We hear a lot about sustainability at Whitworth. We have the Sustainability Challenge, a sustainability committee, a Green Pirate, and forks made of potatoes. The Whitworth website officially explains Whitworth’s position: “Whitworth University is committed to promoting an understanding and appreciation of sustainable practices on our campus and in the community and to increasing our employees’ and students’ abilities to participate in a sustainable society.” Yet beneath the compost piles and recycling bins, all is not as it seems. I’ll get right to the point. The concept of sustainability has some serious problems, three of which I will discuss.
First, the term itself is incredibly vague. For instance, the Whitworth website states the University’s goals for sustainability, calling for an education that will “make human/environment interdependence, values, and ethics a seamless and central part of teaching of all disciplines. All students will understand that we are an integral part of nature. They will understand the ecological services that are critical for human existence and how to make the ecological footprint of human activity visible and as benign as possible.”
Unfortunately, making human activity “as benign as possible” is best done, if taken to the logical extreme, by the elimination of human activity. While I highly doubt that this is what Whitworth has in mind, some on the international stage have argued for ways to decrease world population. It raises the question: where should the line be drawn? At what point does being sustainable outweigh human well-being?
Second, efforts at sustainability are generally coercive. Sure, we volunteer to ride our bikes to work for a week, but few people are willing to make the significant lifestyle changes required by the sustainability movement. Consequently, sustainability measures are often imposed from the top down. Whether it be the U.N., the U.S. government, or our very own Whitworth, sustainability measures frequently happen by fiat. For instance, I hear that in days gone by, plastic trays, now extinct, used to frequent the dining hall.
A more contemporary example can be found in Whitworth’s plans to become a bottle-free campus. According to Sodexo General Manager Jim O’Brien, the university is considering a plan to replace all of the bottled-beverage vending machines on campus with canned-beverage machines. Also, Whitworth is considering installing a network of water bottle filling stations across campus, at a cost of about $1200 apiece. Bottled water and soda would no longer be sold in the Café, Coffee Shop, or the stand in Weyerhaeuser, though specialty drinks such as Sobe may still be available. All this would be done to replace the approximately 5,000 bottles purchased on campus per year.
Thirdly, the benefits are often highly overstated or come at a prohibitive economic cost. Too often, something sustainable is merely a PR stunt or political project which provides little actual benefit. For instance, Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center explains that, “Politicians, businesses and environmental activists have been aggressive recently, highlighting the benefits of green projects… The data, however, do not back up these rosy claims—and project supporters often know it. Again and again, when advocates of increased government spending on green projects are asked to support their claims with data, they either fail to provide the data or simply hide the embarrassing reality by refusing to share information.”
Myers highlights several projects in Washington, one of which took place at South Kitsap High School, not far from my home, in which sustainability projects failed to deliver promised results, both in terms of energy and economic efficiency.
This is not to say that the sustainability movement is necessarily bad. However, instead of blindly pursuing sustainability and all that it entails, I would argue that economic efficiency and personal choice should be the guiding factors in deciding what we do to be sustainable. Often, beneficial economic improvements are also sustainable.
Furthermore, if being sustainable can also expand, not restrict, options for individuals and businesses, then it should be pursued. Thus, Whitworth should proceed if it is cost-effective to pay for a network of water bottle filling stations and students who prefer the re-sealable convenience of plastic bottles are still allowed to choose them over cans. However, if the school (or government) unilaterally decides to spend money and reduce student (citizen) choice, then sustainability’s value should be severely questioned.
Whitworth is prone to jumping on board with the latest cultural fads. In this case, Whitworth needs to carefully consider the specifics of exactly how far it wants to go in being sustainable.