George Will Goes Mad Over Campus Sustainability

George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative American newspaper columnist, journalist, and author is interviewed by AP
George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative American newspaper columnist, journalist, and author is interviewed by AP writer Hillel Italie on politics, history, and life without the late William F. Buckley, at Will's office in Washington's Georgetown district, Tuesday, April 22, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Syracuse University's recent announcement that it is divesting from fossil fuel holdings has prompted George Will, who was once upon a time a thoughtful and independent conservative, to fire off another right-wing screed. In an April 15 column in the Washington Post, Will fumes about the campus sustainability movement, which he deems a kind of fundamentalism.

Apparently, a set of practices and principles designed to ensure that human civilization has a future on this planet is akin to religious zealotry. The upsurge of environmental consciousness on college campuses is, according to Will, based on assumed but largely groundless premises, is inattentive to costs, amounts to "a crusade [that] supplies acolytes with a worldview that infuses their lives with purpose and meaning," relies on apocalyptic rhetoric, and pushes orthodoxy. As Director of Environmental Studies at a liberal arts college, I am presumably part of this fundamentalist crusade and acknowledge at least one of his points. Yes, the campus sustainability movement and the environmental movement in general do provide a sense of "purpose and meaning." Perhaps a society that increasingly offers either low-wage service jobs or a life of unending, senseless money-making and consumption fueled by overwork has become a bit short on purpose and meaning. For young people concerned about what kind of a society and what kind of a planet they are inheriting, working toward a more equitable and ecologically healthy future seems a pretty good way to seek purpose and meaning. Sure, sustainability can, like any other set of practices or values, turn doctrinaire at times. And instances of overheated apocalyptic rhetoric are not foreign to the environmental movement, though the apocalyptic predictions are uncomfortably close to scientific reality. Nor is apocalyptic language unique to environmentalism. How many times have industries invoked the specter of economic catastrophe to resist even the most sensible and measured pieces of regulation?

Will, one of the last true believers in the Lost Cause of climate denialism, is too intellectually dishonest or maybe just too ignorant to heed the overwhelming empirical evidence substantiating climate change and other serious environmental challenges. He also offers the usual selective appeal to the "costs" of environmental action. Yet nowhere does he mention the profound social and ecological costs of doing nothing to combat problems like climate change, or, for those with a narrower view of the bottom line, the folly of continued investment in fossil fuel assets that will be "stranded" as regulations inevitably tighten on carbon emissions.

The truth is that Will is himself motivated by a fundamentalism, namely the religious faith in the benefits of virtually unregulated markets, limitless economic growth, and insatiable consumption that has dominated our society since at least 1980. What terrifies Will is not global warming or other ecological threats, but the supposed policy implications of acknowledging environmental problems. For him, the sustainability movement is about putting "government planners and rationers" in charge. The movement seeks to "supplant markets." It is rife with "anti-capitalism" and has communitarian overtones. And, God help us, it's partly funded by the EPA.

Yes, in fact, environmentalism dares criticize the dogma of unregulated capitalism and advocates more attention to community in a society where self-interested, acquisitive individualism is ascendant. So, I might add, do lots of other political perspectives across the spectrum, from conservatism to socialism. As for his invocation of the boogeyman of government planning, I wonder if Will is similarly outraged about the use of eminent domain to ram oil pipelines through private property. He also needs to do his homework. Though global environmental problems demand some planning at the national or even international level, the contemporary sustainability movement is at least as much about restoring local resiliency and self-reliance through efforts like community-supported agriculture, environmental justice, local renewable energy development, and neighborhood revitalization as it is about regulation from Washington. These efforts have more in common with good old-fashioned Jeffersonian republicanism than they do with centralized planning.

Will might have offered a serious conservative perspective on addressing problems like climate change. Too bad he has decided to act as little more than a partisan hack.