Can We All Agree that Consensus Is Wrong?

Consider this analogy as illustration. Imagine that something you consider morally objectionable, such as cannibalism, is being openly advocated by some people. At first you think they will be ignored. Later however, some politicians say they also support cannibalism. Government and the private sector begin to open experimental facilities for processing human flesh. Nobody objects: all the media are enthusiastic about the projects. They publish advice on cooking human meat. The Government declares cannibalism a policy goal, and the United Nations declares cannibalism is necessary for humanity. You, of course, are horrified by this, yet all your friends think that your objections are strange. Your colleagues at work think so too. They stop talking to you, and you lose your job because you irritate them.

Appeals to empathy are a bad basis for judgement, but at least the analogy demonstrates one problem with sustainability: moral objections are not recognised. It is easy to imagine objections to cannibalism, and to see that the individual in the story is being unfairly treated. Yet many people, and governments, will recognise no "objection of conscience" to sustainability.

Sustainability absolutely requires consensus.  There can’t be an objection of conscience because without it, sustainability crumbles.


This reliance on consensus is why so many unassailable items are conflated with sustainabiity.   When you look at the list of items on the Dryden Sustainability Planning Framework, we see a bunch of great things, that we certainly want:  Economic growth, safety, biodiversity and ecological health.  Packaged with these is a radical approach to property rights, growth of government regulation and wealth redistribution couched in pretty words like “social justice.” 


Since we like the former, we’re put in the position of swallowing our deep skepticism of the latter out of fear that we might be losing something we value. 


It isn’t true.  Economic growth, and -- yes -- safety, education, environmental quality and conservation are in the best interest of individuals working in the free market.  These will be there with or without a “sustainability” regime.  Yes, people sometimes make planning mistakes, but no worse than those made by government, and usually individual mistakes are more easily and quickly corrected.  We will have the things we want even without governmental sustainabilty overlords.


The free market built our freedoms.  People with principles do not have consensus as a goal  Rather, it is people who are trying to overcome someone else’s principles who use consensus as a wedge.

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?

Sustainability notes

The Dryden Town Board is putting something called sustainability onto Dryden’s radar.   It sounds like motherhood and apple pie... how could you be against it? The Sustainability Planning Framework mentions lots of attractive things like quality of life, safety, biodiversity and jobs.  But what does the “sustainability community” mean by sustainability? 

To some, sustainability primarily refers to energy efficiency or to the slightly broader principles of efficient resource conservation. To others, sustainability requires radical changes in our social and political institutions.  Indeed, some proponents of sustainable development argue for "socially just development world-wide" that "should attempt to address important social and political issues related to the inequitable allocation of the world's resources.  Still others envision sustainability as a fundamental human right.

-- Carl J. Circo, “Does Sustainability Require New Theory of Property Rights?”, 58 U. Kan. L. Rev. 91 2009-2010


Hey, efficiency sounds great, but what are these “radical changes” and what might they mean for property rights?  What is the agenda of the sustainability movement, and what are its tactics?

Dryden and sustainability

The first town-wide meeting re: Dryden's sustainability initiative was held November 16th.  Here are some

"Personal definitions of sustainability from participants:"

1. “Dryden is a place where people will be thriving and enjoying life and each other’s company
 in peace, health, and plenty.”

2. “Local, green, natural, affordable, equitable, community pride.”

3. “Living or operating within the means provided with the ability to save for future use.”

4. “It is not spending more money and buying more things to create less energy. It is learning
 and knowing how to simply use less energy.”

5. “Self-reliant without being a burden on your neighbor.”

6. “Practice-based on current technology that benefit us now and future generations in a 
 positive manner.”

7. “A sustainable future demands hard choices and requires accepting limits on what we do
 including limiting human population.”


For more of this stuff, visit the town sustainability page (you have until December 15th to comment). And for an alternate approach, try an article entitled The Livable Communities Act.



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