Sustainability at UNH: Not Tyrannical, Just Tediously Totalitarian

Via the blog of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I came upon a Katherine Kersten column from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Ms. Kersten's topic is … well, let her tell it:

Today's socially conscious student finds it tough to keep up with all the latest buzzwords. He wants to be for "social justice" and against "institutional racism." He's keen to be seen as an "environmentalist," a "multiculturalist" and an "anti-imperialist."

The list, so to speak, goes on.

Wouldn't life be simpler if all the correct labels could be captured in just one word?

That magic word is here, and it's taking college campuses by storm.

The abracadabra bon mot is "sustainability."

She's right. At my own employer, the University of New Hampshire, it's everywhere. Googling for "sustainability" just in the domain gives a over couple thousand hits; "sustainable" all by itself gives (as I type) 2,880. (Contrast: an equivalent search for "liberty" gives 754 hits, and the first few in the list refer to Liberty Mutual (the insurance company) and town names in Maine and New York.)

But what's the problem? Isn't "sustainability" a good thing? Back to Ms. Kersten:

But what, exactly, does "sustainability" mean? It has the ring of improving the environment, and conjures up images of low-voltage light bulbs and farmers markets. If so, say many folks, bring it on.

Some institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Minnesota, do have a scientific, environmental focus and initiatives led by biologists and ecologists. But to a significant extent, the beauty of "sustainability" is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

In many cases, folks with a burning desire to transform the world are using the concept to piggy-back on legitimate environmental concerns, and get a foot in the door for every leftist cause under the sun.

Sounds bad. But it gets worse: Ms. Kersten details how a presentation at a recent conference did just that, where "sustainability" was draped in usual lefty boilerplate: "environmental racism" "fair trade", "gender equity", "oppressive systems", etc., etc. One of the speakers went on to be involved in the infamous University of Delaware ResLife indoctrination program we discussed here. Ms. Kersten concludes:
There is one word for what this all adds up to, but it's not sustainability.

It's tyranny.

Hm. Is that true at UNH? Let's take a look at the Office of Sustainability website.

And to get one thing out of the way: these are nice, well-meaning people. And they do a lot of good stuff. For example, here we read about:

UNH microbiologists Cheryl Whistler and Vaughn Cooper, both assistant professors, are studying the microbial interactions that influence the emergence of pathogenic Vibrio bacteria species in oysters. The research is funded by NH Sea Grant.
Everyone who wants vibrio-free oysters shouldn't mind that too much. (But is that really "sustainability", or is that just normal research that would happen anyway, with or without "sustainability" spreading its umbrella over it?)

And there's the actually-interesting (PDF) UNH Landscape Master Plan, which concerns itself with making our fair campus "work" in terms of harmonizing buildings, parking lots, walkways, and roads with campus flora and fauna. Can't argue.

There's lots of material like that. But …

  • Check the calendar. Scheduled just one week before election day:
    October 28: Climate Change Forum. Murkland Auditorium, 7:00 PM. Why has climate change faded from our political discourse? Why should climate change be at the center of the 2008 election? Join expert panelists, representatives from campaigns, and fellow members of the public, in an exciting discussion of why climate change should be a major issue in the November election, how it affects energy, the environment, national security, and global justice. Panelists will include: Rev. Roberta Finkelstein of the UU South Church in Portsmouth; Will Abbott, Vice President for Policy and Land Management at the NH Forest Society; Stacy VanDeveer, Associate Professor of Political Science at UNH; and Dr. Cameron Wake, Research Associate Professor at UNH.
    My guess from the slanted language: this will be less of an "exciting discussion", more of a one-sided dissent-free indoctrination session.

  • The Office of Sustainability is one of the organizations sponsoring the "$3.13 a Day Food Challenge" coming up November 15-21. As their (PDF) poster puts it:
    Participate in the $3.13 A Day Food Challenge.

