Is “Sustainability” Sustainable?

I recall taking in a British comedy sketch on TV over in London many years ago that featured the familiar device of an “interview” with a historical figure—in this case, the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The deadpan interviewer asked, “I suppose you’ll be going around doing your usual miracles again—raising the dead, healing the sick, turning water into wine, and so forth?

NAS Cover copyTo which Jesus replies with a qualification: “Yes—but strictly within the limits of sustainable development.” Which makes all the more propitious the release today of a copious report from the National Association of Scholars on the religious fervor for “sustainability” on college campuses today. The report is entitled Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, and I heartily recommend it.

The irony is obvious: few things are less “sustainable” today that the business model of many colleges and universities. I’m sure Sweet Briar College emphasized sustainability. (Yup—they do did. Heh.) The basic idea of “sustainable development”—meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs—is fine in the abstract, but you’ll note that definition doesn’t give much practical guidance about whether you should drill that next gas well or harvest that stand of trees over there. I wrote at some length about this issue for The Public Interest over ten years ago; you can still find the article right here.

Here’s the central point: the best system for ensuring sustainability for future generation is . . . free market capitalism. Guess how many college courses on “sustainability” teach that point of view? You don’t even need both jazz hands moving to count them.

Environmental scientist Timothy O’Riordan warned in 1988 that “It may only be a matter of time before the metaphor of sustainability becomes so confused as to be meaningless, certainly as a device to straddle the ideological conflicts that pervade contemporary environmentalism.” Well, that time has come: like other concepts that could have been sensible and usable if done seriously, “sustainability” has become, as the NAS report notes, completely absorbed into the usual anti-capitalist ideology, and yet another pretext for the central environmental will to extend political control over people and resources:

The goals of the sustainability movement are different. They go far beyond ensuring clean air and water and protecting vulnerable plants and animals. As an ideology, sustainability takes aim at economic and political liberty. Sustainability pictures economic liberty as a combination of strip mining, industrial waste, and rampant pollution. It pictures political liberty as people voting to enjoy the present, heedless of what it will cost future generations. Sustainability’s alternative to economic liberty is a regime of far-reaching regulation that controls virtually every aspect of energy, industry, personal consumption, waste, food, and transportation. Sustainability’s alternative to political liberty is control vested in agencies and panels run by experts insulated from elections or other expressions of popular will.

Some day we’re going to look back on this whole period the same way we now regard the temperance movement and Prohibition. But, as with Prohibition, in the meantime a lot of criminal rackets are taking root.

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