Sustainability: A new college fad with fangs

About 25 years ago, American higher education was swept up in the identity studies fad. A great many colleges and universities created courses, departments, degree programs, and related administrative posts in Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Latina/o Studies, Queer Studies, and others. 

Few college officials could resist the loud demands for that expansion even though it diverted funds from serious academic uses. Giving in demonstrated their fealty to a host of “progressive” notions about social injustice and oppression, while saying “no” would badly tarnish a college leader’s liberal halo. A Hobson’s Choice. 

And now there is a new fad rampaging across the college landscape—sustainability. For the last ten years, this mania has been gathering momentum because, like identity studies, sustainability pushes the hot buttons for leftist academics: environmentalism, anti-capitalism, salvation through liberal activism, and the chance to hector all those wrong-thinking people. It’s almost irresistible.

How far the sustainability movement has spread into American higher education is the subject of a deeply researched study by the National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. “In less than a decade,” write authors Peter Wood (president of NAS) and Rachelle Peterson (Research Associate at NAS), “the campus sustainability movement has gone from a minor thread of campus activism to a master narrative of what ‘liberal education’ should seek to accomplish for students and for society as a whole.”

The first sustainability program was established at Arizona State back in 2006 and  by 2015, 475 colleges and universities had created certificate and degree programs in the field. But exactly what is this field?

Traditionally, academic disciplines conveyed a body of knowledge to students: chemistry, biology, history, literature, foreign languages, philosophy, economics and so on. But (and again like identity studies), there is no body of knowledge regarding “sustainability.” It’s just a farrago of beliefs, attitudes, and grievances centering around the general notion that most humans aren’t living the right way and unless we make drastic changes, we’re doomed.  

Wood and Peterson argue that sustainability is not really an academic discipline; rather, it’s an “ideology that unites environmental activism, anti-capitalism, and a progressive vision of social justice.” Like a religion (hence the reference to fundamentalism), sustainability never questions its tenets. It posits them and even has “pledges” for students and school officials to adhere to. And the courses that go into the sustainability curriculum are far more like preaching than teaching.

Consider, for example the “Ethics of Eating” course at Cornell, a school that has gone head over heels for sustainability. Students are required to “either defend your eating habits or change them.” It’s advocacy, not intellectual study. There is nothing wrong in trying to convince people to become vegans, but doing so has no connection with the functions of a higher education institution. 

Imagine the outcry if a college sponsored a course where students were expected to defend their religion or change it.

What other sorts of courses do students take in the sustainability curriculum? It’s a hodge-podge, including “trash studies,” “environmental poetry,” and my favorite, ”Small Spaces Studio” where students learn how best to live in mini-spaces. Frequently, courses link some “identity” belief with sustainability, such as that “patriarchy” is the enemy of sustainable life and therefore must be ended. 

Most often, however, courses involve the supposedly unquestionable science of global warming and impending catastrophe. There are plenty of serious questions for academic study here. Wood and Peterson write: 

“Is the climate really changing? In the direction of global warming? Because of human activity? And if the answers to these questions are ‘yes’ are the interventions proposed by sustainability advocates plausible responses? These are key questions, but the sustainability movement does not welcome them.”

The sustainability movement isn’t interested in the kind of analysis that scholars bring to controversies. It wants zealots, such as the “eco-reps” now employed on many campuses to push the agenda. Recycling, for instance, is always advanced as an imperative for saving the planet. There are trade-off questions about recycling that have caused many people to conclude that its costs often exceed its benefits, but students are not encouraged to think about them. 

Sustainotopians (as the authors call them) don’t want doubts about their creed seeping in. As the report documents, when students dare to question the beliefs that undergird sustainability, they’re often treated in an uncivil, unscholarly fashion. That’s what happens when true believers take charge of education; a “you’re with us or you’re against us” mindset shoves aside reflective inquiry and discussion.

It’s bad enough that there are openly doctrinaire sustainability courses, but at least students can avoid them. Frequently, however, sustainability precepts are smuggled into other courses, where, Wood and Peterson write, “the unsuspecting student meets it not as a tenet to be discussed, but as a baseline assumption on which all subsequent scholarship and dialogue rests.”

Not only are colleges offering more courses with sustainability themes, but many are going further in promoting the agenda by suffusing it throughout the whole campus. Based on the vision of Peter Bardaglio in his manifesto A Moment of Grace, colleges should begin with “first order” education about sustainability, which is to say, placing it throughout the curriculum. Then, they should move on into “education for sustainability,” which calls for trying to ensure that students practice what they’ve absorbed in class with, e.g., constant admonitions to make their carbon footprints as small as possible. 

Finally, the highest order of sustainability is “education as sustainability,” wherein everything the school does is expected to be in accord with sustainable ideas. For example, Middlebury College in Vermont has, at great expense, built a heating plant that uses local wood chips rather than oil or gas. 

Whether or not the school saves money through “sustainable” actions (like getting rid of cafeteria trays) is beside the point. The point is to “model” proper ways to act.

A college at this stage is like a madrassa for deep green activists. You have to wonder if such schools will at least have some “safe spaces” for students who don’t accept the entire sustainability catechism and want to, say, enjoy a hamburger without being denounced.

While we might be tempted to shrug off the sustainability movement as just well-intentioned environmental enthusiasm that might even do a bit of good by making people “more aware,” Wood and Peterson argue to the contrary. “Harnessing higher education into the service of sustainability seriously undermines its purpose…. It forces habits and disciplines based on reflection, dialogue, and careful consideration into the mold of urgent political and social advocacy,” they write. 


The report concludes with ten recommendations for educational institutions that don’t want to make a Faustian bargain with the sustainability crusaders.

  1. Don’t take sides in a dispute where there are serious differences on key facts.
  2. Stop haranguing students with apocalyptic rhetoric.
  3. Maintain civility, instead of letting the sustainability zealots shout down or even intimidate those who disagree with them.
  4. Stop “nudging” – in other words, don’t try to manipulate students into adopting the views and habits that Sustainotopians claim are essential to preventing global catastrophe.
  5. Withdraw from the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, “a dogmatic statement that compromises the institutions that sign it.”
  6. Open the books on the costs of all “sustainability” initiatives, and stop hiring administrators who represent “the institutionalization of advocacy” while driving up the cost of college.
  7. Uphold environmental stewardship, but don’t fall for the anti-capitalist agenda.
  8. Stop treating sustainability as an academic discipline; get rid of sustainability departments and majors.
  9. Treat all campus groups even-handedly; no privileged status for groups promoting sustainability.
  10. Examine the motives of sustainability advocates; in particular, governing boards should look at the motives of those who push for divestment of fossil fuel stocks.

In sum, NAS has given us a desperately needed warning about this movement. Allowing it to continue to grow will mean further politicization of education and “deforestation of our rich intellectual and academic environment.” Presidents, trustees, and faculty members should all take heed.