The global-warming crusade has suffered a devastating blow in recent months. Its credibility has plummeted with each new headline about its gatekeepers' scientific shenanigans. But the scandal hasn't stopped the environmental avant-garde from moving on to an even more ambitious agenda. On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the quest to "save the Earth" is morphing into the hot new cause of "sustainability."
We're in the midst of the United Nations' "Decade of Education for Sustainable Development." Across the Atlantic, the European Union trumpets its "sustainable development strategy." Here at home, American colleges and universities are scrambling to climb on the bandwagon. Organizations promising to usher in a brave new dawn include the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium.
Sustainability isn't just about new, improved ideas for composting and green building design. For true believers, the word's beauty is its open-endedness. In many cases, folks with a burning desire to transform the world are using the concept to piggy-back on legitimate environmental concerns and open the door to every left-wing cause under the sun. One observer put it succinctly: Sustainability is "a bucket with no bottom."
One example: At a "Tools for Social Justice Conference" in 2006, Keith Edwards of Macalester College and Kathleen Kerr of the University of Delaware revealed the all-encompassing nature of the sustainability movement's agenda. It's a myth, they instructed their audience, that "sustainability is mostly about the environment." The concept's reach extends to issues ranging from "environmental racism" and "domestic partnerships" to "fair trade" and "gender equity."
You can understand how sustainability is metastasizing when you consider the concept's origins. It burst on the scene in 1987 with a report called "Our Common Future," produced by a U.N. commission chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Before the U.N. report, the environmental movement -- though often marked by a reflexive crisis mentality -- had generally focused on protecting the physical environment. But the Bruntland report injected a game-changing idea. It declared that all of the world's problems, from racism and sexism to poverty and underdevelopment, are "interlocking," with roots in environmental devastation and human greed, and the only way to prevent a worldwide cataclysm is to launch a massive ideological reorientation, radically transforming our culture and institutions.
Guess who's in charge of saving the world in this scenario? Folks who claim expert knowledge of the interrelated crises that they insist threaten us all. These sages view themselves as morally authorized to reorder humanity's economic and social arrangements. The rest of us must do as we're told.
Grandiose schemes like that envisioned by "Our Common Future" always lead to the totalitarian impulse to regulate and control others for their own good. We see it creeping into institutions such as the University of Delaware. There, several years ago, "sustainabullies" imposed a notorious Residence Life program on 7,000 students living in UD's dorms.
In the name of sustainability, students were pressured to embrace university-approved dogma on race, same-sex marriage and wealth redistribution. Dorm resident advisers interrogated them with questions such as "When did you discover your sexual identity?" Underclassmen were expected to develop ideological "competencies" like the following: "Each student will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression." Eventually, a public outcry led to modifications in the program.
Sustainability is more than a big idea with totalitarian implications. Physicist Freeman Dyson, an avowed environmentalist, has observed that this brand of environmentalism has "replaced socialism as the leading secular religion."
"The credo of sustainability is that the earth, humanity and life itself will be extinguished by human greed and folly unless we truly repent," adds historian Glenn Ricketts of the National Association of Scholars. "Reducing your carbon footprint is not enough. We must also submit to new structures of authority in which those who possess the wisdom of 'interconnectedness' will make the right decisions for us. We must relinquish capitalism ... [and] reorder human society to rid ourselves of the age-old scourges of hierarchy, racism and sexism."
Ricketts concludes: Sustainability provides the Big Idea -- "the thing, the system, the beliefs that encompass and explain everything" -- that secularized intellectuals have been searching for the last 250 years. It's the Holy Grail, opening the way for them to regulate every aspect of life.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.