• April 21, 2014

From Diversity to Sustainability: How Campus Ideology Is Born

From Diversity to Sustainability: How Campus Ideology Is Born 1

Michael Glenwood for The Chronicle

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Michael Glenwood for The Chronicle

Recently 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. This month hundreds of colleges will mark the eighth annual Campus Sustainability Day, with activities to include a Webcast offering "social-change strategies and tools" to help campuses lower carbon emissions.

How did this happen? Partly it is the Macy's-window effect: Ideologies have to be replaced from time to time to attract attention. But sustainability is gaining ground also because it offers college students a stronger sense of personal significance than diversity does.

Diversity and sustainability are the two most characteristic ideas of the modern academy. Diversity asks us to focus on group identity and personal affiliation, and it puts race at the center of the discussion. Sustainability asks us to focus on humanity's use of natural resources, and it puts climate at the center of discussion. Outwardly, diversity and sustainability belong to separate narratives. They deal with different topics and might, in principle, have no more friction between them than typically exists between English departments and physics labs. Or between polar bears and tropical fish. But in fact, diversity and sustainability have a complicated, decades-old rivalry.

They vie, in effect, for the same conceptual space and the same passions. Both are about repairing the world; both invite exuberant commitment; both are moralistic; and most of all, both are encompassing ideas that crowd out other encompassing ideas. They also compete for the same financial resources.

Diversity and sustainability are also both second-wave movements. Diversity is second-wave affirmative action; sustainability is second-wave environmentalism. Like all second-wave movements, each embodies a complicated awareness of its predecessor, by turns appropriating and repudiating the earlier movement. Diversity set aside the ideal of racial integration as a moral imperative for equity in favor of a convoluted claim that racial preferences should rest on pedagogical advantages. Few proponents of racial preferences actually believe this, and the old moral imperative lurks in the background. But the pedagogical rationale became enshrined in law in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger.

Likewise, sustainability set aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. Sustainability decenters environmentalism from the health and enjoyment of living people to the world beyond and replaces a focus on the dangers of pollution with the idea that Western society itself is profoundly at odds with the earth.

Diversity and sustainability are not simply repackaging of old ideas. Both are distinct ideas in their own right, and both aspire to be cultural concepts that impose a general order, not only on the university but also on society at large. Both express vigorous dissatisfaction with the social order, but beyond that, they convey ideals that are probably irreconcilable. Diversity calls for a fractionated America but leaves intact a vision of personal success and amenity. Sustainability is, not far beneath the surface, a doctrine of privation, offering only the psychological comforts of asceticism.

One index of the rise of sustainability at the expense of diversity is the size of the institutional memberships of their professional groups. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education now lists as members 800 colleges and universities in the United States. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, by contrast, has about 150 member institutions.

Diversity is a story of a once-fresh ideology that swept through higher education in a spirit of triumph but that quickly seems to be losing its status as the sexiest ideology on campus. Diversiphiles would like to keep the adrenaline flowing, but it is hard. Freshmen now arrive on campus already having sucked on multicultural milkshakes from kindergarten to senior prom. Diversity for them is just the same ol' same ol'.

That doesn't stop the diversicrat establishment from trying to pump new excitement into the project. California State University at Chico, for example, recently circulated a new "action plan" titled "To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community," in which the university president sets his sights on placing "diversity at the core of our mission, vision, and priorities." The practical goal is to get Chico State listed as an official "Hispanic-Serving Institution" by 2015, which requires substantially increasing Hispanic enrollment past the university's current 13.5 percent. (Chico State serves mostly a local population in a part of the state with relatively few Hispanics. Hispanics are already "overrepresented" at Chico from a purely demographic standpoint.) The federal designation "Hispanic-Serving Institution" would bring access to additional federal support. But the diversity game is never about just numbers and dollars. It is also about ideology and intimidation, and Chico State is actively pursuing those, too. As part of the new campaign, it invited the "Diversity Guru" Lee Mun Wah to provide workshops including "Unlearning Racism in the Classroom." Faculty members get the message: Openly expressed doubts about the diversity program will be treated as racist conduct.

