Tag Archives: sustainability

Metal Fatigue and Campus Pessimism

When I was in college I got a job one summer blasting, scraping, and sanding the corroded sides of dry-docked ships.  It sounded like nasty, if well-paid, work. But before I could don gloves and mask in my war on barnacles, some union called a strike and my job was wiped out.  I ended up in a still less glamorous job on a road crew, scraping hapless raccoons from asphalt.

Even decay, it seems, isn’t an entirely reliable business.

My youthful almost-employment as an agent of maritime tidiness was resting somewhere in my mental scrapheap, long forgotten.  I’ve been busy with more up-to-date concerns, among them the critique of the campus sustainability movement. In March, Rachelle Peterson and I rolled out our stainless new National Association of Scholars’ study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, and we’ve been fashioning hood ornaments for it ever since.

But something stirred that old memory:  I noticed Rust: The Longest War, Jonathan Waldman’s corrosive new book.  It is what the title says, a book about the weathering away of steel girders and tie rods and all our other iron pinions with which we try to hold the present against the inevitable rust of time.  Sustainability? Take that, says rust.  And rust wins.

Steel for Stone

What a perfect time for Waldman’s thoughtful appreciation of this enemy of civilization.  We have built our world on metals.  Copper tools were invented about six thousand years ago, and copper alloyed with tin gave us the harder-edged Bronze Age about 4,500 years ago.  Metal plowshares, metal swords, and metal hand tools created the material conditions for large-scale agriculture and for cities and states, and eventually for art and science.

There is only so much you can do with wood and stone.  Today’s enthusiasts for “paleo diets” and pre-industrial technologies sometimes forget the eagerness for metal among those people who lacked it.  Western sailors had to fight Polynesians who would try to pull the metal nails out of the decks of visiting ships.  The Australian anthropologist Lauriston Sharp wrote a classic essay about an aboriginal tribe, the Yir Yoront, whose contact with whites was sporadic and minimal until the 1940s.  For the Yir Yoront, the stone ax was the principal “piece of capital equipment,” used to produce firewood, makes huts, and part of every important act of survival.  Making a good stone ax was arduous skilled labor and the ax itself was, unsurprisingly, an object of deep significance.

Yet given the opportunity to acquire steel axe heads, the Yir Yoront didn’t hesitate.  The steel axes rapidly displaced the old technology.  The anthropologist duly recorded that a kind of cultural collapse ensued “in the realm of traditional ideas, sentiments, and values.”  Women and young men obtained access to the new axes, which undermined Yir Yoront hierarchy and ritual.  Axes have consequences, as Richard Weaver might have said.

In Waldman’s book one can learn about the heroic endeavors of the American Galvanizers Association whose members take the battle to the rusty foe, while fighting rearguard actions against the rival stainless steelers and the paint industry.  It is an entertaining book as well as a handsomely written one:

Every metal is vulnerable to corrosion.  Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black.  It’s turned Mars red.

But what does this have to do with higher education?


The battle over sustainability on campus and elsewhere can be thought of as a contest between competing ideas of preservation.  Those who favor “sustainability” set themselves up as seeking the preservation of the natural order against the destructive changes to the planet wrought by humanity.  Those who critique the sustainability doctrine generally hold that humanity will thrive only by dint of further development of the earth’s resources and further advances in science and technology.  The critics seek to preserve the cultural legacy of our civilization.

Things, of course, get a lot more complicated than that two-way choice between preserving nature and preserving culture.  Both sides stake some claims to the other’s territory.  Sustainatopians want to preserve some pieces of culture as well as nature.  Uber-sustainatopian Bill McKibben, for example, fancies beekeeping.  And virtually all critics of sustainability favor clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment.  But once each side has gathered in its share of the other’s bounty, the division is robust.  Sustainatopians see nature as essentially benign and the Earth as terribly fragile.  Once the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide exceeded 350 parts per million, the Earth was on an unstoppable slide to catastrophic global warming.  That’s why McKibben named his activist group 350.org.

The enviro-catastrophism has in the view of its college and university advocates a straight line application to what colleges actually do.  How can you sit around reading Plato or Jane Austen when the Arctic icepack has melted?  How can we teach political theory as if nations mattered when the only viable solution to climate change lies in transnational institutions?  How can we teach biology as if the Anthropocene—the age of manmade climate change—hadn’t already begun to produce mass extinctions?

