Thursday, August 18, 2005

Another economics lesson 

Yesterday I got my weekly email from the Center for the American Experiment, which includes this tidbit by Britt Haugland and Chris Tiedeman, on the freshman reading assigned at St. Olaf (of which both are alums):
A few years ago, St. Olaf was embroiled in controversy for refusing to present diverse points of view during a �peace conference.� Administration officials even refused to allow attorney, author, and American Experiment Board Member Scott Johnson to make a presentation on peace through strength.

Despite the substantial backlash over that incident, administration officials failed to learn their lesson and are now requiring freshmen students to read their environmental essay and take a survey to �gauge their environmental values and ecological literacy.� Officials have done so because they have declared �sustainability� to be the �theme� for the 2005-2006 school year.

According to a St. Olaf news release, the sustainability theme will be promoted through lectures by environmentalists and other campus activities � including communal campus bicycles and a picnic that �will serve locally grown food, including vegetables grown by the student-run St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW), served on biodegradable tableware.�

Incoming students will also be asked to read "The Nature of College," which includes ponderous passages such as this �In this century, earth�s people must learn how to harmonize our lives with the teeming life of a blue-green planet.
I went rooting around, as it were, and found that STOGROW has its own blog, in which its story is told. The story is mainly some kid does an internship on an organic farm, gets the student government to use some of its budget surplus to fund STOGROW. The effort so far, according to the blog, has delivered 15.5 pounds of salad mix, complete with one caterpillar as testament that it's really organic.

But it's the pomposity of the "essay" that students are reading that drives you around the bend. Just try the first paragraph:
You�re coming to college at a good time for imagination and creativity. The 21st century will be the age of the ecological transition, a period when people re-invent their relationships to the world around them. Like the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the ecological revolution will fundamentally change how people understand nature, human nature, and the relationship between them. In this century, earth�s people must learn how to harmonize our lives with the teeming life of a blue-green planet. We must harmonize our �buy-o-sphere� with the biosphere, nesting human economies gently within fragile natural economies. Any college�and especially one that prepares young people for lives of worth and service in a global community�needs to be mindful of this change. And any student who�s thinking of children or grandchildren needs to be a part of it.
My emphasis. Consumption is bad to these people. Two of the three students in STOGROW are off to India and Russia, according to their blog. I want to watch them mouth this inanity in a Russian or Indian village. If they're lucky, the impoverished people there will smile politely.

Do economies "nest gently" in a biosphere? They do when there are sufficient ownership rights given to humans. David Henderson, reviewing a book that I'm surprised isn't on St. Olaf's required reading for its students, makes the point.
If people owned nature, we wouldn't treat it nearly as badly as we sometimes do now. If I owned the water off Pacific Grove, California, to take a recent controversy in my town, I would never let the local government spill sewage into it the way they do now, or at least I would charge the government enough to compensate for the damage. Economists at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and other environmentally conscious "conventional capitalists" have written hundreds of articles and books extending these insights.
Chances are, Ole freshmen won't be reading anything from PERC, either. If they did, they might worry that they're being turned by a bad curriculum into eco-chumps.