Sustainability hasn't yet achieved this level of intimidation, but not for want of trying. AASHE keeps a directory of "peer-to-peer sustainability outreach programs," or "eco-reps." These are the busybodies who do things like go through students' trash to make sure that everyone is diligently recycling, and who hector everyone to squeeze into a tighter carbon footprint. The Green Gator at Allegheny College is promoting dorm-based compost bins and planning to map energy usage. It urges lights out in the bathrooms and laundry. Bard College students, meanwhile, are working on "the psychology of fostering sustainable behavior" and are promoting "Recyclemania." If it sounds like the "psychology" of sustainability is akin to OCD, maybe that isn't far off. At the University of California at San Diego, the enforcers posted a shocking discovery complete with photos: "Sadly today we found a bunch of recyclables in the GARBAGE!" A happy ending, though: "We rescued all the recycling ... and got them in the recycling bin."

The power to enforce something, of course, always finds takers, no matter how petty the rules. Sustainability, however, seems especially suited to the rise of student enforcers. They might best be described as sustainabullies. Why does this have the power to light up the imaginations of so many students? How did it become the distinctive banner of this generation?

I view this changing of the ideological guard with wariness. Diversity was pretty bad; sustainability may be even worse. Both movements subtract from the better purposes of higher education. Diversity authorizes double standards in admissions and hiring, breeds a campus culture of hypocrisy, mismatches students to educational opportunities, fosters ethnic resentments, elevates group identity over individual achievement, and trivializes the curriculum. Of course, those punishments were something that had to be accepted in the spirit of atoning for the original sin of racism.

But for its part, sustainability has the logic of a stampede. We all must run in the same direction for fear of some rumored and largely invisible threat. The real threat is the stampede itself. Sustainability numbers among its advocates some scrupulous scientists and quite a few sober facilities managers who simply want to trim utility bills. But in the main, sustainability is the triumph of hypothesis over evidence. Its scientific grounding is mostly a matter of models and extrapolations and appeals to authority. Evoking imminent and planet-destroying catastrophe, sustainatopians call for radical changes in economic arrangements and social patterns. Higher education is summoned to set aside whatever it is doing to help make this revolution in production, distribution, and consumption a reality.

Sustainability combines some astonishingly radical ideas with mere wackiness. Many sustainability advocates want to replace free markets (a source, as they see it, of unsustainable growth and exploitation) with some kind of pan-national rule with little scope for private property rights. On the other hand, sustainatopians also busy themselves with eliminating trays from cafeterias and attacking the threat of plastic soda straws. Sustainability thus unites vaunting political ambition and comic burlesque. Both are at odds with patient and open-minded intellectual inquiry.

The diversity movement has always been rife with contradictions. Seeking to promote racial equality, it evolved into a system that perpetuates inequalities. But whatever else it is, the diversity movement thirsts to be part of mainstream America. Its ultimate goal is to make diversity a principle of the same standing as freedom and equality in our national life. The sustainability movement, by contrast, has no such affection for the larger culture or loyalty to the American experiment. It dismisses the comforts of American life, including our political freedom, as unworthy extravagance. Sustainability summons us to a supposedly higher good. Personal security, national prosperity, and individual freedom may just have to go as we press on to our low-impact, carbon-free new order. In this sense, it goes beyond promising to redeem us from social iniquity to redeeming us from human nature itself.

Many campus adherents to sustainability may eventually tire of its puritanical preachiness and its unfulfilled prophecies, but for the moment, sustainability has cachet. Diversity, meanwhile, has aged into a static bureaucracy, and diversicrats increasingly spend their energy polishing the spoons. The current displacement of diversity by sustainability can be traced back to two developments. In June 1992, Sen. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz attended the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development—the Rio Summit. On their return to the United States, they founded an advocacy group called Second Nature, specifically dedicated to bringing the sustainability movement to the American college campus. Second Nature is explicitly radical. It calls for making "sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education." Second Nature chose as its primary tactic the winning over of college and university presidents, and it has so far succeeded in getting 674 to sign its "American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment."

The other development that seems to have pushed sustainability forward as a campus movement was the rise of social activism in residence-life offices. Responding to a call from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for colleges to do more to promote "community" on campus, residence-life staff stepped up in 1994 with new "co-curricular" programs heavily freighted with leftist ideas about social transformation. Sustainability soon became part of that package. In 2005, nine higher-education associations teamed up to create the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium. They aimed, like Second Nature, to make "education for sustainable development" the priority for American higher education. The HEASC announcement was timed for a "United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development," from 2005 to 2014.

Sustainability thus did not grow up organically on campus. While there were faculty members who pursued research on climate change and a few, such as the Oberlin professor David Orr, who gained recognition as uncompromising proponents of radical environmentalism, there was no mass movement behind them, nor did such a movement well up from students. It arrived, Cortés-style, as a well-financed and shrewdly organized expedition bent on conquest. And its immediate target was academic administrations.

