Peter Wood, formerly known for his work on diversity (and his book by that title), recently shifted his focus to what he deems diversity’s replacement: sustainability. In his October 3 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary, he wrote that:

Sustainability combines some astonishingly radical ideas with mere wackiness. Many sustainability advocates want to replace free markets (a source, as they see it, of unsustainable growth and exploitation) with some kind of pan-national rule with little scope for private property rights. On the other hand, sustainatopians also busy themselves with eliminating trays from cafeterias and attacking the threat of plastic soda straws. Sustainability thus unites vaunting political ambition and comic burlesque. Both are at odds with patient and open-minded intellectual inquiry.

His argument throughout the article seems to be that Americans (particularly college students) have a need to belong to a “cause” that gives them morals and a meaning. The diversity club ran its course, and has been replaced with “second-wave environmentalism,” a.k.a. our culprit, sustainability. His observations about campus culture and the eco-pop focus on sustainability may, in part, be accurate.

Those on the Porch, readers of Wendell Berry, or followers of some sort of stewardship ethic may well wish to contest the precision with which Wood is bantering the term “sustainability.” As a fad that focuses on the environment rather than on the natural order, it can be seen as well-meaning and misguided. There must be room in the discourse on sustainability, though, for those who argue for a rich natural order, in which the relationship of humankind to the rest of creation is of great importance.

What do we do? Link arms with the “sustainability” crowd in the hopes of sharing in their momentum, engage in vigorous discussions on the meaning of the term, or sit back with Wood and scoff at this next wave from the “left”?

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  1. Sustainability is one of the most conservative issues. Unfortunately, through a combination of accidents of history and right wing propaganda, many mostly conservative people think of it as a leftist issue. One of the most important things conservatives can do today is to convince conservative sympathizers (people who claim to be conservative, but are actually right wing) that they should support sustainability. There are a number of routes to sustainability. With the proper education and advocacy, we can achieve sustainability though the more effective conservative route, instead of the more likely center-left route.

  2. As usual it’s the -ism (or grammatically in this post -ability) that is the problem. Caring for the longevity of your field is as old as crop rotation. If we start to construct an ideology, or a movement seeking to implement certain arbitrary goals, then I’m out.

    I wanted to save the tree on my property, because I love trees. There was certainly some practical concern about the shade it provided and the aesthetic appeal of the front of my house, but in the end… the tree had been there for many years and I wished it to continue.

    Call it conservation, or preservation, or sustainability, if it fits any of those, that’s fine by me. Just let me keep my tree.

    p.s. The local community of tree-haters were unfortunately victorious with their efforts and the tree was destroyed about two years ago. I’m still grieving. We should all grieve our fallen trees, the world would be a better place.

  3. My problem with the “sustainable” movement, which practically runs Yale these days, is that it is premised on the idea that other practices literally cannot be maintained over time. Apparently using trays in the dining halls is a surefire way to economic collapse. Pick up that paper cup and children begin starving or something. And for all the usage of the word organic, never does the idea that there is a natural scale or essence to humanity that demands these measures cross the mind of the campus enviros, it’s always that it is unsustainable to do otherwise.

    But shouldn’t the fear for us Porchers be that maybe all of our bad habits are actually pretty sustainable? Despite the warnings of some, it seems to me that relatively cheap oil is here for a while. And raping the soil as we might be, there’s a hell of a lot of soil left to rape. So the semi-conspiratorial attitude (shared by sustainable movement folks and some conservatives) that the whole capitalist system is about to come crashing down tomorrow seems like more of a distraction than anything from the real task at hand.

  4. Matthew Gerken,

    I think some folks get overly excited when the pragmatic consequences of behavior deemed less than virtuous will visit comeuppance on one’s enemies.

    The idea that peak oil is going to end international commerce in a decade is absurd. However, they will probably get their wish eventually (or their faithful children or grandchildren will, at least, call them vindicated when the blessings of liberty are deprived the posterity of their enemies).

    I wish no such thing visited on anyone and prefer the stance of contained frustration on my worst days and soft sorrow on my better ones.

    Certain key resources will run low, or out, in the near future. Though this is more likely to happen in specialty areas (no one ever wonders if we have enough cobalt, who knows?) or certain highly refined manufacturing processes in medicine will become cost prohibitive. Pain will be random and intense, but no more debilitating than arthritis at least for some time.

    Real collapse, should remain something we chose not to contemplate.

    Mr McMansion and his beautiful Soccer wife should be have our sympathy not because little Jr is a monster, or because college will saddle him with debt for life, or because he’ll have to live on what he can grow while keeping the starving masses out of his cornrows. They should have our sympathy because despite their apparent wealth, they are living impoverished lives.

    Let not our good humored curmudgeons of the forum forget this.

