Rooting and Weeding: Sustainability and Its Critics

Peter Wood

Sustainability has been a significant movement in American higher education for about a decade. For about half that time, the National Association of Scholars has been calling attention to it as an emergent ideology that weaves together some relatively innocent concerns, such as cutting campus costs for heat and power, with more doubtful and sometimes extreme positions. Sustainability, for example, has provided the most popular rubric for advancing the idea that the best approach to the fundamental economic problem of scarcity is the maximal conservation of existing resources. The role of human inventiveness and the possibility of material progress are derogated by sustainability advocates in favor of what amounts to a neo-Malthusian view of human circumstances. We are running out of resources and, with that shortage in view, must needs be prepared for some stringent forms of rationing.

Sustainability has also provided a platform for some who hold that free markets are themselves to blame for the profligate wasting of the world’s abundance, and some who go a step further and hold that private property is the root of such evil. Elsewhere in sustainability’s increasingly big tent can be found advocates of radical reduction in world population, foes of Western “rationality” and the industrial revolution, and proselytizers for worshipping (literally) Mother Earth.

It may be a bit hard to conceive of this grab bag of ideas as part of a single movement, but spend some time among the sustainatopians and you will gradually resolve the larger picture. Sustainability has a few key ideas, some dominant symbols, and a shared ethos. It is about saving the natural world and (part of) humanity from ecological catastrophe. What precisely that catastrophe might be varies according to apocalyptic vision, but global warming caused by runaway human production of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” is the current favorite.

Beyond that, the sustainability movement is a congeries of small sectarian groups bidding for resources and attention, and the contemporary college campus has become one of the principal arenas of the contest. The movement first came into focus for NAS in fall 2007, when we learned about the University of Delaware’s dorm-based student indoctrination program—a program that was overtly about coercing students to accept “progressive” doctrine on topics such as white racism and same-sex marriage, but which was oddly named a “sustainability” program.

The term suggested that the program was meant to address environmentalist concerns, which led us to wonder how it could be used as an envelope for progressive doctrines far removed from clean air and water. The answer, as we soon found, was that the sustainability movement had defined itself more ambitiously. It wasn’t just about “the environment,” but also about advancing an economic vision (generally socialist) and a political agenda (centered on ideas about “social justice” and piquantly anti-Western in character). As Barry Commoner, the most celebrated environmentalist of an earlier generation, used to intone, “Everything is connected to everything else.”1

Advocates of this tripartite agenda adopted as a handy symbol three overlapping circles, typically labeled “environment,” “economy,” and “social justice,” with the overlap designated “sustainability.” The device makes its obligatory appearance on page 89 of James Martin and James E. Samels’s, The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders—though with the key terms tweaked to “natural environment,” “economic vitality,” and “healthy communities.”2 The caption explains: “The space where these three circles overlap may represent the optimal area of opportunity for sustainability efforts.”

NAS began to follow the sustainability movement intently in spring 2008. We started tracking sustainability programs in residence life at other colleges and universities in a series titled, “How Many Delawares?” I published a piece, “Sustainability’s Third Circle,” in Inside Higher Ed, and Ashley Thorne and I began to turn out dozens and then scores of short reports on the movement’s history and tactics.3 In summer 2009, I presented “The Sustainability Movement in the American University” at a conference in Switzerland, where I synthesized our results to that point.4 This led to a special issue of Academic Questions (Spring 2010) on sustainability, including Glenn Ricketts’s invaluable essay, “The Roots of Sustainability,” tracing the divergence of the sustainability movement from modern environmentalism beginning with Rachel Carson.5 Some of the articles in the online version of that issue of AQ became among the most heavily trafficked in the journal’s history. Later in 2010 I published a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “From Diversity to Sustainability: How Campus Ideology Is Born,” which drew considerable attention and prompted the Chronicle to offer me a spot as one of its twice-weekly academic bloggers.6 In April 2011, we issued one of NAS’s rare policy statements, Fixing Sustainability and Sustaining Liberal Education.7

Ashley and I have continued to birddog this topic, but always with the strange feeling that we seem not to have very many people at our back. In the world of higher education reformers, we sometimes seem nearly alone in thinking that there is anything worrisome about the rise on campus of a vigorous movement that compounds environmental doom-mongering, pseudo-science, Malthusian despair, and the ostracism of critics. Of course, that movement also compounds recycling boxes, bans on bottled water, trayless cafeterias, compost piles behind the dorms, and reminders to turn off the lights when you leave the room. The very banality of the most visible side of the movement makes it harder to take seriously that there is any great danger to the academic enterprise.