Indeed every subject in the curriculum can be refashioned around the goal of putting the issues of sustainability in its center. That’s exactly what the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment asks of higher education, and exactly what most of them are doing.  Rachelle and I spent some time documenting this.  Yale classifies more than 400 of its undergraduate courses as “sustainability focused” or “sustainability related.”  At Cornell, 68 percent of the academic departments offer sustainability courses.  At Middlebury it is 72 percent.

But leave aside the details.  The main point is that the sustainability doctrine authorizes—or perhaps more accurately demands—the subordination of all forms of inquiry to the larger goal of preserving the natural order.  Sometimes this is phrased in quasi-mystical language, such as the call from Peggy Bartlett of Emory University for a “re-enchantment” of nature.  But generally it is just assumed into place.  We all know the “climate consensus.” Our world is at grave risk.  Let’s not waste time on superficial things such as the old liberal arts curriculum.

The opposing view—my view—is that, even if the natural world is at risk, what higher education should be most concerned about is the preservation of our culture.  The chances of doing something about global warming are vastly improved if we remain a civilization that commands the power to innovate and the optimism to believe we can address our problems successfully.  Turning our colleges and universities into wheelhouses of apocalyptic fantasy and cultural despair is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Sustainatopian belief is corrosive.  It turns the institutions on which we depend for cultural vitality into recruitment centers for hostility to our civilization.

Rust Happens

Civilizations are, in principle, made to last.  But so are ships, bridges, and skyscrapers, and none of them last forever.  Rust happens.

Colleges and universities ought to be our galvanizers.  The effort to preserve is not a matter of resting content that we have true and perfect knowledge that merely needs to be carried forward intact from generation to generation.  Real preservation requires an active commitment, the blasting, scraping, and sanding of the cultural corrosion that inevitably gains ground if we don’t intervene; the replacement of the broken parts; the determination to keep the essential and to improve where possible

A truly sustainable civilization requires the strength to say no to the idea of going back to nature.  That so many in our society are fatigued by metal and ready to divest from carbon is a bad sign, a diversion of our imagination and energy to a dead-end fantasy at a time when we need robust and creative thinking. Trading up from stone to steel axes may have been traumatic, but trading back down will be a lot more so.

‘Nudging’ Goes to College

Classical economics went wrong at its first turn, say Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Man is not homo economicus, the rationally calculating actor that the dismal scientists from Adam Smith down through Milton Friedman supposed our species to be. No, we are emotionally driven, contextually influenced, socially conditioned: Humans, not Econs.

Sunstein and Thaler famously lay out their Human vs. Econ divide in Nudge, their 2008 bestseller that popularized a new sub-discipline, behavioral economics. Behavioral economists recognize that people make hasty decisions for non-rational reasons, relying on rules of thumb, heuristics, and past experiences that bias their judgment and prevent them from maximizing their gains. “Unlike Econs,” say Sunstein and Thaler, “Humans predictably err.” And if you can predict what errors they will make, you can wall off temptations and set Humans up to succeed.

What predictable mistakes do we Humans make? We procrastinate on important decisions such as enrolling in retirement accounts, hate losses more than we love comparable gains, fall for cravings like sweets even when we know they’re unhealthy, and stick with default settings. Nudgers can exploit these systematic flaws in our thinking, automatically enrolling us in retirement accounts until we say otherwise, imposing fees that discourage bad behavior, hiding desserts in the back of the cafeteria and prominently displaying salads at the front, and setting organ donation as the default unless we opt out. By “nudging” people towards the best outcomes, “choice architects” massage the social atmospheres in which we decide to make it easier for people to make the right, rational choice.

Thaler and Sunstein call this “libertarian paternalism”—libertarian because “choice architects” never take away choices, but simply rearrange the buffet of options, making the good ones easier to select and the bad ones harder to find. That makes nudging paternalistic, they acknowledge, because it influences people’s choices, but it’s worth it, because people’s lives are improved. Who wouldn’t want to outsource the hard work of analyzing the data and still come to the same optimal Econ-like behavior?