  5. It is important to avoid confusing sustainability with some of the particular issues promoted as sustainable. It is common for people to concentrate on one particular sub-sub-issue, mostly ignoring its consequences in the bigger picture. Some of the cafeteria sustainability choices may be less effective stewardship than other choices. Other groups, such as the local ones protecting abused watersheds, are important to support. Sometimes regulations are the only realistic answer; eg the recent slight tightening of CAFE (gas mileage) standards. Some aspects of sustainability–eg peak oil, soil, water, &c–are critical for sustainability, not because we don’t have years left that these resources can be abused, but because continuing abusing them will leave the planet ecologically poorer for (at least) centuries; and because of the unnecessary toll inflicted by delaying action. (An even more important reason for Christians such as myself is the Biblical mandate for stewardship of creation…) I believe that going out of one’s way to protect the environment is a prerequisite to being a conservative (FPR sense, not popular sense).

  6. How is tightening of CAFE standards sustainable? So we run out of oil in 75 years instead of 70? It’s just fuzzy-headed, feel-good nonsense from a sustainablility standpoint.

  7. The CAFE standards aren’t sustainable, but are a necessary intermediate step toward sustainability in transportation. Some damage is related to the rate of change, not only the total change. The modest efficiency standards we have slightly lower the rate of damage, making the transition to sustainability easier, and lowering the total harm done. A better solution would be to directly incorporate what are now the externalities of transportation in its price, but that won’t happen, so efficiency standards are a necessary second best.

    I should have picked a better example, but CAFE was the first example of beneficial regulations that came to mind. One example in this category is water quality standards. We will always produce some pollution, but it is important to keep the damage to acceptably low levels. Proper regulations force people to take this into account, and–at least theoretically–help hold the damage to levels that the ecosystem can support indefinitely, ie sustainability.

  8. Noel,

    How do you know CAFE standards are ultimately sustainable? Is gas mileage the only significant effect of the modern automobile? I’ve read several convincing articles that (for example) electric and hybrid cars actually have a higher total lifetime carbon footprint than gas powered vehicles. (If carbon is what you worry about.)

    True, a certain amount of tuning up the engineering of the engines to get more horsepower per gallon of gas is rational. But after the initial impressive gains, future returns diminish. All the energy that goes into the design, manufacturing, regulation, operation, maintenance, disposal, etc is a complex figure not given over so easily to such simplifications as “let’s just make everyone raise their gas mileage so we eventually save the planet”.

    Look at one of the side effects, for example. The rise of the vile SUV in American life is directly related to the demise of the American sedan caused by CAFE. It is linked with the both the loss of utility and safety. You know it is impossible to by a sedan today that can pull a trailer, I looked, the Ford LTD in 2003 was the last vehicle rated for such a task that wasn’t an SUV or a truck. I own a truck that I don’t need and don’t want because my family takes economical vacations camping (we can’t afford anything else). Even though our trailer (a pop-up tent trailer, on the cheep and unexcessive side) is light, we can’t pull it with a car and I have to drive around a gas gussler the rest of the time.

    Because of CAFE.

    My wife feels unsafe on freeways in my 1993 tbird that I commute to work in and it’s more substantial than most of what’s available on the lot of a dealer today. If we have the money, she’d rather have a minivan simply for the safety.

    Because of CAFE.

    One key point of FRP thinking that I think balances the “conservative” talk around here is that conservatism can’t give into these simplistic solutions or the models of thinking that produce them. The issue is much more complex than “lets get that gas mileage to 30mpg by 2015”.

    The efforts wasted on CAFE might be better spent trying to unravel suburbia, with incentives (both positively and negatively enforced) to reorient populations into townships recentered on local commerce.

    Get several million people to stop commuting 2 hours a day in their vehicles and you might save much more than that extra 5 mpg you’re fighting for.

  9. Well, that Wood article just made me angry. Here you go: “Diversity and sustainability are also both second-wave movements. Diversity is second-wave affirmative action; sustainability is second-wave environmentalism.”

    Code words: “second-” is boomer code for “the only significant things that happened or were thought occurred during my lifetime. And I’m no spring chicken.”
    “-wave” in this particular instance a veneer to lend weight and imply a rigorous historical analysis which is then immediately self-contradicted. And he mentions Oberlin, of all colleges. What a dope.

    Then I’m disappointed with him. As presented, it’s just as easy to claim that the sustainability movement has diversity as one of it foundational assumptions; the preservation of diversity a core principle; that sustainability is one of the first manifestations of a hyper-linked world in action; plastic straws in the cafeteria are linked to the plastic garbage island in the Pacific; in a hyper-linked world, there is no place to throw things “away”. And then I suppose I could quote some static data to support a change in state, like Wood. Maybe what’s really in danger is Eric Hoffers’ competent man – isolation and independence, always illusory anyway. You will no longer be left alone. We’re rediscovering limits or lurching towards totalitarianism. Paint it however you want.

    Anyway, what made me angry is that I expect an honest effort, even from an intellectual. And I don’t think Wood passed the test.

  10. The Conservative’s continuing antipathy toward conservation issues, after having played an important part in the beginning of their development is just another example of why existing so-called “conservatives” are out to lunch. The Liberal’s messianic devotion to government regulation and endless programs as a route toward environmental wisdom is another reason they are so out to lunch.

