Politics & Policy

The ‘Sustainability’ Trend Costs Students Money

It costs them a lot intellectually, too.

Don’t bet on Sustainability. On March 28, Sustainability finished eighth in a field of ten in race nine at Gulfstream Park. An eighth-place finish was also the best the horse could do on February 28. Sustainability’s speed rating was “50.” Top-rated horses rate 100 plus.

Of course, there are other reasons not to bet on sustainability. They are detailed in Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, which the National Association of Scholars released last week. The report is not as much fun as a horse race but it has its moments. My co-author Rachelle Peterson and I detail how sustainability muscled its way into the curriculum. Who knew that Yale offers more than 400 sustainability courses — as does tiny Middlebury College? Some colleges that don’t require English, history, or math, do require sustainability. Major universities that years ago retired their last remaining course on Western civilization now offer a profusion of “watermelon courses” — green on the outside, red in the middle — that deride the West as uniquely bad for its destructive exploitation of nature.

Sustainability advocacy isn’t confined to the classroom. The University of Michigan just issued a fancy “Planet Blue Progress Report” on the myriad things it is doing to create “a sustainable future.” These include a 13.5 percent “reduction in carbon intensity per passenger trip on U-M transportation option since 2006”; more “sustainability sourced foods on campus”; bringing clean water to villages in Gujarat state in India; growing 400 shrimp in a vacant house in Detroit; examining environmental influences on autism; supporting the development of windmills in Michigan; and producing two one-act “green operas.”

Each project may have its merits. We’ve nothing against clean water in Gujarati villages. But these projects altogether are an attempt to saturate the lives of University of Michigan students with a tightly organized set of beliefs. Sustainability is everywhere: Young people are told they need to devote their education to the noble goal of saving the Earth. But saving it from what?

The answer on the tip of everyone’s tongue is “global warming,” or more evasively, “climate change.” But it is a shaky answer. We have had no global warming for 17 years or more — which is to say, nearly the whole lives of most college students. For students to take up this cause, they need to purposely set aside their own experience of normal temperatures and accept on someone else’s authority that a climate catastrophe in is in the making.

It’s possible that such a catastrophe awaits — but no more likely than dozens of other world-ending scenarios. Good scientists stand on both sides of the question. I lean to the moderately skeptical camp, mostly because the “climate consensus” crowd is so ferocious in its efforts to shut down the debate. If they have better arguments and evidence, why do they try to gag their opponents?

Sustainability advocates prefer a campus on which they can expand their control over every detail of student life. At the University of Michigan, the “Kill the Cup” program tries to get coffee shop customers to bring their own reusable cups. Many campuses have created “trayless cafeterias” in which students have to juggle their plates. Bottled water is similarly frowned on. These nuisances, presented as energy saving, are actually intended to prod students into thinking, at every turn, about the need to be sustainable. Disposable cups are not a significant threat to the environment, but people who disagree with the sustainability doctrine — well, yes, they are a threat.

Our report takes up the issue of “nudging,” psychological manipulation by universities, which aims to make students feel ashamed if they don’t conform to the latest green gimmick. Jennifer Jacquet, who teaches in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University, even has a new book about the procedure, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool.

Shaming students is one thing. Finding ways to make them cheerfully pay for the experience is another. In another part of our study, we examined how sustainability efforts drive up college costs across the country. There is a deep irony here. Sustainability advocates often complain that capitalism hides the real costs of things it brings to market because prices fail to reflect underlying environmental costs. But try finding out what universities actually spend in their efforts to green the campus. The numbers are hidden in hundreds of other budget categories and never aggregated.

We found that one small college, Middlebury, spends close to $5 million per year, and we project that just one segment of American higher education (the 685 colleges and universities that signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment pledging to reduce their carbon footprints to zero) spends $3.4 billion. That’s a lot of oats for Sustainability to eat when he is back at the stable.

In truth, it may be time to put Sustainability out to pasture. My hunch is that he isn’t going to win any races.

— Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.


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