But the sustainability movement is rapidly institutionalizing itself. It is becoming integral to American higher education the way “diversity” did a generation ago. That is to say, the sustainability movement is positioning itself to ensure that the ideology commands regular budget lines, personnel, and permanent influence on key decisions.

Exhibit A is Martin and Samels’s edited volume The Sustainable University. It is not the sort of work that will attract a general readership: turgid prose interspersed with bullet-pointed tables, here and there enlivened in chapter 13 (“Sustainability and Higher Education Architecture: Best Practices for Institutional Leaders,” by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s sustainability writer Scott Carlson) with gray photographs of the Dorothy D. and Roy Park Center for Business and Sustainable Enterprise at Ithaca College, a stairwell at the Peggy Ryan Williams Center (same college) and Unity House at Unity College in Maine, the Applied Research and Development Building at Northern Arizona State, and the Oregon Sustainability Center at Portland State.

If dullness were fatal, this book might administer the coup de grâce to the sustainability movement. But dullness is only chronic and, alas, sustainable. The Sustainable University will do its part in helping “higher education leadership” turn sustainability from a campus enthusiasm into a more permanent obstacle to liberal education. The book, however, also serves as a kind of Cook’s tour to the key sustainability advocacy groups, leaders in the movement, and current areas of aggrandizement. A preface by Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), draws attention to STARS—the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System—as helpful only up to a point. Rowland calls on academic leaders to press beyond the “low hanging fruit” to discover more aggressive approaches. He has in mind “new forms of sustainability education” that will be “high-impact” and include “first-year experience, place-based education, and service learning.” Sustainability education is more than “preparing problem solvers.” It is “meaning making,” and requires “presidents, provosts, and their faculties [to] develop deeper and richer understandings of what we mean by sustainability” (x–xi).

This sort of writing is no doubt intended to rally the faithful to redouble their efforts, and there is much more in the volume that follows suit. It is curious, however, how often the twenty-eight contributors adopt the tone of moral reproof. Yes, the college and university administrators have generally met our demands, but do they deep down believe with utter earnestness what we need them to believe? Those academic administrators are too often “caught searching for solutions that are not too radical for the board and not too conservative for the current sustainability director and next year’s student consumers,” write Martin and Samels in the first chapter (5). They offer advice on how to push the needle “to institutionalize sustainability thinking” (5). Their answers tend in a single direction: think of sustainability in the broadest possible terms and push past any current standards, such as LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—which sets stringent rules for new buildings.

Anthony Cortese, co-founder of Second Nature and of AASHE, and the co-organizer of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, contributes a chapter of existential angst. It seems “American higher education now faces a challenge larger and more severe than any it has ever addressed” (17). Indeed, “industrial capitalism” constitutes “a planetary force comparable in disruptive power to the Ice Ages and the asteroid collisions that previously directed Earth’s history” (17). Under the circumstances, of course, college presidents need to get busy changing “the content of learning” with both “lateral rigor” and “vertical rigor” (22). And higher education will have to both “practice and model sustainability” (22).

There is plenty more of this to go around—nearly three hundred pages, all told—and I will not tax readers by quoting much more of it. The important point is that these contributors—Rowland, Martin, Samels, Cortese, and many of the others—are indeed prominent figures in a movement that strongly influences how contemporary American higher education allocates its material resources, decides whom to appoint to the faculty, and determines what to teach. If they sound a double espresso or two over the line in their eagerness to advance their cause, maybe we ought to pay attention.

Eight of those contributors are sustainability directors on their campuses—a profession that didn’t exist a decade ago, but which now has its own professional association with hundreds of members: the International Society of Sustainability Practitioners. (The keynote address at the society’s 2011 conference was marine biologist turned advocacy filmmaker Randy Olson offering the sustainatopians tips on “Communicating with the Zombie Masses.”)

Ten of the contributors are associated with AASHE, the organization at the center of promoting sustainability as the primary concern of higher education. These include Davis Bookhart, founder of the Johns Hopkins Office of Sustainability, member of AASHE’s advisory council, and editorial board member of the journal Sustainability (I subscribed for a year to get the insider’s view); Dedee Delongue Johnston, director of sustainability at Wake Forest University and vice chair of the AASHE board; Robert Koester, a Ball State University professor of architecture and founding member of the AASHE board; and Dave Newport, director of the University of Colorado’s Environmental Center, secretary to the AASHE board, and one of the three members of the STARS steering committee.

The academic credentials of the contributors also deserve note. The group includes two English professors (James Martin and Geoffrey Chase, who is now dean of undergraduate studies and director of the Center for Regional Sustainability at San Diego State University), a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a geographer. As far as the listed credits go, only Cortese, who has a doctor of science in environmental health from the Harvard School of Public Health, has an advanced degree in the sciences, and one other, Leith Sharp, founding director of Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative, has an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering.

