Under the Green Thumb: Totalitarian Sustainability on Campus

Adam Kissel

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

I will be Walt Whitman’s thirty-seven years old as this essay goes to print. That’s where the similarities end, for I assume that my atoms are mine and yours are yours. Celebratory songs and dances tend to distract us from thinking rationally.

What concerns me about this Whitman snippet is also what’s wrong with the sustainability movement: the uncritical homogenization of humanity. While later in “Song of Myself” Whitman acknowledges “red, yellow, white, playing within me,” this is not good enough for sustainability advocates, who demand that we all include “green” and must take our responsibilities as world citizens with solemnity. “Respect for diversity” has no room for intellectual diversity, least of all for the oppressive and repressive traditional religions, and there’s little if any room even for capitalism. Whatever their level of tolerance for the accidental external attributes of individuals, sustainability advocates inevitably seek to homogenize people’s deepest values, because their goal is to save Earth from ecological, economic, and social disaster. Everyone must participate—everyone must share the same key values and beliefs—or justice will not be achieved and the planet will be doomed.

The other essays in this issue explain the millenarian character of the sustainability movement, the anti-apocalyptic imperative that makes saving the world seem far more important than individual rights, as well as the convenient importation of a specific social and political agenda into the environmental movement in order to give that agenda the same tinge of absolute necessity that many see in classic environmentalism. I focus here on the totalitarian impulses of, sad to say, the American college campus, the place where a dogmatic unity of views on controversial issues should be least welcomed and most suspect. Strangely, the ready-made conclusions of sustainability ideologues are presented as facts to freshmen, who are encouraged to get with the program rather than think for themselves and potentially reach differing conclusions by the end of their college careers.

Indeed, the point of the “Education for Sustainability” (EFS) agenda is to get everyone educated into the sustainability ideology worldwide, thereby making the world safe and vibrant for all future generations1—and creating a whole new world where everyone agrees with those whom the National Association of Scholars calls “sustainatopians.” The idea is to change students’ thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and habits to conform. The ubiquitous assumptions of EFS are that students are too consumerist, too intolerant, and too capitalist for the planet to survive for more than one or two more generations without quick and fundamental change. This moral, even spiritual re-education, intended to green out every atom of one’s life, stands exactly opposite to the “marketplace of ideas” foundation of liberal education. It is the opposite of liberating the human mind to think and the human soul to discover its deepest identity. It is an everyman education intended, to borrow Whitman’s ambitiously ambiguous line, to get us all to assume. Sing it, all together now: Assume but don’t consume.

“Critical sustainability studies” does not exist yet because too few outsiders are aware of the insidiousness of the agenda. There are plenty of challenges to the theory of human-induced global warming, right or wrong, but extremely few challenges to the sustainability movement on campus. Why would a university president reject the environmental aspect of the movement, at least its most lucrative parts, like persuading students to use less energy and produce less waste on campus? The problem is that like global communism, EFS has designs on the entire university, including the whole curriculum and every private decision of every individual.

Am I just green-baiting? Did the American Chemical Society really declare that on “Chemists Celebrate Earth Day” 2010 the new symbol for carbon will become Gr! to remind people that carbon dioxide has been declared an evil pollutant?2 Shall we Growl out every carbon-dioxide-laced breath to remind ourselves that humans are polluting the earth simply by existing?

Confront Them at Every Turn

Let us begin with the University of Delaware, where the administrators of the university’s sustainability agenda took their utopian mission into the residence halls.3 Residence Life officials, decrying the students’ consumerism as a moral disease, actually called the program a treatment: “through the...curriculum experience (a treatment) specific attitudinal or behavioral changes (learning) will occur.” One wrote that their efforts should leave “a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness” and that students “should be confronted with this information [about sustainability] at every turn.” Indeed the messages of sustainability—environmental, economic, and political—were woven into the fabric of the very places where students slept or talked late into the night, everywhere from elevators to dorm room doors.

These reprogramming sessions had the trappings of cultism; it was a mandatory curriculum from which no student could escape. After an investigation showed that males demonstrated “a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts,” one dorm chose to hire “strong male RAs,” who were enlisted to “[combat] male residents’ concepts of traditional male identity” in order to “ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors.” Mandatory one-on-one sessions asked students about their sexual identity, and one goal (assessed through questionnaires) was to make students tolerant enough to be willing to date people of any gender or sexual preference.

