The Campus Sustainability Movement Should Drop Out

The campus sustainability movement subtracts from the better purposes of higher education. Pro or con?

Pro: An Anti-Intellectual Trend

Higher education at best pursues truth through disciplined application of evidence and reason. The sustainability movement undermines this mission by substituting activism for inquiry. Sustainability advocates aim to have “all students engaged as effective change agents,” prompting ill-informed and hasty actions. Sustainability mixes environmentalism with partisanship (on topics such as race and trade)—undercutting the disinterested pursuit of truth.

Sustainability favors hypothesis over evidence. It relies on models, extrapolations, and appeals to authority. Evoking imminent catastrophe, sustainability advocates call for radical changes in economy and society—bypassing the disciplined application of evidence and reason.

Sustainability coerces rather than persuades. Colleges pressure faculty members to incorporate sustainability in their classes. In 2007, at the University of Delaware, residence life officials directing a mandatory “sustainability” program bullied freshmen who disagreed.

The movement hogs the curriculum. “It has to be ubiquitous, it has to be done by everyone, it has to be part of the whole infrastructure,” the president of Unity College declared. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) wants colleges “to model and advance sustainability in everything they do,” and 672 college presidents have vowed to make sustainability “part of the curriculum for all students.” To teach sustainability “across the curriculum” is to blow the subject out of proportion.

Colleges should study the natural world, but sustainability promotes alarm, not open-minded science. Sustainability pretends to be founded on science, but it is really a mélange of political activism, speculative hypothesis, pressure tactics, and ideological overreaching.

Con: A Vital Component of Education

What better purpose for higher education than to ensure future generations have opportunities for living a healthy life in a healthy environment with a healthy socioeconomic system? Higher education in America has become a public good, not just a private, individual good. That is why many of our institutions and students receive a publicly subsidized education. Citizens make these contributions with an expectation of a return on investment, i.e., a better society.

If we look closely and completely at the campus sustainability movement (rather than using assumptions and selective quotes), we find that at its heart are skills essential to future jobs: critical thinking that involves understanding both intended and unintended consequences; systems thinking that engages linear and nonlinear approaches to problem solving; and integrated and interdisciplinary use of knowledge (like that produced by the sciences and engineering with respect to global climate change) to address complex (social and economic) problems.

By using the campus as a living, learning laboratory, students are able to practice these skills as they develop them.

Education is always based on some value assumptions. The campus sustainability movement believes that the purpose of (higher) education is to provide opportunities for all through learning to practice stewardship of a healthy environment and creating just and fair socioeconomic systems.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Reinhold Wappler

I am Pro. You must be aware that Walter Russel Mead has just about given up on the Eco-pocalyptics, of which sustainability (S) is a part. See Walter's blog for his writings. We cannot afford S and much of academia cannot be trusted to do anything that approaches a traditional education. Cons are out to save the world. The language above is typical. As if we had not achieved a continuum of health progress over a long period, the con vies that we haven't. "Living a healthy life in a healthy socioeconomic system," "a better society," "creating just and fair socioeconomic systems." Buzz words. The best one is systems thinking that engages linear and nonllinear approaches to problem solving and integrated and interdisciplinary .... " What on earth does that mean? These guys just open the mouths and out comes this stuff. They are fast talkers, like the guy who heads the Muslim-American something something Relations Society, or Al Sharpton.

W. E. James

At the community college where I taught, sustainability was pushed into the mandatory curriculum by activists who had no interest in anything but a political agenda. The movement may try to soften its image, but it is hard leftism and indoctrination, pure and simple. With our college graduates finishing their schooling ever more ignorant of English, mathematics, history, civics, and other vital subjects, we have no business pushing aside these critical subjects for the political ideology of the "occupy" movement.

Robert Soderland

It is predictable that the fake "scholars" at NAS would attack sustainability. NAS hates any idea that supports diversity or multiculturalism. NAS believes only white people should benefit from higher education.

Sustainability supports social equity in addition to environmental protection. NAS hates environmentalists. NAS was founded by noted right wing quacks and continues to harbor them to this day. It's not about scholarship at all; it's about hate.

Prominent board members of NAS have included uber-conservatives Jeane Kirkpatrick and Irving Kristol, a father of the neo-con movement. NAS has been funded extensively by politically conservative foundations, including the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

The group's stance on race and gender issues has been controversial; in 1990, the opening of an NAS chapter at Duke University led to a major dispute in which 93 faculty members wrote a letter criticizing NAS for its stance on multiculturalism.