One wouldn't think on that basis that sustainability would have had much of a chance in displacing diversity as the dominant campus ideology. Yet here we are, eating our sustainability cake without a tray and sipping our bug juice without a plastic straw. In the end, I suspect that a quarter-century or so of hugging identity politics close and trying to feel perpetual shame about the nation's racial past just proved too dreary. Sustainability may be based on a grimmer view of life in general, but it offers relief from that ever-expanding story of group oppression that had eventually become all that diversity had to offer. In an odd way, sustainability is liberating.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.


1. amcmurry - October 04, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I really wonder what planet you've been living on, Peter? I wish all we had to worry about were the "dangers of pollution." I wish the "world beyond" would just stay out there. I wish David Orr was a "radical environmentalist" instead of an optimistic pragmatist who against all evidence believes politicians and corporate honchos will do right by the planet before it's too late. Here's an idea for you and the rest of the NAS crowd: stop looking for liberal bias everywhere, especially climate science. Melting glaciers and acidified oceans don't care about your social and economic views. Extinct amphibians and dying forests aren't right/left issues. Sustainability is about retaining a habitable world for conservatives and liberals alike.

2. jwr12 - October 05, 2010 at 07:48 am

I suspect, like most of the readers this column would draw--and perhaps like the Chronicle editors who chose to publish it -- I was drawn in by the idea of a cynical critique that no doubt would prove deeply flawed and ungenerous, but perhaps entertaining. That lasted about three sentences, until the viciousness and smugness of the exercise killed that joy too. Obviously, there are no public initiatives and big priorities that don't become inauthentic power plays, on some level. Politics is a part of who we are. But that's not to say that the issues they raise are all fashion or merely the pipe dreams of successive generations or hidden power blocs. I think you need to step away from the cynicism and the irony and try to find the, um, scholarly and intellectual sides of both of these issues.

3. csmac3144 - October 05, 2010 at 08:16 am

Re: amcmurry


4. csmac3144 - October 05, 2010 at 08:24 am

The irony is that the Left has for decades accused conservatives of fascism. Has there been a more obvious example of the fascistic impulse since the 1930s than that driving the greens today?

BTW, today's greens have almost nothing to do with the bona fide environmentalism I grew up with. They are urban political animals, ad dangerous ones at that.

5. elmartini - October 05, 2010 at 08:54 am

Moralising is okay if it's politically correct. How else can we feel relevant, affirmed, and a part of an ever-enlarging group that thinks the way I do? You people need to get with it or someone may report you to the recycling pollice!

6. notexactly - October 05, 2010 at 09:04 am

There is a valid critical point here.

'Sustainability' in the pop culture sense is not at all sustainable in any true sense of the word. It is visions of contented cows, and happy people doing lots of hand labor on 'family' farms. It's a kind of feel good tokenism, but with 6B people on the planet, recycling will not change the course of the world significantly. Local food feels nice and warm, but only works where you are living in a technological society where your 'local' food is easily supplemented by plenty of non local products. The rest of the world does not get those nice benefits. For thousands of years people were compelled to eat local, and frequent malnutrition and famine were the result.

We cannot go back. More precisely we cannot go back to 18 century levels of energy consumption and 'traditional' farming (which in truth was anything but sustainable) without massive starvation, and the resulting die off of humans.

There is a certain irony that universities are a hotbed of this quasi religion, in that the very existence of the wealth required to fuel this environment of science (students able to pay, governments able to support, industry derived technology needed for research) are directly dependent on our highly industrial life style.

The old ways cannot be sustained. Our future requires developing new resources, not hiding in some idyllic past.

7. crazyfrog - October 05, 2010 at 09:36 am

The author would clearly benefit from taking an "Introduction to Sustainability Studies" class--if and only if he could participate in it with an objective open mind. I have my doubts about that given the apparent epistemic closure evident in this essay.

Statements such as "some rumored and largely invisible threat. The real threat is the stampede itself. ...sustainability is the triumph of hypothesis over evidence. Its scientific grounding is mostly a matter of models and extrapolations and appeals to authority" are empty strawmen meant to sound authoritative when in reality they are the empty hypotheses.

For a nice summary of human-nature relationships in the Anthropocene and why sustainability studies are indeed a necessary focus for higher institution these days. download and thoroughly read the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report here: http://www.maweb.org/en/Reports.aspx#

8. meshabob - October 05, 2010 at 09:50 am

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.