Not many—at least when Thaler and Sunstein first proposed the idea. While finishing his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Rochester in the 1970s, Thaler started keeping a list of common irrational behaviors that defied economic models, eventually writing a column “Anomalies” for The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Initially he struggled to find an audience; his first paper on behavioral economics was rejected by five journals. Thaler’s breakthrough came in 1976, when he found the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who categorized common biases that shaded people’s judgments (a task that years later in 2002 earned him a Nobel prize in economic science). A 1974 paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” co-authored by Kahneman and the cognitive scientist Amos Tversky, gave Thaler the key to fit psychology into economics: people regularly misunderstand, misjudge, and miscalculate because they fail to recognize their susceptibility to context and emotion.

Thaler’s synthesis of behavioral psychology with economics alarmed many. When in 1995 Thaler arrived at the University of Chicago as director of the Center for Decision Research, Nobel Prize-winning economist Merton Miller shunned conversation. But Sunstein, then the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at Chicago, struck up a friendship, and soon they co-wrote, with a Harvard law professor, “A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics” for the Stanford Law Review, a kind of technical precursor to the layman’s guide ten years later in Nudge.

Since then the nudge tactic has grown immensely popular. Thaler and Sunstein’s manual became a bestseller. In 2009, shortly after the book’s release, President Obama made Sunstein his “regulatory czar,” and in preparation for the 2012 election he added Thaler and Sunstein to his “dream team” of behavioral economist advisors. Sunstein followed up Nudge with a sequel, Why Nudge? that sent the concept into the public view once more. Michelle Obama’s crusade to make school lunches fresher, less starchy, and healthier takes a page from Nudge by fiddling with the “default” options. The New York City subway ad campaign advising parents to stay proactively involved in their kids’ lives takes down over-optimism and the status quo bias, two of the faulty thought patterns Thaler and Sunstein warn against.

Why Not Nudge?

One counter-solution to the emotional-Human problem is to make people more perceptive and knowledgeable—a bit more like Econs. Teach them to think rationally, point out their biases, build up their self-restraint to help them avoid indulgence. And, giving proper deference to the heart, teach them to turn their desires in the right direction, so they naturally love and respond to what is good, no matter the roadblocks that stand in between. This is traditionally the job of education, which arms students with the rational knowledge and moral character to live upstanding, free, and independent lives.

That’s a nice ideal, say the nudgers, but a dangerous assumption. How can you be sure that people know enough and are virtuous enough to withstand every difficulty? Novices lose out to experts—take chess as an example, write Thaler and Sunstein—and most of us are novices at most aspects of our lives. We’re almost always less knowledgeable than the expert professionals pushing their products on us. And nudging is inevitable: “In many situations,” aver Thaler and Sunstein, “some organization or agent must make a choice that will affect the behavior of some other people.” If we know the system is rigged no matter what, we’d be hurting humanity by not rigging it in a way that encourages us to make the right choice.

If Thaler and Sunstein are right, then education’s purpose dramatically changes, away from educating moral citizens and towards training Pavlovian disciples coached to respond to the right signals. A popular statistic has it that students’ brains do not fully mature until their mid-twenties, making them excellent candidates for nudging rather than lecturing.

In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein spend only three of their 300-plus pages on higher education, remarking briefly that the federal financial aid process could be simplified and parents could be rewarded for starting a college savings account while their kids are young. But already administrators have copied a few plans from Thaler and Sunstein’s playbook. Loss-averse college students might be incentivized to graduate if they paid a fee during their freshman year that was refunded upon graduation. Floundering students could use an algorithm that suggests majors and courses based on their previous accomplishments and interests. The state of Minnesota has run a “Summer Nudging” program since 2012 to remind recent high school graduates to matriculate in the fall. Professors can rearrange students’ chairs to a U-shape to make conversations easier. One college, perhaps embracing the value of transparency, assigned Nudge as a summer common reading for all incoming freshmen. Are people who know they’re being nudged more or less nudgeable? Consumers of school lunches may vote “less.”