It's all about hating anything that's not white. In 1990, the NAS placed an advertisement in the Daily Texan (the University of Texas student newspaper), calling for the rejection of a proposed multiculturalism curriculum that was to be implemented into an English course at the University of Texas. Simultaneously, the NAS encouraged a successful campaign to defund the university's Chicano newspaper. With NAS, only white points of view are valued.

But NAS hides from its hate agenda and instead attacks ideas like sustainability because they are about inclusion, equity, and a better future.

We certainly don't want our students learning about that.

Jane S. Shaw

How strangely intemperate Robert Soderland is, eager to make accusations without any discussion of substantive content. Surely that is not a proper standard for academic discourse.

Ron van der Veen

I am a partner in a design firm that employees over 500 people nationally. I want 21st-century thinkers to lead our company into the future. We need poeple who can work collaboratively often through very complex urban problems. In solving these problems we make money, succeed, and further our role in this society as "job creators."

Men and women coming out of college today with sustainability competencies are better equiped to handle the challenges our company makes money solving. I really don't have much room for graduates comfortable in their 20th century paradigms and silos, and I think it is safe to say most in my industry share my sentiments.

For my clients, sustainable solutions create better working environments that encourage staff production and retainage, save money on energy and water costs, promote health among staff lowering insurance costs, often streamlines permitting, facilitates company branding, promotes diversity in ideas. I can go on an on. Now tell me which one of these is bad business?

We need graduates who reason differently than those of the last century. and sustainable thinkers make our business succeed.

Stephen Mulkey

It is quite interesting to see the following quote from Ms Thorne. "Sustainability favors hypothesis over evidence. It relies on models, extrapolations, and appeals to authority."

In reality, sustainability science and studies are fact-based modes of inquiry that are very much focused on hypothesis testing and finding new ways of living that support the natural resources of our finite planet. It goes without saying that on a finite planet, resources must be conserved, and indeed, used sustainably. Sustainability science seeks to find the best ways to do this. I am proud to be associated with the quote that Ms. Thorne attributes to me, and I am amused and a little alarmed that one could see this in a negative light. All of my calls for sustainability are based on science, and I have no interest in partisan approaches to this body of scholarship. It is fair to say that the same holds true for the faculty at Unity College.

For her education, I would refer Ms. Thorne to the section of the Proceedings of the Nation Academy that has been designated Sustainability Science. http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/sustainability.shtml

Several recognized authorities and groups see sustainability science as a new academic discipline. This includes the International Council of Science (ICS), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Environmental Change (IHDP), and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The goal of this new area of scholarship is to give the generalities of sustainability a strong analytic and scientific underpinning. It is intrinsically interdisciplinary, problem focused, and rapidly growing. It is in no way coercive, and it is integrated with the rest of the curriculum. Unity College is at the forefront of this endeavor.

Beatrice Goode

My only qualification to respond here is membership in the National Association of Common Sense Practioners, but here it goes: The fact that the sustainability movement is featured in the BusinessWeek debate room is a sign that it is striking business-minded nerves. Instead of the negatively loaded question of whether the campus sustainability movement subtracts from the better purposes of higher education, how about asking whether the campus sustainablity movement adds to the better purposes of higher education? My non-scholarly response: Of course it does. As an example: Part of Harvard University's mission statement is to strive to "create knowledge to open the minds of students to that knowledge." The idea of incorporating sustainable environmental practices promotes excitement and hope, not alarm. Desiring to take concrete actions to solve global problems is a strong motivator to create knowledge as indicated in Harvard's mission statement.

Ms. Thorne's phrase that 'sustainability favors hypothesis over evidence' is just a disguised way of saying that she doesn't think climate change is real. If that is the mentality, I have a great website to recommend:
htt;://climate.nasa.gov/

You'll find plenty of facts compiled through the "disinterested pursuit of the truth."

John Mahoney

An appreciation for sustainability does not require a particularly scientific, mathematical, or abstract mind.

All that is required is to appreciate the questions:

Do you want to live? How would you like to live?
Do you want your children to live? How?
Will they be asking these same questions?

Any hasty action, partisanship, coercion, or alarm is entirely up to you.

