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ISSUE 119 VOL 2 PUBLISHED 9/23/2005

Sustainability critique shallow

By Mary Sotos
Contributing Writer

Friday, September 23, 2005

I was angry after I read the criticism of St. Olaf’s sustainability theme on the conservative website The website charges that the College’s theme – more specifically, the essay required for first years, “The Nature of College,” by History Deparment Chair James Farrell – promotes a “liberal agenda” in place of critical thinking. I’m not angry that the article claimed that St. Olaf’s “liberal bias” ruined the theme’s “wonderful opportunity for dialogue and learning.” I’m angry because the article itself ruined the opportunity. The article’s weak argumentation and limited framework has left an awkward and hostile space where legitimate conservative criticism could have been entertained.

There are a variety of critiques a conservative position could make about our sustainability theme. The term “sustainability” itself is vague: Who exactly are we sustaining? Only ourselves? Intellectual Takeout’s essay would suggest that the sustainability of others off the Hill should enter into St. Olaf’s decision-making, but does that fit into the responsibilities we have as citizens and as students?

The goal of social justice, as connected to environmental stability, is apparent in the sustainability theme, but is the sub-goal of social justice a legitimate element of the pursuit of environmental sustainability? When we aim to preserve the land’s integrity, through what lens do we judge that integrity?

Even if we agree upon the basic goals of sustainability – renewable energy, safe food, preserved natural areas – there are a variety of means to achieve these ends. Are our methods the most efficient and economically available?

But Intellectual Takeout touches on none of these scholarly questions. It does make some cheap shots at landfills and economics, shots which any scientist or economist would question. But primarily, the article’s arguments center on the need to preserve a set of cultural values which remain unarticulated in so many words.

The article also points out that Professor Farrell’s paper assumes “we’re burning too much fossil fuel, we’re not eating healthy foods, we’re not respecting workers’ rights, we’re wasteful, and we’re spoiling the environment. Those are serious and controversial charges against our culture.”

Professor Farrell’s statements are indeed normative, and they could be an important springboard for moral and ethical discussions, and for asking questions like, How does one determine what’s “wasteful” and what’s economic self-interest? How does the science of the environment affect our cultural values? Is culture a mutually agreed upon image? What assumptions and biases are inherent in a liberal environmental perspective?

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a short article to address such large issues, but if Intellectual Takeout aims to offer an alternative perspective which challenges college students to see the “other side,” it should represent the “other side” with all the clarity and legitimacy it deserves.

Instead, the article leaves its readers with a surfeit of the kind of generalities and cultural stereotypes that have created today’s polarized, unpleasant and unintelligible political environment, an environment which both conservatives and liberals should lament. Instead of being elevated to a scholarly subject with precision and civility, the sustainability theme has been lumped into the sloppy category of “cultural opinions,” a divisive “us and them” grouping.

Liberal bias in colleges including St. Olaf may be a reality, but “exposing” such a bias through incomplete arguments and reactive vocabulary does not fulfill the larger mission of encouraging students to re-examine their assumptions.

A well-written, thoughtful conservative article about sustainability could have been a crucial keystone in environmental discussions at St. Olaf. But for now, the “nature of college” at St. Olaf remains as unexamined as before, and at a liberal arts institution an unexamined life is to be deplored.

Contriubuting writer Mary Sotos is a junior from Elmhurst, Ill. She majors in environmental studies.

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