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PAQUETTE: Forget polar bears - save the conservatives

At one college, caring for the environment means killing off an endangered species

- - Friday, April 20, 2012

Presidents of most of this country's leading liberal arts colleges, including my own, have rushed to commit themselves in highly public ways to sustainability programs designed to engage the entire campus in the fight to save the planet from global warming. Yet, curiously, their behavior and that of the boards of trustees that surround them have exposed a rather callous blindness to the critical habitats of endangered species. At Hamilton College, the conservative professor is verging on extinction. A similar problem, I'm told, exists at Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams. None of these campuses has considered issuing, as far as I can tell, an environmental-impact statement.

A few months ago, I emailed a warning to members of the board of trustees at Hamilton College in an attempt to raise their awareness about the origin of the conservative species, its many varieties and their role in maintaining a healthy campus ecosystem. My sense is that many members of the board lacked essential knowledge about the species and the campus predators endangering it. The predominant group on campus, the "progressive"species, has, in a remarkably short period of time, proliferated like the horses and cattle first brought to the Americas by the Spanish.

Some trustees, I'm sure, recognize the conservative species but regarded its extinction as providing benefits to more desired forms of life inhabiting the expensive cubbies and warrens of the postmodern campus. Some trustees simply regard the predominant progressive species as both smarter and sturdier than the conservative variety. I suspect some might concede in the name of humanity a habitat for the conservative species on campus, but only under strict conditions and regulations so that it would be confined to the campus's marginal wasteland, where they thought it belonged. There it would only minimally disturb the lives of the predominant species, and if some wealthy concerned alumni were truly desirous of seeing the dying breed, they could view conservatives in the bush as a kind of a zoolike curiosity.

During the summer of 2011, impressive evidence surfaced of the extent of climate change that had favored the rapid growth of the predominant progressive species on Hamilton's campus during the past 30 years of my record-keeping. Swirling winds had brought word to the predominant species that an off-campus group of conservatives, a family of struggling farmers, had entered into an agreement with an energy exploratory company in a way that might benefit themselves and other off-campus conservative varieties like them. The progressive species on campus, quite territorial in its behavior, swarmed, buzzing like bees with frantic, often hysterical, messages about the evils of wealth creation by "hydrofracking" and how it would harm their preferred sheltered and protected environment on College Hill Road.

"A coalition of landowners who collectively own more than 10,000 acres" on and near the campus, warned the progressives, had "already contracted with a consulting group to negotiate with gas companies" on private property, where this dying breed of conservatives is desperately trying to survive at a time of high taxes and economic stagnation in New York state. One member of the predominant species compared hydrofracking with sex slavery and drug use. Another circulated as authoritative evidence about hydrofracking's evils a video from an allied group, headed by actor Danny Glover, a man who appears determined to eliminate the habitats for conservative species wherever they are found. Anti-business, anti-capitalist rhetoric was rife in trying to put a stop to behavior that was deemed threatening to the campus environment where the progressives thrived by a strong sense of entitlement.

Reasoning based on a worst-case scenario abounded among them. No discussion occurred among the species's members about the sanctity of private property rights, essential to life for the conservative species. Little was said about economic trade-offs and voluntary exchanges necessary for wealth creation and natural reproduction beneficial to all species. It was as if the predominant species wanted to keep the off-campus conservative species poor and marginalized.

Within 72 hours in the dead of summer, a substantial majority of the predominant species signed on to a petition that demanded "governmental intervention" to preserve their preferred habitats both on and off campus. Without governmental intervention, they insisted, hydrofracking would thrive in the area, and off-campus varieties of conservatives would grow wealthy and multiply in this changed environment. Heated imaginations conjured up images of obtrusive wellheads, contaminated water supplies, devastated landscapes, air pollution and 18-wheel trucks racing up and down College Hill Road, all in service to the expansion of the conservative species. Why, they said, Hamilton College would have an admissions crisis because the natural beauty of the entire region would be destroyed if the conservative species off campus prospered from hydrofracking.

The signatories to the petition demanded that leadership at Hamilton College "take an active role in discussions at the town level, and also to advocate at the county and state level, to preserve" the pristine habitat of the college's predominant species and to allow their aggressive species Lebensraum.

Please note, I told the trustees, that nowhere in the petition did the predominant progressive species on campus suggest that Hamilton College might use a small part of its $700 million endowment to purchase the subsoil rights to the farmers' land. Nor did it seek to address the causes of skyrocketing property taxes in the town of Kirkland, among the highest property taxes in the state, which have forced struggling conservative farmers to look for alternative sources of income so that they could continue to hold on to their nesting places. But my major point in mentioning all of this to Hamilton's board of trustees: I do not exaggerate the dangers to the conservative species on campus. In a few years, the Hamilton College campus may well have none.

Robert L. Paquette is a history professor at Hamilton College and co-founder of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.