PAthena

What do the supporters of "sustainability" want? What do they want to sustain? They sound like people ignorant of biology, chemistry, and physics, ignorant of geology, and the history of the earth, who want to sound knowledgeable but are not.

ken

Some good comments on here. I fully support being more sustainable; it is a promise for a better future. Being sustainable in my own life has actually caused me to save a lot of money. I live this new life and there are struggles, but it is also very rewarding. I have learned to appreciate the world more and how everthing is connected. I used to be obsessed with material things (three-car garage, sports car, pickup) but now I am obsessed with living as part of a society. I also walk a lot more and this has helped me connect to the city I live in and the people I live with. It's a win-win. I am out of the rat race.

krobinson

Campus sustainability should be taught in the classrooms. If you take this concept out then you are only hindering the knowledge that is available to students all around the world. Many people are already uneducated about the effect they have on the environment and the future that lies ahead of them. Students are also challenged with many other subjects that are presented in classrooms, but it is their choice to take what they want from it. Let them have the choice.

TJ Groves

I personally think campus sustainability should not be dropped. Especially if it is being taught in a class such as environmental science, it should stay that way. It's a choice to learn about it in college so there is no reason to drop something this important that students take initiative to learn about. Going beyond that, I also think it should be made "aware" of, maybe not in depth, for younger grades as well so that they grow up with at least an understanding of what sustainability is. The more people know about this, the higher the chances on bettering the future for everybody, including the people who don't care about any of this. If colleges teaching this can touch the heart of 1 or more students each semester, then we would already be moving into the right direction. What is so harmful about learning about it? It is not going to kill anybody to know what is happening to the planet THEY are living on. I think everybody should make a change, and campuses dropping sustainability are only back tracking.

B. J. Lammey

As a college student, choices for a required science credit/s are many and no one is forced to choose Sustainablity Sciences in my college. It is an option that was just offered this semester and I'm estactic that I had the oppertunity to take it. To remove it is to remove choices that were so hard fought earlier for many years in education. There are many colleges that promote sustainable campuses, so more than others, which seem to attract many students in the first place. That seems to be a great business promotion for a college and effective way for a huge community of young people that wouldnt necessarily be there otherwise(university) to help protect something that we all are destroying everytime we step out of the door. I would love to have more classes in my college about sustainability.
Sincerely
Beebs

Kelly

I don't think that campus sustainability should drop out. I feel that a campus is a learning environment and to have the ability to teach the entire campus about sustainability is a plus. I feel it will only work if everyone is willing to make it work. When a student sees their peers, advisors, and teachers doing something for a cause it can help them to research the material. Everyone should have the choice at which level they choose to comply, but having the material readily avaiable couldn't hurt anyone.

MikeCWC

I feel that sustainability is in terms both a science field and personal field, teaching sustainability within the school would better help sustain the future of our crumbling planet. Schools at a higher education level are already and have been teaching sustainability for a while. Take Northland university for example this school is teaching ways to be sustainable in your everyday life by have a school garden managed by students and used to feed the students. Some of the housing on campus also is a sustainable practice that is being taught. I had to pick a pro or con sided approach to this I could not, I would fall in the middle teaching sustainability is a great approach, but forcing sustainability is not. When something is forced upon use we tend to strafe the other way.

Laurence

I am con on this topic. I believe that sustainability can be achieved through restoration of homeostasis and sampling various methods of reducing our output. Many of these methods are already available, just merely waiting to be used.
For example, Rainwater collection tanks and solar power could easily be installed at multiple Colleges and Universities; thus leading to less dependency on their cities' resources and in some cases leading to revenue for the instituion(i.e. selling shares of their solar power to the power companies.)
Helping to solve the problem of our current dependency on finite resources is a responsibility not only for ourselves but also for future generations. Parents very often help their children with their problems and homework. I think it's time we start helping the next generation with this homework problem.

Mummbles

I feel that yes that we should teach sustainability practices to students. Its ignorance if you don’t want to do it. Really just living a life that is green you can say. Don’t take more out then you can put back. You can use science to figure out if you are living sustainably or not. It’s not a sudo science, look at the date it all there and try it. It works, and more people should get on board. That if you want to on the cool train and go green, or you have been on the train and just trying to get cooler.

Rachael Medow

I would have to say that I disagree with the topic presented. I think that sustainability should have a place in our college campuses as both an educational tool and as a way to bring awareness to this social issue. I say educational because of its ability to be measured and tested through out the nation and then re-tested again. In order for our campus's to become sustainable calculations will have to be made and maintained so that progress can be accumulated. This is a growing social issue with today’s youth and should be given a permanent place in the hearts and minds of those who are choosing to further their educations and broaden their horizons. We must start somewhere by doing something as to make our lives more sustainable for this planet.