RAs were required to report their “best” and “worst” one-on-one sessions to their superiors, and include students’ names and room numbers. Mandatory group sessions singled out and shamed non-minority students because of their “privilege” within American society. RAs were trained in the zero-tolerance policy against anything “oppressive”—an untoward word would trigger immediate notification of the campus police. Students with “traditional” beliefs had to become “allies” and “change agents” by their senior year. Staff members kept individual files on students and their beliefs—which were to be archived after graduation.

All of this was done under the banner of “sustainability,” since the Residence Life staff insisted that “social justice” and anti-consumerist activities were integral to the sustainability curriculum. In one dorm, all juniors were to “act on the internal belief that societal problems are everyone’s responsibility.” At another, all students “would be asked to make a commitment to reduce their [ecological] footprint by at least 20% before the next one on one meeting.” And at various points throughout the year, students in a third dorm were required to advocate for a “sustainable world” and for an “oppressed” social group. These requirements, and much more, transformed the dorms into indoctrination centers—without the knowledge or assent of the faculty, who were never presented with this “curriculum” in order to assess its merits.

Freshmen had no way to opt out. One RA announced that group sessions gave her “a chance to know how everyone’s doing and where everyone stands on certain issues or topics. Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!!”

Although the University of Delaware program was dismantled almost as soon as it came to public attention, it was far from unique. It received so much attention partly because it had been thoroughly documented; its designers were turning it into an international model. The university began to host annual Residential Curriculum Institutes for residence life officials from around the United States and Canada. More than seventy people from over thirty-five schools registered for the first institute, held in January 2007 and cosponsored by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), which focused on Delaware’s cutting-edge “curricular approach” to re-education.

The International Impulse for Totalitarian Control

Delaware’s ongoing sustainability initiative is part of a worldwide EFS movement, whose totalitarian impulses can only be understood (not excused) in the context of the idea that the earth must be saved from self-destruction and that EFS authorities know best what values everyone must espouse in order to save it.4 As Kerr and her colleagues from other universities wrote in 2006, “We need sustainability literacy and engagement for ALL. This is no longer optional for a viable future.”5 We are now halfway through the United Nations “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development” (2005–2014). UNESCO is the lead agency for the program. Its goal, “to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning,” goes far beyond environmentalism, just as at Delaware. The worldwide project seeks to “encourage changes in behavior that will create a more sustainable future in terms of environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society for present and future generations.”6

The ACPA Sustainability Taskforce, on which Kathleen Kerr, Delaware’s Director of Residence Life, serves as a member, identified several “educational outcomes” around the sustainability agenda.7 Here are some of the universal “competencies” that the university developed out of the ACPA “educational outcomes”:

Each student will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society.

Each student will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression.

Each student will be able to utilize their [sic] knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.

[Each student will d]emonstrate civic engagement toward the development of a sustainable society.8

For Kerr and the staff she trains, these responsibilities entail progressive advocacy on issues including affirmative action, workers’ rights, sweatshops, and gender equity. Obviously, any good citizen of the world would have the correct views on these issues. Thus, those with incorrect views need to grow up and become “competent.”

The Totalitarian Impulse in Residential Curriculum Institutes

Knowing what we know about the Delaware program and Kerr’s role in the ACPA, the description of its third annual Residential Curriculum Institute, held in October 2009, inspires no confidence in ACPA’s ability to contribute to a liberal education:

Ultimately, you will learn to uncover the opportunities to deliver educational messages in every student interaction. These interactions include student check-in, building meetings, RA-student one-on-ones, and survey questions….Residence halls constitute one of the most unconsidered and untapped educational venues on college and university campuses. Hundreds of thousands of undergraduate students live in residence hall environments each year. The inherent physical design of these environments and the shared experience of a concentrated undergraduate population affords each student the access to an unprecedented learning experience; one that will likely never occur again. As student affairs professionals overseeing the direction of residence hall education, we have a responsibility to move beyond simply providing opportunities for learning towards an approach that is intentionally designed for our specific student populations.9 (emphasis added)

The Institute was co-hosted by Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire. Thus, let’s take a look at how liberty is faring at colleges in the land of “Live Free or Die.”

