30 November 2016

Sustainability: A Sloppy Notion

Stephen Kershnar
The Sustainability Movement
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 22, 2016

            The sustainability movement on American campuses is incredibly powerful. The problem is that it is unclear what sustainability is or whether it is worth pursuing.

            Universities are focusing on sustainability with religion-like fervor. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHA), there roughly 1,300 environmental programs in the U.S., with at least one program in each state. According to the U.S. Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, roughly 700 colleges and universities signed a pledge to eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas emissions and to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. AASHA reports that there are now more than 400 student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the U.S. Twenty-two U.S. universities have announced plans to eliminate their investments in fossil fuels. Hundreds of U.S. universities submit to an environmental tracking and rating system.

            The conservative faculty group, National Association of Scholars, argues that the sustainability movement has further politicized many campuses by making sustainability an educational commitment rather than an idea to be discussed and debated. It also charges that campuses are spending large amounts of money on sustainability projects and positions and doing so in ways that are not financially transparent. 

            One problem with this movement is that it is not clear what sustainability is. Dictionary.com defines “sustainability” as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” 

One concern is what time period is relevant to long-term ecological balance. There are roughly 7.5 billion people on the planet. This is historically unprecedented. As recently as 10,000 years ago, there were no more than a few million people. There were not even one billion people until the 1800’s and only two billion in the 1920’s. The population could explode to reach 10 billion by the middle of the century. It is unclear if the long-term ecological balance is that found with 7.5 billion people or an earlier period with far fewer people. A later baseline allows for more pollution than does an earlier baseline. Picking one time period rather than another, though, is arbitrary and good policy should not depend on an arbitrary baseline.

            A second concern here is whether the ecological balance that matters for sustainability changes over time. Eco-systems change with the changing climate and evolution. The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago and it included a different set of mammals. This included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, massive cousins of the armadillo (Glyptodon), giant ground sloths, heavy ancient wolves (dire wolves), giant short-faced bears, and so on. Over the long run, animal and plant species come and go along with natural climate change and new competitors. It is implausible that people should try to protect some species against potential replacements.  

            If people have no duty to protect current plant and animal species that are threatened by natural changes in the environment, then it is unclear why they have a duty to protect them when they are threatened by manmade changes in the environment. That is, it is hard to see what moral duty allows people to sit idly by when a natural change in the environment wreaks havoc on some types of animals, but requires them to spring into action when manmade changes have the same effect.

            If the concern is instead that harm to the environment will endanger people’s health and lives, then a third concern arises, namely, whether sustainability is designed to protect people or the environment. The two can, and sometimes do, diverge. Eliminating all manmade greenhouse gases in the near future would be unbelievably expensive. It would make billions of people poorer, shorten lives, and worsen health. Still, eliminating these gases might preserve various eco-systems. The question is whether sustainability aims to protect eco-systems, protect people’s well-being, or both. If it aims at both, then there is the issue of how to trade off people’s interests against those of the environment (specifically, the interests of animals who inhabit the environment). Without a deeper theory to explain whether there should be tradeoffs and how to think of them, the goal of sustainability is arbitrary and unjustified.

            Philosophy provides various theories that would explain how to trade off animals’ and people’s interests. The best of them, utilitarianism, tells us that we should adopt those policies that maximize pleasure among all individuals, regardless of whether it is a person or animal. The problem is that if additional people lower utility by displacing too many animals, then such a theory would require that there be far fewer people and their consumption be cut back. This might be done by harshly taxing couples for having more than one child (or, perhaps, incarcerating them) and curtailing immigration from poor countries to rich ones. This might also be done by a host of new and onerous taxes on energy use, such as a value-added tax and higher taxes on gas, roads, cars, flights, and so on.

Worse, utilitarianism might require that people artificially change environments so that they support more utility-enjoying animals. This opens the door to questions such as whether there are too many or too few killer whales or elephants in the same way that it opens the door to whether there are too many or too few Chinese or Indians. Utilitarianism does not necessarily require that we not harm the environment. If utilitarianism justifies sustainability, then sustainability is not a fundamental goal. 

A fourth concern is what constitutes harm to the environment. There is an issue as to whether it consists of a setback to the number of species (diversity), amount of life (biomass), or some combination of these things. If it consists of a combination, then, again, we need a justification of when a loss of one at the expense of the other would constitute harm. In addition, further issues arise such as whether the mere addition of a species to an environment that lessens neither diversity nor biomass harms the environment. 


            In the absence of a principled theory, sustainability should not be given so many resources in academia. Universities should reconsider their sustainability faculty and staff hires, dazzling array of sustainability classes, recycling and other environmental programs, etc. Also, the unquestioning commitment to sustainability should be revisited. No longer should it receive the faith-based acceptance that is more appropriate for a religion than a campus program of study. 

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