The greening of the ivory towers

A National Association of Scholars report interrogates the tyranny of sustainability on campus.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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He was lanky, lantern-jawed, suave, decorated for his service in Vietnam. She was the wife of a senior Republican Party senator. They met briefly at the Earth Day rally in Washington, DC, in 1990, where he spoke. The next year, her husband died; the year after that, the two met again at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. By 1994 the two were married, with a family net worth that’s now estimated at $250million.

However Senator John Kerry and Teresa Heinz, head of the Heinz Family Foundation (assets: $117million), had already done something else together, in 1993. They had launched a nonprofit organisation, Second Nature, which set out to ‘create a sustainable society by transforming higher education’.

Today, the US is far from a sustainable society, and not just in the green sense. But, as shown in a new in-depth report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), entitled Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, Kerry, Heinz and a whole rogues’ gallery of elite figures have, over nearly 25 years, succeeded in transforming much of the curriculum and the practice of US higher education. Indeed, they have significantly altered America’s national debate about climate change.

As the report notes, the sustainability movement ‘has become a major force in American life’, but has ‘so far escaped serious critical scrutiny’. The NAS’s report gives sustainability just that treatment. It incisively and brilliantly interrogates the Green movement’s ideological powerhouse – the university campus. This is where the movement ‘gets its voice of authority’, and where it ‘commands the attention of the young’.

The campus as living laboratory

The report is well written and balanced. But it is especially revealing about the dubious, feelings-centred educational methods that have overwhelmed universities in the US. These methods have allowed sustainability to become a whole way of life there.

As the report says, what it calls the campus sustainability movement (CSM) ‘spans global ambitions and micro-administration’. Whereas the old environmentalism focused on getting people to take better care of the natural world, the CSM focuses on every aspect of personal life: it wants people to ‘submit to a regime of nearly total social control’. In college canteens, the plastic bottles that Heinz ketchup comes in must be stamped out. Same for the plastic trays on which students carry their canteen food.

Of course, these efforts to turn campuses into living laboratories make virtually no difference to the overall condition of the Earth. But that’s not the point. The enforcement of tyrannical green gestures is a drive to habituate the student, over three meals a day, to ‘upfront inconveniences that jar him alert to the need for other, larger measures’.

With the CSM, American universities compete with each other to recycle the most waste. Northwestern University pays 60 ‘eco-reps’ to go about what it calls ‘empowering students that aren’t already engaged in the environmental movement, making sure they have the necessary resources to make greener choices’. Worldwide, nearly 700 colleges and universities, including Glasgow Caledonian University, London’s University of Greenwich and innumerable institutions in Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands, now compete for bronze, silver, and gold stars that are at the same time green. They win points for growing organic gardens, for using napkins that are made of recycled paper, and for offering ‘housing options to accommodate the special needs of transgender and transitioning students (either as a matter of policy or as standard practice)’.

The ascent of green pedagogy

The CSM has brought about a world that now runs more than 1,400 educational programmes in sustainability. Yet, the report observes, sustainability is no longer just a subject students opt for. Cornell University, for example, is proud that it integrates education in ‘climate literacy’ with ‘freshman orientation, undergraduate club leadership development, residential life, and professional development training’.

Worse, the report adds, after the ascent of Green pedagogy, sustainability has become ‘an inescapable, automatic part of all disciplines and subjects’.

Emory University is an interesting case. The CSM has seen Emory ‘integrate’ sustainability into arenas far removed from environmental science. Emory invites you to pledge to use stairs, not lifts; to study only in well-populated places at night, so as to conserve energy for lighting; to take ‘some time for stillness once a week’. But more remarkably still, over 100 general faculty members at Emory have changed their teaching methods to include experiential learning and new outdoor exercises (1). Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh believes that a battery of green pedagogical techniques, including place-based, problem-based, community and service learning, ‘encourages us to transform our thinking about learning at our institutions’.

