Executive Summary - Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism

Mar 25, 2015 |  Peter Wood, Rachelle Peterson

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Executive Summary - Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism

Mar 25, 2015 | 

Peter Wood, Rachelle Peterson

“Sustainability” is a key idea on college campuses in the United States and the rest of the Western world. To the unsuspecting, sustainability is just a new name for environmentalism. But the word really marks out a new and larger ideological territory in which curtailing economic, political, and intellectual liberty is the price that must be paid now to ensure the welfare of future generations.

This report is the first in-depth critical study of the sustainability movement in higher education. The movement, of course, extends well beyond the college campus. It affects party politics, government bureaucracy, the energy industry, Hollywood, schools, and consumers. But the college campus is where the movement gets its voice of authority, and where it molds the views and commands the attention of young people.

While we take no position in the climate change debate, we focus in this study on how the sustainability movement has distorted higher education. We examine the harm it has done to college curricula and the limits it has imposed on the freedom of students to inquire and to make their own decisions. Our report also offers an anatomy of the campus sustainability movement in the United States. We explain how it came to prominence and how it is organized.

We also examine the financial costs to colleges and universities in their efforts to achieve some of the movement’s goals. Often the movement presents its program as saving these institutions money. But we have found that American colleges and universities currently spend more than $3.4 billion per year pursuing their dreams of “sustainability” at a time when college tuitions are soaring and 7.5 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed and another 46 percent underemployed.[1] In addition to the direct costs of the movement, we examine the growing demands by sustainability advocates that colleges and universities divest their holdings in carbon-based energy companies without regard to forgone income or growth in their endowments. What makes “sustainability” so important that institutions facing financial distress are willing to prioritize spending on it? In this report, we examine that question.

Because the idea of “anthropogenic global warming”—or “climate change”—is so closely interwoven with the sustainability movement, we devote a chapter early in the report to laying out the arguments on both sides of this debate. The appeal of the sustainability movement depends to a great extent on the belief that the world is experiencing catastrophic warming as a result of human activities that are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Is this belief warranted? We are neutral on this proposition, but we stand by the principle that all important ideas ought to be open to reasoned debate and careful examination of the evidence. This puts us and others at odds with many in the sustainability movement whose declared position is that the time for debate is over and that those who persist in raising basic questions are “climate deniers.” The “debate-is-over” position is itself at odds with intellectual freedom and is why the campus sustainability movement should be examined skeptically.

We support good stewardship of natural resources, but we see in the sustainability movement a hardening of irrational demands to suspend free inquiry in favor of unproven theories of imminent catastrophe. And we see, under the aegis of sustainability, a movement that often takes its bearings from its hostility towards material prosperity, consumerism, free markets, and even democratic self-government.

We offer ten recommendations under three categories:

Respect Intellectual Freedom

1. Create neutral ground. Colleges and universities should be neutral in important and unresolved scientific debates, such as the debate over dangerous anthropogenic global warming. Claims made on the authority of “science” must be made on the basis of transparent evidence and openness to good arguments regardless of their source.

2. Cut the apocalyptic rhetoric. Presenting students with a steady diet of doomsday scenarios undermines liberal education.

3. Maintain civility. Some student sustainability protests have aimed at preventing opponents from speaking.

4. Stop “nudging.” Leave students the space to make their own decisions about sustainability, and free faculty members from the implied pressure to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.

Uphold Institutional Integrity

5. Withdraw from the ACUPCC. Colleges that have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment should withdraw in favor of open-minded debate on the subject.

6. Open the books and pull back the sustainability hires. Make the pursuit of sustainability by colleges financially transparent. The growth of administrative and staff positions in sustainability drives up costs and wrongly institutionalizes advocacy at the expense of education.

7. Uphold environmental stewardship. Campuses need to recover the distinction between real environmental stewardship and a movement that uses the term as a springboard for a much broader agenda.

8. Credential wisely. Curtail the aggrandizement of sustainability as a subject. Sustainability is not a discipline or even a subject area. It is an ideology.

Be Even-Handed

9. Equalize treatment for advocates. Treat sustainability groups on campus under the same rubric as other advocacy groups. They should not enjoy privileged immunity from ordinary rules and special access to institutional resources.

10. Examine motives. College and university boards of trustees should examine demands for divestment from fossil fuels skeptically and with full awareness of the ideological context in which these demands are made.

The sustainability movement has become a major force in American life that has largely escaped serious critical scrutiny. The goal of this report is to change that by examining for the first time the movement’s ideological, economic, and practical effects on institutions of higher education.