Some nudges are relatively benign, some even entrepreneurial. But others are more ideological. Identity studies departments and offices of diversity try to counter the “structural racism” that they see as built into society and into each person. “Implicit bias,” like Thaler and Sunstein’s rules of thumb and heuristics, supposedly prejudices people in ways they never realize, clouding their judgment and preventing them from coming to the rational, independent conclusion. The president’s office at the University of California offers employees a guide to the most common instances of “implicit bias” that mirrors some of the irrationalities that Thaler and Sunstein identify.  The resultant micro-aggressions are seen as perpetuating cycles of racism by building up a social atmosphere that encourages stereotypes. The solution? Setting up safe spaces that nudge people to celebrate diversity, and policies of racial preferences meant to correct for instances of invisible racism.

Diversity is not the only college fad to climb the nudge bandwagon. In Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, a recent report I co-wrote with Peter Wood, we recount some of sustainability-themed nudges at play on campuses across the country. Dozens of institutions have sidelined their cafeteria trays in an effort to make wastefulness a salient topic for students. Trying to juggle plates, cups, and cutlery sans tray won’t save that much dishing water, but it sure makes students think, three times every day, about the need to conserve.  Many institutions hire student “eco-reps” to shame their peers into composting their corn-starch based disposable flatware, ride a bike to class, buy carbon offsets to make up for their flights home at Christmas, and quit drinking bottled water. And some sort through trash bins on the college quad to visually remind students that hastily trashing their plastic is turning up the heat on the planet.

But once you start nudging, there is no safe place to stop. A culture trained to respond to nudges becomes dependent on them. If you’re always nudged to take the pre-set easy path, what happens when the right thing to do is hard? Cultivating fortitude, love of honor, and a disposition to careful thought will get a man through trying temptations; a habit of trusting the default option will not. A society that presumes its citizens to be irrational inevitably tends towards heavy-handedness. Nudgers say they don’t take options off the table, only rearrange the context in which they’re presented. But fiddling with the milieu inevitably makes some options socially unacceptable, if not completely inaccessible. If Humans gravitate towards the default settings, nudges aren’t as “easy and cheap to avoid” as Thaler and Sunstein insist they are.

And who decides what’s right and rational? Mankind has historically been very clever at “rationalizing” his desires; self-confident choice architects are no different. Nudging is the nanny state dressed in its Sunday best. Thaler and Sunstein say nudges are only permissible if they “make choosers better off, as judged by themselves” (italics in original). But it’s impossible to know how every person will judge his state of being.

Adam Smith critiqued in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” top-down attempts to meddle with human behavior: the “man of the system” errs when he assumes he can arrange society systematically as if on a chess board. Each man, he said, has “a principle of motion of its own altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” That makes nudging bound to fail its promises of health, wealth and happiness. Thaler and Sunstein—and the administrators following their advice— would do well to take heed.

Indoctrinating Students Isn’t Easy

UCLA has found a novel way to improve the politicization of its curriculum. UCLA Today, the faculty and staff newspaper, reports that the university’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Sustainability Committee have teamed up to help faculty members across the university figure out ways to slip sustainability messages into their classes, regardless of the actual subjects they are teaching.  Participating faculty members get a two-hour workshop and a $1,200 grant to turn their courses into vehicles of sustaina-ganda. 

The newspaper account highlights political science professor Miriam Golden who is using the extra money to change reading lists, data sets, homework assignments.  Professor Golden is ardently behind the cause.  “I think climate change is the largest global challenge to ever face the human race, and we need to help students understand the social and political implications,” she says.  But the money clearly helps.  She wouldn’t be altering the content of her courses without it.

Is it a good thing when a third party puts money on the table to ensure that a particular point of view gets extra attention and favorable treatment in a public university?  Not when Charles G. Koch pledged $1.5 million to support faculty appointments in Florida State University’s economics department for the purpose of promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”  When that story broke in Spring 2011, the higher education establishment expressed dismay at the supposed affront to academic freedom.  Two FSU professors, Kent Miller and Ray Bellamy, led the charge against the “intrusive actions” of the funders, but a faculty panel grudgingly found the grant acceptable.  The progressive commentariate could hardly find enough exclamation points to express its outrage at this commercial sullying of the pure soul of academic inquiry.