This rather innocuously titled group is just one more neoconservative outfit of the kind that has gotten funding from the Coors and Olin foundations and that seeks to wage war on the left in academia. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Irving Kristol were formerly on the board of advisers. That says it all.

9. rkevinhill - October 05, 2010 at 10:57 am

Setting aside the well-poisoning now routinely engaged in by Left and Right alike, in evidence in some of the comments above, every single little empirical thing in "sustainability studies" could be correct and the article could still be a useful reminder of the inevitable social costs of doing anything about it. Whether that fits comfortably with the natural tendency to associate apocalyptic fears with utopian hopes is another matter. Life is about trade-offs and muddling through. Sorry.

10. venture_bro - October 05, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I love how this article can trace back the ENTIRE sustainability movement to John Kerry, and some other stuff.

Obvious conservative talking points are obvious.

That said, you make a good point. Sustainability is going to be costly. But only in the sense that we are not really paying the price for the pollution we create today. We dump stuff into landfills and stockpile nuclear waste. Leaving it to be dealt with by subsequent generations.

I hate the fact the we are currently doing this with the budget, but the fact that conservatives HOWL about the budget and then shrug off the environmental debt we are racking up is as hypocritical as are much of the actions of the diversity and sustainability crowd.

This article is just another example of someone justifying deficit spending until it becomes politically expedient to turn against it.

11. transcend - October 05, 2010 at 01:23 pm

Thank you, Dr. Wood, for the thought-provoking article which raises many excellent points.

While I am a strong supporter of environmental and ecological concerns (including the well-being of humanity), the apocalyptic assertions regarding the climate debate may indeed be overly dire. The competing scientific models give variously different results; what I understand from scientists on the "inside" is that the system of global temperature maintenance is simply too complex for any of our current models and computer simulations to generate any reliable predictions.

For those who would like to track the debate more closely, please refer to this site, which links to various articles on both sides:

Even if the worst-case scenarios are being promoted with undue confidence, however, there is of course legitimate reason to reform our practices, including reduction of pollution, development and implementation of new energy sources, better farming practices, better construction practices, etc.

In some cases, we clearly know the damage done by careless treatment of our planet (search for "Pacific Garbage Vortex" if in doubt); in the case of climate change, we cannot predict the long-term effects. That uncertainty is reason enough to change our ways as a precaution.

12. transcend - October 05, 2010 at 01:27 pm

By the way, this shock-marketing confirms the worst fears of those skeptical of the motivations of the environmental movement:


This is how the environmental movement sabotages itself.

13. crazyfrog - October 05, 2010 at 08:17 pm

transcend, you might also stand to benefit from a course in sustainability studies. The issues emcompassed by this area are diverse and extend well beyond climate change. One could easily discount global climate change science for whatever reason and still could find much to agree with and value within the sustainability movement writ large (such as finding ways to create fair, just, clean and well-fed societies that share ecosystems with a wealth of other species).
That video you link to is shameful and disgraceful. Some enviro-types are pointing that out but of course that won't get much recognition among those who want to use it to stereotype all environmentalist and sustainability sympathizers as wackos:


14. crazyfrog - October 05, 2010 at 08:19 pm

transcend, I apologize for my misguided previous post. Closer reading of your entire post suggests you and I share the same sensibilies about the broadscale nature of the sustainability umbrella. Sorry for jumping the gun! At this time of the day, I'm less focused than I'd like to be.

15. jmonroe6400 - October 05, 2010 at 09:11 pm

Mr. Woods says this:
"Sustainability is, not far beneath the surface, a doctrine of privation, offering only the psychological comforts of asceticism."

I say:

Two simple steps would have prevented Mr. Woods from talking nonsense: 1) Remove blinkers, 2) See world.

BTW: This statement -- "hugging identity politics close and trying to feel perpetual shame about the nation's racial past just proved too dreary" -- needed to be actually clever in order to avoid the "perpetual shame" alluded to.

16. sevens - October 06, 2010 at 07:07 am

I hired a college student to work for my company this past summer. Her degree wasn't all that important for her summer job but the topic came up. She was majoring in "sustainability". Not completely understanding what someone with such a major goes on to "do" I asked her what kind of career her major was preparing her for. She wasn't sure.

Does that mean there is no value to such studies? No, but it does illustrate some kind of gap that ought to be filled.

17. robert_wyatt - October 06, 2010 at 02:28 pm

I am a proponent of unsustainability and uniformity.