That’s perhaps enough to give the sense that sustainability means, among other things, paid employment to a lot of thinly-credentialed experts. While some of the contributors are college presidents and functional officials with other responsibilities, a large majority of these writers earn most or all of their living promoting and enforcing sustainability. If this sort of thing seems vaguely familiar, it is because we have seen it before. Between Justice Powell’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Bakke, which launched the concept of “diversity” on its educational career, and Justice O’Connor’s opinion in the Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter, which turned Powell’s woozy speculations into law, colleges and universities ingeniously inserted the diversity rationale for racial preferences into every aspect of higher education.

Diversity became omnipresent as an idea and as a practice and saturated higher education to the point where many people assumed that the concept was foundational to the American republic. Its absence from the Founding documents and indeed from the whole history of American thought up to Justice Powell’s unsupported ruminations on how the University of California might have better argued its case against Bakke would have posed a puzzle to diversiphiles had they been concerned about such things. But “diversity” had only one use for the past: as a narrative of injustices to fuel the grievances of today.

The sustainability doctrine differs from the diversity doctrine in some interesting ways—and I have written about those elsewhere. But the two have one great similarity: the proponents of each quickly understood the need to acquire institutional permanence. That meant building a broad base of popular assent, but it especially meant securing support from the university’s top leadership. In the 1990s, it was virtually impossible to find an advertised position for a college presidency that didn’t include phrases such as “Proven commitment to diversity a must.” Today, the “must” for most college presidencies is sustainability. Indeed, some 677 college presidents have now signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, the official fealty oath to the sustainability doctrine.8

Perhaps because this movement is essentially top-down, and began with college presidents and the administrative satrapies of the university such as residence life, it remains out of focus for many faculty members. Understandably but wrongly, they assume it is another passing enthusiasm that administrators wave about for a season or two until the next one arrives. But sustainability is not like a campus beautification project. Rather, like diversity, it is an attempt to subordinate the range of college and university priorities to a new standard that fits poorly with the ideals of academic excellence and intellectual freedom.

Higher education is a complex institution that must balance numerous often crosscutting interests. It has a key role in transmitting the legacy of our own civilization while also opening windows on other civilizations; it serves as our society’s credentialing agency for the middle class; we have vested in our universities responsibility for much of the nation’s basic research in science and medicine; we expect of it some capacity to shape the character of men and women on the cusp of adulthood, and not just supply students with a quantum of knowledge; we have made our collegiate system a branch of the sports-entertainment industry; it houses some of our best publishers; and more. It seems worth conjuring this list just to be reminded that when the sustainatopians declare that every aspect of higher education needs to be subordinated to the sustainability agenda, they mean exactly that.

Thus we find chapters in The Sustainable University on the curriculum, the endowment, campus architecture, university athletics, accreditation, community colleges, boards of trustees, and more—down to the level of parking fees and mandatory payroll deductions to pay for more programs.

What is sustainability? Back when the movement was a gleam in the eye of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development—the year was 1987—the famous Brundtland Commission offered the definition that remains the most quoted. It is mentioned twice in The Sustainable University: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (86). The idea didn’t hold up very well when we asked a philosopher to review it for us in Academic Questions.9 We don’t and by the nature of things can’t know what the needs of future generations will be, which leaves us in an imponderable situation if our own use of resources is hostage to those needs. Nonetheless, most of us want to take care to bequeath to future generations a world we judge worth living in.

That means in large measure bequeathing a civilization, not just an aggregate of appetites and wants, and not a dystopia in which freedom has been sacrificed to leaders who enforce their own vision of the optimal good. There are hard questions here about how to balance our pursuits so as not to blight future prospects. In that sense, the sustainability movement speaks to an important and abiding concern. All of us agree that we should be responsible stewards of the world and that we should care for what happens to future generations of humanity.

The problem is that the so-called sustainability movement dictates answers that are intellectually shallow and morally troubling. While I was reading The Sustainable University, I was diverted for a few days by the arrival of another book, Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.10 Zubrin is a nuclear physicist who has written books on energy policy and space exploration. Merchants of Despair is his full-on attack on the contemporary environmentalist movement for its roots in Malthusianism. He takes the argument back to Thomas Malthus himself, whose miscalculations about the capacity of humanity to feed itself in proportion to the growth in world population have plain echoes in today’s sustainability movement.