The Totalitarian Impulse at the University of New Hampshire

When Tom Kelly, chief sustainability officer at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), gave a keynote address at ACPA’s June 2009 Institute on Sustainability at Harvard University, this was his topic:

[I]nsights on integrating sustainability into the fabric and culture of university life….The Sustainable Learning Community approach is inclusive and comprehensive and is grounded in a full appreciation of the breadth and depth of change sustainability entails. Sustainability is a big idea—and one ideally suited to liberal education. Sustainability is also a contested idea—a plural concept like democracy and justice that must be owned and made sense of by communities of diverse perspectives and conflicting values and from particular ecological and cultural settings—and sustainability is a practical idea that must be worked out on the ground, concretely and in sync with the rhythms of day-to-day life.

This presentation will raise questions of how we in higher education make our work fundamentally about sustainability. For example, how does sustainability relate to higher education’s other core values and mission and to the most pressing problems of our institutions and the broader society they serve?10

The brief recognition of intellectual diversity here is fully undercut by the demand that sustainability “must be owned” by everyone, whatever other values they might hold. Although the “totalizing narrative” used to be frowned upon, not so for sustainability, which is to be “inclusive and comprehensive” and placed everywhere in “the fabric and culture of university life.” This is the totalitarian impulse at work.

Perhaps most stunning of all is the claim attributed to Kelly that sustainability is “ideally suited to liberal education,” apparently because it is such a “big” idea. Just imagine if “democracy”—or to take an even bigger idea, “religion” or “spirituality”—were to be made integral to the fabric and culture of every aspect of the university, or if every academic department claimed that its biggest idea should have universal status at the university. Being a big and controversial idea does indeed signify that liberally educated persons should critically evaluate it, but no critical analysis of sustainability exists in these plans. The in-crowd knows what the result of any such evaluation must be—that sustainability is a universal moral imperative—and they have already enjoyed considerable success as they have pushed their big idea into the fabric, culture, and curriculum of their universities.

Do not think that this is some rogue educator operating without his university’s blessing. Let’s turn to what UNH thinks sustainability and a “sustainable learning community” really are. Is sustainability at UNH part of a liberal education, or is it guided by a totalitarian impulse?11

Here is UNH’s definition, right from its Office of Sustainability website:

Sustainability is seeing things whole and acting accordingly…Sustainability is a framework for living that focuses on interconnections and requires us to act responsibly in light of them—to make decisions informed by ethical reasoning that is grounded in a holistic perspective.…Sustainability is a social reform project that asks us to critically appraise our institutions, values, and knowledge….Sustainability presents the inescapable questions of “what is the good life” and “how do we organize society to sustain a good life now and for generations to come, for everyone?” People have been asking these questions for thousands of years, and so sustainability is not a new concept. But when we talk about sustainability, most of the old, familiar rules no longer apply: this is the case not only for organizational boundaries, but for moral, ethical and intellectual boundaries as well.12

Yes, at UNH, there are new rules for how to answer fundamental questions about the value, meaning, and purpose of life, and UNH has the answers ready, packaged in a holistic “framework for living.” The following diagram maps out how to have this “integrity,” which lies at the center of UNH’s sustainable learning community, where climate, culture, and everything else meet in harmony.13

The person of integrity is thus fully green—and fully engaged in taking responsibility for society and culture as well. This picture of integrity at the center of human responsibility is covered with at least two or three green overlays.14

The millennialism of sustainability is not far away, and it is familiarly melodramatic:

What we continue to conclude is necessary for the “good life” impacts future generations and the planet as a whole on a dramatic scale. As a result, the need for all societies to embrace sustainability has never been more urgent—for the future of humanity and for many of the fellow species and systems that share the planet with us and support our survival.15

Here, then, is the Office of Sustainability’s totalizing mission for liberal education:

Everything is curriculum, and everyone is an educator.…Even just walking across a campus itself and noticing the diversity of people and the elements of the campus landscape can inform and influence students, faculty, and staff in subtle yet profound ways. Imagine the impact, then, when a college or university integrates sustainability throughout its core mission and identity.

By this point, the absurd self-contradictions of this EFS plan should be evident. We are to be deliberative citizens, yet we all must end up with the same anti-consumerist, pro-sustainability opinions:

Colleges and universities can be places of “inclusive dialogue, public deliberation, and broad citizen participation”—“all essential to the continuing development of a healthy democratic society” and to sustainability more broadly (5). By fostering opportunities for reflection, deliberation, dialogue, study, growth, and change, colleges and universities can help transform us from consumers driven solely by convenience and price back into engaged citizens with the capacity to foster sustainability.