It is the same story in the new, oh-so-interdisciplinary field of environmental humanities. Celebrated not just by the universities of Oregon, Princeton, Stanford, Utah and Vermont, but also by Oxford, Edinburgh and Leeds in the UK, environmental humanities hopes to subordinate the arts to environmental science. At Stony Brook University, environmental humanities means, the report says, ‘a hodgepodge of science courses mixed with boutique courses that sound, by turns, a little nouveau humanities, a little identity studies, and a little social science lite’. Here and elsewhere, the report contends, academics turn nature from mere subject of thought (for example, landscapes described in literature, or by the natural sciences) into the whole of thought itself:

The division between what is human (and therefore has complex self-awareness, moral agency, a sense of beauty, and intimations of the transcendent) and what is outside the human in a “state of nature” is to be abolished, according to this view, and replaced with a conception that the “human” is just an eddy in the larger stream of existence. The role of the environmental humanities is to rejoin the arts and the sciences in order to take off the disciplinary blinders, take in a 360-degree view of the new human/nature reality, and, in a kind of undoing of the Socratic turn, reunite natural science with moral philosophy.

Sustainability could have enquired a little further into the New Scientism of the greens – their deification of The Science of climate change so that it becomes a guide to everyday moral action. Yet the report’s opening charge stands. Environmentalism has tried to turn universities into 24/7 ‘living laboratories’ of sustainable behaviour, and has corrupted the curriculum:

Harnessing higher education into the service of sustainability seriously undermines its purpose. It treats other disciplines as mere material for sustainability to interpret or vehicles by which sustainability can be taught. It forces habits and disciplines based on reflection, dialogue, and careful consideration into the mold of urgent political and social advocacy. It divorces the classroom from the goals of understanding and comprehending reality and yokes them to activism and ideological conformity. It cloaks the dogmas of environmentalism as necessary, foundational premises of higher education, setting them up as pillars that are above rational debate. And in refocusing the college curriculum on a popular politically correct fad, it deprives students of a connection to a greater tradition of thought and culture.

The origins of the CSM

How did we get to this place, where sustainability can pretend to be both the substance and the procedure of education? At the end of Sustainability’s first chapter, the report makes clear the influence, on US education, of Stephen Sterling, today a senior academic at Plymouth and London South Bank universities. Sterling has stressed not education about sustainability, or education for immediate sustainable practice, but rather education as sustainability – embedding, embodying and exploring sustainability as an intrinsic part of the general learning process. More importantly, in 2003 the United Nations declared 2005-14 the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Then, in December 2007, led by Arizona State University and the University of Florida, 12 presidents signed Second Nature’s American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging to buy energy only if it was renewable, to go for buildings and appliances that were energy-efficient, to get staff and students to stop using cars, and to eliminate or offset all campus emissions of CO2.

Now the CSM began to find its moment. Why? According to Sustainability, because of two factors: ‘burgeoning Western consumption’, and increasing public concern over global warming – concern that was compounded by a series of extreme weather events: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (2012).

This account of events is very useful. But, if we go back to the birth of the CSM, it’s clear that a key factor behind it was capitalism’s pyrrhic conclusion to the Cold War. That rupture didn’t just make the left, worldwide, morph into environmentalists. In the US, both Democrats and Republicans also found themselves bereft of an organising, anti-Soviet narrative, and fearful of untrammelled capitalist growth. They therefore rallied round something new: a green, technocratic centre that was pro-capitalist, but ethical, responsible and critical of ‘market failure’.

That’s why John Kerry and Teresa Heinz got together in the early 1990s. That’s why just four days elapsed between media-savvy NASA scientist James Hansen sounding the alarm on climate to the US Senate on 23 July 1988, and Ronald Reagan meeting Margaret Thatcher and five other G7 heads of state to affirm, in Toronto, that climate change required ‘priority attention’.

From such a watershed, and the formation, again in 1988, of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it took nearly 20 years for climate and sustainability really to have their way with popular and campus consciousness. Yet it was the redundancy of the old Cold War’s left-right framework, and the emptying out of forward-looking visions of the future, that generated sustainability and its advocates. It was that constellation of events that led to the catchphrase ‘sustainable development’, coined by Our Common Future, the 1987 report of Norwegian premier Gro Harlem Brundtland, replacing ‘development’, leaving only a sustainability that was about lowering consumption and the greatest kind of caution.

Sustainability devotes some pages, and an appendix, to the precautionary principle. Here again we are dealing with the blue funk that infected the West after the end of the Cold War, and here again sustainability is confirmed as a top-down phenomenon – drafted by German lawyers, made prominent at the Rio Summit, enshrined in the European Court of Justice’s 1998 judging of Britain’s conduct around BSE. So though sustainability doctrinaires deserve just the cutting, independent scrutiny that Sustainability provides, it’s useful to remember that, as a militant outburst, they were created by, and remain subordinate to, the manoeuvres and strategy of the elite – of government, of regulators, and of businesses interested in corporate social responsibility (2).