Much of the book deals with heirs of Malthus that do not concern us here—advocates of eugenics, colonial bureaucrats who turned a blind eye to or even abetted famines and plagues in the name of population control, the Chinese one-child policy and USAID programs that foster forced sterilization programs in Third World nations, and green opposition to genetically modified crops. Zubrin also sees the attack on nuclear power as a type of hysteria rooted in forms of environmentalism that are essentially antihumanist in character.

In his last chapter, “Quenching Humanity’s Fire,” Zubrin turns to the fraught issue of global warming. He is not among those who doubt the rise of the earth’s temperature over the last century or the likelihood that human emissions of CO2 had something to do with that. But he is sharply skeptical about the idea that we should respond to the situation by taking actions that deter technological innovation and economic growth. “The global warming argument recasts the basic Malthusian line in a novel form, but with the equivalent end result” (232).

This seems to me a fairly accurate reading of the logic on display in The Sustainable University. Rowland, Martin, Samels, Cortese, and company do not cite Malthus, but they very much operate on Malthusian assumptions brought up-to-date by invocations of hockey stick graphs and melting ice caps. The university sustainatopians offer us a vision of higher education as the nursery of permanent despair. The world is running out of resources; we are to blame; the pertinent debates are over; the time has come to embrace limits on energy, food, innovation, and people; and higher education has no higher purpose than to enforce this worldview.

The tuition—metaphorically speaking—for attending this university is pretty steep. It requires forfeiting much of the legacy of our civilization in technological innovation, economic freedom, and even the ideals of self-governance. It is not clear that all the movement’s enthusiasts have thought this though. Some have. Cortese, for example, fully understands the “systemic” character of what he advocates. But most of the contributors to The Sustainable University write in the voices of earnest technocrats eager to advance the party line but with dim apprehension of where that leads. They are, in that sense, innocent of the larger implications of their work. But that doesn’t make the larger project any less perilous. Sustainability is a doctrine that dips into science to obtain some intellectual authority, but it is really a flight of the imagination, lured on by the conceit that, if only the next generation can be made to share the vision of the world trembling on the edge of extinction, we can force our way to utopia.

Sober scholars need to take this dream seriously. From the standpoint of sustainability, normal scholarship, teaching, and intellectual pursuits are frivolous diversions from the earth’s existential crisis. Those of us not fully on board with the antihumanist sustainability vision are what Randy Olson called “zombies.” We need to be corralled and guided, gently if possible—not so gently if we resist. As The Sustainable University makes clear, the enthusiasts for this movement have already captured a surprisingly large share of the resources of the university, they have won the loyalty of many college presidents, and they are working hard to acquire still more muscle over budgets and appointments.

There is, of course, a case to be made that this strange enthusiasm will burn itself out, despite its successes in institutionalizing itself. In the wake of two episodes of “Climategate”—the unauthorized release of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia—and other evidence of skullduggery and misfeasance on the part of some of the world’s leading climate scientists, the theory of runaway global warming caused by human emissions of CO2 has lost a good deal of its former public support. That could result in a situation not unlike that of diversity and racial preferences—deeply unpopular with the general public but relentlessly defended by the universities. Indeed, the more skeptical the public has become of hyperbolic global warming claims, the more vehement the climate change advocacy groups have grown in insisting that the “science” is all on their side.

NAS isn’t in any position to take sides on the empirical questions in that debate, but we have continued to insist that the voices of informed and responsible dissenters from the prevailing climate orthodoxy need to be heard in the journals and on campus. The attempts to silence those voices are the most visible index that “the sustainable university” is not very hospitable to intellectual and academic freedom. But the green blanket of sustainability is also being used to smother a great many other less visible academic and scientific projects and it is gradually making clients out of researchers attracted by the large amounts of federal and foundation dollars available for sustainability-themed projects.

At one point in The Sustainable University, Debra Rowe, a psychologist and president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, and Aurora Lang Winslade, sustainability director at the University of California Santa Cruz, explain that sustainability-committed college presidents and other university officials “use optimism to create more successes” (47). That sounds right, though it presents a small paradox. Sustainability is an ethos of profound pessimism, and it offers a philosophy of winding down industrial civilization. How do you project optimism about the success of a pessimistic project? The key, I suppose, is to focus on measurable goals and benchmarks, and that of course is what the authors of this book do.

By contrast, those few of us who are skeptical about the enterprise are heirs to a tradition of optimism about humanity and the possibility of progress, but we can be pretty pessimistic about the near-term destiny of the American university, which seems all too easily diverted into intellectual cul-de-sacs, of which sustainability is the latest example. It is high time to rouse ourselves to give a serious and thorough critique to a movement that has so far brushed aside all reasoned criticism and justified itself mainly in terms of cultural disenchantment and dark forebodings.

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