Executive Summary — Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism

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national_association_of_scholarsSus­tain­abil­i­ty” is a key idea on col­lege cam­pus­es in the Unit­ed States and the rest of the West­ern world. To the unsus­pect­ing, sus­tain­abil­i­ty is just a new name for envi­ron­men­tal­ism. But the word real­ly marks out a new and larg­er ide­o­log­i­cal ter­ri­to­ry in which cur­tail­ing eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and intel­lec­tu­al lib­er­ty is the price that must be paid now to ensure the wel­fare of future generations.

This report is the first in-depth crit­i­cal study of the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment in high­er edu­ca­tion. The move­ment, of course, extends well beyond the col­lege cam­pus. It affects par­ty pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy, the ener­gy indus­try, Hol­ly­wood, schools, and con­sumers. But the col­lege cam­pus is where the move­ment gets its voice of author­i­ty, and where it molds the views and com­mands the atten­tion of young people.

While we take no posi­tion in the cli­mate change debate, we focus in this study on how the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment has dis­tort­ed high­er edu­ca­tion. We exam­ine the harm it has done to col­lege cur­ric­u­la and the lim­its it has imposed on the free­dom of stu­dents to inquire and to make their own deci­sions. Our report also offers an anato­my of the cam­pus sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment in the Unit­ed States. We explain how it came to promi­nence and how it is organized.

We also exam­ine the finan­cial costs to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in their efforts to achieve some of the movement’s goals. Often the move­ment presents its pro­gram as sav­ing these insti­tu­tions mon­ey. But we have found that Amer­i­can col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties cur­rent­ly spend more than $3.4 bil­lion per year pur­su­ing their dreams of “sus­tain­abil­i­ty” at a time when col­lege tuitions are soar­ing and 7.5 per­cent of recent col­lege grad­u­ates are unem­ployed and anoth­er 46 per­cent underemployed.[1] In addi­tion to the direct costs of the move­ment, we exam­ine the grow­ing demands by sus­tain­abil­i­ty advo­cates that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties divest their hold­ings in car­bon-based ener­gy com­pa­nies with­out regard to for­gone income or growth in their endow­ments. What makes “sus­tain­abil­i­ty” so impor­tant that insti­tu­tions fac­ing finan­cial dis­tress are will­ing to pri­or­i­tize spend­ing on it? In this report, we exam­ine that question.

Because the idea of “anthro­pogenic glob­al warming”—or “cli­mate change”—is so close­ly inter­wo­ven with the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment, we devote a chap­ter ear­ly in the report to lay­ing out the argu­ments on both sides of this debate. The appeal of the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment depends to a great extent on the belief that the world is expe­ri­enc­ing cat­a­stroph­ic warm­ing as a result of human activ­i­ties that are increas­ing the amount of car­bon diox­ide in the atmosphere.

Is this belief war­rant­ed? We are neu­tral on this propo­si­tion, but we stand by the prin­ci­ple that all impor­tant ideas ought to be open to rea­soned debate and care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the evi­dence. This puts us and oth­ers at odds with many in the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment whose declared posi­tion is that the time for debate is over and that those who per­sist in rais­ing basic ques­tions are “cli­mate deniers.” The “debate-is-over” posi­tion is itself at odds with intel­lec­tu­al free­dom and is why the cam­pus sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment should be exam­ined skeptically.

We sup­port good stew­ard­ship of nat­ur­al resources, but we see in the sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment a hard­en­ing of irra­tional demands to sus­pend free inquiry in favor of unproven the­o­ries of immi­nent cat­a­stro­phe. And we see, under the aegis of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, a move­ment that often takes its bear­ings from its hos­til­i­ty towards mate­r­i­al pros­per­i­ty, con­sumerism, free mar­kets, and even demo­c­ra­t­ic self-government.

We offer ten rec­om­men­da­tions under three categories:

1. Cre­ate neu­tral ground. Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties should be neu­tral in impor­tant and unre­solved sci­en­tif­ic debates, such as the debate over dan­ger­ous anthro­pogenic glob­al warm­ing. Claims made on the author­i­ty of “sci­ence” must be made on the basis of trans­par­ent evi­dence and open­ness to good argu­ments regard­less of their source.

2. Cut the apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric. Pre­sent­ing stu­dents with a steady diet of dooms­day sce­nar­ios under­mines lib­er­al education.

3. Main­tain civil­i­ty. Some stu­dent sus­tain­abil­i­ty protests have aimed at pre­vent­ing oppo­nents from speaking.

4. Stop “nudg­ing.” Leave stu­dents the space to make their own deci­sions about sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and free fac­ul­ty mem­bers from the implied pres­sure to imbed sus­tain­abil­i­ty into the cur­ric­u­la of unre­lat­ed courses.

5. With­draw from the ACUPCC. Col­leges that have signed the Amer­i­can Col­lege and Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dents’ Cli­mate Com­mit­ment should with­draw in favor of open-mind­ed debate on the subject.

6. Open the books and pull back the sus­tain­abil­i­ty hires. Make the pur­suit of sus­tain­abil­i­ty by col­leges finan­cial­ly trans­par­ent. The growth of admin­is­tra­tive and staff posi­tions in sus­tain­abil­i­ty dri­ves up costs and wrong­ly insti­tu­tion­al­izes advo­ca­cy at the expense of education.

7. Uphold envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship. Cam­pus­es need to recov­er the dis­tinc­tion between real envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and a move­ment that uses the term as a spring­board for a much broad­er agenda.

8. Cre­den­tial wise­ly. Cur­tail the aggran­dize­ment of sus­tain­abil­i­ty as a sub­ject. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is not a dis­ci­pline or even a sub­ject area. It is an ideology.

9. Equal­ize treat­ment for advo­cates. Treat sus­tain­abil­i­ty groups on cam­pus under the same rubric as oth­er advo­ca­cy groups. They should not enjoy priv­i­leged immu­ni­ty from ordi­nary rules and spe­cial access to insti­tu­tion­al resources.

10. Exam­ine motives. Col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty boards of trustees should exam­ine demands for divest­ment from fos­sil fuels skep­ti­cal­ly and with full aware­ness of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­text in which these demands are made.

The sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment has become a major force in Amer­i­can life that has large­ly escaped seri­ous crit­i­cal scruti­ny. The goal of this report is to change that by exam­in­ing for the first time the movement’s ide­o­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and prac­ti­cal effects on insti­tu­tions of high­er education.
[1] The basis of the $3.4 bil­lion esti­mate is giv­en in Chap­ter 5 of this report. For the unem­ploy­ment rate see:

Hei­di Shier­holz, Alyssa Davis, and Will Kim­ball, “The Class of 2014: The Weak Econ­o­my Is Idling Too Many Young Grad­u­ates,” Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, EPI Brief­ing Paper #377, May 1, 2014. The Shier­holz study uses the term “under­em­ployed” to mean “work­ing part-time” and cal­cu­lates that 16.8 per­cent of recent col­lege grad­u­ates fit that descrip­tion. The more com­mon def­i­n­i­tion of “under­em­ployed” is “work­ing in jobs that gen­er­al­ly don’t require one to have a col­lege degree.” By that def­i­n­i­tion, 46 per­cent of recent col­lege grad­u­ates are under­em­ployed. See also Cather­ine Dunn, “Are Col­lege Grads Des­tined For Jobs As Baris­tas And Clerks? Fed­er­al Reserve Econ­o­mists Explain,” Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times, Sep­tem­ber 4, 2014.