The Sustainability Craze at Universities

Peter Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how sustainability is displacing diversity as the campus craze du jour.

Here is the (vegetarian) meat of his piece:

I view this changing of the ideological guard with wariness. Diversity was pretty bad; sustainability may be even worse. Both movements subtract from the better purposes of higher education. Diversity authorizes double standards in admissions and hiring, breeds a campus culture of hypocrisy, mismatches students to educational opportunities, fosters ethnic resentments, elevates group identity over individual achievement, and trivializes the curriculum. Of course, those punishments were something that had to be accepted in the spirit of atoning for the original sin of racism.

But for its part, sustainability has the logic of a stampede. We all must run in the same direction for fear of some rumored and largely invisible threat. The real threat is the stampede itself. Sustainability numbers among its advocates some scrupulous scientists and quite a few sober facilities managers who simply want to trim utility bills. But in the main, sustainability is the triumph of hypothesis over evidence. Its scientific grounding is mostly a matter of models and extrapolations and appeals to authority. Evoking imminent and planet-destroying catastrophe, sustainatopians call for radical changes in economic arrangements and social patterns. Higher education is summoned to set aside whatever it is doing to help make this revolution in production, distribution, and consumption a reality.

Sustainability combines some astonishingly radical ideas with mere wackiness. Many sustainability advocates want to replace free markets (a source, as they see it, of unsustainable growth and exploitation) with some kind of pan-national rule with little scope for private property rights. On the other hand, sustainatopians also busy themselves with eliminating trays from cafeterias and attacking the threat of plastic soda straws. Sustainability thus unites vaunting political ambition and comic burlesque. Both are at odds with patient and open-minded intellectual inquiry.

The diversity movement has always been rife with contradictions. Seeking to promote racial equality, it evolved into a system that perpetuates inequalities. But whatever else it is, the diversity movement thirsts to be part of mainstream America. Its ultimate goal is to make diversity a principle of the same standing as freedom and equality in our national life. The sustainability movement, by contrast, has no such affection for the larger culture or loyalty to the American experiment. It dismisses the comforts of American life, including our political freedom, as unworthy extravagance. Sustainability summons us to a supposedly higher good. Personal security, national prosperity, and individual freedom may just have to go as we press on to our low-impact, carbon-free new order. In this sense, it goes beyond promising to redeem us from social iniquity to redeeming us from human nature itself.

Many campus adherents to sustainability may eventually tire of its puritanical preachiness and its unfulfilled prophecies, but for the moment, sustainability has cachet. Diversity, meanwhile, has aged into a static bureaucracy, and diversicrats increasingly spend their energy polishing the spoons…

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3 Responses to The Sustainability Craze at Universities

  1. Student of History says:

    Second Nature, the Theresa Heinz/John Kerry philanthropy that is pushing sustainability by signing up college and university presidents as a litmus test to their wisdom, should be better known to alumni and parents.

    When the alma mater celebrates its emphasis on sustainability, treat it as an alarm of intellectual shallowness at at least several levels.

    When did higher ed become such an echo chamber?

    Is it the pressure of staying or reaching a certain US News cut?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NAS Scholars, Jay P. Greene. Jay P. Greene said: The Sustainability Craze at Universities: http://wp.me/peH0y-1L4 […]

  3. Patrick says:

    My roommate in graduate school had an econ professor who liked to say “If it can’t be sustained it won’t be sustained”

    Words to live by.

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