Peter Wood

Planet Earth is sloughing through year five of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The NAS is doing its part. So far we’ve posted 22 articles examining various aspects of the sustainability movement’s effort to colonize the university. This makes 23. One component of ESD is a proliferation of sustainability “summits.” By way of an NAS summit, here is a summary of what NAS has written so far on the topics of sustainability and education:    


INDEX of Articles on the Sustainability Movement by Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne.


♦ indicates the three most important articles



Sunbeams for Indigenes: The New Discipline of Cultural Sustainability. Peter Wood. August 5, 2009

         Goucher College’s new degree program; putting “culture” in the sustainability sandbox


♦    A First Look at Second Nature. Ashley Thorne. August 3, 2009

          The organization founded in 1993 by Senator Kerry to bring sustainability to campus  


UNESCO-topia: Sustainability’s Big Brother. Peter Wood. July 31, 2009

          UNESCO interprets sustainability as a mandate for gender equity


Unfit. Peter Wood. July 29, 2009

         Why “sustainability” should not be “the foundation of all learning”


♦   The Sustainability Movement in the American University. Peter Wood. July 27, 2009

           A synthesis of what we have learned about the movement.


Wal-Mart’s Eco-Index. Ashley Thorne. July 21, 2009

              The University of Arkansas and Arizona State University lend a hand


Woven Into the Fabric. Ashley Thorne. July 10, 2009

        College worker performance evaluations to focus on sustainability


1% for Propaganda. Ashley Thorne. July 9, 2009

        Second Nature calls for 1% of cap & trade bill funds to be set aside for sustainability ed


Does Environmentalism “Fit Squarely” with Higher Ed’s Mission?  Ashley Thorne. June 1, 2009

         We solicit reader responses to a manifesto linking sustainability to higher ed      


Sustainability Education’s New Morality. Ashley Thorne. May 15, 2009

           Colleges that demand a green loyalty oath from their students


Green Goblins. Ashley Thorne. April 22, 2009

          “Habitat Heroes” reports that 56 percent of 6-11 year olds expect the eco-apocalypse


Proven Commitment to the Climate. Ashley Thorne. April 9, 2009

          “The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment”


Green Fatigue. Ashley Thorne. February 25, 2009

           As the public grows skeptical of eco-hype, the campus grows more credulous


Sustainability is the New Diversity. Peter Wood. February 19, 2009

           The first formulation of what became The Sustainability Movement in the American University


Comment on NPR’s Broadcast, “The Cost of Being Green. Peter Wood. February 17, 2009

            NPR stigmatizes dissent on climate change


Sustainabullies. Ashley Thorne and Peter Wood. February 12, 2009

              Young college grads on the path from radical enviro-activists to university officials


Enchanting Sustainability. Peter Wood. January 26, 2009

Critique of Prof. Peggy Bartlett’s call for “nonrational ways of connecting with the earth’s living systems.”


Wartime Thrift. Ashley Thorne. June 4, 2008 

A review of Austin Williams’ The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability   


What Does Sustainability Have to Do with Student Loans?  Peter Wood. Minding the Campus. May 14, 2008. On the anti-capitalist component of the sustainability movement


Human Nature: NAS Attends an Environmental Justice Conference. Ashley Thorne. May 2, 2008

             A meeting at Princeton focusing on race and sustainability


♦ Sustainability’s Third Circle.   Peter Wood. Inside Higher Education. April 28, 2008

          Our first attempt to take the measure of this movement.


Ideology @ UCLA Dorms. Peter Wood. March 6, 2008 

             Four dorm floors “themed” for sustainability




As we have researched and written these articles, our understanding of the movement has deepened, and we have made many helpful contacts. We are currently working on a special issue of Academic Questions about the sustainability movement and I hope soon to draw together leaders of some other advocacy groups to discuss a coordinated strategy. 

Even so, it sometimes seems a lonely battle. I am not sure how many NAS members and others we have convinced that the sustainability movement is right now the very center of illiberal thought in American higher education. Although it is the fastest growing ideological movement on campus, sustainability has yet to occasion much thoughtful response from individual observers or organizations that typically express alarm when higher education flies off the rails. 

Why the complacency? First, the campus of ascendancy of the sustainability movement is new. It just swept in over the last two or three years, having gathered its strength elsewhere, like a hurricane spinning in the Atlantic before making a call on the Florida coast. Second, it is a top-down movement. Sustainability came to campus because college administrators adopted and imposed it. That gives it an air of normality and hides its radical qualities. Third, it is popular. We haven’t heard too many stories yet of students and faculty members abused because they didn’t get right with the sustainatopians. I suspect this is a deceptive calm and those stories will be coming soon. Fourth, the sustainability movement is artfully packaged. It sounds to outsiders as though it is just a tonier way to talk about saving energy and curbing pollution. The radical anti-market economics, the command-and-control central planning, the elitist politics, and the inculcation of bizarre new forms of “citizenship” are pretty much invisible to those who aren’t paying close attention.  

Perhaps I should add to this that conservatives, libertarians, and unhappy liberals are distracted with more pressing matters in the national agenda, such as health care, the economy, and cap and trade. Not that these are not unrelated to sustainability.   Much of President Obama’s case for health care reform, for example, partakes of sustainability logic and sustainability rhetoric. We can’t go on the way we are going. We’ll consume too much. The provident thing to do is to cut back now. That’s sustainability in a nutshell, and shell includes strong claims that disaster lies ahead if we fail to act, and the idea that the time for careful debate and inquiry is over. We must act right now!  The same logic and rhetoric appear in the lightning-fast adoption of the stimulus bill in February, and is being urged in the case of cap and trade. 

