Big Meme on Campus

Sustainability has been simmering on campuses for a while, and now is boiling over into our local governments.  It can be very confusing (deliberately so, I’d say), because sustainability is such an appealing word, and yet -- we have a nagging feeling that something just isn't right.

Peter Wood (who previously dissected “Diversity” in his book of the same name) gives us some insight in his October 3 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary..

...sustainability sets aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. Sustainability decenters environmentalism from the health and enjoyment of living people to the world beyond and replaces a focus on the dangers of pollution with the idea that Western society itself is profoundly at odds with the earth.

Well, when sustainability is wrapped up with “prosperity”, “safety” and “environmental health”, who would stand against it?  Isn’t it just common sense?

Sustainability numbers among its advocates some scrupulous scientists and quite a few sober facilities managers who simply want to trim utility bills. But in the main, sustainability is the triumph of hypothesis over evidence. Its scientific grounding is mostly a matter of models and extrapolations and appeals to authority. Evoking imminent and planet-destroying catastrophe, sustainatopians call for radical changes in economic arrangements and social patterns.

Sustainability combines some astonishingly radical ideas with mere wackiness. Many sustainability advocates want to replace free markets (a source, as they see it, of unsustainable growth and exploitation) with some kind of pan-national rule with little scope for private property rights. On the other hand, sustainatopians also busy themselves with eliminating trays from cafeterias and attacking the threat of plastic soda straws. Sustainability thus unites vaunting political ambition and comic burlesque. Both are at odds with patient and open-minded intellectual inquiry.

The wackiness, I assert, is on purpose.  It keeps us off balance. How can we  think of sustainability as harmful if it is ... just silly?

The “environmental”, “economic” and “social” parts of sustainability  we’re already doing.  When it’s efficient for us to insulate our houses, or move closer to work, family or church, or consider a hybrid car, we do it without being prodded because it is in our own interest.  Free markets give us the incentive and the products and services to do so.

Ask yourself, if you subtract these common sense, already-happening things from the sustainability framework, what is left?   What are the unique characteristics of sustainability?