    The Two Party System …why employ reason when a bit of partisan theatre is so entertaining?

    Im sure there is an army of sustainability technocrats working on a LEEDS certification for a Dubai Skyscraper built atop filled wetlands as we speak.

    The thrilling beauty of Modernism is how it always succeeds in taking any shred of a good idea, pump it full of steroids and create a bombastic spectacle of remarkable hilarity. All, of course, in search of market share.

  11. I love a good caricature, but I do hope those who write them eventually escape the confines of their stricken imaginations.

  12. David,

    Like I said, CAFE isn’t sustainable in itself, but is an important step a little closer to sustainability.

    As far as the articles on hybrid and electric cars having a higher lifetime carbon or energy footprint (both among the important considerations), I haven’t seen one study that is convincing. As a graduate student in applied physics (working on a project that should eventually increase fuel economy and longevity of hybrid cars while lowering their price), I’ve looked at these studies and checked some of the math. The ones I remember that reach the ‘hybrids are bad’ conclusion, were mostly political ‘studies’ by libertarian groups, and had major holes. One common gaping hole is assuming the batteries weren’t recycled, when they typically are. Another is neglecting that hybrid cars should last longer with less maintenance. Of course it is a complex issue that will eventually reach diminishing returns, but from what I’ve seen, that point is many years away.

    You provide one good example of the complications. For some people, the standards may lower the efficiency of the car available to them. But in the big picture, the overall resource and energy savings are worth it. The growth in SUVs was mostly near the end of a long period where CAFE standards were constant and low. Because of CAFE, most SUVs and light trucks of the past decade or two actually get better mileage than the typical pre-CAFE sedan. As far as towing a trailer, there is a difference between what a vehicle is officially rated to do, and what it can actually do.

    The safety issue is a red herring. It is related choices of cars and perceptions. One’s perception of car safety isn’t necessarily related to actual safety. That said, your car is less safe today than when it was new because of the unfortunate proliferation of oversize cars. On the other hand, my small car is more safe than the much larger car it replaced.

    This isn’t an either/or issue, it is an issue of promoting realistic short term partial solutions, while working toward the more idealistic longterm solutions. Because of the turnover rate of cars, tightening CAFE standards quickly lowers the unnecessary environmental damage we cause. It has a definite benefit. We should work on this along with the much longer term goal of unraveling suburbia.

    Anyway, CAFE was just a particular policy example in the big question. The real issue is making those who claim to be conservative realize that sustainability/conservation/&c is a conservative issue, not a left wing issue. Sustainability is such a large and important issue that it can be argued for from any of the major political camps. We need conservatives to realize that protecting the environment is naturally a conservative issue, even though the most visible (and likely to be implemented) solutions come from progressives. So, on to the topic of the post: How should conservatives promote sustainability, and in what ways can conservatives cooperate with the more common progressive promoters of sustainability? I think this is an issue where conservatives have more in common with progressives than with the right wing/Republican/libertarians that are popularly associated with the word ‘conservative’. I think many of the ideas promoted here on FPR have positive sustainability side effects, even when that isn’t their primary goal.

  13. Cafeteria trays . . . taking a sensible thing and as Jesus says, “straining out a gnat.” Even good -isms take on a perverse life of their own. But wouldn’t sustainability be a more comprehensive version of conservation? Hey! That’s getting semantically close to conservatism!
    Having once embraced sustainability as a great and important idea, I have since tempered my enthusiasm in light of the cultural barriers that stand against it here in the USA. It is true we Americans (from the USA, not Mexico and Canada, etc.) could, as we come to face with the reality of our smoke and mirrors economy, become more educable as we eat a heaping helping of humble pie. But I’m 55 and not holding my breath, though I will vote my convictions, as I wait for candidates that hold them.
    But lately I have mused on the writings of the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in conjunction with the Book of Revelations chapters 4 & 5 (the heavenly Court) and have come to the conclusion that the one thing sustainable is the Orthodox Christian Divine Liturgy. It is the continuing incarnation of the Word which is our foundational Rock and a springboard to all good things.
    This is not escapist. Come and see.

  14. David,

    The problem you mention–not being able to find a car that is rated to pull a camper–has less to do with CAFE standards, and more to do with the fact that car companies are very risk averse.

    Most passenger cars sold in the US are not rated for towing because the companies are afraid people will not use common sense when it comes to towing, and will in turn cause accidents for which the manufacturer might be held responsible.

    I base this on the fact that passenger cars are frequently used for towing in other parts of the world. Case in point, we had a Subaru Impreza wagon in the US, which according to Subaru USA, was not rated for towing. However, when we moved to Switzerland for my wife’s job, we bought an identical Subaru Impreza wagon (actually the one here had a slightly smaller motor)and the owners manual says it can safely tow up to 2,500 pounds if the trailer is equipped with breaks.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t some truth to your original contention, as I suppose you could argue that CAFE standards caused manufacturers to start building lighter cars with less mass, which in turn led to their concerns about people using them to pull trailers.

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