Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sustaining trade and education 

Our convocation week was filled with a new passion for "sustainability". We had a special speaker talk about it. We had a lunch filled with locally produced goods. We will now have on campus a farmers' market (until it October -- this is Minne-so-cold doncha know!) Our university president made it a top feature of his convocation speech. Here's a sample:

This morning I�d like to focus on the concept of sustainability in its broadest interpretation � developing and applying best practices to support and nourish all aspects of our university. In business they refer to this perspective as the �triple bottom line��.attending to ecological, social and financial outcomes in managing a business. This perspective is especially important to an institution that must be what it teaches and which cannot accomplish its mission without being a strong, inclusive and anti-racist community. We will accomplish these objectives by making sustainability, most broadly defined, a cornerstone of our identity.
Well that rung a bell in my head, and as I went to remember where I read this it came to me. Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne at the National Association of Scholars has been writing about that very thing all summer. Ashley finds this statement from the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment:
...we recognize our responsibility to minimize our own contributions to global warming and to accelerate education and research to make the transition to a low-carbon, more vibrant and sustainable economy. We believe that taking a leadership role in this effort fits squarely into the educational, research and public service missions of higher education.
Ashley asks if this is true. Peter answers what is to me an interesting question: why now for universities? It's not like the green movement was invented by Al Gore. Peter suggests first that outside groups have pushed for it, and that their success among university presidents and particularly residential life staffs has to do a misunderstanding of the word they use.
�Sustainability� is not the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education. Higher education is a complex enterprise that combines the pursuit of truth through rigorous inquiry with the transmission of culture and civilization from generation to generation; the practical preparation of students for work in fields that require advanced intellectual preparation; and the pursuit of personal excellence, usually in the context of moving to full adulthood.

Some aspects of this involve �sustaining� what already exists. The university builds on intellectual and cultural traditions which must, in some sense, be sustained. But Second Nature, ACUPCC, and others who evoke �sustainability� in this context are engaged in mere word play. We sustain the pursuit of truth by pursuing it; we sustain cultural traditions by participating in them; we sustain complex utilitarian learning by mastering and exploiting it, and if possible extending it. We sustain the pursuit of personal excellence by distinguishing worthy from unworthy goals and pitching ourselves tirelessly toward the former.

There is nothing in these forms of �sustaining� that has any real connection with �sustainability� in the environmental sense, or in the senses of the other appendages of the sustainability movement: sustainability economics and sustainability social justice. The environmental sense of sustainability emphasizes curtailing the use of resources; simplifying; going without; substituting less energy-demanding alternatives; trying to leave the conditions of nature as little perturbed as possible. This ethic of self-erasure is antithetical to much of what is truly foundational to the university, which elevates man�s pursuit of knowledge, not his determination to render himself carbon-neutral.

Sustainability at bottom is a doctrine of doing less. Higher education is at bottom an institution that strives to do more.

What the sustainability movement aims to sustain above all is the earth. What higher education aims to sustain above all is civilization.
What stuck with me from our convocation address was the turning inward of the university: We now have a community garden that says "grow your food here" while we talk about giving our students international experiences. But sending students abroad is about exchange too. And I teach that exchange of values -- embodied in goods, services, or ideas -- is a good thing. Let me imagine using in my principles of economics course this passage discussing trade, from a 2006 editorial by Walter Williams (this is just an exemplar):
Why do we choose to import cocoa, coffee and spices rather than produce them ourselves? The answer is that it is cheaper to do so. That means we enjoy a higher standard of living than if we tried to produce them ourselves. If we can enjoy, say, coffee, at a cheaper price than producing it ourselves, we have more money left over to buy other goods. That principle not only applies to cocoa, coffee and spices. It's a general principle: If a good can be purchased more cheaply abroad, we enjoy a higher standard of living by trading than we would by producing it ourselves.
So do I now believe that, if the president of my university says we will make "sustainability, most broadly defined, a cornerstone of our identity," that I am not at that cornerstone when I teach comparative advantage, the advance of society through specialization and exchange? I will anticipate the answer to be that I have not defined sustainability broadly enough. What I would respond is how fragile the domain of trade has been historically, or even experimentally.

For further reading, Peter Wood offers a look at the organization and goals of the group behind this fusion of sustainability and higher ed. So far the alarmism of the sustainatopians has not reared its head here. All we have is some land devoted to a garden (and a faculty member given time off from classes to tend it) and some vegetables hawked in the student union. But we'll not be surprised when the pressure turns up for social action over intellectual inquiry.

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