Education in our time can, should, and must promote sustainability.16

This is not liberal education. It is not a liberal education when we are free only to agree and are pervasively re-educated if we disagree. It is the opposite of a liberal education if we deliberate only about the means of achieving the totalizing ideal of sustainability and not about the mission of sustainability itself.

The Totalitarian Impulse in Action at Dartmouth College

How is sustainability defined at Dartmouth? Again, it covers everything; it is a lifestyle and a “world outlook” where the consequence of every choice leaves a “just and sustainable future” hanging in the balance:

We all make choices that have consequences for how long we and subsequent generations can extract resources from the earth and maintain a quality of life. Everything from the way we power our society to the choices we make as consumers determines whether we will achieve a just and sustainable future.

To learn more about incorporating sustainability practices into your lifestyle and world outlook…17

Something everyone at Dartmouth can do right now is take the “Dartmouth Energy Pledge” (those interested must actually sign in with a Dartmouth username and password). By signing the pledge, “participants agree to take simple actions that, collectively over time, will have a discernible impact on the amount of energy we consume and greenhouse gas emissions we produce…These are small and simple changes, but until we make them we are still wasting precious energy” (emphasis in original).18 Accessing the pledge requires a Dartmouth ID, but the college also encourages making a commitment, for example, to “Go trayless in the dining halls and conserve hot water for washing them” and “Share study space rather than studying alone in a room with overhead lighting.”

Many more tips are found under the headings “Living,” “Eating,” “Partying,” and even “Studying”: “Edit papers on your computer instead of printing them”; “Use a dry-erase board instead of sticky notes to write reminders to yourself”. You should feel guilty if you aren’t studying according to the recommended guidelines of the Dartmouth “sustainabullies.”19 Every activity at Dartmouth falls under the moral authority of the Dartmouth Sustainability Initiative—and that’s almost entirely in the environmental sphere alone. Stay tuned for Dartmouth to apply its similar moral certitude about “justice” into every area of life.20

Delaware, UNH, and Dartmouth may be among the forerunners in sustainabullying—they all point to their awards in leading the way to a new world order—but they are by no means idiosyncratic. Five minutes on any office of sustainability website at an American college or university will persuade you that the totalitarian impulse reaches everywhere in the sustainability movement. It’s nearly impossible for an institution of higher learning to avoid that impulse once it commits to doing its part to save the planet, signs the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, hires a sustainability officer, and starts up a sustainability office.21

Even if the focus concentrates almost exclusively on the environmental sphere, the totalitarian impulse soon follows. In the summer of 2006 at Dartmouth, for instance,

the Dartmouth Sustainability Office, in collaboration with the student groups and college officials, revamped Home Plate dining hall with the goal of changing people’s habits from disposability to a more environmentally sound dining experience.…Now at Home Plate, almost all of the formerly packaged foods, including milk cartons, condiments and sodas, are served from bulk containers. Disposable tableware has been replaced with reusable. The few packaged items for which no substitutes could be found are sorted and recycled, and all food waste is composted and put directly back into the campus landscaping. The goal, quite simply, is to change the diner’s mindset. In the world Dartmouth students will inherit, habits of zero-waste will become the norm.22

Since when did a liberal education include this type of behavior modification? “Live Free or Die” no longer applies for New Hampshire’s college students. Their sole choice now is “Live Sustainably or Die.”

The word “totalitarian” should not be used lightly; there have been few occasions in history where everything down to the smallest detail has been held under the moral or disciplinary thumb of the authorities. The Puritans, for instance, were very good at establishing such a regime. Fringe religions tend to be the best at doing so. But who ever would have thought that the most totalitarian places in America would be our college campuses?

  • Share
Most Commented

April 16, 2021


Social Justice 101: Intro. to Cancel Culture

Understanding the illogical origin of cancel culture, we can more easily accept mistakes, flaws, and errors in history, and in ourselves, as part of our fallen nature....

April 19, 2021


Critical Race Theory and the Will to Power

A review of "1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project" by NAS President Peter W. Wood....

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

Most Read

August 23, 2021


Testing the Tests for Racism

What is the veracity of "audit" studies, conducted primarily by sociologists, that appear to demonstrate that people of color confront intense bias at every level of society?...

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

March 29, 2019


Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty

A study on the partisanship of liberal arts professors at America's top universities. ...