Image: © Andrew Burton/Getty Images

[1] The basis of the $3.4 billion estimate is given in Chapter 5 of this report. For the unemployment rate see:

Heidi Shierholz, Alyssa Davis, and Will Kimball, “The Class of 2014: The Weak Economy Is Idling Too Many Young Graduates,” Economic Policy Institute, EPI Briefing Paper #377, May 1, 2014. The Shierholz study uses the term “underemployed” to mean “working part-time” and calculates that 16.8 percent of recent college graduates fit that description. The more common definition of “underemployed” is “working in jobs that generally don’t require one to have a college degree.” By that definition, 46 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. See also Catherine Dunn, “Are College Grads Destined For Jobs As Baristas And Clerks? Federal Reserve Economists Explain,” International Business Times, September 4, 2014. http://www.ibtimes.com/are-college-grads-destined-jobs-baristas-clerks-federal-reserve-economists-explain-1679120


| October 22, 2014 - 2:26 PM

Protecting the planet certainly is an infringement on the population’s economic freedom. It cracks me up when libertarians say, “corporations will police themselves when it comes to their environmental practices. It isn’t in their interest to pollute.” They are either disingenuous or dumb as rocks. Human-caused Global warming is overwhelmingly the consensus in the scientific community, so why shouldn’t it be taught?


| January 21, 2015 - 8:00 PM

Lot’s of pointless keystrokes here. Way to lead.

Johnny Lucid

| March 25, 2015 - 9:24 AM

” the consensus in the scientific community” is a fiction.


| March 26, 2015 - 7:42 PM

Re: Jim and Rickles
So, to what do you object about this article? Is it the call to respect intellectual freedom, to uphold institutional integrity, or to be even-handed?  It would be more helpful if you were to address your objections to the article in a reasoned and specific manner.  It appears that your comments are excellent examples of what the authors are talking about and expose the quality of your own educations. I’m sorry. You obviously didn’t get your money’s worth.

Robert W Tucker

| March 27, 2015 - 2:02 PM

Willigan et al.,

Adopting a cloak of pseudo-rationality in support of unstated goals is common among intellectuals. Some of that appears to be at lay in this Executive Summary.

Let’s take the four primary recommendations.

1. “Create neutral ground. Colleges and universities should be neutral in important and unresolved scientific debates.”—This is not a well-formed principle. First, if the important principles invoked in a particular “unresolved scientific debate” can be subsumed under higher order principles, it is irrational to adopt a position of neutrality. Countless examples of this common sense logic come to mind. Second, characterizing debate related to anthropogenic global warming as “unresolved” is inaccurate and, in this context, it appears disingenuous. At this time, more than 90% of the scientists whose degrees, research training, and scholarship qualify them to offer a scientific judgment on the topic subscribe to the notion of anthropogenic global warming. A much more accurate description of the current situation among qualified scientists would be that they are almost universally in agreement with a small minority disagreeing. An objective summary should further note that those who disagree do so for different reasons; i.e., there is no coherence in the minority opposition. To be clear, there are times when the “small minority” has turned out to be correct.

2. “Cut the apocalyptic rhetoric. Presenting students with a steady diet of doomsday scenarios undermines liberal education.”—This principle is irrational on its face. If we identify a massive comet on a collision course with Earth, conjecturing doomsday scenarios is an important and fully rational activity. I need not remind readers that the qualified scientific community has offered doomsday scenarios as one possible outcome of unabated anthropogenic global warming. A small point here is what seems like the specious construction of a link between the creation of well-founded scenarios and “liberal education.” That entire sentence is incoherent.

3. Maintain civility. Some student sustainability protests have aimed at preventing opponents from speaking. – I agree completely. Personally, I think I see less civility expressed by believers in anthropogenic global warming, although not most of the scientists themselves.

4. Stop “nudging.” Leave students the space to make their own decisions about sustainability, and free faculty members from the implied pressure to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses. – This is an interesting position for NAS to take. I’ll leave readers to see if they can detect inconsistency and tergiversation in its application across a broad range of issues.