I don’t expect that UCLA’s little experiment in cash incentives to faculty members who adjust their teaching in the direction of global warming hysteria and the virtues of sustainability will elicit any similar disdain.  But the Koch “intrusion” at Florida State and the sustainability grants at UCLA are really two sides of the same coin.  Charles Koch would like universities to teach more about the virtues of free markets.  The sustainability crowd generally views free markets as a deep source of environmental ruination.  Both sides are ready to put some money into the game. The Koch grant supports the appointment of faculty members in one department who would be explicitly identified as advocates for a point of view.  The UCLA program is meant to insinuate a point of view across the whole curriculum.  Which sounds more likely to infringe on the integrity of academic programs or the intellectual freedom of students?

UCLA innovation is the cash incentive, not the attempt at broader product placement.  The effort to get sustainability incorporated in every class has been a goal of the sustainability movement for some time. The question for the sustainatopians has been how best to make this happen.  The National Association of Scholars has watched these efforts unfold first as naked aggression, as we reported in “An Elbow in the Ribs: Prof-Prodding Toward Sustainability.”  Sometimes it took more than an elbow bestowed on the reluctant professor, as we observed in “The Sustainability Inquisition.”  Carrots in the form of cash incentives are arguably an improvement over the sticks that the movement more typically uses. 

The money might be put to some good uses.  Who would object to the Earth and Space Sciences professor taking the cash to make videos of fluid dynamics to explain how the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” came about?  There is, however, something a little unsettling about an effort to make every class in a university into a brick in a wall of advocacy.  “Sustainability” falsely presents itself as settled wisdom not only about the science of climate change, but about the proper economic, political, and social responses.  These are matters where students deserve the benefit of hearing the best arguments from all sides.  UCLA’s decision to stack the deck is, unfortunately, all too common for the University of California.  The best response from UCLA faculty members would be to refuse the money and to teach their courses in the spirit of fair-minded scholarship, not as exercises in recruitment to a cause.  

Barry Commoner, Connected

Barry Commoner died on September 30 at age 95. His passing shouldn’t go unmarked, as he was one of the architects of what has become the dominant ideological movement on American college campuses:  sustainability. Commoner, a professor of biology and a third party candidate in 1980 for President of the United States, was the chief perpetrator of the so-called first law of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else.” 

The unity of all things goes back at least to the ancient Greek Parmenides and probably to our intrepid ancestors who descended deep into French caves to paint images of galloping bison.

But in Commoner’s hands, “Everything is connected to everything else,” became a weapon, a  slingshot to put rocks through the windows of modern civilization. The  “law” gave an air of scientific authority to remote worries. The death of a snail darter in a river in Tennessee might herald some unimagined catastrophe elsewhere in the food chain.   

By Commoner’s logic, there is no “reasonable” limit to how many degrees of separation should be traced between purported cause and conjectural effect. If we are now faced with governors and mayors of big cities who discern the elusive footprints of global warming in a late season hurricane, their uncanny knowledge of meteorology owes more than a little to Professor Commoner. He’s the guy who taught us to err on the side of wild surmise. 

Well before his rise in the 1960s as the main heir to Rachel Carson’s chemicals-are-scary form of environmentalism, Commoner had been an activist against open-air nuclear testing. He helped conduct a study showing the presence of the isotope strontium 90 in baby’s teeth, which showed that radioactive fallout was indeed finding its way into our bodies. It may have been difficult to gauge to what degree this amount of strontium 90 was actually harmful, but it proved fairly easy to alarm the public.

The dangers of science multiplied by the heedlessness of free market capitalism became Commoner’s great theme. He spun it out in a series of books, beginning with one I had to read in high school, Science and Survival (1966). The Closing Circle (1971) is an indictment of modern technology. The Poverty of Power (1976) continues a theme from Science and Survival in which Commoner used the laws of thermodynamics to give an air of finality to his policy preferences. In Poverty, we learn that the very laws of the universe dictate that solar power is our only alternative. 

In a more sober age, Commoner would have been recognized as a crackpot. In our age, he was a celebrity. Time put him on its cover in 1970. He garnered awards and at least eleven honorary degrees. The New York Times noted his death with a major obituary that only here and there touched on his extremism. The Times obit observes, “Although the rules were plain enough, the thinking behind them required leaps of faith.” The obit also notices Commoner’s long infatuation with Marxism and his prefiguring of the sustainability movement by crowding the environmental ark with the bestiary of a leftist political zoo: 

“Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem.”

