Politics & Policy

The ‘Sustainability’ Craze Is Nothing but an Empty Pose

Syracuse University alumni are new additions to the lengthening list of persons who can stop contributing to their alma maters. The university has succumbed — after, one suspects, not much agonizing — to the temptation to indulge in progressive gestures. It will divest all fossil-fuel stocks from its endowment. It thereby trumps Stanford, whose halfhearted exercise in right-mindedness has been to divest only coal stocks. Evidently carbon from coal is more morally disquieting than carbon from petroleum.

The effect of these decisions on consumption of fossil fuels will be nil; the effect on the growth of institutions’ endowments will be negative. The effect on alumni giving should be substantial, because divesting institutions are proclaiming that the goal of expanding educational resources is less important than the striking of righteous poses — if there can be anything righteous about flamboyant futility.

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The divestment movement is a manifestation of a larger phenomenon, academia’s embrace of “sustainability,” a development explored in Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism from the National Association of Scholars (NAS). The word “fundamentalism” is appropriate, for five reasons:

Like many religions’ premises, the sustainability movement’s premises are more assumed than demonstrated. Second, weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy. Third, the sustainability crusade supplies acolytes with a worldview that infuses their lives with purpose and meaning. Fourth, the sustainability movement uses apocalyptic rhetoric to express its eschatology. Fifth, the church of sustainability seeks converts, encourages conformity to orthodoxy, and regards rival interpretations of reality as heretical impediments to salvation.

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Some subscribers to the sustainability catechism are sincerely puzzled by the accusation that it is political correctness repackaged. They see it as indisputable because it is undisputed; it is obvious, elementary, even banal. Actually, however, the term “sustainable” postulates fragility and scarcity that entail government planners and rationers to fend off planetary calamity while administering equity. The unvarying progressive agenda is for government to supplant markets in allocating wealth and opportunity. “Sustainability” swaddles this agenda in “science,” as progressives understand this — “settled” findings that would be grim if they did not mandate progressivism.

Orthodoxy was enshrined in the 2006 “American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.” Since then, the NAS study concludes, “the campus sustainability movement has gone from a minor thread of campus activism to becoming the master narrative of what ‘liberal education’ should seek to accomplish.” Government subsidizes the orthodoxy: The Environmental Protection Agency alone has spent more than $333 million on sustainability fellowships and grants. Anti-capitalism is explicit: Markets “privilege” individuals over communities. Indoctrination is relentless: Cornell has 403 sustainability courses (e.g., “The Ethics of Eating”). Sustainability pledges are common. The University of Virginia’s is: “I pledge to consider the social, economic and environmental impacts of my habits and to explore ways to foster a sustainable environment during my time here at U.Va. and beyond.”

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Sustainability, as a doctrine of total social explanation, transforms all ills and grievances into environmental causes, cloaked in convenient science, as with: Climate change causes prostitution (warming increases poverty, which increases . . . ). Or the “environmental racism” of the supposed warming that supposedly caused hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately impacted New Orleans blacks.

The same sort of people — sometimes the same people — who once predicted catastrophe from the exhaustion of fossil fuels now predict catastrophe because of a surfeit of such fuels. Former U.S. senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, divestment enthusiast and possessor of astonishing knowledge, says: If we burn all known fossil fuels, we will make the planet uninhabitable, so, “Why should any rational institution invest in further exploration and development when we already have at least three times more than we can ever use?”

There is a social benefit from the sustainability mania: the further marginalization of academia. It prevents colleges and universities from trading on what they are rapidly forfeiting: their reputations for seriousness.

The divestment impulse recognizes no limiting principle. As it works its way through progressivism’s thicket of moral imperatives — shedding investments tainted by involvement with Israel, firearms, tobacco, red meat, irrigation-dependent agriculture, etc. — progressivism’s dream of ever-more-minute regulation of life is realized, but only in campus cocoons.

College tuitions are soaring in tandem with thickening layers of administrative bloat. So here is a proposal: Hundreds of millions could be saved, with no cost to any institution’s core educational mission, by eliminating every position whose title contains the word “sustainability” — and, while we are at it, “diversity,” “multicultural,” or “inclusivity.” The result would be higher education higher than the propaganda-saturated version we have, and more sustainable.

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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