The Absurdity of "Sustainability" in Economics Education

Tyler Watts

  • Article
  • February 18, 2010

Tyler Watts is an Economics instructor and a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at George Mason University.

The sustainability movement is growing faster than the greenhouse gas emissions its adherents dread. As an instructor at one of America’s most sustainability-conscious universities, I can’t help but notice that “sustainability” is being pushed relentlessly from the top-down, and that it has begun to infiltrate all aspects of life and work at the university. I'm sensing the next item on the agenda is a deliberate push to force-feed sustainability into multiple academic disciplines. Indeed, the sustainability advocacy group Second Nature explicitly proclaims its mission as supporting leaders in higher education in "making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education." The growing number of sustainability-themed classes, seminars, campus activities, and degree programs further attest to the rise of this movement.  

The concept of sustainability may sound well and good—after all, what could be wrong with making the world a more sustainable place? Yet as a teacher in higher education, I'm none too excited about being asked to propagandize for sustainability in my classroom. What's my beef with sustainability, you ask? Don't I care about "the environment?" I do, but I care about education, too; I want to caution my colleagues against thinking that this creeping curricularization of sustainability across academic disciplines is benign because at least “it’s a good cause.” That sustainability is, indeed, a cause—is precisely what should trouble serious scientists and educators and lead those of us who care about the ultimate purpose of higher education to seriously question the rapid pace at which sustainability is scaling the ivory tower.    

Sustainability is not science, and the doctrines of the sustainists have no real place in the classroom, at least the economic classroom. “Sustainability" is a moral crusade aimed at behavior modification for the sake of solving a problem of questionable merit. Though the sustainists really do believe their own rhetoric, the character of the movement differs little from the current anti-smoking campaigns, the temperance movement of the early 1900s, or the militant religious zealotry of the original crusades of yore. Sustainability is an activist movement and has no right to become the new locus of scientific liberal education.  

Economics professors should be highly concerned with maintaining the scientific integrity of the discipline and providing sound instruction in its basic content—theory, tools and techniques. If sustainability doctrine is incompatible with this basic content, any top-down curriculum requirements that mandate its inclusion will necessarily undermine the teaching and learning of pure economics and seriously frustrate both teachers and students in their attempt to understand and apply economics in society.  

Economic Science and Its Uses 

Economics is concerned with human action in a world of scarce resources and an uncertain future. Economists seek to understand the observed regularities of the production and exchange of goods in society under the basic, realistic assumptions that people are rational and self-interested.[1] Thus an economist might ask a question such as, "How does Paris get fed?" We then proceed to trace out the mechanisms and institutions of market (and political) exchange through which individuals can reliably and repeatedly interact and cooperate with others to solve their economic problems.  

Economics, as a pure science, is "value-free." We take things, including human nature, as they are, not as they ought to be according to any single person’s values. All people's values are taken as given and no person's values are taken as superior. We're interested strictly in the social phenomena of economic production and exchange. The point of economic analysis is to examine how rational, purposeful, self-interested people go about satisfying their wants.  

Pure economic theory, complete with graphs, equations, and laws named after famous geeks, is fascinating to economists, but not really useful unless we can find ways to apply it to society and make recommendations as to how human interaction should proceed in the real world so as to achieve prosperity. Fortunately, Economics is chock full of practical applications. For example: there is a real consensus among economists that price controls don’t work. Legally capping the price of gasoline, for instance, at $2/gallon will only result in shortages characterized by long lines, frustration and inefficiency. We should avoid such policies if we want people to be able to make the most beneficial use of the market process.  

Much to the chagrin of social crusaders and social engineers, applied economics tends to recommend what seems like a "do nothing" approach towards curing social ills. The idea of laissez-faire—that letting free people pursue their own interests competitively through free markets will result in the most productive and prosperous social outcome—appeals to many of us because economic theory and economic history support this as the best means of achieving economic prosperity and upholding human dignity. Some economists are more sanguine about the efficacy of the invisible hand than others, but for those of us who recommend economic liberalism, it’s not a matter of faith but a matter of applied science. 

Economic liberals are aware of  potential shortcomings in the ideal of the laissez-faire econosystem. Economists have long recognized, and even hardcore free-marketers will admit to the existence of, externality problems, of which global warming is a prime example. Economists have also thought hard about effective and realistic collective solutions. Because economists tend to take people’s values and preferences as given, moral crusades aimed at behavior modification are out of the question for us (we’re staunchly, mercilessly pragmatic). We have a much more efficient solution at hand: if the citizenry is convinced that global warming is real and is really a threat to human life on earth, a simple carbon tax would do the trick of making individuals take into consideration the environmental damage of their fuel consumption (in technical jargon, would force them to “internalize the externality”).[2] Economic theory and research on the externality problem of global warming point clearly to this simple solution. Economists who have studied the global warming problem and are convinced that it represents a significant negative externality recommend the carbon tax solution and little else. 

