Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Useful Concept or Trojan Horse?

Having worked within the humanities for a number of years now, I have first-hand experience with the ways in which words and concepts can get politicized and abused. Sometimes, familiar words take on new meanings (e.g., racism, gender), while other times, new concepts get mainstreamed without the general public being made aware of what they actually mean (e.g., anti-racism, whiteness). Consequently, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the definition and framing of concepts. This led to serious reservations upon discovering that my Swedish university would be promoting “sustainable development” in its English program.

According to section 5 of the Swedish Higher Education Act: “[…] higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice.” Swedish universities are encouraged (at the behest of the Swedish government and United Nations) to integrate sustainable development awareness into their courses in order to satisfy the criteria developed by each university. In practice, this usually entails connecting some aspect of a course to the notion of sustainable development. However, the specific details are left to the discretion of individual lecturers and professors.

As a father of two, I have no problem with the notion of sustainability, but I also know that this one word can have very different meanings depending on one’s ideological leanings. For example, there are various eco-Marxist, eco-feminist, and decoloniality discourses that all have their own vision of how to achieve a “sustainable” future (what qualifies as “sustainable” is also up for debate). There are also popular ecocritical discourses such as deep ecology, which argues for “a substantial decrease in human population” (Devall and Sessions, 1985, p.70). Tragically, similar concerns were voiced in the terrorist manifestos connected to two high-profile mass shootings in 2019; the first in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the second in El Paso, Texas. Surprisingly, the El Paso shooter even connected his anti-immigration sentiments to the notion of environmental sustainability.

In the case of UN member nations like Sweden, the notion of sustainable development is heavily informed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). According to its document Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sustainable development entails a total of 17 goals with 169 associated targets. Some of these targets include “doubling small scale food producers” (2.3), “eliminating gender disparities in education” (4.5), “promoting shared responsibility of domestic work in households” (5.4), and “reducing inequalities of outcome within countries” (10.3). These 169 targets are far too many to discuss in a single article, but it doesn’t take much reading to realize just how broad and ideologically driven they are. A brief glance at the language and rhetoric employed in the UN’s agenda reveals strong intersectional feminist and decoloniality influences, not to mention a stretching of the word “sustainability” to the point where it means virtually everything and nothing at the same time.

In regards to what this means for higher education, we are already beginning to see the creation of what some describe as “interdisciplinary” programs, where STEM courses, for example, are influenced by the critical theories found in the social sciences and humanities, as well as by various indigenous “ways of knowing.” Arjen Wals describes this trend thoroughly in his review of the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development:

It is argued that empirical analytical and reductionist ways of understanding the world need to be complemented with more integrative and holistic ways of understanding the world and methodologies and methods that are better suited to cope with complexity, uncertainty and contested knowledge. Along with such a re-orientation new forms of learning are emerging as well, including: trans- and interdisciplinary learning […] (3)

“Holistic ways of understanding the world” and “contested knowledge” are just euphemisms for the various critical theories that already dominate the humanities, as well as the new decoloniality movement that seeks to diminish the influence of Western “ways of knowing” in higher education. How these can be integrated in the STEM fields or add to the conversation on anthropomorphic climate change is not clear, especially when you consider how their adherence to lived experience and standpoint epistemology could be used to undermine the validity of climate science.

The most obvious problem with promoting a concept like sustainable development is that, in a finite world, it could be argued that nothing is truly sustainable: Species go extinct, systems change, and the world is always in flux. Furthermore, there is no way of really measuring the effects of current policies—especially those related to economic and social justice—in terms of what their future implications will be. What we advocate for today in the name of sustainability might be our own undoing in the long run, and depending on which ecocritical theory you adhere to, this might even be a good thing.

The other problem is that the UN’s version of sustainable development includes a broad and all-encompassing set of political goals, some of which have nothing to do with sustainability. Many commentators have suggested that 169 goals are too many, and even that some of these goals contradict others. For example, in the article “Making the Sustainable Development Goals Consistent with Sustainability,” the authors point out that the current list of sustainable development goals will lead to a higher ecological footprint than what is environmentally sustainable (Lin, Hanscom & Wackernagel, 2017, p.6).

