Every decade or so, another academic “fashion du jour” sweeps America’s college campuses. In the 1990s, it was multiculturalism. That morphed into “diversity” — now such a mantra that students can spell it backward in their sleep. Today, excitement is surging for a new fad, “sustainability,” that’s taking higher education by storm.
Sustainability now permeates campuses from the classroom to the dorm, dining hall, faculty lounge, physical plant and alumni office. The word conjures up images of clean water, recycling, and DDT-free songbirds at the back-yard feeder. Responsible environmental stewardship — what’s not to like about that?
But wait. If you hang around campus for long, you learn that sustainability also often entails a curious grab bag of social issues. These include “gender-neutral” campus housing for transgender students; patronizing women-owned businesses, and denouncing “white privilege” and police brutality.
Sustainability, it turns out, is the new battle cry in an old war. It’s a wraparound concept that links the old, familiar liberal causes of environmental activism, animosity toward free markets, and a progressive take on “social justice.” But it repackages them and lends them urgency by maintaining that embrace of its ideological agenda is imperative to avoid a looming ecological and social catastrophe.
Second Nature, a national advocacy organization that has helped engineer sustainability’s rapid rise on campus, describes the movement’s transformative ambitions this way. America does “not have environmental problems per se,” the group maintains. “We have environmental consequences resulting from the way we have designed our business, social, economic and political systems.”
In other words, the campus sustainability movement’s mission is to transform our fundamental social, economic and political institutions, and to do so by manipulating, cajoling and browbeating a generation of college students into accepting the movement’s worldview and cultural norms.
A report titled “Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism” — recently released by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in New York City — explores the history and implications of the movement’s meteoric rise on campus.
Sustainability is not an academic discipline but an ideological “lens” through which to view all of life, as the report makes clear. Today, 475 colleges in 65 states or Canadian provinces offer a total of 1,436 degree or certificate programs in sustainability, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. In addition, there are countless elective classes. Cornell University offers more than 400, ranging from “The Ethics of Eating” (“defend” or change your eating habits) to “Magnifying Small Spaces Studio,” where students learn to make do living in tiny spaces.
Beyond the classroom, students are pressured — often by paid student “eco-reps” — to conform the smallest details of their daily lives to the movement’s norms. This can mean tray-less cafeteria dining; shorter showers; “Meatless Mondays”; lectures on fossil fuel divestment; and films like “Food, Inc.” or “The Story of Bottled Water,” which depict the American economy as a tool of greedy, ruthless capitalists.
How is the sustainability movement playing out on Minnesota campuses? St. John’s University in Collegeville offers an example. SJU is committed to “incorporating the goals of sustainability into every aspect of life” and focusing students’ attention on the “triple bottom line: equity, economy and the environment.”
The university — which boasts of becoming “carbon-neutral” by 2035 by conserving, changing energy sources, and investing in alternative energy and carbon offsets — offers courses like “Food, Gender and Environment”; has two “eco-houses” for student living; distributes the “SJU Green Guide,” and employs 10 full-time equivalents for diversity and equity coordination.
SJU’s sustainability push begins at freshman orientation, where students use “corn utensils and recyclable plates” during meals. All freshmen and seniors take a Sustainability Literacy Assessment, so the school can measure how effectively its saturation campaign is changing students’ beliefs and attitudes.
In March 2014, SJU organized a Sustainability Week — “dedicated to educating our campus community and encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors.” The event concluded with “a celebratory ‘Sustainability Happy Hour’ ” that “featured trivia about SJU’s sustainability initiatives and other environmental topics.”
The University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus also bombards students with preachy exhortations on the gospel of sustainability. These include politically correct invocations about biking, transit, recycling and composting, and a “Welcome Week” during which every student has “the chance to engage with … hands-on learning activities and … to win prizes all while learning about sustainability.”
The U earns special “points” from a national sustainability rating organization because it provides “gender neutral housing” for “transgender and transitioning students” (those switching to another gender), as well as single-race housing for black men, Hmong students and other minorities.
The university’s Sustainability Studies office emphasizes the “heavy intersection” between “the issues of race relations and sustainability.” During last year’s riots in Ferguson, Mo., the office posted online resources demonstrating how “white folk can show support against police brutality,” and encouraged students to donate to “The Organization for Black Struggle” — fighting “the racist police state in Ferguson” — to help protesters with “basic needs, including food, water, gas masks and school supplies.”
Responsible environmental stewardship is commendable. So is the prudent use of energy and other natural resources. But in higher education today, sustainability is an ideology — not a proposition to be discussed, but a baseline assumption to be taken on authority. Dissent is harshly suppressed. Scientists who question climate change, for example, are branded 21st-century heretics.
In the classroom, this doctrinaire approach undermines open inquiry and rational debate — the heart of liberal education’s mission. In teaching and scientific research, it “shuts out certain questions and locks in certain answers,” as the NAS puts it. In decisionmaking about energy use and physical plant, it discourages honest analysis of costs and benefits.
The movement’s “salute-and-shut-up” mind-set is reflected in the sustainability oath that students and employees at the University of Virginia are asked to take on matriculation and at graduation: “I pledge to consider the social, economic and environmental impacts of my habits and to explore ways to foster a sustainable environment during my time here at U.Va. and beyond.”
The authoritarian impulse is also evident in the movement’s public-policy agenda. Its leaders call for vastly increasing state control over people and resources, and conferring power on government planners to distribute wealth and opportunity on the basis of skin color and socioeconomic status. This sacrifice of individual economic, political and intellectual liberty is regarded as “the price that must be paid now to ensure the welfare of future generations,” as the NAS observes.
Why are students attracted to the sustainability movement?
Its appeal springs, in large measure, from its quasi-religious nature and message. In our increasingly secular age, a focus on transcendent meaning has largely vanished from campus. Sustainability can fill the resulting vacuum by offering young people a sense of purpose and meaning.
“Like its predecessor movements that excited student passions,” sustainability “invokes moralistic duties to repair and restructure the Earth,” explains the NAS. It “rewards its followers with a sense of belonging to a community of the enlightened few,” and “endows the smallest actions with meaning and significance.” Recycling a plastic cup, for example, becomes a “noble sacrifice rewarded with laurels” that “contributes inexorably” toward saving the planet.
The Church of Sustainability derives many of its major themes from Judeo-Christianity. It teaches that the Earth — once a pristine Eden — is now fallen and polluted because of human sinfulness, and that an apocalyptic Judgment Day looms unless mankind repents. Absolution and salvation are possible if humans heed the enlightened saints and prophets who warn us of impending doom.
As sustainability spreads beyond the campus, we increasingly see it touted in coffee shops, celebrated by major corporations and embraced by urban planners. For example, it’s the ideology driving “Thrive MSP 2040,” the Metropolitan Council’s new 30-year plan for development in the Twin Cities region, with its pervasive themes of top-down planning and rule by “experts.”
It’s ironic that college campuses are home base for the sustainability movement. For higher education is among the least sustainable of our contemporary institutions. Colleges and universities are caught in a death spiral of rising costs and declining benefits. Nevertheless, they obsess about recyclable napkins, solar panels and fossil-fuel divestment, and pour $3.2 billion annually — frequently without assessing effectiveness — into achieving their dreams of sustainability, according to the NAS.
Today, colleges and universities are charging students huge, unsustainable sums — often upward of $50,000 a year — for the privilege of (among other things) living out an elite, politically correct fad. Many emerge with a crushing load of debt, at a time when, as the NAS points out, more than 50 percent of recent graduates are either unemployed or underemployed.
For these young people, there’s no better guarantee of an unsustainable future.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.