In sum, pure Economics is a non-normative science aimed at understanding how social interaction in the production and exchange of goods works. Principles of sound economic reasoning can be applied to individual and social problems, and there has been much success in applied economics, yet also much room for improvement (especially in macroeconomic policy recommendations). Economics is not well suited, however, to be a surrogate vehicle for moral crusades aimed at saving the planet from mankind. The sustainability doctrine being pushed by the green intelligentsia is precisely this—a presumptuous, self-righteous campaign to change people’s behavior. As such, it has no positive place in the content of any economics class. 

Sustainability is Uneconomical 

The true essence of the sustainability movement has been well documented, thanks mainly to the tireless efforts of the NAS. To summarize, the core sustainist presumption is that far too many of our social and economic habits are unsustainable, and that severe negative consequences will follow unless we act now to change our ways. And of course, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Sustainists are amazingly quick to pass judgment on the social-economic world—the real workings of which they have not bothered to investigate in depth. Instead, they proclaim a crisis of epic proportions and anoint themselves leaders sine qua non for the continuation of the human race. Indeed, if sustainists would study a little Economics, they might realize that it is impersonal market forces—price changes silently providing people with up-to-date information as to supply and demand conditions for all goods and inducing appropriate production and consumption responses—that enable citizens of the wealthy, capitalized nations to enjoy sustained high standards of living.  

Most sustainists are true believers, motivated by passions, not profits.[3] But scientists (economists especially) are concerned with results, not intentions. The results implied by the doctrine and practices of the sustainists should make true liberals shudder. In the language of political economy, sustainability is the current iteration of central planning. Nobel-laureate economist F.A. Hayek cautioned against both the theoretical impossibility of rational central planning, and the practical outcome of totalitarian government whenever it‘s been tried. One of the main themes in Hayek's work was that the social world is far too complex for any group of people, however smart and caring they may be and however sophisticated their data and technology, to design it and plan it from a central place of authority. Indeed, the great insight of the classical economists, whose tradition Hayek in many ways carried on, was that the individual competition of the free market system works toward a social coordination in spite of the seemingly chaotic, unplanned interplay of the market forces at hand. 

Sustainists are central planners. The aim of their entire program is to micromanage everybody’s resource use and shut down individuals’ freedom to use those resources to attain their own ends as guided by the price system. Although sustainists will deny any desire to control people, a close reading of their agenda reveals the coercive means they are willing to employ. While the idea of "green police" cracking down on "irresponsible" (as judged by the sustainist elites) resource use may seem a long way off, there is a germ of truth here that makes spots like this frighteningly likely.  

The one economically relevant issue in the sustainability panoply—the potential negative externalities of global warming—has long been recognized as a species of externality problem, and there is virtually no controversy among economists as to the proper solution recommended by economic theory. The only controversy is whether the central assumption of the global warming alarmists is true or false. This question should be debated without presumption of crisis, yet sustainists have taken it as given based on research that appears increasingly politicized. (My "scientific" humility, flavored by historical experiences with earlier climate change prophecies, fuels my skepticism.) 

I’m a teacher, not a preacher. Economics is a science and can be wonderfully useful for showing how the social world works and making that world a better place by avoiding bad policies, fostering good institutions, understanding the reality of tradeoffs, etc. At the end of the semester, I don’t expect my students to agree with me ideologically—indeed, I tend to keep such matters obscure and focus strictly on economic theory. I expect my students to understand basic laws and principles of economics, and I equip them to apply economics on their own to the problems they will confront, whether those be running a business, promoting economic growth, or helping the poor nations and people of the world reach toward the level of prosperity we enjoy in the West. The idea of transforming my curriculum to make one alarmist advocacy group's agenda the "foundation of all learning and practice" in my classroom galls me. My scientific integrity won't allow me to bow to the fads of the day. I will continue to teach Economics, just Economics.  


[1]  Replace with the term "greedy" if you like—I encourage my students to think about the self-interest assumption in this way as a kind of "worst-case-scenario" economic analysis. In other words, even if people are greedy, what accounts for the fact that we usually cooperate and that all-out selfishness in the form of rape, theft, fraud, and the like is exceptional rather than normal economic behavior?

[2] A further benefit of a uniform carbon tax would be the general incentive for all carbon-fuel users to discover and exploit the most economical forms of non-carbon energy, rather than the special-interest-driven, piecemeal subsidies to officially sanctioned forms of "alternative energy."

[3]Nonetheless, economists in the Public Choice tradition warn us to always be on the lookout for the promotion of private interests masquerading as a policy in the "public interest." A prime example of this in the present context is the ethanol industry in the U.S. and other boondoggles that survive solely by subsidy. 

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