21 April 2011

I have stepped in the foolishness. I mean, I have taken the UMD Sustainability Quiz.

I was just spammed by the UMD Office of Sustainability to take a quiz about ... "sustainability."

Normally I would immediately delete such requests for my time, but this one comes with a chance to win some burritos, and it's almost lunch time and I'm hungry and man does a burrito sound tempting to me.

Taking the quiz was a big mistake. It was the most economically illiterate thing I have been exposed to all week, and I've read some dreadful things this week.* I may yet get free burritos out of this deal, but I'm not sure it will be worth exposing my mind to such silliness.

Here's the quiz, go see for yourself. It reads like one of those indoctrinating "assignments" I took endlessly in public schools. You know the sorts of things, with the leading questions and false choices that are supposed to make you "learn" while being tested. Things like "Alcohol is (a) completely and totally harmless no matter how much you drink; (b) a drug; (c) an excuse for any behavior no matter how outrageous." (That wasn't from this quiz, obviously, just something I would have had to answer in school. I can't go back and get the actual quiz content now that I've submitted it. (Or I could, probably, if I bother to fire up Tor and pretend to be someone else, but I won't. Even though that would take less effort than explaining this. Oh well.))

One of the questions on this quiz boiled down to, essentially, is recycling good or bad? There was no way to say something like "that depends on the material: recycling aluminum is a good idea, but under current conditions recycling colored glass is nothing more than a resource-wasting act of quasi-religious obedience." The way the question was worded was great if the point is to reinforce the social pressure to recycle everything, but it was terrible if the idea was to be accurate or scientific in any way.

To top off the economic ignorance and patronizing tone, it was a good example of how environmentalism has sadly become another branch of the wider Left secular religion rather than a movement or goal in its own right. Why does the author of this quiz about sustainibility feel it is appropriate to hector me about not shopping at Walmart and buying Fair Trade instead, or about the importance of providing employer-mediated health care plans to manufacturing workers? What does that have to do with the topic at hand?

I love Nature, and I think conservation is important. But unfortunately most other people who do have a tightly correlated cluster of beliefs which include a bunch of other nonsense, and feel the need to lump them all together rather than letting them be orthogonal to each other.

The universityadministrationscreams bloody murder every time the legislature cuts doesn't increase their funding enough. Professors are being furloughed. I haven't gotten the annual raise I was told to expect since 2006. But there's money in the budget for the Office of Sustainability to hold an Earth Day Festival with a Fair Trade Marketplace giving away free Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

* Speaking of which, I was reading The Forever War last night, because I've been hearing it recommended constantly for years, and a copy finally became available at the 'brary. It's good, and Haldeman clearly knows his physics,** but I just got to the point where the protagonist returns to Earth after decades away (only a couple of years for him, due to relativistic time dilation) and has to deal with everything that has changed while he's been away. This is the point where economics become relevant, and honestly, everything goes to shit. Took me right out of the story. Good for Haldeman for recognizing how widespread black markets become in the presence of top-down rationing, but Haldeman does know the Lump of Labor Fallacy is a fallacy, right? I can accept faster-than-light travel, and all the rest of the military sci-fi gimcrackery, but I can not suspend disbelief enough to accept Malthusianism and the rest of the zero-sum silliness.

** I will give lots of credit for noticing that when a warship travels at relativistic speeds it will arrive at its destination and have to fight enemies who are effectivelyfrom the future (from the ship's frame of reference, of course). That little wrinkle of R&D and relativity is something I had never thought of or read before.

PS The author of this quiz — Perhaps a Mr. Mark Stewart, Sustainability Manager, who signed the email informing of it — as well as Joe Haldeman, ought to read this 2010 article by Ron Bailey, "Sustainability Semantics."

PPS Failing that, they should read these two posts by David Friedman, which more directly get to the point of the uselessness of "sustainability" as a word and concept.
My university is very big on sustainability. A quick search of its web site failed to produce any clear definition of the term, but I think a reasonable interpretation, based on the word itself and how I see it being used, is that it means doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them in that way forever. If so, the idea that sustainability is an essential, even an important, goal strikes me as indefensible.
The first post begins, quite appropriately for this circumstance:
To see why, imagine what it would have meant c. 1900. The university existed, it had a lot of students and faculty. None of them had automobiles. Many, presumably, had horses. Sustainability would have included assuring a sufficient supply of pasture land for all those horses into the indefinite future. It might have included assuring a sufficient supply of firewood. It would, in other words, have meant making preparations for a future that was not going to happen. [...]
Here is part of second post:
A commenter on my previous post informs me that:
The generally accepted definition comes from the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
There are two problems with this definition. The first is that implementing it requires us to predict what the future will be like in order to know what the needs of future generations will be. Consider two examples [...]

Generalizing the point, "sustainability" becomes an argument against whatever policies one disapproves of, in favor of whatever policies one approves of, and adds nothing beyond a rhetorical club with which partisans can beat on those who disagree with them.


  1. I can't go back and get the actual quiz content now that I've submitted it.

    I saved it as a pdf, if you'd like.

    But there's money in the budget for the Office of Sustainability to hold an Earth Day Festival with a Fair Trade Marketplace giving away free Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

    I'll wager the ice cream was donated. And written off on taxes.

    Earth Day Festivals are bread and circuses for the enlightened.

    but Haldeman does know the Lump of Labor Fallacy is a fallacy, right?

    I wager he does, now. He was a pretty young guy when he wrote it. I suppose the UMD education served him well ...

  2. I didn't even realize Haldeman went to UMD. Oh the serendipity!

  3. Yeah, I read TFW recently and was struck by how prescient it seemed. Kind of similar to how the world seems to get more and more like that depicted in Atlas Shrugged, no matter how much I hate to admit it.