18. parora01 - October 06, 2010 at 03:10 pm

Isn't it time higher education world wide wrestled with the uneasy convergence of the ideologies of diversity and sustainability? How about considering the implications of access, equity and limited resources simultaneously? Beware of those that present false choices!

19. barrycooper - October 06, 2010 at 05:32 pm

Global warming is either falsified, or unfalsifiable. We are, for example, in at least a 30 year low in tropical cyclone activity. Greatly increased hurricane activity was predicted. In the face of what a valid science would call a decisive refutation of their hypothesis, they react with: name change. We can't predict just what will happen, we are told, we just know it will be bad and we have to ACT NOW.

That is stupid, and it is irresponsible.

The real problem--and the real reason these things are huge on college campuses--is that they lack a tenable system of MORAL sustainability. What do you learn about if you take philosophy classes? That our entire intellectual heritage was based on errors, and that life is meaningless. You do get the consolation prize, though: radicalisms of various shapes and sizes, with a new flavor of the month from time to time, to give you a new mantra to recite for your gurus.

The question of material sustainability is an empirical one. We are clearly not in any crisis of any sort. These crappy Malthusian arguments have been polluting our moral space for well over a century. We were going to see mass starvation in the 50's, then the 60's, then the 70's. Damn Norman Borlaug, I think the consensus is, for delaying the onset of an eco-utopia by actually figuring out how to feed everyone.

These academics aren't interested in impartial discussions. They aren't interested in evidence. What they want is a reason to live, and it is for that precise reason that they CLING so tightly to their programs of recycling and energy confiscation.

20. fhapgood - October 06, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Whenever I read about something that is not sustainable it is a trillion dollar industry with labor forces in the hundreds of thousands and deep roots in the culture. Whenever I read about something that is sustainable, it employs a handful of people and is totally dependent on subsidies, tax breaks, and grants. I don't know why this is.

21. jtowsen - October 07, 2010 at 02:24 am

As a current undergrad, I have no idea where these descriptions of on-campus sustainability activists are coming from. In my experience, eco-reps and other such students are more concerned in finding innovative ways for campuses to conserve energy than they are in bullying for bully's sake.

22. lemonthyme - October 07, 2010 at 09:24 am

It's not "vaunting ambition", idiot; it's "vaulting ambition".

23. crickels - October 07, 2010 at 11:35 am

"The other development that seems to have pushed sustainability forward as a campus movement was the rise of social activism in residence-life offices. Responding to a call from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for colleges to do more to promote "community" on campus, residence-life staff stepped up in 1994 with new "co-curricular" programs heavily freighted with leftist ideas about social transformation."

As a graduate student working in an office of residence life, it is alarming to me that Mr. Wood would have us revert to the days when Deans of Men or Deans of Women would squelch any signs of independent thought or critical assessment of society. He finds environmentalism and sustainability to be shrouded in those promoting absolutist beliefs, yet he is promoting absolutism. What a flawed assessment.

24. pi314 - October 07, 2010 at 01:50 pm

I believe Mr. Wood gets it precisely wrong when he states that "[Climate change's] scientific grounding is mostly a matter of models and extrapolations and appeals to authority." I believe the scientific grounding is based on evidence (mounting) and observation (extensive).

However, his caricature of sustainability as a stampede is not without merit. It does seem to be the only subject talked about these days which is tiresome. At the end of the day eating one's vegetables and treading lightly on the planet are unquestionably good ideas, but they are so terribly dull to discuss.

25. colorlessblueideas - October 08, 2010 at 12:28 am

By far the best essay in the Chronicle that I've read in some time.

Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . if colleges and universities would turn their attention more to teaching students how to think (instead of to parrot), how to evaluate (instead of gullible acceptance), and how to listen to and understand others (instead of leaping to /ad hominem/ judgements), then we wouldn't have to deal so heavily with the fad or fads /du jour/.

