Audio: Christian Colleges' Powerful Take on Sustainability

Chronicle photo by Scott Carlson

Christopher D. Doran, assistant professor of religion at Pepperdine U.
October 12, 2010

Chris Doran, a devout Christian, is a bit of an oddity in sustainability circles. Here at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, where he spoke about sustainability at Christian colleges, conservative Christians are probably well outnumbered by agnostics, atheists, and people with alternative beliefs.

Mr. Doran may also be a bit unusual at Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ-affiliated institution where he is an assistant professor of religion. He pushes students there to re-examine the American frenzy of consumption and to consider frugality as a core ethic. That doesn't always win fans and friends among those students at first, he says.

But he argues that while Christian colleges have been "late to the game" in sustainability, they could also provide a unique and powerful perspective on one of the biggest movements to hit higher education in years.

"Many public institutions bristle at the idea that they can play a role in moral development of their students," he says on a podcast on this page. "Christian schools don't generally shy away from the notion that they are shaping the morals of their student body."

Casual observers might equate sustainability with saving money on electric bills or saving the planet. But social justice and ethics have always been as prominent a piece of the sustainability ideal as economics or environmentalism. Mr. Doran argues that many colleges have approached sustainability by building flashy new green buildings or prominent alternative-energy installations, like wind turbines. But the missing piece is often a discussion about what those things mean morally or philosophically, he says.

"Christians can say that the ethical component is a really strong component of what sustainability is all about," he says.

"My goal at Pepperdine is to say, Listen, we're a conservative, biblically based institution, but we have some really interesting ideas that might shape what the public discussion is about," he adds. "That is where Christian schools in particular can really get in the game and say, we have concepts of justice, we have concepts of fairness, we have concepts of how care for the poor is part and parcel of how we care for the earth. And those might be unique ways to engage the American citizenry."