Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism

Mar 25, 2015 |  Peter Wood, Rachelle Peterson

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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 many, sustainability is just a new name for environmentalism. But the word has come to mean something much larger: an ideology that demands new limits on economic, political, and intellectual freedom as the price that must be paid to ensure the welfare of future generations.

This report is the first in-depth critical examination of the sustainability movement in higher education. The movement, of course, extends well beyond the college campus. 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.

Download the report (pdf): Sustainability: Higher Education's New Fundamentalism

See also:

Executive summary 

Press release: National Association of Scholars Report Shows Campus Sustainability Movement Restricts Debate, Harms College Finances

Sustainability FAQs


Image: © Andrew Burton/Getty Images


| March 28, 2015 - 3:51 PM"

This is a fundamentally biased and flawed report with absolutely no methodological rigor whatsoever. The author claims to not take a stance on climate change, a single sustainability issue that dominates the vast majority of the report, yet the amount of content and tone of language exposes clear bias towards climate denial. The author repeatedly uses a few cases of anecdotal evidence in an attempt to support critical generalizations about millions of individuals and organizations. Many supposed facts raised are lacking any supporting source references. Events in the timeline of sustainability are as much as a decade off, with politically motivated enemy image attributions rather than the true scientific sources. Most egregious and manipulative of all, the author lacks a basic understanding of economics as evidenced by a supposed “cost benefit analysis” that has inconsistent boundaries comparing enterprise scale costs with project scale benefits. The research and analysis is so flawed that it is difficult to discern any real value from the report.


| March 31, 2015 - 3:25 PM"

Re: JP
To say that “this is a fundamentally biased and flawed report with absolutely no methodological rigor whatsoever,” is the voice of someone who must feel threatened. This is a report that raises many questions about the sustainability movement. To dismiss these questions with a wave of contempt is not helpful. I would point out the following:  1.) My take on the author’s stand on CATASTROPHIC Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) is that it is not a settled issue and needs open and honest discussion. (Note that I make a distinction between Anthropogenic Global Warming [AGW] and CAGW. If you don’t know the difference, I recommend further research on your part.) I see no evidence that the author denies that climate changes, that the earth has warmed over the past 150+ years, or that CO2 is a “greenhouse” gas. (BTW, the use of the term “denial[ist]” is a slur that reveals your own lack of understanding of the skeptic position, and says more about you than your intended target. Its use is unhelpful, and if you are interested in true dialogue, I recommend you reconsider your use of the term.)  2.) Any argument must use “anecdotal evidence” (they’re called “examples”) to support it, and to dismiss the work on this point in my opinion is unfair.  3.) Calling them “supposed facts” is condescending, especially since you point none out as false.  4.) 586 footnotes hardly condemn the report as “lacking any supporting source references.”  5.) The timeline seems straightforward enough to me with the documentation of when a book or statement was published, etc. The only one that might be off is the discovery of the ozone hole. It could arguably have been before 1992. Which events on the timeline are as much as a decade off?  6.) The accusation of “politically motivated enemy image attributions” is your opinion to which you are entitled. But that doesn’t invalidate the work. Are there any of the attributions that are actually false?  7.) As far as the economics are concerned, I am not an economist, so I cannot comment about that complaint. But I can say that in my experience there are about as many opinions about economics as there are economists. That doesn’t invalidate your opinion about it, of course. But perhaps you could help the authors improve the report by offering constructive advice.
My overall take on your comments, though, is that because of the venom I detect behind your statements, I wonder if you are afraid of the report for some reason, and are desperate to prevent it from seeing the light of day. But then only you could know if that is true.


| March 31, 2015 - 5:45 PM"

