When Sustainability Goes Too Far

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(Picture: UC Chico’s 2011 Sustainability Report)

California State University at Chico takes sustainability seriously. Yahoo listed it last year as one of the top five ‘green’ colleges in America. The university has made creating “environmentally literate citizens” an official strategic priority, and it has elaborated its general education program to include a “sustainability studies” track. Leaders of this campus movement have made it clear that they seek “sustainability across the curriculum,” with all lines of academic inquiry leading to sustainability. But there are problems with all this.

Chico’s Institute for Sustainable Development boasts “over 100 ‘Green Courses,'” actually more than 200 and growing. A good segment of this list consists of conventional science courses: “Principles of Cellular and Molecular Biology,” for example. Of course, calling these “green courses” is arguably more a marketing maneuver than an intellectual classification. “Molecular biology” is pretty much the same whether or not it is taught by a sustainability-minded professor.

Many other courses on the list relate to practical environmental concerns, such as “Water Quality Engineering” and “Rigid Pavement Preservation.” Some of the so-called “green courses,” however, require a greater stretch of the chromatic imagination. What is inherently “green” about “The American Indian,” “African History,” “Justice and Global Issues,” “Personal Values” (now renamed “The Good Life”), and “End of the World”?

Different Theories of Happiness

Course descriptions for some of these seem to reveal an overt agenda; for example, “The American Indian” focuses on “Indian-white relations” and “the disruption of the Indian way of life.” This appears to involve a spin on the Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage.” If so, it would have to avert its eyes from the rather destructive ways in which some Native American societies exploited natural resources, from driving whole herds of buffalo over cliffs to setting forest fires.

“The Good Life” surveys “different theories of happiness and meaning, including discussion of the roles of moral values, mental health, art, music, and food and drink in living well.” Given its categorization as a green course, this appears to be a handy springboard for discussing whether a good life is possible without plastic water bottles, 15-minute showers, disposable grocery bags, bacon, or having children.

Including “African history” as a green course is odd. Presumably it will focus on the Sahara Desert–long ago a lush and verdant part of the continent–or in historic times, the loss of fertile land south of the Sahara to desert, likely because of over-grazing. But why should Chico students have to see the whole continent though this one lens?

And what do mysticism, justice, world religions, or American Indian literature have to do with greenness?

Chico is implementing its new “pathways” model for general education this fall, with Sustainability Studies as one option. These pathways are separate from academic majors, but students can choose to turn their pathway of choice into an interdisciplinary minor. They exist alongside other Gen Ed requirements in oral communication, writing, science, math, U.S. history, and U.S. government. Here they are:

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This list raises a number of questions. First, why is Great Books and Ideas a discrete pathway? Will students who opt for other pathways be kept at a safe distance from great books and ideas?

The Sustainability Studies pathway, writes coordinator Jim Pushnik, aims to mold each student into a “socially-responsible and environmentally-minded citizen.” One of Professor Pushnik’s courses, “Environmental Literacy,” is part of the sustainability pathway. A main text for the course, for which the latest syllabus available is spring 2009, is called Earthscore, a sort of environmental audit that awards positive points for fluorescent lights and exponentially negative points for having two or more children.

Students are urged “to recognize that your life is dependent upon the environment, and that your personal decisions affect the environment.” Leaving no doubt that political advocacy, not just learning, is expected of the class, Professor Pushnik requires essays to be written “from the developing perspective introduced in the class.” In other words, this class should change your personal habits and the only correct perspective for you to take is the one projected by the course.

The university does its best to turn its philosophy into practice, tracking its employees’ mileage on business trips, for example, and urging students to “say no to plastic straws.” And of course it builds LEED-certified buildings, integrates solar power, and recycles.

Saving university funds and conserving energy and water are worthy goals. If Chico can find ways to be more efficient with its use of financial and natural resources, it may inspire students and employees to be more thoughtful about how way they handle their own personal resources. Practical applications of eco-stewardship aside, however, Chico represents two growing campus trends. One is making sustainability an interdisciplinary subject. The other is connecting it with courses such as “The American Indian.”

We here at the National Association of Scholars have been paying close attention to the campus sustainability movement for several years. Our interest is in keeping higher education focused on liberal learning, scientific inquiry, and reasoned scholarship. We are not opposed to environmentalism in general or “sustainability” in particular. But we are worried that the sustainability movement has a tendency to tip over into the sort of advocacy that compromises the deeper purposes of higher education.

A Goal of Transforming Universities

The advocates are pretty clear that they see few if any limits to advancing their program on campus. The mission of the sustainability group Second Nature is to “make the principles of sustainability fundamental to every aspect of higher education.” In a roundtable discussion published by Sustainability: The Journal of Record, Paul Rowland of AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) said we need to “transform universities”; former Unity College president Mitchell Thomashow urged faculty members to “radically transform the curriculum”; and Jim Elder, director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, argued that we need to “change how they [faculty members] think, how they teach, how they do their research.”

Those are steps too far. Colleges and universities might legitimately practice some forms of sustainability, but the “every aspect of higher education” standard toward which Chico seems to be moving is an exercise in uncritical endorsement, and the goal of “transforming” universities to advance the sustainability program amounts to a betrayal of the university’s indispensable role as the place for intellectually free examination of competing ideas. Chico State provides a ready example of what happens in higher education when ideological enthusiasm gets the better of the curriculum.


One thought on “When Sustainability Goes Too Far”

  1. As the mother of an 18 year old white male, I am seeing what I have been hearing about for quite some time – the bias against white males by the “top” universities in the nation. We are a solid middle class family, not poor but would still qualify to get a significant reduction in tuition if accepted. My son has done everything right – valedictorian, top student in the school district, national merit finalist (so far), 35 on his ACT (36 super score), awarded research scientist, accomplished musician and student leader. His list of accolades grows by the week yet he cannot get accepted to the upper tier colleges! He interacts regularly with other top scholars in our state and he’s finding that ALL of the other white, middle class males are having the same problem. The disadvantaged minority students seem to be the most sought after with multiple offers and scholarships. The minority students also are in high demand with a high acceptance rate. The wealthier white students have been accepted more than the disadvantaged white students. The white middle class males are by far the least likely to be accepted. It’s like these universities are looking for people they can stick in their brochures to say “See how diverse and generous we are?”. As a mother it is infuriating to see him realize that his gender, race and quite normal family finances have offset all of his hard work.

    My son put in for early acceptance at a very high ranking university in the Midwest. He was deferred to general admission. We just found out a few days ago that he was denied altogether. My husband, who comes from a wealthier family, went to this same school. He was much less accomplished than our son but his family needed no financial aid. (It is interesting to note that this university was ranked the #1 stingiest wealthy school in the US.) My husband called the admissions counselor to very politely ask the reason our son was denied. The counselor didn’t look up any information before stating that “there were others more qualified”. My husband listed off some of the highlights of our son’s accomplishments and asked her what else they were looking for? She admitted that he sounded very qualified and then said that they only have a certain number of spots and they are all filled. I guess their quota is filled of white males. This isn’t the only university that has denied him, it is just the one that is the most blatant in their decision. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t tickled pink when I saw that this school’s national ranking fell SIGNIFICANTLY this year! It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving university!

    My son will be fine. He will be going to another well known research university and they are thrilled to get him. Unfortunately because he had applied for early admission to his #1 choice school, he missed out on the top scholarship deadlines for the school he’ll be attending this fall. My advice to others is to NOT apply early acceptance anywhere. It ties your hands for any other options.

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