My favorite detail is that out of his concern for the environment, Commoner’s shirts were always wrinkled–ironing being a superfluous waste of energy.  It must have gladdened his heart in later years to see colleges banning bottled water and creating tray-less cafeterias to save the resources needed to wash away spilled soup. 

Much as I regard Commoner as a source of intellectual and cultural mischief, I must praise him for one thing, and not a small one.  He early on set himself in direct opposition to the other great exaggerator and doom-monger environmentalist of his time, Paul Ehrlich.  Ehrlich saw (and presumably still sees, although these days he is on about global warming) overpopulation as the root environmental problem and preached the need for coercive government control as the only solution.  Commoner fought back on both fronts.  Ehrlich’s father, incidentally, was a shirt salesman.  Everything is connected to everything else.

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.

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Sustainability—Splurging with Your Tax Dollars

Within days of the GOP sweep that marked the Nov. 2 election, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Buildings and Grounds” blog featured an entry whose headline wondered: “What Future for College Sustainability Programs?” Such worrying might seem strange because in fact “sustainability”—the green mania that has inspired institutions of higher learning across the country to add environmental coordinators to their administrative staffs, hold dorm contests for who can take the shortest shower, and switch to compostable knives and forks in the dining halls—is a bigger phenomenon than ever. In November alone, the very month of the election, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education added 21 new members to its roster of hundreds of institutions ranging from Harvard to the remotest of community colleges.
What all the worrying is about, of course, isn’t the future of sustainability as a campus fad. It’s the future of sustainability as a fountainhead of government dollars to pay for the solar panels and “green living” residential experiments that many college administrators would like to see adorning their ivy halls. Also dollars to pay for the “green jobs” training programs at community colleges that prepare workers for the wind-farm industry, itself the object of massive government subsidies. A Chronicle blogger, Xarissa Holdaway, managing editor of the National Wildlife Foundation’s ClimateEdu newsletter, lamented that “[a]lmost all the Republican candidates [voted into Congress on Nov. 2] were indifferent or hostile to climate-change science.” She added, “For colleges, the shift may mean a halt to, or a least a slowing of, sustainability projects, particularly those paid for by state and federal funds.”
What Holdaway and others seem to fear most is a Republican-led cutoff of appropriations under the Higher Education Sustainability Act (HESA), a 2008 law that authorizes $50 million in federal grants to help out colleges with such endeavors as “green building,” “green purchasing, transportation, and related initiatives,” establishing “sustainability literacy as a requirement for degree programs,” and integrating “sustainability in all programs of instruction.” Higher-education associations are also eligible for federal in order to do such things as conducting “faculty and administrator trainings” and creating “analytical tools to assess institutional progress.” More than 220 colleges, universities, higher-education associations, NGOs, and corporations pushed hard for the law to pass.

Continue reading Sustainability—Splurging with Your Tax Dollars

Even More Sustainability

A couple of weeks ago Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, wrote a serious, humorous, penetrating assessment of the rise of “sustainability” as the new ideology de riguer on college campuses. (The article is also available here, but read it on the Chronicle site if you can — the comments there are worth the price of admission — and it was cogently discussed here by Mark Bauerlein.) 

“Recently,” Wood began,

I came across a photograph of students at an event gathered around a cake that bore the iced command, “Celebrate Sustainability!” Clearly the candle had been passed. For more than a generation, cakes at campus events have tutored students to “Celebrate Diversity!” Something has changed—besides the frosting.

The pursuit of diversity on campuses remains a highly visible priority, but it is being subtly demoted by enthusiasm for sustainability. As an ideology, diversity is running out of steam, while sustainability is on fire….

