Phi Beta Cons

The Latest, Perhaps Most Dangerous College Fad: Sustainability

The National Association of Scholars publishes a wealth of material pertaining to the state (largely but not entirely deplorable) of higher education in America. Several years ago, NAS blew the whistle on the obnoxious “residence life” programs around the country — programs that smuggled leftist tropes about the alleged evils of the country into residence halls through non-faculty facilitators. The residence life zealots retreated into the shadows after NAS turned over their rock.

Now, a new fad is rampaging across American campuses — sustainability. And once again, NAS has come out with a report that exposes the effort for what it is: indoctrination and advocacy pretending to be education. In today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I take a look at the report. Authors Peter Wood (president of NAS) and Rachelle Peterson (research associate) do a superb job of covering the origins, growth, and dangers of the sustainability movement.

With some deep pockets funding from people like Teresa Heinz Kerry, the sustainability movement has set its sights on taking over higher education to the greatest extent possible, suffusing teaching of sustainability notions throughout the curriculum (where they’re presented as precepts, not debatable questions), “nudging” students to live according to sustainability commandments (always recycle, lower your carbon footprint!), creating advocates for spreading sustainability throughout the land, and having colleges themselves become models of sustainability through a host of expensive “green” investments and other changes such as getting rid of cafeteria trays.

Higher education is the target of the movement because, Wood and Peterson write, “That’s where the activists focus their efforts to recruit new adherents; that’s where the movement develops its new tactics and ideas; that’s where federal research money for sustainability is concentrated; and that’s where the movement looks for its intellectual and cultural authority.”  The goal of the activists behind sustainability (deep ecology types like Bill McKibben and anti-capitalist ranters like Naomi Klein) is the transformation of the United States into the sort of place they want to live in (or think they want to live in, anyway). Toward that end, they mean to turn colleges and universities into madrassas for their religion. And yes, sustainability is a secular religion.

Why is all of this worrisome? Wood and Peterson explain that sustainability involves a repurposing of higher education. Instead of teaching bodies of knowledge and inviting students to reflect and debate, sustainability demands acceptance of its belief system and is intolerant of dissenters. I have to wonder if schools that go the whole way into sustainability will  offer “safe spaces” for students who aren’t true believers and want to enjoy eating a hamburger in peace. Probably not.

It’s unlikely, I think, that sustainability will get very far with its neo-Puritan demands about the way Americans live, but that isn’t the point. The movement is antithetical to real education and the people who have oversight and control should put an end to it. Bravo to NAS for bringing this to light.


George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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