An energetic graduate of Wesleyan College, class of 2013, no longer proud of her achievement-packed résumé, cuts off contact with her mother, flies to Hawaii, lives in a hut, and survives on plants from her small garden. She has traded a promising position in the global economy for a reclusive, ascetic way of life. That way of life—
“The Concerned Asian, Black, Latin@, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled students at Dartmouth College” storm President Phil Hanlon’s office with a list of seventy counts of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism,” of which, they claim, the college is guilty. They demand immediate redress. A white, straight, male, and “ecologically-conscious” student risks extending a hand of friendship to the activists. That hand—
A conservative student, well versed in Burke and Tocqueville, knowing his Kirk and his Berry if not yet his MacIntyre, exhausted by the culture wars, seeks common ground with students on the other end of the political spectrum. That common ground—
An undergraduate at Williams College wants her liberal arts education to have real meaning, to be more than a rite of passage into the upper-middle class. She learns in her freshman seminar that unjust economic and social “systems” have intertwined and are driving the planet toward environmental catastrophe. She has found her cause. That cause—
Sustainability has achieved “the status of a master term,” as Joshua J. Yates puts it. Its boosters are legion, including but not limited to activists, bureaucrats, heads of state, public intellectuals, and celebrities, as well as university faculty and administrators. Its appeal is complex, drawing on belief in anthropogenic global warming and trust in the “scientific consensus” behind it; the Great Recession and a protective reaction to rapid social change; a basic need for the concrete, local, and personal; the waning of religious observance; peer pressure, star power, money, and more.
On college and university campuses, two factors emerge as determinative: the need to impart to the educational project a unity of purpose, subordinating disciplines to a common good; and the appeal of measurable morality to youths who were formed by the achievement race in an era of educational standardization.
This helps us understand the new prominence of sustainability in higher education. It does not value environmentalism for its own sake; it seeks “transformation.” It is an ideology seizing threads of environmental, social, racial, and economic justice, and interweaving them with strands of multiculturalism, gender discourse, gay rights, queer theory, post-colonialism, and anti-capitalism. Sustainability is not green; it is plaid.
This is not the sustainability you’ve seen advertised. Sustainability sounds conservative. It connotes restraint and preservation. It speaks of thrift, smallness, craft, disciplined appetites, and neighborliness, and is heir to home economics and the spirit behind farmers’ markets. On campus it is represented by locally sourced cafeteria food and recycle bins. It rejoins personality with productivity, over and against a vast and anonymous consumer economy that ships in goods from places no one has seen, made by men no one knows, for interests unlikely to be our own. This version of sustainability is indeed about place and the environment.
It got its start some thirty years ago. Sustainability is shorthand for “sustainable development,” a phrase made famous by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report Our Common Future, which defined it as “[economic] development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The authors of Our Common Future feared that a hyper-transformation of the economic orders of developing countries would bring new forms of poverty, social dislocation, and environmental degradation. One hears echoes of the black fields, poisoned rivers, and industrial slums of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England: The English peasant could have used some “sustainable development.”
The authors also feared that the economic policies of industrialized nations were depleting natural resources, leaving future generations bereft of the economic goods that Western nations had already achieved. As for global warming, the report mentioned it only in passing; it was at that point one threat among many to Our Common Future.
Sustainable development is thus a doctrine about right proportion. It accepts economic development, but maintains that a long-term approach requires conservation and prudence. Our Common Future proposes an equipoise between sciences. Sustainability is to be achieved using several disciplinary approaches in proper balance. Ecology has a say—but so does economics.
The sustainability movement on campus has a more radical bent. In the halls of academia, the UN’s sustainable development is known as “soft sustainability.” The emphasis on balancing economic development and environmental protection, central to Our Common Future, has been discarded. The new focus on anthropogenic global warming has given rise to a suspicion that there is an intrinsic conflict between the environment and carbon-based industry.
Wielding the rhetoric of global catastrophe, “hard sustainability” claims the status of supreme necessity. Its imperative comprehends all the sciences and on-campus movements, and it demands that all other agendas accept its authority. Global catastrophe provides colleges and universities with a unity of purpose, a moral goal that subsumes all parts.
Observe where today’s university invests its money and ingenuity. Higher education spends an estimated $3.4 billion per year on sustainability. Middlebury, for example, spent a one-time $12 million on a biomass gasification plant, and spends almost $5 million per year to achieve its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2016. And Middlebury is a small college—imagine the cost to a major university.
