Phi Beta Cons

Tales of ‘Sustainability’

I spent two of the longest years of my life in the merry little environmentalist utopia of Ithaca, N.Y. How I vividly recall paying a fee for each bag of garbage I put on the roadside, the sickly sweet smell emanating from the vast pile of recyclable food packaging that had to be amassed week by week, and the shouts from a guard at a garbage dump when he saw an actual piece of cardboard through our clear, biodegradable garbage bag. I now flatly refuse to recycle anything. Take that, Ithaca!

So it comes as no surprise to learn that — of all places — Ithaca College is about to be the first university to have two buildings rated “platinum” by some environmental design organization. The college’s new, 58,000 square-foot, $22.5 million building (built no doubt completely without the use of fossil fuels, with steel hand-forged from hydrogen-burning mills and carried up the hills by donkey carts) has all kinds of bells and whistles, like rainwater cisterns to provide toilet water, a geothermal heating and cooling system, no paper towels in the bathrooms, and electricity generated entirely by “townies” pedaling stationary bikes in the basement.

Ahh, but there’s a catch (there’s always a catch) in this environmentalist utopia. The building can’t reach its full potential unless the residents collaborate. Among their many obligations, workers will have the following treat:

[The building engineer] explained that while the building has many thermostats throughout, they are assigned to two offices each, so people in the building will have to work with their thermostat “partner” to compromise on a comfortable temperature and agree on times to open the windows.

Imagine the possibilities. Given the high ratio of Gaia-worshipping environmental zealots concentrated in the greater Ithaca area, it is only a matter of time before some poor secretary is bludgeoned to death by a whole-grain baguette after she had the audacity to open a window on a hot August day.  

Somehow, I don’t see that arrangement as “sustainable.”

It will be intriguing, however, to see how much ideology can withstand the body’s daily desire for cool air in summer and heat in winter. My prediction: After the initial enthusiasm fades, only a few people will be willing to sacrifice so much as a few degrees of comfort to make, well, zero ultimate impact on the environment. So when enthusiasm fades, rules will follow. And that is, ultimately, what “sustainability” means.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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