Diversifying the movement

Our Common Future worried about inequalities between people today and our old friend, ‘future generations’. But Brundtland was already concerned, too, about inequalities within today’s population. However as Sustainability rightly points out, the 1,000 organisations now grouped around action/2015 are, nearly 30 years on from Brundtland, much more strident about current inequality (3). They insist that a UN Special Summit, to be held in September this year, adopts the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – goals that include ending poverty ‘in all its forms everywhere’, empowering all women and promoting ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’.

Commendably, in chapter two, the NAS shows how, here and elsewhere, sustainability has tried, with the utmost cynicism, to attach itself to anything that’s fashionable. It has diversified its appeal for ‘environmental justice’ into campaigns for social and economic justice. In America’s new, glib, post-Ferguson sustainababble:

Racial discrimination is seen as an enabler for industrial pollution by perpetuating the low wages that make cheap production viable. Environmental degradation is perceived as entrenching racial injustice by condemning poor minority communities to blighted, barren lands.

It does not matter that, in the West, racial discrimination, like industrial pollution, no longer has the force it did; that low wages in the developing world often jostle with automation there as the source of cheapness in production; that those low wages are typically on the rise in China and elsewhere; that many of the blighted, barren lands of the developing world, though in need of urgent action, have recorded some impressive achievements in agricultural yields and in reforestation. No, the thing to do is take your cue from… President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency! In the best traditions of the affirmative action enacted by Richard Nixon, the regulator can only be right to say that environmental justice demands: ‘[F]air treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.’

In promiscuous style, sustainability taps, channels and diverts the anger of the exploited and oppressed. Meanwhile, liberals love it. As the report says:

Diversity, with its demands for racial reconciliation, affirmative action, multicultural sympathies, and tokens of reparation, finds in sustainability a metanarrative that links its specific grievances to a larger circle of global oppression that must be smashed. Social justice finds justification for its communitarian fervor in sustainability’s calls for a new economic and social order. Feminism fawns over sustainability’s firm expression of support for birth control, abortion, and its calls for gender equality and female empowerment.

Is debate on climate ‘over’?

Sustainability does a good job of presenting the protagonists’ views from both sides of the debate on climate. Its purpose is to challenge sustainability’s illiberal assertion that the time for debate is over, and the CSM’s still more illiberal call for ‘climate deniers’ to lose their position on campus, be tried for their crimes, and so on.

The NAS is right to note that the ‘debate is over’ position is directly at odds with intellectual freedom. In February 2015, backed by the Natural Resources Committee’s Democratic delegation, the ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva, demanded to know everything about the funding and the communications of seven American academics who write about climate. To its credit, the American Meteorological Society protested, and so did some environmentalists. Still, the fact remains that what Sean Collins described, in 2007, as the dogma of ‘transparency’ now permeates everywhere. Sustainability has helped make pursuit of the corrupt through ‘transparent’ information come to be regarded as a human right and an essential part of democracy.

In fact, however, those who now cry that ‘debate is over’ on climate change are an affront to democracy. In Obama’s second term, they now like to subject climate dissenters on campus to the McCarthy treatment.

When colleges and universities stop investing in fossil fuels

Alongside mounting a forthright defence of free speech, the NAS also looks at the business costs of the green operational measures taken by US academic institutions. Sustainability finds that such institutions spend more than $3.2 billion a year on biomass boilers, sustainability administrators and environmentalist lecturers. In straitened times, this seems like a fat sum, and is, as the NAS says, rather a waste; yet in the scheme of American political economy, it is not so large. Anyway, while advocates of sustainability seem always to get worse, even biomass boilers may one day get better enough to pay their way.

But it’s the final chapter of Sustainability that really fascinates. It concerns the campaign begun at Swarthmore College and then led by the journalist, academic and founder of, Bill McKibben, whose popularisation of global warming, The End of Nature, was published in 1989. The campaign was to get colleges and universities to take their endowment funds out of coal, oil and gas. Today that campaign is, as the NAS accurately says, driven by two anxieties: ‘Angst over global warming, and frustration with the perceived insufficiency of environmental regulations. Its preferred solution to political standoff is to boycott private industries.’

