Fixing Sustainability and Sustaining Liberal Education

  • Statement
  • April 21, 2011

“Sustainability” is one of the key words of our time.  We are six years along in the United Nations’ “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.” In the United States, 677 colleges and universities presidents have committed themselves to a sustainability-themed “Climate Commitment.”  Sustainability is, by a large measure, the most popular social movement today in American higher education.  It is, of course, not just a campus movement, but also a ubiquitous presence in the K-12 curriculum, and a staple of community groups, political platforms, appeals to consumers, and corporate policy.

In view of the broad popularity of the idea, we realize that a dissenting opinion may be dismissed out of hand. Yet sustainability ought not to be held exempt from critical scrutiny.  And the campus movement built around the word “sustainability,” is, in our view, very much in need of such scrutiny. This statement presents the National Association of Scholars’ considered view of nine ways that the campus sustainability movement has gone wrong.  And we offer a proposal for how it can be set right.

We came to compose this statement after three years of studying the campus sustainability movement.   We have at this point published over one hundred online articles, reports, and interviews on the topic; attended sustainability events; presented findings at academic meetings; and devoted a special issue of our quarterly journal Academic Questions to scholarly analyses of the movement’s origins and claims. Our policy statement distills what we have learned from this investigation.

1. A Misappropriated Word

Our dissent does not aim at the whole of “sustainability.”  We regard good stewardship of natural and institutional resources and respect for the environment as excellent principles.  We have nothing against colleges and universities attempting to trim their budgets by saving energy.  But wholesome words standing for wholesome principles do not always stay put.  They can be appropriated by political movements seeking to mask unattractive or unworthy ideas.

Words can be twisted, and on our campuses this is what has happened to “sustainability.”  We’ve seen this before.  “Diversity,” for example, appealed to tolerance, but was twisted into a rationalization for special privilege and coercive policy.   “Multiculturalism” initially seemed a call to appreciate other cultures, but turned out to be primarily an attack on our own.  “Sustainability” has followed this crooked path, appealing initially to our obligation to give future generations a clean and healthy planet, but quickly turning into a thicket of ideological prescriptions.

In its career as a politically correct euphemism, sustainability has begun to cause some serious mischief.

2. Mistaking Scarcity

The sustainability movement by and large mistakes the fundamental problem dealt with by the discipline of economics:  scarcity.   Economics has shown us that scarcity of material goods is basic.  Humans can respond to scarcity in many ways, including hoarding, theft, war, and oligarchy.  But among the most constructive responses are trade, substitution, the development of markets, and technological innovation.

The sustainability movement, however, embraces the notion that the best approach to the problem of scarcity is generally the maximal conservation of existing resources.   That can be accomplished only by curtailing use, and in the effort to achieve sharp reductions in the use of resources, the sustainability movement favors government regulation as key.   The sustainability movement is, in its essence, neo-Malthusian. (It supposes that, short of intervention, population growth will outstrip resources.)

There are, to be sure, advocates of sustainability who are friendlier towards the roles of innovation and markets in addressing future needs, but they do not represent the mainstream of the movement.

3. Maligning Progress

Historically, progress has depended on finding means to do more with less, or do more by converting the previously unusable into a source of value.  Because the sustainability movement has so little confidence in the power of technological innovation, it is essentially anti-progress.  Indeed some sustainability advocates openly declare their hostility to the industrialization of the West and the spread of advanced economic structures to the rest of the world.  Instead of progress, the sustainability movement prefers control.  Progress proceeds through innovation; sustainability through regulation.

While not inherently at cross-purposes with progress, regulation can thwart it by replacing market mechanisms with planned allocation, thereby diminishing the incentives for invention. The trade-offs between regulation and innovation will vary from case to case and need to be specifically analyzed. But turning sustainability, as often happens, into a moral imperative, a public icon, a matter of unquestioned doctrine, frustrates rational canvass.

4. Misleading Assumptions

The sustainability movement often simply assumes what it cannot show.  Is the world running out of key resources?   Has consumption in developed countries reached “unsustainable” levels?   In view of global warming or climate change, do we need to institute dramatic changes in the world economy?  Such questions, if asked at all, tend to be asked rhetorically, as if the answers were self-evident.   Or if the situation requires an answer, we are met with spurious declarations of authority:  the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says this; the “consensus” of scientists says that.

Sustainability in this sense is becoming a means of question-begging, of preempting discussion about the best ways of dealing with the problem of scarcity.

To be sure, the National Association of Scholars does not have its own answers to these important questions.  To the extent that the questions are really questions and not just rhetorical devices, they are beyond our scope as an organization to answer.  But it is not beyond our scope to insist on respect for the scientific method and conclusions based on the best available evidence, not mere assumptions packaged to look like science.

