Earth Day Thoughts on Campus Sustainability

Ashley Thorne

Cross posted from Phi Beta Cons

The National Association of Scholars has issued an official statement critiquing the campus “sustainability” movement and suggesting paths to improvement. “Sustainability,” of course, sounds like a wonderful idea. We all want to preserve the earth for future generations. But there’s much more to this movement than the encouragement of environmental stewardship.

One of the key problems with it, seen on college campuses today, is that it closes debates that should be open. Sustainability advocates assume that the answers are already in. They take it for granted that the earth is running out of key resources, that we have to change our ways if the earth is to survive, and that capitalism has been getting in the way of social justice.

Colleges and universities should raise questions about how to deal with scarcity, and we should study and debate sustainability’s pillars, and they should be open to hearing competing ideas. Campus actions for sustainability today, however, largely bypass the faculty and the scholarly scrutiny that faculty members could provide. Initiatives such as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, for example, require college presidents to set the agenda for their institutions.

It all comes back to remembering the fundamental purpose of higher education. Contrary to popular belief, its purpose is not to transform society through social activism. Its purposes are to provide students with a sound education through rigorous study, to prepare them for work, to transmit civilization’s legacy, and to help them grow into adulthood. Instilling prescribed attitudes is outside that mission.

We at NAS recommend that colleges and universities treat sustainability as an object of inquiry rather than a set of assumed precepts. Only if institutions insist on scholarly examination will “sustainability,” as an academic enterprise, have a shot at being really sustainable.

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