When I was in college I got a job one summer blasting, scraping, and sanding the corroded sides of dry-docked ships. It sounded like nasty, if well-paid, work. But before I could don gloves and mask in my war on barnacles, some union called a strike and my job was wiped out. I ended up in a still less glamorous job on a road crew, scraping hapless raccoons from asphalt.
Even decay, it seems, isn’t an entirely reliable business.
My youthful almost-employment as an agent of maritime tidiness was resting somewhere in my mental scrapheap, long forgotten. I’ve been busy with more up-to-date concerns, among them the critique of the campus sustainability movement. In March, Rachelle Peterson and I rolled out our stainless new National Association of Scholars’ study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, and we’ve been fashioning hood ornaments for it ever since.
But something stirred that old memory: I noticed Rust: The Longest War, Jonathan Waldman’s corrosive new book. It is what the title says, a book about the weathering away of steel girders and tie rods and all our other iron pinions with which we try to hold the present against the inevitable rust of time. Sustainability? Take that, says rust. And rust wins.
Steel for Stone
What a perfect time for Waldman’s thoughtful appreciation of this enemy of civilization. We have built our world on metals. Copper tools were invented about six thousand years ago, and copper alloyed with tin gave us the harder-edged Bronze Age about 4,500 years ago. Metal plowshares, metal swords, and metal hand tools created the material conditions for large-scale agriculture and for cities and states, and eventually for art and science.
There is only so much you can do with wood and stone. Today’s enthusiasts for “paleo diets” and pre-industrial technologies sometimes forget the eagerness for metal among those people who lacked it. Western sailors had to fight Polynesians who would try to pull the metal nails out of the decks of visiting ships. The Australian anthropologist Lauriston Sharp wrote a classic essay about an aboriginal tribe, the Yir Yoront, whose contact with whites was sporadic and minimal until the 1940s. For the Yir Yoront, the stone ax was the principal “piece of capital equipment,” used to produce firewood, makes huts, and part of every important act of survival. Making a good stone ax was arduous skilled labor and the ax itself was, unsurprisingly, an object of deep significance.
Yet given the opportunity to acquire steel axe heads, the Yir Yoront didn’t hesitate. The steel axes rapidly displaced the old technology. The anthropologist duly recorded that a kind of cultural collapse ensued “in the realm of traditional ideas, sentiments, and values.” Women and young men obtained access to the new axes, which undermined Yir Yoront hierarchy and ritual. Axes have consequences, as Richard Weaver might have said.
In Waldman’s book one can learn about the heroic endeavors of the American Galvanizers Association whose members take the battle to the rusty foe, while fighting rearguard actions against the rival stainless steelers and the paint industry. It is an entertaining book as well as a handsomely written one:
Every metal is vulnerable to corrosion. Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black. It’s turned Mars red.
But what does this have to do with higher education?
The battle over sustainability on campus and elsewhere can be thought of as a contest between competing ideas of preservation. Those who favor “sustainability” set themselves up as seeking the preservation of the natural order against the destructive changes to the planet wrought by humanity. Those who critique the sustainability doctrine generally hold that humanity will thrive only by dint of further development of the earth’s resources and further advances in science and technology. The critics seek to preserve the cultural legacy of our civilization.
Things, of course, get a lot more complicated than that two-way choice between preserving nature and preserving culture. Both sides stake some claims to the other’s territory. Sustainatopians want to preserve some pieces of culture as well as nature. Uber-sustainatopian Bill McKibben, for example, fancies beekeeping. And virtually all critics of sustainability favor clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. But once each side has gathered in its share of the other’s bounty, the division is robust. Sustainatopians see nature as essentially benign and the Earth as terribly fragile. Once the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide exceeded 350 parts per million, the Earth was on an unstoppable slide to catastrophic global warming. That’s why McKibben named his activist group 350.org.
The enviro-catastrophism has in the view of its college and university advocates a straight line application to what colleges actually do. How can you sit around reading Plato or Jane Austen when the Arctic icepack has melted? How can we teach political theory as if nations mattered when the only viable solution to climate change lies in transnational institutions? How can we teach biology as if the Anthropocene—the age of manmade climate change—hadn’t already begun to produce mass extinctions?
Indeed every subject in the curriculum can be refashioned around the goal of putting the issues of sustainability in its center. That’s exactly what the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment asks of higher education, and exactly what most of them are doing. Rachelle and I spent some time documenting this. Yale classifies more than 400 of its undergraduate courses as “sustainability focused” or “sustainability related.” At Cornell, 68 percent of the academic departments offer sustainability courses. At Middlebury it is 72 percent.
But leave aside the details. The main point is that the sustainability doctrine authorizes—or perhaps more accurately demands—the subordination of all forms of inquiry to the larger goal of preserving the natural order. Sometimes this is phrased in quasi-mystical language, such as the call from Peggy Bartlett of Emory University for a “re-enchantment” of nature. But generally it is just assumed into place. We all know the “climate consensus.” Our world is at grave risk. Let’s not waste time on superficial things such as the old liberal arts curriculum.
The opposing view—my view—is that, even if the natural world is at risk, what higher education should be most concerned about is the preservation of our culture. The chances of doing something about global warming are vastly improved if we remain a civilization that commands the power to innovate and the optimism to believe we can address our problems successfully. Turning our colleges and universities into wheelhouses of apocalyptic fantasy and cultural despair is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sustainatopian belief is corrosive. It turns the institutions on which we depend for cultural vitality into recruitment centers for hostility to our civilization.
Civilizations are, in principle, made to last. But so are ships, bridges, and skyscrapers, and none of them last forever. Rust happens.
Colleges and universities ought to be our galvanizers. The effort to preserve is not a matter of resting content that we have true and perfect knowledge that merely needs to be carried forward intact from generation to generation. Real preservation requires an active commitment, the blasting, scraping, and sanding of the cultural corrosion that inevitably gains ground if we don’t intervene; the replacement of the broken parts; the determination to keep the essential and to improve where possible
A truly sustainable civilization requires the strength to say no to the idea of going back to nature. That so many in our society are fatigued by metal and ready to divest from carbon is a bad sign, a diversion of our imagination and energy to a dead-end fantasy at a time when we need robust and creative thinking. Trading up from stone to steel axes may have been traumatic, but trading back down will be a lot more so.