Sustainability FAQs

Peter Wood

1. What is sustainability?

The official U.N. definition: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

A mass movement: denunciation of modern science, technology, developed economies, and civilization for threatening the future welfare of humanity.

A prophecy: Global warming caused by human activity will have catastrophic consequences, which can only be averted by making radical changes now in energy production, economic institutions, and the structure of government.

A comprehensive ideology: Sustainability is only superficially about averting environmental dangers.  More fundamentally, it calls for drastic economic, political, and cultural changes.

A utopia: Sustainability projects a future free of all competition, strife, inequality, and injustice, as well as waste and pollution.  To this end, some sustainability advocates call for extreme reductions in the human population.

2. How do sustainability advocates picture their movement?

Often, sustainability is depicted by a Venn diagram of three interlocking circles labeled “environment,” “society,” and “economy,” with “sustainability” in the middle where all three overlap.  Achieving “sustainability” requires curtailing economic, political, and intellectual liberty for the sake of averting a potential future climate catastrophe. 

3. What is the Brundtland Report?

In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued Our Common Future, commonly called the Brundtland Report. It is the foundational document in the sustainability movement and the source of the definition of “sustainable development” as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

4. What is your position on global warming?

We take no position on whether global warming is real, man-made, or dangerous. The National Association of Scholars is not a body of climate scientists, and we leave these questions to those with the relevant expertise. We do, however, want a fair scientific debate on the topic—something that is stifled when one side is stigmatized as “deniers” and the other is categorically praised as “consensus.” Alarmism and the denunciation of open-mindedness over the possibility of climate change impedes, rather than advances, scientific progress.

5. Why do you oppose sustainability? Shouldn’t everyone want clean air and water?

We endorse efforts to clean up the air, water, and land and we support the principle of stewardship of the earth’s resources.  Like many within the environmental movement, we are concerned about unchecked consumerism, materialism, and acquisitiveness. But we disagree with many in the sustainability movement about how to proceed.  As we look at the historical record, we see that the most developed modern economies have the best environmental records. 

Curtailing economic development, ending the use of all fossil fuels, and using state power to redistribute wealth will only impoverish society.  Impoverished people are not equipped to take care of the environment, and sustainability policies in that sense are doomed to backfire.  They will end up degrading the environment and harming the people they are intended to help. 

We also oppose the sustainability movement’s readiness to trace all social, economic, and environmental problems to capitalism and individualism. The most polluted and unjust societies on earth are neither capitalist nor individualist.  The free market system, when operated by a responsible, virtuous citizenry, has historically been the most supportive of individual liberty and prosperity.

6. The vast majority of all climate scientists say global warming is a serious threat that requires radical action to avert. Do you ignore these dangers?

The dangers may or may not be real. There are several reasons for uncertainty:

  • Global warming and climate change projections are based on computer models that have so far proven wildly inaccurate.  The models, moreover, disagree with each other.
  • Many of the “climate scientists” who issue such warning are also engaged in political action.  It is difficult for outsiders to disentangle what is good science from what is political advocacy or quasi-religious belief.
  • The term “climate scientists” is itself mischievous—a way of writing out scientists who are experts in related fields, such as physics and geology, who disagree with the “consensus” model.
  • The studies that claim “97 percent” of climate scientists believe in dangerous anthropogenic global warming have largely been discredited.  The “97 percent” figure was achieved by misleading questions and miscategorizing answers.
  • Conflicts of interest.  More than $450 million in federal funding flows each year to researchers in the “consensus” community.  The financial stake of the researchers in advancing the global warming theory is patent.

In today’s polarized scientific environment, keeping an open mind and expressing any skepticism about global warming’s potential catastrophic scale are seen as examples of “denialism”—a term intentionally harkening back to Holocaust deniers. Multiple times throughout the twentieth century, there have been unsubstantiated predictions of catastrophe, including overpopulation, starvation, and global cooling. None of these have come to pass—in many cases due to new technologies and innovations, such as the “Green Revolution” that dramatically increased food production. We are optimistic in the ability of human ingenuity to solve problems.

7. How many colleges and universities offer degrees in sustainability?

According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, there are 1,438 sustainability programs at 475 campuses in 65 states and provinces.

8. Do you object to sustainability being taught at colleges and universities?

No. But we object to its being taught as dogma and we object to its being jammed into every part of the curriculum. It is one thing for students in an environmental studies class to study the Brundtland Report and contemporary debates over sustainability.  It is something else when English professors, mathematicians, and art history professors are told to teach it too.

One problem with the sustainability movement is the claim its proponents make on priorities. The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (now signed by 686 colleges) endorses “the scientific consensus” on global warming, thus precluding or impeding other avenues of inquiry by qualified researchers at those institutions. This “Commitment” also calls for “integrating sustainability into [the] curriculum,” thus bypassing the usual intellectual debates by which a college shapes its courses and programs of study. 

We do not object to students studying climate science and learning about ways to be responsible stewards of natural resources. But we are critical of the growth of sustainability departments that treat activism as scholarship and that use environmental concerns to advance economic and political agendas. We also criticize the tendency in many programs to take global warming for granted and rob students of the opportunity to examine the evidence for themselves.

9. How many colleges and universities are working to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions?

At least 686. That’s how many have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which commits them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Other colleges and universities that have not signed the Commitment nonetheless support the principle.  Harvard, for instance, has not signed the Commitment but has pledged to reduce its emissions 30% by 2016 (relative to a 2006 baseline) and to continue reducing at “the maximum practicable rate.”

10. How much money do colleges and universities spend on sustainability initiatives?

We estimate $3.4 billion per year. That’s based on the annual net cost to one ACUPCC signatory, Middlebury College, of $3.7 million. We extrapolated from this number the approximate cumulative cost to the other signatories. We consider this a low estimate. Middlebury is a small college. We recognize that some signatories are smaller than Middlebury and have lower costs; but many are larger and have significantly greater costs. Additionally, numerous colleges have endorsed sustainability as a key principle but have not signed the ACUPCC, and hence do not factor into our estimate.

11. What are your objections to fossil fuel divestment?

Such divestment is fiscally irresponsible.  College endowments are intended to support college operations.  Fossil fuels are an important part of a balanced portfolio of long-term investments.

Divestment is economically and socially short-sighted. Oil, gas, and coal provide cheap, reliable energy that form the backbone of our economy and are especially crucial in developing countries. Depriving these emerging economies of reliable, inexpensive energy would substantially impede their growth and suspend millions of people in prolonged poverty. 

Divestment is politically motivated.  Divestment has a negligible effect on fossil fuel companies.  The aim of the movement is to stigmatize fossil fuel companies as immoral and to pressure government leaders to enact stringent energy regulations.

Divestment is educationally destructive. The movement shuns debate and genuine exchange of ideas, as well as careful examination of the facts.

12. Why do you oppose “nudging” students towards sustainability? Isn’t it a good idea for students to adopt a better, more environmentally friendly lifestyle?

Nudging is manipulation—the very opposite of education. Instead of empowering students to make their own well-informed decisions, it attempts to trick students into conformity. 

13. What is the National Association of Scholars?

The National Association of Scholars is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. We uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship. We expect that ideas be judged on their merits; that scholars engage in disinterested research; and that colleges and universities provide for fair and judicial examination and debate of contending views. We publish reports and commentary on a number of topics related to higher education, which can be found at our website,


Image: Quinn Dombrowski, cropped.

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