My initial reservations were well founded. In practice, sustainable development could easily become yet another trojan horse for more woke social justice indoctrination in higher education, and in the case of the UN, it already has. If educators really care about the future of the planet, they should expose students to a wide range of ideas, while always encouraging them to think critically about everything—including sustainability. Failure to do so will not only compromise the integrity of higher education but could also undermine the pursuit of a more sustainable future.


Devall, Bill; Sessions, George (1985). Deep Ecology, Living as if nature mattered. Gibbs M. Smith. p. 70.

Wals, A. E. J (2013). Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN DESD: a review of learning and institutionalization processes, Journal of Cleaner Production, 62 pp.8-1

Wackernagel, Mathis; Hanscom, Laurel; Lin, David (2017). “Making the Sustainable Development Goals Consistent with Sustainability”. Frontiers in Energy Research. 5.

Image: Markus Spiske, Public Domain

W. Alexander Bell

W. Alexander Bell is an American expat and PhD student living in Sweden.

8 thoughts on “Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Useful Concept or Trojan Horse?

  1. The comments here offer a good deal of insight into why you guys are getting beaten to a pulp on this, as on so many other issues.

    1. Jonathan, if everyone else was jumping off a cliff like lemmings, would you join them?

      Or would you proclaim the insanity of doing so?

      And I don’t think that we are getting beaten to a pulp — not when you look at the resources which are arrayed against us, and how successfully subversive the radical left has been for the past 50-60 years.

      Higher education is highly problematic — I fear fatally flawed and likely to implode in the near future — but we haven’t lost. Not yet.

      The propaganda and insular media perspective hasn’t been this bad since the 1950s, but much as people eventually saw through McCarthy and the mandated patriotism, they are going to see through this stuff as well. Social change *is* coming, and your side isn’t going to keep prevailing much longer.

      The Chauvin verdict is going to get thrown out — it kinda has to with what has already come out about the jury — and with another summer of rioting, you’re going to see responses that you will not expect.

  2. Mr. Bell should well have ‘reservations’ about the stalking horse which is ‘sustainable development’. It is a nonsense concept hidden behind a sanctimonious concern for something which is and will remain a thing impossible to define, let alone control.

    He tells us, “As a father of two, I have no problem with the notion of sustainability.” He should. For whatever it is he thinks it means it doesn’t. At least not entirely and not according to those who use the word as they would a club.

    As a father of three, I myself have no idea what ‘sustainability’ even means. Children aren’t sustainable; they become adults. Adults aren’t sustainable, they grow old and die. The earth itself is not sustainable, nor the sun, the moon, the stars. All things must pass. “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance
    of later things yet to be among those who come after.”

    Still the prattling by the Priests and Acolytes of the Green who preach: “higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice.”

    What the hell is any of that? Who’s to say. My ‘sound & healthy environment’ may or may not match yours, and very probably would not match theirs. What I define as Justice (as in, “before the Law”) undoubtedly does not match the holistic vision of ‘perfect justice’ common to every utopian fantasy. And how on earth does ‘development’ whatever that indicates — sustainable or not — “assure” for anyone ( now or in some indeterminate future) social welfare & justice. That’s not what economic development (if, indeed, that’s is what is meant) does.

    These are not philosophical positions and clearly they’re not policy statements. Rather they are Leftist Boilerplate. Progressive Pro-Forma Pablum slopped onto anything and everything to vogue the expected ‘Wokeness’.

    Need to carry out the garbage tonight (tomorrow’s Garbage Day!)? Make sure you do so in a ‘sustainable fashion that assures economic and social justice and a sound and healthy environment!” Want to cook burgers on the grill? Make sure you do so in a …yada yada yada. A simple rubber stamp would be faster and mean as much.

    Progressive Sneetches on beaches with Sustainable Stars upon Thars! (Dr. Seuss would find this hilarious…and so should we, if it weren’t so pathetic..and ultimately so dangerous).

