Even More Sustainability

A couple of weeks ago Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, wrote a serious, humorous, penetrating assessment of the rise of “sustainability” as the new ideology de riguer on college campuses. (The article is also available here, but read it on the Chronicle site if you can — the comments there are worth the price of admission — and it was cogently discussed here by Mark Bauerlein.) 

“Recently,” Wood began,

I came across a photograph of students at an event gathered around a cake that bore the iced command, “Celebrate Sustainability!” Clearly the candle had been passed. For more than a generation, cakes at campus events have tutored students to “Celebrate Diversity!” Something has changed—besides the frosting.

The pursuit of diversity on campuses remains a highly visible priority, but it is being subtly demoted by enthusiasm for sustainability. As an ideology, diversity is running out of steam, while sustainability is on fire….

“Diversity” is still alive and well at the University of Virginia, but now it does seem to be playing second fiddle to sustainability. As an example of the new fervor, for example, on October 20, “in observance of today’s national Campus Sustainability Day,” the Community Outreach and Communications Subcommittee of the President’s Committee on Sustainability (one of whose tasks is to educate the university on “sustainable thinking”) made available on its sustainability website a new pledge that it invited all members of the university to sign. The text:

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.

The new sustainability movement not only has the enthusiastic fervor of a revival movement; it also has some of the trappings, such as enthusiasts stepping forward to demonstrate their salvation: 

Concurrent with launching the sustainability pledge is an effort to collect photographs of employees and students declaring individual actions, such as recycling more, buying local food, composting, using alternate transportation and reducing energy consumption. These photographs, with people holding dry-erase boards bearing their commitments, are appearing on the U.Va. website. To date more than 150 images have been collected [one of whom is noted political analyst Larry Sabato, pledging to eat more local food].

The wording of the Virginia pledge also suggests, I think, one of the reasons “sustainability” has supplanted “diversity” in the affections of so many college students. By asking students to focus their attention on “my habits,” it puts individuals — as individuals, not members of racial, ethnic, or sexual preference groups —  at the center of the action.

“We wanted to develop a mechanism that helps to overcome negativity such as, ‘I’m just one person, my actions don’t matter,'” said Ida Lee Wootten, U.Va.’s director of community relations and chair of the Community Outreach and Communications Subcommittee. “The pledge encourages students and employees to make well-thought-out decisions.”

There is nothing white students can do to make themselves “diverse,” but according to the ideology of sustainability they can be a vital part of a new world-saving movement by simply turning off the light when they leave their rooms. Just yesterday, for example, I received an email from an official with a national environmental education association with an imposing 13 line signature (name, title, address, various phone & fax numbers, email and web addresses); the last line of the impressive signature was the injunction to “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” I did consider, didn’t print, and so now presumably am personally sustainable.

But the pledge is not purely personal; it also requires pledgees to consider the social and economic impacts of their habits, a requirement that invites (if it does not command) a consideration of what exactly is and is not economically sustainable.

 As it happens, there is more consensus about this than one might think. Conservatives complain — and Republicans argue in their current campaigns — that our current debts and deficit are not sustainable, and Democrats and neutral observers agree:

O.K. I’ll step forward, too. In addition to refraining from printing email, I hereby pledge to support only candidates whom I believe will strive mightily to reduce the debt and deficit by reducing the size and scope of government.

For some reason I suspect that I won’t be joined in that pledge by many university acolytes of the new religion of sustainability.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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