“Diversity” is still alive and well at the University of Virginia, but now it does seem to be playing second fiddle to sustainability. As an example of the new fervor, for example, on October 20, “in observance of today’s national Campus Sustainability Day,” the Community Outreach and Communications Subcommittee of the President’s Committee on Sustainability (one of whose tasks is to educate the university on “sustainable thinking”) made available on its sustainability website a new pledge that it invited all members of the university to sign. The text:

Continue reading Even More Sustainability

Sustainability—More Cash and a Softer Side

With great fanfare Columbia University recently announced that starting this fall it will offer an undergraduate major in the new interdisciplinary field of “sustainable development.” That makes Columbia the first Ivy League school to offer such a major, which sounds as though it ought to be a practical mix of hard science, “green” technology, and tough-minded economics joining forces to combat Third World poverty without polluting or deforesting the Third World in the process. In fact, however, undergraduate sustainability majors on many campuses tend to be light on science but heavy on ideology. The reigning ideologies can range from doomsday scenarios of out-of-control global warming and plummeting agricultural yields to, as is likely to be the case at Columbia, the controversial and expensive foreign aid-based economic theories of Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, the sponsor of the university’s new sustainable-development major.

College majors in sustainability are all the rage these days—as well they might be, since the federal government (thanks to Congress’s passage of the Higher Education Sustainability Act in 2008) now makes grants available to institutions of higher learning “to integrate sustainability curricula in all programs of instruction, particularly in business, architecture, technology, manufacturing, engineering, and science programs.” Brand-new majors in sustainability have popped up on more than two dozen college campuses during the last few years. The schools now offering the major include small private liberal arts colleges and the public Arizona State University, which operates a School of Sustainability, and Appalachian State University in North Carolina, which offers four different sustainable-development majors plus a minor. In the fall of 2009 Johns Hopkins University began offering both a major and a minor in “global environmental change and sustainability” whose course offerings are somewhat similar to those proposed for Columbia.

Money is also pouring into sustainable-development programs at the graduate level. The MacArthur Foundation just announced that it has made grants totaling $5.6 million to ten universities worldwide to establish new two-year master’s-degree programs in “development practice” at 10 universities in eight different countries. The grants are part of a $16 million investment by MacArthur for “the creation of new Master’s programs in sustainable development practice,” as MacArthur’s press release states. MacArthur hopes to see the recipient universities—now totaling 20—churn out as many as 400 graduates by 2013.

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Colleges And The “Green” Ploy For Stimulus Green

The good news is that neither the House nor the Senate version of President Obama’s $825 billion so-called economic stimulus package opens the sluicegate of federal slush-funding for higher-education construction projects as wide as many college presidents would like.
Back in December some 31 university presidents and trustees, representing some of the biggest public university systems in America, published a two-page “open letter” to Obama, paid for by the Carnegie Corp. of New York, grandiosely asserting that, say, $40 to $50 billion in stimulus dollars funneled their way to build new classrooms and student centers would be just what America needs to “propel the nation forward in resolving its current economic crisis and lay the groundwork for international economic competitiveness and the well-being of American families into the future.” Congress and the Obama Administration turned out to be not quite so enthusiastic about the proposed taxpayer-financed building spree as the college administrators were. The House Appropriation and Ways and Means committees’ version of the stimulus would allot a mere $8.7 billion to public and private colleges for “infrastructure support,” as it is called, while a summary of the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees’ version (the bill’s full text has not yet been officially released) looks stingier still, providing for only $3.5 billion for college infrastructure, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Furthermore, very little of the money under either bill could be spent on new construction. The bill specifies that the federal funding go for renovating and repairing existing structures.
It is hard to see how billing the federal government for performing what is essentially basic periodic maintenance (upgrading the heating system in a dorm, for example) would do much to “propel the nation forward,” which brings us to the bad news: that a major portion of the spending in both bills must be on so-called “green” technology. “Energy efficiency” is the watchword.

Continue reading Colleges And The “Green” Ploy For Stimulus Green

College Green? Bah Humbug.