  3. One thing I know is that “sustainability” has a lot of appeal among a great many students, and even much of the public. People who don’t like what the “progressives” are up to in this need to come up with attractive alternatives. For the most part, reaction is what I see instead.

    1. How about an expectation that someone teaching English as a foreign language be asked to do exactly that — to teach grammar and vocabulary and usage, leaving the political stuff out of it.

      It’s every bit as asinine as the Texas law that requires all literature taught in Texas K-12 schools be “about Texas” — which bans everything from Captains Courageous to Shakespeare. They speak Swedish in Sweden — and the reason why they are teaching English is so that their students become fluent in it. It is thought that they will need to be fluent in it, be it because of international business or the hospitality industry or graduate study in the US — it’s felt that fluency in a foreign language is an important part of the curriculum.

      Hence I don’t see the reason why we should be expected to advocate an equally irrelevant distraction — ANYTHING other than the teaching of the English language is irrelevant to a course that purports to be intended to teach said English language.

      Now as to the larger issue of the sustainability foolishness — may I suggest that you merely spend an afternoon in the library looking through the old microfilms of the past 60 years?

      In the 1960s it was the “population bomb” and the dire prediction that “[i]n the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” It didn’t happen, and not only is the Western world facing a shortage of babies but we are using food (corn) to make gasoline (ethanol).

      In the 1970s it was the “coming Ice Age” and “global cooling” — and how we were all going to freeze.

      In the 1980s it was the shortage of hydrocarbons and how we had run out of oil and would again all freeze as we couldn’t heat our homes, not to mention unable to move around or grow our food.

      In the 1990s it became “global warming” and “the planet has a fever” — now evil humanity was warming the planet.

      And now — as we are neither too cold nor too hot — they’ve had to resort to generic “change” in that we are now somehow “changing” the climate.

      At what point do you just say “bullshyte….”

      Too cold. Too hot. Now too neither — damn it, pick one alarmist story and stick to it lest a lot of us start asking about the man sitting behind the curtain…

      1. Agreed. But a minor quibble… I don’t believe there is any Texas law which requires “all literature taught in Texas K-12 schools be “about Texas” — which bans everything from Captains Courageous to Shakespeare”.

        Admittedly I only spent 5 minutes ‘googling’…but all I found was a lot of material under the heading ‘TEKS’, meaning Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills. But that, as far as I can tell, relates only to Texas’ version of ‘Common Core’. It certainly doesn’t seem, at first glance anyway, to restrict the teaching of literature.

        If you have some reference that does indicate that, I’d love to see it….cause that, you’re right, would be totally crazy.

      2. ” I don’t believe there is any Texas law which requires “all literature taught in Texas K-12 schools be “about Texas””

        I stand corrected — it explicitly did in 2011 but apparently the legislature revised the statute some time since then as TEC §28.002(h) now reads (in part):

        “The State Board of Education and each school district shall foster the continuation of the tradition of teaching United States and Texas history and the free enterprise system in regular subject matter and in reading courses and in the adoption of instructional materials.”

        The entire statute can be found at:

        Now this doesn’t mean that they don’t do it because Texas is a textbook adoption state where the state determines which textbooks are approved for use in all the schools of the state. (Remember the infamous “Texas Schoolbook Depository?) A dated but I believe still accurate description of the “adoption” process is here:

        In other words, the state still has to approve every textbook, including those used “in reading courses” although the “about Texas” has been dropped. The question then becomes which texts the various bureaucrats approve for use, and that I have no way of knowing.

        As an aside, K-12 textbook adoption exists in 19 other states as well and it is a large part of why K-12 textbooks have the “problems” that they do, as publishers write toward these large markets, seeking to have their versions “adopted” by these states. It’s more complicated than that, but this is a significant part of the issue.

  4. Professor Bell, thank you for an important exegesis of the nonsensical core of the concept of “sustainability.” Its sister concept of “social justice” is equally vacuous and insidious and equally linked to the long history of socialist authoritarianism, the furtherance of which the UN serves.

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