity is and should be all about.”

Whether Ehrlich and his MAHB will in fact succeed in effecting a worldwide revolution to combat population growth and decide “what people are for” remains to be seen. If it does, the sustainability movement will shift from eco-morality peer pressure to actual behavior modification.

UK Re-Education

The second recent development is the UK-based publication of a Handbook of Sustainability Literacy. The handbook’s editor is Arran Stibbe of the University of Gloucestershire.  According to a press release, the project was funded by the Higher Education Academy Education for Sustainable Development Project (HEAESDP?) and has a whole family of helpers. It is conducted by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges in partnership with the University of Gloucestershire, the University of Brighton and the United Nations University Regional Centres of Expertise. The Handbook is available in a paperback version and can be viewed online for free.

In the introduction, Stibbe, along with Heather Luna of the HEAESDP, writes that the 224-page handbook presents ideas that can be used by parents, professors, and other educators, “but not as a rigid guide to the ‘one right way.’” It’s nice to be reminded that sustainability has not yet settled on the one right way. But the editors’ tolerance extends only so far. They request that readers not get hung up on any false or purely speculative arguments in the book:

There may well be parts that are contentious or refutable, but given the conditions of the world this was considered preferable to something that was so blandly abstract that it was beyond debate. To borrow words from Rachel Carson (1962:16), ‘I would ask those who find parts of this book not to their taste or consider that they can refute some of the arguments to see the picture as a whole. We are dealing with dangerous things and it may be too late to wait for positive evidence of danger.’

It is springtime for sustainability and it is, unlike Rachel’s, anything but silent. 

The Handbook contains over forty chapters covering Skills for a Changing World and Transforming Education for Sustainability Literacy.  Such richness is hard to summarize but we especially recommend the skills of:

Ecocriticism: “the ability to investigate cultural artefacts from an ecological perspective,”

Effortless Action: “the ability to fulfil human needs effortlessly through working with nature,”

Gaia Awareness: “awareness of the animate qualities of the Earth,” and

Social Conscience: “the ability to reflect on deeply-held opinions about social justice and sustainability.”

The education section hones in on “Citizen Engagement” and “Re-Educating the Person.” We take some satisfaction that this is a British book and that the American sustainabullies have not yet taken the plan for coerced re-education beyond the dorms at the University of Delaware. Or have they? 

We remain keenly interested in what it means to be “re-educated” in the ways of sustainability. The Handbook tells us it is a pleasant experience:

As people gain sustainability literacy skills, they become empowered to read self and society critically, to discover insights into the trajectory of society and to envisage where it is heading. They gain skills in re-writing self and society both in an effort to meet needs under increasingly difficult conditions and also to work towards new paths that lead to a more sustainable world.

But we’re not so sure. 

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