About the Author

Avatar photo

Dr. Ron Smith

Sustainability and the role of the university

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

It appears from my local paper that, along with Unitech, the University of Waikato has formally committed itself to the United Nations Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, which was part of the much-reported June, Rio + 20, process.  This is to be regretted.  The decision appears to have been taken without much consultation, or any reflection on what the implications might be for teaching and learning and for the role of the university in society.  It is more than a mere vacuous declaration of virtue.  It is yet another assault on the whole notion of the university as a centre for critical thought, and as a source of contestable advice on public issues.

The Vice-Chancellor’s signature on this declaration commits the University to teach ‘sustainable development concepts’ (so that future graduates) ‘have an explicit understanding of how to achieve a society that values people, the planet and profits in a manner that respects the finite resource boundaries of the earth’.  In a recent blog (‘Hard questions about nuclear weapons’) I commented on the extent to which discussion on important issues is closed down by official policy settings and by the political prejudices of those who control the process.  This is yet another example.

The whole thesis that there is a ‘sustainability’ crisis and that it requires urgent global attention, depends on a substructure of belief in such things as global warming, irreplaceable resource depletion ‘footprints’, and gathering problems of poverty and disease.  All of these are, to a greater or lesser extent, disputable, and ought to be disputed, if unnecessary and counter-productive action is to be avoided.  For a university to institutionally prejudge these things is an offence to scholarship and a serious disservice to the community on whose support they depend.  Whether the University leadership knows it or not, it has now made itself part of a global political campaign, which goes beyond the promotion of a persistent ‘narrative’ (don’t you just love that word!) that human beings are destroying the planet, to the advocacy of a world-order which has the potential to radically alter the social and political rights of New Zealanders.

The fear that humanity faces calamity, as crucial resources run out, is an old one.  More than 150 years ago, the focus was on coal, which was then crucial to the industrial revolution.  Around a hundred years ago, the problem was hay for the horses on which transportation depended.  Fifty years back, takes us to the crisis of ‘peak oil’ (more recently undermined by the discovery of enormous workable shale deposits).  This year it was the scarcity of ‘rare earths’ that was to be our undoing.

Contrary to the fears expressed in the 1950s, we are feeding more people than ever before.  A recent World Bank study also shows that there has been a sharp reduction in global poverty.  And then there is anthropogenic global warming; now re-christened ‘climate change’.  As far as this is concerned, the record appears to show that temperatures fell over the period 1940-80, giving rise to fears of a repeat of the mini ice-age of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  This was then followed by a period of rising temperatures, during which the Rio-process, with all its attendant political responses (such as carbon-charges), got underway.  We are now in a cooling period.  Here, too, it looks as if it would be prudent to keep our options open, as to what is going to happen and what we will need to do about it.

The point is not that we should not take these possible/potential problems seriously.  It is that we should not close down discussion upon them and pre-judge their outcome.  As a society, we stand a chance of damaging our interests if we do so.  For a university to do this is simply a disgrace.  There is too much in the system already that means that post-graduate candidates proposing to undertake disfavoured lines of inquiry are less likely to obtain financial support, or even have their enrolment refused altogether.

There is a broader moral here.  The ‘science’ is never settled and the history of humanity suggests that human ingenuity is almost limitless.  We need to make sure that we do not cut ourselves off from this potential.  Governments need to make sure that their options are not constrained by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy and a halo of self-serving advisors.  They also need to make sure that they get the best out of their universities by ensuring that they function effectively as ‘critic and conscience’ of society, as required by the 1989 Education Act.  For this, the emphasis must return to support for open-ended research and institutional respect for academic freedom.  It must retreat from the entirely misplaced notion that the value of such research can be evaluated, at the time that it is going on, by earnest committees of other academics, which can only have the effect of increasing the power of those in authority to impose their will and increase corruption in the system overall, as recent events, recognised by the Tertiary Education Commission, have revealed (widespread ‘gaming’ by university administrations of the performance based research funding system).  It is just another part of our higher education arrangements, which are really not working well.  This is the real ‘sustainability’ problem.