The term “College Green” has a whole new meaning these days. No longer does it refer to the tree-lined verdant lawn at the heart of the classic college campus. It now reflects an environmental faddishness sweeping academia with a fervor exceeding even that for deconstructionism or take-back-the-night events.
The big buzzword on campus is “sustainability.” Virtually every self-respecting institution of higher learning has an office of campus sustainability. What sustainability means, however, is often somewhat vague. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pledges to advance “the triple bottom line of ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social equity.” Michigan State promotes “a sustainable community that provides for the social and economic needs of its current and future members without compromising the health of our biosphere.” Brandeis hits closest to home. Its sustainability initiative aims “to reduce the university’s environmental impact.”
The top-tier schools are all in on the act. Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative has more than 20 full-time employees and claims to save the university $6 million a year. Yale’s sustainability initiative commits the school to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below what they were in 1990 by the year 2020. Stanford, which gets high marks from green groups for its efforts, offers several sustainability groups for students, along with an organic garden for the campus community. Even the lousiest schools are greening. At Portland State University in Oregon, an athletic field is laid with artificial turf made from ground-up sneakers, and one of its buildings boasts the biggest “ecoroof” in the city.

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What Does ‘Sustainability’ Have to Do With Student Loans?

The student loan crisis – or near crisis; narrowly-averted crisis ; or postponed crisis – no one is sure – comes co-incidentally at a moment when many colleges and universities are once again repackaging their basic programs. The new buzzword, as John Leo has pointed out is “sustainability.” I also recently tried my hand at unpacking this polyvalent idea. “Sustainability” sounds to the uninitiated as though it is about environmentalism, but it is much more. As I wrote in Inside Higher Education, many of the advocates of “sustainability” see it as an encompassing concept. It includes science, economics, and the social structure. And for many in the movement, the focus on social order is the basis for far-reaching attempts to advance “social justice” policies.

I doubt this development has come into focus for many parents or people outside the campus. The campus left learned with its promotion of the concept of “diversity” the advantages of packaging hard-core ideology in bland, feel-good terminology. Sustainability is another venture in this direction. No one can really be against sustainability (definition 1) – prudent use of resources with the needs of future generations in mind. But while most of us hear the word in that sense, campus ideologues are busy rearranging the curriculum and student life around “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.

Sustainability (2) is an amalgam of environmental extremism, shards of Marxism, romantic utopianism, and identity group politics. It doesn’t have a significant political following in America outside college campuses, and in that sense it is a fringe movement. But on campus it’s everywhere. Hundreds of campuses now have sustainability officers, courses that promote the ideology, and most ominously, “co-curricular” programs run through student life and residence halls that attempt to “educate” students about their mistaken “worldviews” and bring them aboard this new ideological ark.

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The Worst Campus Codeword

The academic left is fond of buzzwords that sound harmless but function in a highly ideological way. Many schools of education and social work require students to have a good “disposition.” In practice this means that conservatives need not apply, as highly publicized attempts to penalize right-wing students at Brooklyn College and Washington State University revealed. “Social justice” is an even more useful codeword. Who can oppose it? But some schools made the mistake of spelling out that it means advocacy for causes of the left, including support for gay marriage and adoption, also opposition to “institutional racism,” heterosexism, classism and ableism. Students at Teachers College, Columbia, are required to acknowledge that belief in “merit, social mobility and individual responsibility” often produce and perpetuate social inequalities. Even in its mildest form “social justice” puts schools in a position of judging the acceptability of students’ political and social opinions.

Now the left is organizing around its most powerful codeword yet: sustainability. Dozens of universities now have sustainability programs. Arizona State is bulking up its curriculum and seems to be emerging as the strongest sustainability campus. UCLA has a housing floor devoted to sustainability. The American College Personnel Association (ACPA) has a sustainability task force and has joined eight other education associations to form a sustainability consortium. Pushed by the cultural left, UNESCO has declared the United Nation’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014, featuring the now ubiquitous symbol of the sustainability movement – three overlapping circles representing environmental, economic and social reform (i.e., ecology is only a third of what the movement is about).

Only recently have the goals and institutionalization of the movement become clear. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability is Higher Education (AASHE) says it “defines sustainability is an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods and a better world for all generations.” When the residential life program at the University of Delaware – possibly the most appalling indoctrination program ever to appear on an American campus – was presented, Res Life director Kathleen Kerr packaged it as a sustainability program. Since suspended, possibly only temporarily, the program discussed mandatory sessions for students as “treatments” and insisted that whites acknowledge their role as racists. It also required students to achieve certain competencies including “students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society.” At a conference, Kerr explained “the social justice aspects of sustainability education,” referring to “environmental racism,” “domestic partnerships” and “gender equity.”

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