Critiquing Sustainability

Peter Wood

My organization, the National Association of Scholars, celebrated Earth Day this year by releasing Fixing Sustainability and Sustaining Liberal Education, a policy statement in which we offer both a critique of the campus-sustainability movement and our recommendations for a better approach to the important issues on which the movement has focused. The NAS doesn’t issue policy statements very often. This is the fifth such statement it has offered in the 24 years since it was founded. (The others dealt with campus community, sexual harassment, campus tensions, and bias in the curriculum, and are available here.)

The decision to present a formal organizational position on sustainability is not without risks. The National Association of Scholars is a membership organization and our members (contrary to how we are sometimes portrayed!) are intellectually independent and represent a wide variety of philosophical views. In the last few years, some of them have declared their favorable view of the sustainability movement and a few have resigned in response to NAS’s criticisms of it. That seems fair. If an organization is going to stand for something, it is bound to lose members from time to time. We’ve also been attracting new members among faculty who agree that the sustainability movement is ripe for critique.

Mostly NAS members share a commitment to intellectual freedom and a concomitant dislike of being manipulated or coerced to support the academy’s orthodoxies du jour. They bridle at political correctness in all its forms and are quick to sense the subterfuges by which special interests in higher education attempt to smuggle their agendas into the curriculum.

On the whole, it is easier to see what the members of the National Association of Scholars are against than what they are for. The organization does, however, have a trim set of positive goals—an agenda it openly espouses and has never attempted to advance by stealth or misdirection.

We’d like to see broad survey courses on the history of Western Civilization restored to a prominent place in the undergraduate curriculum, along with courses that survey the history of the United States. We think American college students should have a good grasp of the American founding. We favor robust liberal-arts curricula as generally the best form of undergraduate study—but we don’t have one particular curriculum in mind. Likewise, we’d like to see more attention to “core texts,” “great books,” or, at any rate, key works of literature, philosophy, and science that have stood the test of time. We think students should graduate from college scientifically literate and capable of a reasonably high standard of quantitative reasoning. We also think they should be able to write well and to speak competently. And we hold that a worthwhile undergraduate education results in students coming to possess a rich combination of intellectual skills and substantive knowledge.

There is nothing that should be terribly controversial in that list—except, of course, that it runs against contemporary academic politics and pedagogical tastes. It “privileges” Western thought and history. And since the undergraduate curriculum has only so much room, our list of desirable entailments of an undergraduate education would presumably come at the expense of other subjects currently in vogue.

Among them—perhaps—sustainability. Sustainability, of course, is not so much a subject as an ideology. It mixes together psychological dispositions, beliefs, scientific premises, social activism, government funding, and campus bureaucracy into a heady brew. It also has a nasty authoritarian side. On most campuses it arrived via the college president’s office and got underway by administrative fiat rather than through the faculty initiative. Students typically encounter the sustainability movement through student affairs and residence-life activities before they encounter it in the classroom. With official encouragement and the opportunities for sponsored research, of course, sustainability soon found faculty supporters. Despite the appearance of specialized academic journals and the creation of majors and degree programs, the movement continues to have something of an extracurricular flavor. When I talk with faculty colleagues around the country about sustainability, their first reaction tends to be puzzlement. They have heard the word, of course, but they tend to see it as something remote from their professional interests.

Indeed, the sustainability advocates have noticed that faculty disinterest too and are taking steps to ensure what they see as a proper level of enthusiasm for the cause. More and more campuses are instituting mandatory reporting in which faculty members have to explain what in particular they are doing in their classes and their research to advance sustainability.

The movement first came into focus for me three years ago in the wake of the scandal over the University of Delaware’s leftist-indoctrination-in-the-dorms. It was there that I first heard about efforts to browbeat students on topics such as racial justice, heteronormativity, and redistribution of wealth as part of a “sustainability program.”  I had thought the word stood for an up-to-date version of environmentalism but was soon to learn that it was much more.

A sustainable society, in the view of the movement’s zealous advocates, had to be cured of all forms of exploitation, not just overuse or misuse of natural resources. The sustainability movement, in other words, appropriated environmentalist rhetoric to push something akin to international socialism. It is, even in its mildest versions, allergic to free markets and has a strong attraction to international treaties and NGOs as the best means of advancing humanity towards the new sustainable Eden.

Taking the measure of the sustainability movement proved a larger task than I imagined. At this point, the National Association of Scholars had published over one hundred articles and reports on our Web site, devoted a special issue of out journal, Academic Questions, to scholarly examinations of the movement’s history and rationales, and gathered an abundance of material documenting the rise of sustainability.

It seems time to offer a short synthesis of what we have found. Fixing Sustainability and Sustaining Liberal Education distills our findings to nine points, and we offer eight recommendations. (When I say “our” findings, I refer to the statement’s joint authorship. The document went through numerous drafts and months of discussion on its way to completion.) For example, one of our points is the sustainability movement unwisely narrows the discussion of what our society should do in response to diminishing resources:

The sustainability movement by and large mistakes the fundamental problem dealt with by the discipline of economics:  scarcity. Economics has shown us that scarcity of material goods is basic. Humans can respond to scarcity in many ways, including hoarding, theft, war, and oligarchy. But among the most constructive responses are trade, substitution, the development of markets, and technological innovation.

The sustainability movement, however, embraces the notion that the best approach to the problem of scarcity is generally the maximal conservation of existing resources. That can be accomplished only by curtailing use, and in the effort to achieve sharp reductions in the use of resources, the sustainability movement favors government regulation as key. The sustainability movement is, in its essence, neo-Malthusian. (It supposes that, short of intervention, population growth will outstrip resources.)

There are, to be sure, advocates of sustainability who are friendlier towards the roles of innovation and markets in addressing future needs, but they do not represent the mainstream of the movement.

And one of our recommendations is to “Treat sustainability as an object of inquiry rather than a set of precepts,”—

A great deal of worthwhile scientific work, research in engineering, and investigation in fields such as economics, for example, remains to be done on points that the movement in its current form tends to take for granted. Some of this work is already underway, but it is crowded together with much more dubious “research” that is little more than ideological touting. Universities have an obligation to distinguish legitimate inquiry from its counterfeits. This is where the reform of sustainability should begin.

Whether this critique and our recommendations get much traction remains to be seen. I am fully aware that I am leading the National Association of Scholars into the uncomfortable position of criticizing the most popular movement in contemporary higher education—a movement that is seen by conservatives and liberals alike as mostly benign.

In my view, the benign quality of the sustainability movement is mostly veneer. What lies beneath the veneer is unwarranted certainty, dire imagining, and a lot of it’s-too-late-for-mere-inquiry anti-intellectualism. American higher education as a whole has swallowed the formulations of sustainability advocates without much in the way of critical mastication.

Even those who don’t agree with the National Association of Scholars’ broader goals ought to pay some attention to what the sustainability movement is doing on campus. I hope our statement will help get that overdue discussion started.

This article originally appeared on April 24, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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