| March 28, 2015 - 8:19 PM

Actually there were ten recommendations in the article, but I will reply to the four you commented on.
1.) While I agree that colleges and universities cannot and should not take a neutral position on all issues, they must allow free expression of minority opinions without fear of reprisals. Even with well-established theories like evolution or physics, dissenting views should not only be allowed, but encouraged. There is no such thing as a concept or principle that cannot be challenged. All our knowledge is imperfect, and it is only by open and free discussion that we improve the understanding of ourselves and the world around us. When the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of a particular view, like evolution, it will win the argument easily based on the data. A position should NEVER be argued based on “more than 90% of the scientists whose degrees, research training, and scholarship qualify them to offer a scientific judgment on the topic.” When that is the thrust of the defense, it means the person either has a very poor objective argument to offer, or really doesn’t understand the topic and is too lazy to learn about it in depth. All they have to offer is an appeal to authority, an approach used for centuries in the past by the Church. Your specific comments about anthropogenic global warming indicates a profound lack of understanding of the skeptic (you would probably call them “denialist”) view. You create a “straw man” argument. No serious skeptic questions that the earth has warmed over the last 150+ years, or that CO2 is a “greenhouse” gas and causes warming. The questions that are open to debate are how much warming is caused by CO2 and is it a serious problem? Already, those who subscribe to the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) hypothesis (it is nowhere near the level of a theory) are starting to backpedal because the empiric evidence (lack of temperature rise for 17 years, absence of the tropospheric “hot spot”, etc.) is not validating the computer models that are the basis of CAGW. They have been forced to admit that the climate sensitivity has been exaggerated, and the uncertainty behind the models is much greater than we were led to believe. It has become painfully clear that the science is far from settled. But meanwhile, anyone in academia without tenure who dares to question the hypothesis publically is shunned, and in some cases will have their careers destroyed. Similarly, students questioning the hypothesis are ridiculed and shamed for being bad people by even thinking such thoughts. (Reminds me of the Catholic Church and the concept of “sins of thought.”) It is this repressive and intolerant culture in our colleges that the article speaks to. It must stop if we are to have any hope of advancing our civilization.
2.) I agree that if a massive comet were on a collision course with earth, the reality of such a catastrophe should be accurately communicated and mitigation plans rationally prepared. But CAGW is not a comet that can be seen, its course plotted precisely, and the global effect of the impact predicted. CAGW is a hypothesis with its reality existing largely in global climate model programs. I’m not saying these models should be ignored. But their uncertainty levels need to be communicated accurately and their predictions tested honestly and openly against empiric data. Meanwhile, open debate should be encouraged.
3.) I agree that the believers in CAGW are much less civil, sometimes verging on violent. But the scientists with the most invested in CAGW are not without guilt.  Michael Mann, James Hansen, David Suzuki, and Stephan Lewandowsky are particularly rude name-callers. But the overall unprofessional behavior of the big names of CAGW, including Phil Jones, Ben Santer, Steven Schneider, et al was exposed in the “Climategate” emails, including their efforts to eliminate journal editors who allow studies critical of the CAGW hypothesis to be published. I would define this as uncivil behavior unbefitting a scientist. The public expects the standard of behavior for a scientist, as with a physician, to be higher than for a lawyer, politician, or opinion writer.
4.) Since you didn’t actually create an argument against the “nudging” issue, I can’t respond to it.

Robert W Tucker

| March 29, 2015 - 11:56 AM


Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. If I am reading your response correctly, it typifies the kind of bias I addressed in my initial comments.

Readers who are both rational and objective will note the following about my comments:

- My primary focus was, as I said, on ways that some “. . . intellectuals adopt a cloak of pseudo-rationality in support of unstated goals. . . .”

- Not a single assertion of mine expressed a personal stance on anthropogenic global warming.
These same readers will note the following about your comments:

- Your pervasive assumption was that I was arguing an affirmative position on anthropogenic global warming. You extended this unwarranted and heavily biased assumption to the point of proffering words for me, “. . . you would probably call them ‘denialist’.”

Since my comments were directed broadly at rationality, objectivity, critical thinking, etc. I do not find myself under any intellectual burden to reveal my personal view on the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Nonetheless, I will summarize my view.

The “elevator speech” of my view is that I leave the scientific generalizations (i.e., generalizations of aggregated empirical findings), including professional disagreements, to the scientists qualified to speak to them. When these scientific generalizations are of social importance we must, as a society, determine the level of certainty they must attain that is appropriate to the cost/risk/benefit calculus. My only other general thought is this. Those who lack competence in the relevant sciences do more harm than good when they blather on as if they understood the scientific complexity of the issues when, in fact, they are ignorant of them and are driven solely by political ideology. Based on your comments thus far, you appear to me to fall into this group.

Robert W Tucker

| March 29, 2015 - 5:44 PM

(I accidentally posted the above response while proofreading it.)

I should have pointed out that I do not see qualified scientists who disagree with models of anthropogenic global warming as denialists. Willigan’s use of the term exemplifies the overheated rhetoric I see on both sides of this issue. I can, however, distinguish among the majority and the several minority opinions. Those who hold minority views are not necessarily wrong, and it may turn out that they are wholly or partially right.