    You will have the opportunity to experience some of the struggles that 26 million Americans face to secure food on an average food stamp allowance of $3.13 a day.

    The "challenge" has been around for awhile. It's dishonest propaganda, a publicity stunt designed to mislead. Food stamps are "means tested": people making more money get lower allotments. A hypothetical recipient of an "average" food stamp allowance would be expected to have additional resources of their own to spend on food. People who imply $3.13 is all "26 million Americans" have to spend to "secure food" are lying. (More details here.)

    This isn't to say that poor people don't have a rough time of it; of course they do. Among other things, their situation is worsened by government policies designed to artificially raise the cost of food.

    (As publicity stunts go, I prefer the "Liberty and Prosperity Challenge" from Ari and Jennifer Armstrong. Also see their results, complete with cash register receipts and recipes. No chance the Office of Sustainability would sponsor anything like that, though.)

  • One of the "initiatives" pursued by the Office of Sustainability is the "Culture & Sustainability Initiative", which has its own web section. The first thing I notice is the gassy rhetoric; it's infected with the and-disease, whereby no noun or verb can sent out in public without one or more partners:
    As a Cultural Development Campus, UNH is committed to being a model sustainable community in the state and region: we consider culture and the arts as fundamental to sustainability as clean air and water. UNH is meeting this commitment through its University-wide Culture & Sustainability Initiative (CAS), the mission of which is to integrate the ethics and policies of conserving and developing our cultural heritage into the University’s identity and practices. To accomplish this mission, the CAS is actively engaging the University community in efforts that increase their awareness and support of public arts and our cultural and natural heritage.
    I especially like the three ands in the "mission" sentence; they logically expand out into eight different mission components. Specifically, to integrate:

    1. the ethics of conserving our cultural heritage into the University's identity;
    2. the ethics of conserving our cultural heritage into the University's practices;
    3. the ethics of developing our cultural heritage into the University's identity;
    4. the ethics of developing our cultural heritage into the University's practices;
    5. the policies of conserving our cultural heritage into the University's identity;
    6. the policies of conserving our cultural heritage into the University's practices;
    7. the policies of developing our cultural heritage into the University's identity; and (finally)
    8. the policies of developing our cultural heritage into the University's practices.

    Ask yourself: are these things different in any meaningful way? Or is the writer just piling up words that sound good? I know which way I'd bet.

    We also have an old reliable feelgood friend on this page, showing up as one of the things UNH is "committed" to via CAS:

    • Social Justice: Increasing student exposure to humanistic treatments of particular issues of justice on the campus, in the region and country, and around the world.
    Because if students didn't get increased "exposure" to "humanistic treatments", well, then it just wouldn't be sustainable. I strongly suspect that there won't be any Hayek or Sowell involved in that "exposure".

  • UNH's own "Chief Sustainability Officer", Tom Kelly, is quoted here:
    Sustainability is not about business as usual; it should not be confused with incremental technical approaches to managing the status quo more efficiently nor with the “greening” of consumerism. It is a question of culture: of our sense of meaning and purpose as Americans and as human beings. As citizens of the Earth system and citizens of the world, we have inherited a culture that is ours to interpret and bequeath to future generations. Sustainability requires us to critically examine our cultural choices in light of the myriad interactions of art, science, politics and economics, not simply to study them in isolation.
    It's hard to pin, as Kersten does, the "tyranny" label on this kind of thought. But utopian is a fair one; so is totalitarian. We're looking at the imagined grandiose wholesale transformation of society, under the warm-n-fuzzy aegis of "sustainability."

So (in short) Kersten has a point. In addition to the useful and important things to which it refers, "Sustainability" has become one of the mantra-words of our fine University's Official Secular Theology. It (poorly) disguises standard tedious left-wing ideology. It's alternately irritating and amusing, but what are you gonna do? The best strategy is probably amateur heresy: point it out, and laugh. Or growl.

Hence, this article.