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Sustainability is a meaningful concept that has been bastardized as a code word for virtually anything that suits the progressive narrative. It is used as a catch-all for presumed goodness, while “unsustainable” is a catch-all for anything deserving of condemnation. Strictly speaking, a sustainable activity, or level of activity, is one that can be maintained indefinitely. That does not mean that the activity itself or its level is optimal; as any economist or engineer can demonstrate, “sustainable” in that sense does not necessarily imply that something is “too fast” or “too much”. In fact, a thing or an activity can occur at a rate that is unsustainably slow, or too little.

Progressives seem to have stumbled into the use of “sustainable” in another sense: that a thing or idea can be defended in argument as part of their dialectic. The broad array of things deemed to be sustainable, and those deemed unsustainable, map nicely to the progressive policy agenda. This is brought forward in “Sustainability: A new college fad with fangs“, by Geaorge Leef, a review of a paper published by the National Association of Scholars. Some colleges have established “sustainability” programs offering such challenging courses as “Ethics of Eating”, “Trash Studies”, “Environmental Poetry,” and Small Spaces Studio”:

Frequently, courses link some ‘identity’ belief with sustainability, such as that ‘patriarchy’ is the enemy of sustainable life and therefore must be ended. … Most often, however, courses involve the supposedly unquestionable science of global warming and impending catastrophe.

And here is a critical assessment of “sustainability” as an academic discipline:

It’s just a farrago of beliefs, attitudes, and grievances centering around the general notion that most humans aren’t living the right way and unless we make drastic changes, we’re doomed. … [The authors] argue that sustainability is not really an academic discipline; rather, it’s an ‘ideology that unites environmental activism, anti-capitalism, and a progressive vision of social justice.’ Like a religion (hence the reference to fundamentalism), sustainability never questions its tenets. It posits them and even has ‘pledges’ for students and school officials to adhere to.

It’s fascinating for me to read hysterical claims that capitalism is “unsustainable”. I suppose that means that market prices are simply useless at conveying information about scarcity, and that elite technocrats from the progressive tribe can make better decisions about what the rest of us can do and have. All that in the absence of incentives and information needed to align benefits with costs. I suppose it also means that strong property rights are useless for encouraging individuals to husband resources, and that the tragedy of the commons is a wicked fiction. I suppose it also means that resources should not be directed to their most valued uses, but instead to those uses most valued by the subjective judgement of the technocratic elite.

There are many other logical contradictions in the progressive sustainability mantra. This Scared Cow Chips post from several months ago, “Locavoracious Rent Seeking“, covered the uncritical acceptance of locavorism as “sustainable”.

The reactionary mindset of today’s locavores prevents them from understanding the true nature of “sustainability,” which is best promoted by markets and a willingness to engage in trades that are mutually beneficial.

America’s academic institutions should keep progressive sustainability doctrine at arms length. It is fine as a campus movement, but it is not worthy or appropriate as a set of governing rules for a community of higher learning. Ultimately, it has nothing to do real learning and the process of inquiry.