Patrick S. Littleshield

The Environmentalism is fairly strong with it has, because it does know that we need the earth's resources and know how it can repay us back when we give back to the earth in return. When I say give back I don't mean the manufactured chemicals that goes into the earth then soon harms the other creatures that live in the earth. Mainly the water part of earth. There is so much damage done and did to the water source. This is indeed an issue not to the water creatures but to that people who live on it.The water creatures do provide resources as well to mankind. I think this should stand because the problem is just getting worse and might be to late if we take action later in the future. For all we know the problem WILL get WORSE and will have our Grand Children's Children will pay the price for what the people are doing to the Oceans today.

Joan Brandenberger

Sustainability can be taken as a scientific practice, and then it can also be taken as an environmental practice. Being capable of measuring sustainability could be thought of as scientific: we can put numbers on the "life-span" of a resource (when freshwater supply or natural gas will run out, for example). Taking the scientific side of this, it can be applied to creating an environmental plan. The rate of use of a resource will determine if current practices can be kept up for generations to come; both sides of sustainability (scientific and environmental) mean that it can be approached from many different angles especially on campuses. Students have the option to take courses on the theory of evolution or on communication, for example, so why wouldn't students be given the opportunity to take a course on sustainability (given that it is an issue of increasing awareness)? It should be an option presented on campuses, if not to enforce sustainability, but to inform on the impacts of partaking in it or not. Slowly at first it may be introduced, but in the end, the hope is that sustainability will be a universal idea that society can then make informed decisions about.

Michelle Larson

As a college student, I do not feel that sustanability should be forced upon me in the college setting. I understand the importance of sustanability and the future, however, making it a mandatory subject to be covered in colleges is really quite obsurd. Going to college is about choosing what subjects to take, about learning about other options in the world. I believe sustanability should be made an awareness, but not a requirement. I believe that there should be ample opportunities for recyling on campuses, but not forced. Forcing such things as required sustanability education, required recycling, punishing for using plastic bottles, it all starts to sound like a communistic approach to society.

Moyer

As a college student I like the idea of being taught about sustainability in every aspect of life. I can take these new values I have learned and come to appreciate and bring them back to my own house hold. I find it very hard to beleive that sustainabilty is only based on "hypothesis over evidence." Or that "it prompts ill informed and hasty action." I would like to know when people think is the right time to take action? Maybe we should wait till we can't drink out of our own facets anymore because of ground water contamination. The time to act is now rather than later, when it's going to be to late. I find a connection between sustainabilty and global warming. Some people believed some didn't as our gaseous heated up the atmosphere, I don't think the opposers to global warming have much of an argument anymore and time will show that people will not have an argument against sustainability in the very near future.

M Nading

I definitely support the study of sustainability in Environmental Science settings for several reasons.

Environmental Science is a mesh of a great many other scientific persuits including the natural world and the way we as people interact within it. Sustainability is just one avenue among many to reach a better understanding of that very concept.

Sustainability looks at taking resources and making sure they last generation after generation without: 1) depleting those resources and 2.) creating more pollution than the earth as a biological/geological oraganism can absorb.

Is it not the goal of Environmental science to study the the world around us, our effects on it, and how to keep the natural world for future generations to study?

Lastly, one of the things we as college students take away from the years we spend on campus is the ability to THINK. As adults we should have the right to chose which courses we do and do not wish to take. I, for one, am grateful that the choice is there for me to make.

Andrew Megnin

Sustainability makes our world a better place to live, why wouldn’t anyone want it? The people need to know about it and the best way to teach them is my putting it in the curriculum. It doesn’t force anyone; they still have a right to choose to do so or not. I honestly don’t see the reason not to. Giving the chance for people to learn about sustainability in college could do no harm.

ChancyH-CWC

Were college campuses to begin or continue teaching about sustainability then I believe there would be an increase, if a small one, in people concerned about their planet taking it upon themselves to try and make a difference in how they impact the earth. While this group of people would see a class on sustainability as invaluable, others would not take to it so kindly. Instead I think a class where the purpose was to merely inform the participants of how they could change to affect their surrounding more positively would be accepted on a broader scale by members of academia as well as the contemporary society of the U.S. This acceptance would spark a move towards sustainability on a much larger scale, ushering in a new era of worldly conscious people.

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