On the other hand, this particular risk equation appears to be asymmetrical. Taking action based on the minority opinion suggests an upside benefit of conserving resources (economic, political, etc.) not deployed to a solution and a downside risk of failing to mitigate potentially catastrophic consequences. Taking action based on the majority opinion suggests an upside benefit of mitigating a catastrophe and a downside risk of expending these substantial resources to no intended good. These are generalizations and the actual risks and benefits will rest on details that the scientists on all sides of the issue have conveyed to us. If nothing else, we might view affirmative action as a hedge against the negative asymmetry. Even if we come to that conclusion, we should be vigilant in seeking further evidence to support all causal models, including those advanced by those in the minority opinion.


| March 30, 2015 - 4:19 AM

As I was preparing a reply to your response to my rather lengthy entry, your addendum was posted. I have abandoned my first draft and have started anew. I am greatly heartened by your apparent acceptance of continued debate of these contentious issues. I also applaud your reluctance to label all skeptics as “denialists.” This is a slur that is commonly applied to all, including well-respected scientists, who don’t wholly endorse the CAGW hypothesis. This seems to say more about the person using the term than its intended targets. It also trivializes the enormity of the holocaust.
There are hyperventilating idiots to be found on both sides of the argument, but my complaint is with the public hyperbole used by big-name scientists who should know better. As time goes on, however, the data are exposing their exaggerations. The backpedalling has already begun as I reported above. How did this happen? If you use the scientific method, this should not happen. Unfortunately, the Catastrophic AGW hypothesis (note that I make a clear distinction between AGW and CAGW) was not developed using the normal scientific method. It was developed using the “post-normal” scientific approach. If you’re not familiar with this approach, it’s worth investigating. Post-normal science is political at its base, but is presented to the public as true objective science in order make drastic actions acceptable to them.
So why do I care about all this? You implied that my motives were solely political. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I do not belong to any political group; I am not involved in politics in any way except by voting. I have voted for both Republican and Democratic candidates depending on my assessment of their personal abilities (and, sadly, been disappointed most of the time). I have never had any connection whatsoever to the energy industry. In short, I have no dog in this fight. I was educated in the sciences with an advanced degree, so I am very familiar with what good science is and is not. But it upsets me greatly when I see science corrupted to advance personal, institutional, governmental, and/or corporate interests. My greatest concern with the CAGW hypothesis (again, I emphasize the catastrophic part of the hypothesis) is that as people become aware of the failings of this “proven and settled science,” science in general will lose its credibility in the public’s eye. Bogus beliefs like young-earth creationism will gain in acceptance and be on a par with hard-earned theories like evolution. “After all, if the scientists were way off the mark about the coming catastrophes, maybe they’re also wrong about evolution, medical science, vaccinations, etc.”
In order to prevent this giant step backwards in our civilization, our universities must encourage a reprisal-free culture of open and transparent discussion of all topics, like the authors recommend, rather than repressing it. Even “unqualified” students and faculty should be allowed to share, without fear of punishment, their opinions on complex issues. Those opinions should be judged by their own merit, not by the prestige and pedigree of the speaker, because even postal clerks can come up with good ideas….
Let me conclude by thanking you for your honest and sincere exchange of ideas. We may not agree on all aspects of the issues, but I can see common ground. With open and sincere dialogue, one cannot help but be changed, usually for the better.

Robert W Tucker

| March 30, 2015 - 12:08 PM

“We may not agree on all aspects of the issues, but I can see common ground.”

I do see that common ground, illuminated through the kind of dialogue that is in short supply on the national global warming stage, especially on some of our college campuses. In a former life, I developed a methodology and conceptual tools by which people who hold conflicting views on emotionally permeated topics could analyze their differences, eventually deconstructing them to fundamental values. Often these parties—whose differences were so great that their reactions to each other were sometimes visceral—came to realize that they were seeking to optimize the same fundamental values. Instead of having value conflict (which they believed going in), they came to understand that their differences could be described by as little as the interpretation of a single fact.

In our discussion here, the most common among several shared values I see appeals to the importance of open, probing, respectful dialogue on our campuses. Minority views, so long as they are the product of unbiased scientific investigation (an important point; there is some pseudo-science in this topic) should be respected and accorded a full hearing.  No one should be booed or jeered; no one should be dis-invited from a scheduled presentation; no legitimate scientist should be told that he or she should not investigate a phenomenal field (as some brain scientists were told two decades ago). Some of our colleges and universities are behaving shamefully in this regard and it occurs on both sides, although I see the bad behavior manifested in different ways.

This said, if we determine it in our interest to act on particular scientific findings (e.g., tomorrow, we discover that a common and currently unavoidable substance is responsible for 10% of all cancers), we should act based on an appraisal of the preponderance of the evidence after factoring in the up and downside risks and benefits. I think this is where you and I disagree with respect to the global warming issue. However, as we have discovered, our disagreement appears to be based on our interpretations of the weight and significance of certain facts in play. I have no idea if my view is the correct one, only that I came to it in a reasoned and unbiased way.

Thank you for the conversation. I enjoyed it and I learned. In my book, that is a good day.


| March 30, 2015 - 1:25 PM