5. Stifling Inquiry

The sustainability movement’s aversion to progress and its tendency to assume rather than argue its basic propositions runs against the spirit of higher education.  Our institutions of higher learning have long been great centers of inquiry.   They have helped to drive technological progress for more than four centuries, and have been instrumental as well in driving economic development.  To transform sustainability into mindless mantra – absorbed by students, faculty, and staff through catchword repetition – risks replacing the West’s traditional optimism with a reflexive self-denial. That shouldn’t be the vocation of America’s higher educators.

6. Misusing Authority

The sustainability movement arrived on campuses mainly at the invitation of college presidents and administrative staff in areas such as student activities and residence life.   That means that it largely escaped the scrutiny of faculty members and that it continues to enjoy a position of unearned authority.  In many instances, the movement advances by administrative fiat, backed up by outside advocacy groups and students recruited for their zeal in promoting the cause.    Agenda-driven organizations—such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)—have taken advantage of academic sensibilities to turn sustainability into what is in many cases, a campus fetish. Sustainability also gets promoted by resort to pledges, games, competitions, and a whole variety of psychological gimmicks that bypass serious intellectual inquiry.

Some results are relatively trivial. For example, at certain institutions, cafeteria trays have been banned to save food, water, and energy, leaving students and staff to juggle dishes, cups, and utensils as they move between counters and tables.  Many campuses have also banned the sale of disposable water bottles to reduce plastic waste.  Yet however laughable, such petty annoyances have a sinister penumbra.  They advertise a willingness to bully that creates a more generalized climate of intimidation, spilling over into other domains.

7. Abusing Freedom

One of these is academic freedom, and here the news is worse. As with diversity, some institutions have been pressuring faculties to incorporate “sustainability” across-the-curriculum, requiring reports about the ways in which individual instructors have redesigned their teaching. Quite apart from the practical difficulties this creates in fields like music or philology, it invades the pivotal right of faculty members to interpret their subject matter freely. Belief in the imminence of environmental crisis, or the imperative of laying aside other intellectual priorities to address it, should not be a requirement for teaching or scholarship, or a standard of good academic citizenship. That it threatens to become so reflects a serious disturbance in the academic climate, to say nothing of being a tell-tale sign of the kind of hubris that infects ideologically empowered administrators.        

8. Ideological Aggregation

When we hear the word “sustainability,” most of us think of the environment, but for a long time many sustainability advocates have been staking claims to larger territory.  They see sustainability as not just about the environment but also about economics and social justice.  The movement takes as its unofficial logo a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles labeled accordingly.  And many in the movement believe that to achieve a sustainable society, we must make coordinated radical changes in all three areas. In practice, this means that sustainability is used as a means of promoting to students a view that capitalism and individualism are “unsustainable,” morally unworthy, and a present danger to the future of the planet. 

Many sustainability advocates, particularly those situated in, or allied to, offices of student life, now contend that since moral choices inevitably produce a cascade of environmental consequences, moral reeducation is needed to ensure sustainability. Much of this is directed, at least implicitly, against traditional moral values. Having an affirmative attitude toward homosexuality, for instance, is reinterpreted so as to bear a positive environmental significance. Obviously, moral principles are an entirely valid topic for debate, on campus or off. In a university setting we would prefer this debate – to the degree it is under official auspices – to occur in those courses where it’s materially relevant. Needless to say, students should also be completely free to discuss these questions outside the classroom. What should not happen, but nonetheless does, is for the debate to be stage-managed by dormitory-based bureaucrats, under the pretext of furthering the university’s educational responsibilities.

9. Mystic Doom

Fascination with decline and ruin are nothing new in Western thought.  The sustainability movement combines a bureaucratic and regulatory impulse with an updated version of the Romantics’ preoccupation with the end of civilization, and with hints of the Christian apocalyptic tradition. These are the “end times” in the view of some sustainability advocates—or potentially so in the eyes of many others. The movement has its own versions of sin and redemption, and in many other respects has a quasi-religious character. For some of the adherents, the earth itself is treated as a sentient deity; others content themselves with the search for the transcendent in Nature.

As a creed among creeds, sustainability constitutes an upping of the ideological ante. Feminism, Afro-centrism, gay-liberation, and various other recent fads and doctrines, whatever else they were, were secular, speaking merely to politics and culture. The sustainability movement reaches beyond that, having nothing less than the preservation of life on earth at its heart.

The religious creeds of faculty members and students are their own business, but we have reason for concern when dogmatic beliefs are smuggled into the curriculum and made a basis for campus programs as though they were mere extensions of scientific facts.


Our list of nine ways in which the sustainability movement has gone wrong, of course, reflects our view of what the university ideally should be. Universities at their best adhere to reasoned discourse and scientific method: reasoned discourse in welcoming all serious perspectives, scientific method in subjecting them to the canons of logic and evidence.  Universities are founded on the premise that clear thought must precede action.  The sustainability movement as it is now assaults all of these ideals.

