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.