Urgency is its own political tactic, and I wouldn’t want to trace it all back to the eco-apocalyptic scenarios that are the stock-in-trade of sustainatopians. But there is definitely a connection. It comes with the cultural ambiance of the sustainability movement, which as we have shown in a series of articles has roots in radical left politics going back to the 1960s.   Back in the day the sustainability movement was no more than a venturesome hypothesis by the anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. He was casting around in the early 1960s for an alternative to proletarian revolution to promote the disintegration of American capitalism. The American proletariat hadn’t cooperated and Bookchin wondered whether the American love of nature might be appealed to instead. 

We’ve crossed many leagues of social change since Bookchin’s day. Environmentalism achieved mass popularity without entailing an anarchist revolution. Americans were open to an appeal for clean air and clean water, and as it turned out, so was American capitalism. But the American left did absorb the basic Bookchinite idea: popular environmentalism could be made the stalking horse for a popular campaign against capitalism, free markets, personal autonomy, the institutions of liberal democracy, and even intellectual freedom.   The key was to convince enough people that environmental peril is so great and so imminent that all these liberal luxuries would have to be sacrificed, or at least compromised, along the way. 

That’s the soul of the sustainability movement on campus. Outwardly it looks like an appeal to good environmental stewardship; inwardly it evokes revulsion against a technologically-based mass society governed by liberal institutions and personal choice.   The animating vision is of a world where the select few make wise choices for the ignorant many. In some version of the Vision, the ignorant many dwindle away, because the Earth cannot support so many human beings. The sustainatopians, living in quiet accord with Nature, survive to be excellent stewards of what is left.

The danger of a utopian vision is not that it will come to pass. It never does. The danger is that the people who believe in it will cause a great deal of damage along their way to ultimate failure. The most spectacular example of the twentieth century was the Russian Revolution and 75 years of Soviet communism, with the GULAGs and all the rest. But we don’t need the spectacular example to see that utopian thought is a swift road to fiasco. American history is littered with thousands of utopian experiments, from Brook Farm to New Harmony to the hippie communes of the 1960s. Something in our national character makes us susceptible to these millennial dreams. But their end result is invariably an increase in human misery. 

The utopian dream of sustainability is grander in scale than most such American ventures. Higher education is only part of it, but it may be a crucial part. The aim of the movement is to make the content and the purposes of the curriculum revolve around the principles of sustainability. The manifesto of Second Nature, the principal campus-oriented sustainability group, is plain: 

Second Nature's mission is to accelerate movement toward a sustainable future by serving and supporting senior college and university leaders in making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education.

Emphasis in the original. We’ve quoted this several times and we’ll keep on quoting it. These folks are serious.  

If we are concerned about the future of American higher education, we need to be concerned about this movement. It is not setting out to prepare educated men and women to play constructive roles in the American republic. It is, to the contrary, setting out to instill in these young men and women a lifetime apprehension of societal collapse and ecological disaster for which the right attitude is ceding personal freedom to others who claim to know better. 

The sustainability movement is, as I’ve pointed out before, not confined to the U.S. At the end of June last year, The University of Tokyo, Hokkaido University, and Keio University, along with the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, hosted a “G8 University Summit” in Sapporo, Japan, which was aimed at furthering the links between education and sustainability.  The Summit’s official “Preface” commences on the usual note of urgency: 

The rapid expansion of human activities now imposes a heavy burden on the earth, which calls for the urgent development of a vision of achieving global sustainability.

And the Sapporo summiteers produced the predictable “Sapporo Sustainability Declaration,” or the SSD.   It is admirably clear:

The subject of discussion was the responsibility of universities to contribute toward the attainment of sustainability…

“Sustainability” the SSD reminds us, “is one of the most important ideas of the 21st century.” I am used to seeing this trope. But “most important” compared to what? Universities, SSD intones, “have an important role in problem-solving to bequeath a sustainable world to future generations.” In some bland way, this is surely true. Universities really shouldn’t use up the world’s supply of oxygen, or bring photosynthesis to an end, or blot out the sun. If universities can continue scientific research and technological innovation that will probably benefit humanity. But then what? And do we need international summits to point out the obvious?

Of course, it is the not-so-obvious hitchhikers on the banal truisms that we need to watch for. And sure enough SSD provides them:

Global sustainability can be achieved only through a comprehensive approach that addresses socioeconomic as well as environmental issues.

What exactly these socioeconomic approaches are, however, remains obscure. They somehow involve “a low-carbon society, a resource-circulating society, and a nature-harmonious society.”

Another component of the SSD is the now familiar call for universities to use “their campuses as models for a sustainable society.” The campus as microcosm of society radically adjusted to radical priorities has been with us for a while. It nicely avoids the issue of whether various proposals are scalable or even possible in societies where people make their own decisions, and are not limited as most students are to choosing from a narrow set of options controlled by an administration.

Is the vision of sustainability that whole nations, even the whole world, should be run like a college campus?

The Sapporo G8 University Summit was followed this year by another G-8 University Summit in Torino, Italy, which apparently didn’t go so well. But I’ll save that for another time.

  • Share

Most Commented

October 31, 2023


University of Washington Violated Non-Discrimination Policy, Internal Report Finds

A faculty hiring committee at the University of Washington “inappropriately considered candidates’ races when determining the order of offers,” provided “disparate op......

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

November 27, 2023


The Ohio State Reports: DEI Contributions in Practice

New documents from Ohio State University detail how "diversity" factored into the evaluation of candidates considered for various departments....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...