Sustainability, the New Campus Fundamentalism

Back in 2008, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, wrote here that on campus, the word ”sustainability” was moving away from its normal English meaning (prudent use of resources with the needs of future generations in mind) toward a usage with heavy ideological baggage: “sustainability” (definition 2) – a condition that arises when capitalism and hierarchy are abolished; individuals are made to see themselves as “citizens of the world;” and a new order materializes on the basis of eco-friendliness, social justice, and new forms of economic distribution.

On Thursday in New York City, NAS released a 260-page report on how far the new version of sustainability has spread, particularly on campuses: credentials can be earned in 1,438 distinct college programs and its message now extends to such unlikely subjects as English composition, mathematics, art history  and psychology—all without any transparency on what is happening or why sustainability is being pushed so hard on students who should be examining and debating ideas on their own, not guided or nudged  toward a pre-packaged ideology.

Rachelle Peterson of NAS, co-author of the report with Peter Wood, said the movement “represents  a significant shift away from giving students access to rational and moral knowledge that prepares them for wise, conscious choices, ands toward training operations that elicit automatic responses.”

Under the argument that true sustainability requires an end to social oppression, the report says, the movement embraces identity politics, calls for the overthrow of patriarchal systems and misogynist bias, the virtual elimination of extraction of energy from fossil fuels, an end to industrial development in the underdeveloped world and a return to subsistence of near subsistence standards of living.   The need to overthrow capitalism, though not supported by all, is common and much discussed theme in the movement.

At the release of the report, Peter Wood called the new sustainability a “soft totalitarianism.” The report says: “As an ideology, sustainability takes aim at economic and political liberty. Sustainability pictures economic liberty as a combination of strip mining, industrial waste, and rampant pollution. It pictures political liberty as people voting to enjoy the present, heedless of what it will cost future generations. Sustainability’s alternative to economic liberty is a regime of far-reaching regulation that controls virtually every aspect of energy, industry, personal consumption, waste, food, and transportation. Sustainability’s alternative to political liberty is control vested in agencies and panels run by experts insulated from elections or other expressions of popular will.”

The full text of the report is here.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

3 thoughts on “Sustainability, the New Campus Fundamentalism

  1. Students of this thinking dream of an all-powerful world government, ruling through technical brilliance and long-term planning, say of a 1,000 years.

    This has a precedent. A national, socialist movement in the 20th century also had a 1,000 year goal.

    Of course, with their attitude and degreed status, they presume that they will be running this world system. Of course, they will need more energy and resources than the ordinary person, to do their jobs well.

    It’s like winning a computer game.

  2. Sustainability, as you defined it in definition 2, is gaining traction fast as a result of a generation that grew up in the information age – where multiple different perspectives are available. In this environment, pre-packaged ideologies are hard to be pushed on students. We wrote about how technology is reshaping today’s students last month. You could find it interesting.

    1. I can’t think of an ideology that better fits the description of “prepackaged” than “sustainability.”

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