We can imagine, however, ways in which sustainability could play a far more constructive role in the university. To that end, NAS urges colleges and universities to:

Treat sustainability as an object of inquiry rather than a set of precepts.  A great deal of worthwhile scientific work, research in engineering, and investigation in fields such as economics, for example, remains to be done on points that the movement in its current form tends to take for granted.  Some of this work is already underway, but it is crowded together with much more dubious “research” that is little more than ideological touting.  Universities have an obligation to distinguish legitimate inquiry from its counterfeits.  This is where the reform of sustainability should begin.

Restore the debate.  The sustainability movement poses as though many long-disputed matters are now settled.  This isn’t true.  For sustainability to play a genuinely constructive part in the intellectual life of the nation’s universities, it must submit to both cross-examination and to open dialog.  The neo-Malthusian component of the movement (the idea that the world’s population is outstripping its resources) is especially in need of the questioning that open debate can provide.

Level the playing field.  It won’t be much of a debate if sustainability advocates enjoy all the advantages of administrative favor. Advocates of alternative “narratives,” such as those who emphasize progress through technological innovation, need comparable levels of support.

Get off the bandwagon.  Signing statements like the “AmericanCollege and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment” preempts discussion of matters that should rightly be open for debate and for robust expression of different opinions.   Efforts to collectivize opinion and to settle open questions by appealing to the prestige of signatories are, at bottom, anti-intellectual as well as a threat to academic freedom.

Quit bullying the skeptics. Even tenured faculty members complain of the heavy-handed tactics of sustainability advocates in their attempts to silence dissent.  Matters are much worse for undergraduate students who often come under the gaze of “sustainabullies”—those students who, often with the encouragement of their colleges, take it upon themselves to enforce the ideology.

Promote intellectual freedom. Sustainability would be a much more attractive idea shorn of its coercive aspect.  College and university officials should take care not to turn optional campus activities themed on sustainability into de facto requirements. Making sustainability part of freshman orientation, for example, preempts most students from ever risking the expression of an independent opinion.  Advocacy of causes about which individuals can reasonably disagree should always take place in a manner in which disagreement can be voiced without fear of official sanction.

Respect pedagogical freedom.  Recent efforts at some colleges and universities to quiz faculty members in every department about their contributions to sustainability in all their classes are another instance of administrative overreach. If sustainability is to thrive as one perspective among many it must be set free from such meddling.  Faculty members must be free to interpret course content, and to exclude content they don’t believe falls within the purview of their fields. Sustainability is not a subject that should be imposed across the curriculum.

Remember the mission.  Make sound education rather than enthusiasm for social causes the essence of the academic mission. Good causes beckon every day. But even the best of social causes is, in the end, a diversion from the real purpose of the university.

We encourage college and university presidents, who have so often taken the lead in bringing the sustainability movement to campus, to take the lead again in correcting the excesses of the movement.  We also encourage trustees, alumni, faculty members, administrators, and students to raise the pertinent questions and stand fast in their expectations of fair-minded debate.

What’s Next

At the beginning of this statement we acknowledged that we are critiquing a movement that enjoys widespread popularity.  We have no illusions that in setting out a brief summary of that movement’s flaws we will prompt an equally widespread reassessment.  It is human nature that once people invest themselves in a system of belief, they defend it with vigor and turn away from it only reluctantly and after numerous disappointments. The academy is no exception.  Though it espouses in principle the rules of rational inquiry and reliance on unbiased evidence, academics too are prey to the dynamics of ideological conviction.

In that light, what purpose does our critique serve?  We offer it in the spirit of a constructive alternative.  We are far from dismissing the importance of environmental issues or the complicated connections between the environment, economic structures, and social conditions.  Our overriding concern is that a movement that is in haste to promote its preferred solutions to what it sees as urgent problems has deflected higher education from its proper role.   We seek to remind all those concerned with the future of American higher education what that role is, and to summon the responsible authorities back to their primary work.

We do this knowing that a large number of faculty members as well as members of the general public harbor misgivings about the sustainability movement but have all too often found themselves shut out of debate and unable even to find a forum in which to express their doubts.  This statement offers those who are already skeptical encouragement. It offers those who have reserved judgment an invitation to embark on their own critical examination of the topic.  And it offers those who are currently committed to the sustainability movement a challenge to their settled assumptions and a path to the exit when they are ready to rethink.

That rethinking is inevitable.  The sustainability movement is, in a word, unsustainable.  It runs too contrary to the abiding purposes of higher education; it is too rife with internal contradictions; and it is too contrary to the environmental, economic, and social facts to endure indefinitely.  When it begins to sink, we trust that this document will be remembered as offering a useful map for finding higher—and firmer—ground.

Photo: The Blue Diamond Gallery

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