Harvard’s dedication to sustainability stops at its endowment. President Drew Faust declined to divest the university’s holding in fossil fuel companies. At Yale, President Peter Salovey announced that the administration plans to use “nudging” techniques to induce “behavioral change” in its students. Student activism becomes conspicuous at Dartmouth and full-throated at Columbia. Head to elite liberal arts colleges, such as Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Bowdoin, and Middlebury, and you’ll find full dedication from the administration, faculty, staff, and students.
Student “buy-in” is the crown jewel of campus sustainability bureaucracies. They go to great lengths to achieve it, weaving sustainability goals into new courses, freshman orientation, traditional subjects, and majors and minors, and in some cases they require a sustainability course for graduation.
Conservative focus on curricular fragmentation and overspecialization has obscured the advent of this new unity on college campuses. Sustainability may not provide true curricular coherence, or an integration of knowledge—but it does provide a singular purpose: Save the Planet.
This new unity helps explain the appeal of sustainability in higher education. In recent years, intense focus on diversity and multiculturalism has accentuated racial, sexual, ethnic, class, and gender differences on campus, frustrating attempts to imagine the university as a cohesive moral unit with common ends. Efforts by white students especially to join in diversity discourse, to become “allies,” are treated with suspicion and frequently renounced as covert assertions of “privilege.” This pushes white students—in most cases the campus majority—to the moral sidelines.
Whereas multiculturalism challenges, critiques, and undermines, sustainability synthesizes, harmonizes, overcomes, and unites. We may have our deep grievances with the West, America, the Church, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and whiteness—but we can drop those for a moment in the name of the Earth and humanity.
Students can be pro-sustainability without judgment. Western countries, especially America, may be targeted for critiques of overconsumption, but white students lead the charge and through it find camaraderie with their black, Hispanic, and Asian peers. Where multiculturalism balkanizes the campus, sustainability crosses all barriers, uniting students with each other—and with all of humanity.
The psychological benefits of this kind of activism are considerable, especially for elite students. One of its charms is that it emanates from a “scientific consensus.” It never challenges the scientism and materialism of the American elite, and it sets the stage for ethical action. It is a moral code elaborated in terms of measures and outcomes, forecasting Malthusian crises and devising technocratic solutions.
This moral system appeals to students from elite stock who were born into a social network that feeds elite institutions. These students excel. They have undergone standardized testing, intensive exam training, focused tutoring, transcript padding, and national and international competition. Their résumés document volunteering, musical talent, sports, travel, internships, and journalism. Their efforts have had measurable outcomes: GPAs, SAT and ACT scores, and acceptance letters. Sustainability appeals to these striving souls because it gives their meritocratic dash a moral element. It affirms their quantified and managed experience by projecting it outward onto the world and its future. Its goodness can be measured even in pounds: “If I turn off the lights during afternoon hours, I will save x kilowatts of electricity and z pounds of greenhouse gases, thus contributing y to the common good.” Fighting climate change is like getting into Princeton: disciplined behavior ordered to measurable goals.
As these noble youths assume their high places after graduation, their quantifying outlook resolves itself in technocracy, bureaucracy, managerialism, and rule by expertise. We see this clearly in the huge scale of on-campus sustainability efforts. Middlebury’s biomass gasification plant is the product of an administration comfortable with multi-million-dollar projects, made possible by a sizeable and wealthy circle of alumni, a massive endowment, huge tuition costs, and subsidies from our colossal nation-state. Campus sustainability is a gigantic morality for gigantic institutions that think gigantically. It is an ethics for the powerful. Only they have the resources to reduce their carbon footprint to zero, and only they have the metric-izing souls eager to do so.
John Henry Newman wrote that theology, Queen of the Sciences, should provide the university with its moral and curricular unity. For Newman, God is the truth that provides all other truths with their proper end and cohesion. Theology is thus the discipline that allows the secular sciences to be grasped as a single whole. Demote theology or remove it, as universities began to do in the nineteenth century, and the curriculum becomes fragmented.
Newman also foresaw the emergence of false unities meant to reverse this fragmentation. The “human mind cannot keep from speculating and systematizing,” he wrote, “and if Theology is not allowed to occupy its own territory, adjacent sciences . . . will take possession of it.” A usurping science would work to order all the other sciences to its own end, which, while stabilizing them temporarily, would ruin them by turning them away from their own proper ends.
Perhaps today’s university can never have a true curricular unity—Truth has been so thoroughly deconstructed. No single science will be accorded the hegemony Newman commends, certainly not the science of God. What we have instead, and what binds even more effectively, is a moral unity that makes the disciplines (and everything else on campus) reflect its dogma. That unity—
Michael Toscano is a development officer at the Manhattan Institute.