Indeed, there is no methodological rigor and I do not in any way feel threatened — sorry, but your assumption is wrong there.  Generally when research is conducted to characterize a movement it is essential to use an appropriate methodology for that research, begin with an open mind as to potential results, and ensure that an adequate sample set of the full population is considered.  In this case the report does not provide any evidence that any of these were integral to the research so I would reiterate the contention that it lacks methodological rigor, and I believe most social scientists would agree. I am well aware of the language around global climate change, and choose not to engage in debate about that as the research simply does not present the issue without bias.  My point on that was to challenge the contention that they were presenting a balanced summary without taking sides: for example, to refer to climate scientists as “alarmists” clearly takes a side.  In terms of facts overall, I never claimed that all the facts were false and missing references (the quality of which is not determined by the number, by the way) but rather than many are, and lack source references — I choose to not do the work for a sloppy researcher unless contracted to do so.  On anecdotal evidence, it is not an “example” when explicitly used to characterize an entire movement without an adequate evaluation across an appropriately sized sample group; that is cherry-picking information to support pre-determined results.  Yes, the ozone hole is one of the timeline events that is a decade off and is easily confirmed which reveals a lack of due diligence.  On the cost benefit analysis point, I am an economist and there is absolutely no debate on the methodology of CBA: it is not appropriate to compare enterprise scale costs with project scale benefits and that decision is further evidence of the pervasive bias and lack of methodological rigor. I do not believe the researchers have an honest intent to present objective research here, so I have no interest in holding anyone’s hand through advice of how to apply analysis methods that should have been applied appropriately in the first place. No venom here, just someone who knows how to conduct strong research.


| April 01, 2015 - 6:01 AM"

Re: JP
You raise some good points if this were a PhD thesis or primarily an academic economic analysis. But it’s not. It is essentially an opinion report supported by observations. Yes, the authors have a bias because they are trying to make some points. My take-home message from the report is that the sustainability movement has never been seriously scrutinized, and any attempt to do so has been repressed. The report is not meant to be an airtight, bulletproof treatise on the subject, but rather a piece written to start some serious discussion.
But behind the subject matter is the real issue of the report: freedom to express opinions and challenge “sacred cows” in our colleges and universities. I graduated in the late 60’s when “free speech” was a core value and championed by the “left.” My youngest son graduated recently, and I can say definitively that the free speech that we fought so hard for is all but non-existent on our campuses today. Those “trouble-makers” in the 60’s were/are revered as heroes.  Today, if you say anything to challenge the majority view on campus, you are shamed, ridiculed, and ostracized. By and large this repressive behavior is supported by the faculty and school administration. The 10 recommendations in the report on pages 12 and 13 read like a list of demands from a group of sit-in students from the 60’s. The principles are the same. The only difference is the subject matter. These are the issues that should dominate your comments. By criticizing the report based on the “rigor of methodology,” you are technically correct, but miss the point of the report. If you disagree with this report’s call for intellectual freedom, institutional integrity, or even-handedness, you have the right to say so in this forum without fear of reprisal. That’s more than can be said for students and faculty on our campuses with minority opinions.
One last comment…concerning your ozone hole timeline criticism. The entry reads: “1992 An ozone hole is discovered over Antarctica and the Northern Hemisphere; Al Gore introduces legislation to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, deemed the culprit chemical.” While it is true that the ozone hole was discovered well before 1992, the date refers to Al Gore’s introduction of the legislation: Feb. 6, 1992. This is an example of criticizing minutia and “missing the forest for the trees.”


| April 01, 2015 - 12:53 PM"

Actually, no, those standards for cost benefit analysis are consistent across public and private sectors as well as academia — it is simply how CBA is done.  The approach used would be similar to comparing the costs of an entire global corporation with the benefits of one product line, or the costs of the entire Federal government with the benefits of one program: if the scale of analysis is not consistent the results of the CBA are relatively meaningless (nothing personal, just an economic fact). Also, it is essential to avoid bias in all research, not just academic, as the very point of academia is to prepare students for the standards of work expected in the professional world. In no way am I missing the point of the report, though I am calling into question the validity of the conclusions overall based on many issues with the methodology and analysis — hardly missing the forest for the trees, though perhaps recognizing that the forest is unhealthy because a very large number of the trees are rotten. I respect your opinions, and wish you the best, but that’s about all I have to say.

Sylvia W.

| April 04, 2015 - 2:57 PM"

I commend commenters “Willigan” and “JP” for their spirited debate, but JP still misses the point in his most recent response to Willigan—or perhaps he simply chooses not to address it. 