Campus divestment is a fundamentally conservative tactic. As the NAS points out: ‘When one college divests from fossil fuel companies, any number of investors will eagerly buy up the stocks.’ It also turns out to be tricky and costly to implement. But then it isn’t really about practical wins, since only Stanford and Dayton have plans really to do something. No, campus divestment is about absolving colleges of direct moral culpability for climate change. It is also about turning the fossil-fuel companies that fund the Republican Party into social pariahs, so that they are no longer able to gull the stupid masses with their political lobbying.

The old, tired Democrats remain the political Alpha and Omega of the CSM. Acutely, however, Sustainability also notes the debt that the divest-from-fossil-fuel movement of the 2010s acknowledges to the divest-from-apartheid movement of the 1980s. In Rolling Stone in July 2012, McKibben quoted South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s plaudits to the old divesters – and Tutu soon returned the compliment to the new ones.

In all the McKibben-Tutu backslapping, nobody talked about using technological innovation to deal with climate change. Worse, the struggles of the black masses in South Africa counted for nothing – just like the intelligence of American voters when confronted with oil-funded Republican politicians.

We can be sure that sustainability and divestment always and everywhere remain strategies tied to Western statecraft. They are, after all, doctrines as samey as the state. Environmental injustice is social and economic injustice, all got up by Big Oil, Big Coal and the frackers. The same story, repeated over and over again.

Concluding remarks

Sustainability is a tremendously valuable report. It is a long but fascinating – and also disturbing – read. It calls for educational institutions to stop ‘nudging’ people into sustainable practices, and wants them to stay on topic and stop arm-twisting faculty members to make every course a sustainability course. In this, it can only be right.

I do have a couple of quibbles. Like its opponents, the NAS recommends that colleges ‘open the books’, and make their pursuit of sustainability ‘financially transparent’. And nor, despite one’s concerns about green operations and scholarship on campus, can one be too comfortable with the recommendation to ‘pull back the sustainability hires’.

All this, however, is to take nothing away from the report’s analytical achievements. In closing, I just want to touch on a simple question. Is sustainability, as its questioners suggest, ‘fast becoming the dominant ideology at colleges and universities in the United States’?

Not quite. In America, it may well be that, as the NAS says, feminism ‘fawns’ over the hip postures on gender affected by sustainability. Yet perhaps the relationship is more interesting than that.

Climate science and sustainability have an integrated, global hinterland of academic research and practice bigger even than that of feminism. Corporations are more interested in greenness than feminism. Greenness is the default position not just of many women on campus, but also of many men.

However, if sustainability now gives campus anti-capitalists a respectable pedigree in terms of its literature and its global summits, feminism has helped the CSM in terms of codes of conduct. Intolerance toward climate ‘deniers’ is enormously assisted by those who, in their intolerance of ‘rape culture’, rush to unmask anyone who begs to cavil at their kangaroo courts. The default position of taking offence and demanding bans, so rife on campus and so promoted by feminism, dovetails perfectly with the censorious logic of ‘debate is over’ on climate change. And this is true as much in the UK as in the US.

On campus, in fact, sustainability rubs shoulders with feminism as ‘the dominant ideology’. One offers The Science as moral compass; the other, intolerance as a principle. We have sustainability in content, and feminism in form.

How wonderful are the West’s cathedrals of learning these days!

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, by Peter Wood and Rachelle Peterson is published by the National Association of Scholars. Download a copy here.

Picture by: Getty Images.

(1) In a mirthful passage, Sustainability records one Emory anthropology professor’s delight that faculty there have become ‘re-enchanted’ with the natural world – ‘improving family recycling, controlling water run-off, choosing environmentally-friendly vacations’, as well as ‘turning off computers, walking to work, even using departmental chair influence to encourage other colleagues to change’.

(2) Clearly today’s US environmentalism differs greatly from its ancestors. Still, from the founding of the Audubon Society (1886) and the Sierra Club (1892) through Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of national parks and monuments, American environmentalism has always been an irredeemably conservative phenomenon.

(3) Again, action/2015 is an elite affair. Its luminaries: Bill and Melinda Gates, Ben Affleck, Bono, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs.

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Topics Politics


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