Sustainability Education's New Morality

Ashley Thorne

“We strive to become leaders in achieving a new vision of education, which integrates the principles of sustainable development into the academic programs, practices, and collaborations of our university.”

- California State University, Chico

Sustainability is hot. And it’s making its arrival in the university official.  

A month ago, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) came out with a handy guide for colleges whose presidents had signed its climate commitment. As NAS noted then, the guide advised colleges to use a “climate action litmus test” when hiring new campus leaders and to implement sustainability education into the academic curriculum.

We also observed that the sustainability doctrine has followed a pattern of incorporation into higher education very similar to the diversity doctrine. First, diversity was a novel idea espoused by campus activists; then it began to appear in the colleges’ language, mission statements, and extra-curricular programs; then it became intertwined in academic courses; and ultimately, it overwhelmed whole departments and disciplines. In this last stage, it fused with the Left’s reductionist turn to identity politics in which the only way to see the world is through the lens of “race, class and gender” and “power and privilege.” This version of “diversity” does not mean a pluralism of ideas and perspectives. It means, rather, a single prescribed perspective that shuts out dissent and props up a spoils system that rewards grudges and penalizes merit.

The proponents of diversity had large aims in their hope to turn the university from an institution of learning to an institution for promoting social transformation. Many of the proponents of sustainability, having also found a stronghold in the university, have an even larger agenda. They seek to de-legitimate free society itself, on the grounds that it rests on capitalism, free markets, and personal freedom, which they see as inherently destructive. Sustainability also includes the same focus on “social justice” (the idea that equal opportunity is not enough—we must have equal outcomes) and the same push for conformity that diversity embodies. It acts as a sieve and creates incentives for people to slip through the system by complying with its “suggestions.”  

Like diversity, sustainability is an illiberal doctrine dressed up to appeal to liberal sentiment. Diversity sounds like an appeal to openness, while it really aims at stirring racial grievance and other forms of inter-group antagonism. Sustainability sounds like an appeal to moderation and good stewardship, while it really aims at radical reduction of human freedom.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Environment

The sustainability movement is at the stage of mobilizing peer pressure. Right now, colleges are signing the climate commitment to keep from getting left behind, as it seems “everyone’s doing it.” Indeed, so far, 633 colleges and universities have signed AASHE’s climate commitment. 32 of these are Argus institutions, and I asked our volunteers to do a little digging to see if these colleges have begun to put the suggested climate action litmus test in place. Most of those who looked into this reported that they could find no evidence of a committed-to-sustainability hiring requirement (at Oregon State University, University of Arizona, Towson University, Rice University, Northern Kentucky University). But perhaps it is too soon for the universities to have translated their signatures on the written commitment into everyday policy. We will continue to keep an eye out for this. Our experience has been that if a group like AASHE encourages colleges to require loyalty to a politically correct doctrine, colleges will feel obligated to comply. They did with “diversity.”

Some Argus volunteers mentioned their college’s optional “graduation pledge” for students to take, should they choose to bind themselves to environmental paranoia throughout their post-college lives. The standard pledge is, “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work.” Rice U disclaims, “You should not feel guilted into signing the Pledge.” Instead you should feel guilty after you sign it: “[The Pledge] is to remind you to not get too comfortable in your workplace, to keep an eye out for opportunities to improve social and environmental responsibility, and when such opportunities are within your reach, to try your best to make the most of them.”

In the meantime, the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) has published another guidance book called “Education for Climate Neutrality and Sustainability: Guidance for ACUPCC Institutions”—this one suggests specific ways to green the curriculum. The 50-page document was put together by over 40 contributors, but was chiefly authored by staff at Second Nature, an organization that professes to have “worked with over 4,000 faculty and administrators at more than 500 colleges and universities to help make the principles of sustainability fundamental to every aspect of higher education.”

The guide details the university’s “leadership role” in educating students to “achieve a healthy, just and sustainable society.” It emphasizes the need for educational wholeness:

All parts of the college or university system are critical to achieving profound individual, institutional, and societal change that can only occur by connecting head, heart and hand. Profound change cannot not be merely intellectual; it must be rooted in a place that is personally relevant and connected with an ability to take action.

This sounds familiar. Asserting that professor-taught courses educate only the head—while student affairs administrators supplement by feeding the heart—echoes the language of the residence life officials who dismiss academic education as mere “cognition” and want to use the dorms to educate the “whole student.” The introduction continues:  

For a host of structural and historic reasons, the direction and content of educational curricula of colleges and universities has largely been faculty driven.

But now, says the ACUPCC almanac, university presidents and chancellors must take the lead. The curriculum has moved into the domain of the executive administration because that is the cohort that signed the climate pledge. They bear the responsibility to carry out the promises they made in that pledge, one of which was to take “actions to make climate

neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.” [emphasis added]

This is a development that deserves urgent attention from faculty members everywhere, including members of our occasional sparring partner, the AAUP. Does the AAUP look with approbation on a deep change in the curriculum that stems from college and university presidents just deciding on their own that it must be so? We have no doubt that many faculty members are enthusiastic supporters of the sustainability agenda, but precisely because sustainability is popular on campus, the AAUP may be at risk of overlooking the submersion of the principle of shared governance in favor of administrative fiat.