The point is that the disciples of the cult of sustainability on today’s campuses—and yes, it has cult-like features, just as the unassailable diversity doctrine does—will not tolerate unfettered debate as to its validity and merit. The sustainability movement has shackled free thought and inquiry and thinks nothing of marginalizing, shaming and shunning its critics and skeptics.

I assure JP that this is a fact, for as a college professor who has spoken out on the indoctrination of both the diversity and sustainability movement I have been the ongoing target of their vicious and punitive methods.

It is this very point—the silencing of opposing views to the doctrine of sustainability, by all means necessary—that should concern JP.


| April 04, 2015 - 4:50 PM"

Sylvia, thanks for your post.  Yes, I certainly understand that point being made, but I raise issue with the validity of it.  The report simply does not include sufficient evidence or methodological rigor to reach that conclusion. It is assumed that the circumstances you mention are a universal characteristic of the higher education sustainability movement; however, the analysis conducted is only sufficient to conclude that the few individuals, organizations, and events described may at times demonstrate those characteristics. It is not remotely appropriate to contend that the characteristic extends as far as suggested by the report, without sufficient analysis. I am open to that case being made if it is strong analysis, just making the point that the report does not provide evidence or analysis supporting the contention. Furthermore, it is quite unusual for a report to call for a balanced perspective on climate change while not demonstrating the same, and to call for rigorous application CBA in sustainability (which in my experience is actually quite prevalent already), again while not demonstrating the same. The authors apply a different standard to the sustainability movement than they hold themselves to in their own work.


| April 05, 2015 - 9:23 PM"

Re: Sylvia
Thanks for your input as a college professor concerning the indoctrination and intolerance that exists on our campuses today. I agree that the culture supported by the power structure on campus has a cult-like or at least a religious approach. I was raised Catholic and see the same elements in our universities. 1.) There is the concept of original sin; that human activities in the world, in general, are sinful. They develop and play to a sense of guilt in the students, especially the white males who are taught that they should be ashamed of their history. 2.) There is the concept of redemption. You can be freed of this sinful state by renouncing your sinful ways and dedicating your life to the cause of “good” (as defined by those in power). 3.) There is the concept of the damned. If you disagree in some way with the dogma, you are not seen as someone with a different idea, but denounced as an evil person. It is only right, then, that such a person be silenced, shamed, and ostracized so they do not contaminate the purity of the believers. 4.) There is the concept of authority. There are the “popes” and “high-priests” of academia whose word cannot be questioned. If they are challenged, see #3.  There are other elements, but you get the picture. As someone brave enough to question this culture, I salute you. But I also caution you; be careful. You are dealing with a religion that worships a vengeful god.
It is remarkable that this is the FIRST in-depth critical examination of the sustainability movement and points to the very problem the report tries to expose: the culture of intolerance in our universities. While this culture might be appropriate for a religious belief, it has no place in the power structure of our universities. As a “first-cut” opinion of the sustainability movement, the report may certainly have technical issues, including economics (although I have to take JP’s word for that). Those with a vested interest (emotionally, professionally, or financially) in that power structure, of course, will have a visceral response to any criticism of it, and want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” so that the underlying message (and hopefully the messenger) is killed (metaphorically speaking, of course).
I can only hope that JP applies his same high standards of rigor to reports coming out of the EPA, IPCC, and academia in general and not just selectively on the ones that challenge the prevailing power structure.  I wonder if that standard of rigor was met for the stimulus plan of 2009 that, if passed, promised unemployment would not exceed 8%. Or of the practice of declaring a drop in unemployment by not counting those who were unemployed for so long they simply gave up looking for work.

J. Burg

| April 17, 2015 - 4:35 AM"

Dear JP,
I have at my disposal various computer models that demonstrate that the circumstances described by Sylvia are indeed universal characteristics of the higher education sustainabiliity movement.  A random sampling from universities across North America were used as the data set. Specific examples of every individual on every campus is not necessary, and indeed, is not the scientific way.  Furthermore, since the computer models say it is so, then we should all believe them. What other evidence do you need?  I don’t understand why you are taking issue with the outcomes of the computer models.  It’s not like the computer models have a political bias or something. You must be a flat-earther and paid hack of the oil companies.“⸮”


| April 24, 2015 - 10:11 PM"

Bias, JP.  Fixed it for ya.