Be that as it may, each school must determine how it will achieve this “all students” mandate. The ACUPCC (page 11) recommends an incremental process that begins with student activism and ends with green courses:

Student involvement in greening the campus → Elective courses in sustainability → Major/Minor courses in sustainability → Sustainability sections in freshman orientation → Required courses through General Education → Required courses through capstone experiences → Integration into selected existing courses

California State University-Chico has already designated its “green” courses, which include the unlikely “Methods of Teaching Rock Climbing,” “American Indian Literature,” and “African History.” Apparently any topic can be “greened.” The concept is elastic enough, transcendent enough, to apply to all fields of study.   

Are You an Eco-Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Let us take a look at a course in Chico’s green listing as a sample of the sort of education ACUPCC is looking to cultivate (the guidebook praises CSU-Chico’s green courses on page 18). Environmental Literacy (ENVL 105), taught by James Pushnik, undertakes to transform students’ view of the world: During this course you will be encouraged to recognize that your life is dependent upon the environment, and that your personal decisions affect the environment.” Discussion topics include “Cultivating Awareness: a living planet Gaia,” “Our Ecological Footprint,” “Healing the Earth: the Sustainability Revolution,” and “Shaping our Consciousness: Ways of Thought” (reading: “Legal rights for trees and streams”).  

Gaia, footprint, healing, revolution, consciousness-shaping: the terminology by itself points to a broad, overarching theme. Is the sustainability movement, as the syllabus says, a revolution? Or is it a religion?

At the least, it is a reigning ideology that shuts out dissent. The Environmental Literacy course outline specifies that student essays “should be written from the developing perspective introduced in the class.” Evidently Professor Pushnik lives up to his name. His push-for-my-perspective approach invites the same sort of trouble the Rhode Island College School of Social Work asked for when it told a graduate student, Bill Felkner, that the institution “is a perspective school and we teach that perspective,” and telling him, “if you're going to lobby on that bill, you're going to lobby in our perspective.”

Another telling aspect of this course is its reading list, consisting of one textbook, Path to a Sustainable World: Developing Ecological Consciousness, and one guidebook called Earthscore, a “personal environmental audit.” Earthscore is a kind of quiz to show people how their actions affect the environment (“Are you an Eco-Titan, an Eco-Tyrannosaurus Rex, or perhaps an Eco-Slowpoke?”). The reader uses it to tally up both their impact points (bad) and action points (good). Perhaps Earthscore’s most striking section is the one on family planning. It says, “The number of children you have is your biggest environmental impact” and asks the reader to fill in the blank: “I plan to have ____ children.” The impact point scale follows:

0 = 0

1 = 10

2 = 50

3 = 500

4 or more = 5,000

Earthscore’s values scheme, regarding nature as more important than humans, is a mindset that is becoming more and more mainstream as animal rights activists set firebombs on scientists’ front porches and the Swiss parliament advocates for plants’ civil rights. A documentary film called Earthlings assumes that there is no essential moral difference between people, animals, and plants. And a website called “Earth Island Angels” uses images of fetuses as angels to console women who have had abortions. The Earth Island Angels author cheers herself:

When I see these images I am reminded that because I chose to end my accidental pregnancies, there are two fewer human beings on the earth impacting the habitat of butterflies and other creatures. They make me feel good about the decision I made because I have left more room on Earth for nature to flourish.

And so it is that many people believe “butterflies and other creatures” are more worth saving than human beings. Instilling that belief on a grand scale is the ultimate end of the sustainability movement.

A Better Man

The Environmental Literacy course at CSU-Chico is an accurate example of the kind of religious feeling the movement seeks to evoke. Here, environmentalism has a goddess—Mother Gaia; it summons soldiers in a revolution against the forces of evil (“high-impact” human lifestyles); it aims to change people’s worldviews; it tallies up morality points (rather like “blessing points”) and weighs them against sin/impact points.

Universities don’t shy away from characterizing eco-fervency as a kind of faith. They aren’t worried about being called radical—they want to get more radical. Sewanee University recognizes the cult-like qualities and embraces them in its Religious Environmentalism (Religion 307) course, which “explores the religious aspects of the latest wave of environmentalism” and encourages students to examine their “ethical commitments.”

“Ethics” is another word that has been appropriated by sustainatopians. Today we have a new morality, one that cares little about telling the truth, having self-control, or asking for forgiveness, but cares much about using florescent light bulbs and buying reusable shopping bags (for an example, watch the current Mastercard commercial: “Helping dad become a better man: priceless” says the narrator as a little boy looks self-righteously up at his eco-clueless dad).

Having found special sanctuary in schools and colleges, the sustainability revolutionaries are appealing to executive administrators to take control of the curriculum and to re-center the academy around a new mission. But the sustainabullies seek more than simply education; they crave loyalty. That’s why they come up with so many pledges and commitments to sign. Pledge-signing is a trend we have observed in social work accreditation and Safe Space programs, as well as in the sustainability-sponsored tap water movement. Right now, taking such oaths is optional, but will that always be the  case? Sustainabullies also seek universal action. CSU-Chico once again provides a case-in-point, announcing on its website, “We are facing a crisis that requires action by everyone.” 

This curriculum, this loyalty, this action—all this points to the new morality that despises humankind and worships planet Gaia. NAS president Peter Wood recently wrote about how education shapes our culture and our character. How will climate education shape the American character? 

Even so, while we at NAS criticize some aspects of this movement, we are not wholly against sustainability. As you can see, this essay recycles many of the articles we’ve already written concerning these issues. (To find out more about what NAS has to say on sustainability and other topics, click on the links scattered throughout this article.) We heartily endorse the nearly-forgotten virtue of frugality, and we believe it is possible to thrive on thrift.  

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