26. bphil - October 08, 2010 at 07:11 am

I came to this late and had assumed while reading that the comments would be unsparing in their assessment of the authors' use of a flawed analogy combined with rigorously bad analysis of the historical facts. Instead I find most comments congratulating the author on his truth-telling, ideology-busting iconoclasm. I can only conclude that what most people know about sustainability (pro and con) is nothing more than what is presented as ideology, when in fact there is so much more to it. That is quite a bit less true with the "diversity" issue, though as the emphasis on diversity trended upwards with a corresponding upward trend in research (sociological, legal, political, philosophical) about issues that constitue "diversity" as a concern, it's still somewhat true. And did environmentalism really eschew the excesses this author attributes to sustainability? Was affirmative action to diversity really just an ideological shift, or was it propelled instead by complex legal and social conversations that shaped the discussion of race, arguably for the better? Sustainabiity--let's go ahead and call it a "discipline" rather than an ideology--involves moral reflection on ethical responsibilities to non-human things (also true of environmentalism), systems theory, sociological and geographical analysis of human populations in relation to resources, markets, etc. It's complicated, and the caricatures in this article and supporting comments simply get it wrong. But because the caricature will more easily substitute for the more complex grasp, the fate of a struggling world will follow the course of our minority students who are significantly less well-off than their counterparts. In other words, calling sustainability and diversity mere ideologies is not only incorrect, it's an insidious means by which we can avoid significant change.

27. bphil - October 08, 2010 at 07:23 am

That should have said "some" comments were congratulatory. Others are appropriately critical. Apologies especially to lemonthyme, meshabob, and the first two commenters.

28. rgmilian - October 08, 2010 at 08:05 am

Sure, we are living in a post-racial US. Comments are better than the article.
This piece should be titled "The sustainability of racism: how to conceal the racist ideology on campus"

29. cwinton - October 08, 2010 at 09:38 am

When I was a child the problem was identified as unsustainable population growth. None of these discussions seem willing to consider the wisdom from those times, which I think the last 60 years have proven to be absolutely on target. While it is worthwhile to take steps to get people to treat the world around us more kindly, so long as we continue to be unwilling to address unbridled population growth efforts to do things like reducing carbon emissions are just spitting into the wind.

30. rick1952 - October 08, 2010 at 09:46 am

As I have noted previously, I will again state: The National Association of Scholars is not. This essay offers ample proof of the lack of scholarship by Mr. Wood. Perhaps the group should consider renaming itself more accurately: The National Association of Curmudgeon Ideologues.

What diversity and sustainability probably have in common, and I qualify my observation by noting that I am not a scholar in either field though I am an interested observer of both, is an effort to promote re-thinking how we distribute and use resources in our society so that it might become more equitable. Humanity is well-served by scholarship that challenges us to re-think our social order in order to become more equitable and less well-served by the ideological rants, such as this essay by Peter Wood, which simply seek to mischaracterize the work of others.

31. scupterry - October 08, 2010 at 09:56 am

Thank you, Peter, for mentioning Campus Sustainability Day. People can find out more about that great webcast with David Gershon and Andy Revkin - it's October 20 this year, the 8th such annual day - at this site: http://www.scup.org/socmed/CoHE-CSD

32. scupterry - October 08, 2010 at 10:14 am

Also, Peter, it is true that the housing officers have been good supporters of sustainability - including efforts that have saved their institutions millions of dollars. However, they are far from the only administrators on campus who have supported sustainability. One group of such associations, the Higher Education Associations Consortium for Sustainability (HEASC) has member associations which include - among others - higher education planning, student services officers, facilities managers, business officers, purchasers, and more - joined by presidential organizations like AASCU, NAICU, and CCCU.

When presidents started asking their senior level professionals about the ACUPCC and sustainability, they found their top people already understood the value to higher education and specifically to their campuses. And had been working on it for a decade or more. Oh, and if you think Second Nature is "radical" (amusing) then you should read some college and university mission statements. Scary stuff.

33. cmcclain - October 08, 2010 at 10:16 am

Likewise, sustainability set aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. Sustainability decenters environmentalism from the health and enjoyment of living people to the world beyond and replaces a focus on the dangers of pollution with the idea that Western society itself is profoundly at odds with the earth.

In my experience, the author has gotten this backwards, at least with regard to recent history. Growing up during the 80s and 90s, my impression of environmentalism was as a movement to save the enviroment, including the "spotted owl", for its own sake. In contrast, academic programs in sustainability seem to be concerned largely with developing practices (regarding farming, water, materials, etc) based on hard science (e.g. microbiology) that sustain human life and living conditions. I think that "sustainability" movements actually make environmental issues more concrete and relevant to everyone. Moreover, they ask the hard questions like whether every recycling program constitutes improvement when you actually calculate its carbon footprint.

In short, I would guess that the author is either lacking in scholarship or has ulterior motives.

34. johnadamdrew - October 08, 2010 at 10:18 am

Perhaps what the author is afraid of is a "world more fair," whether in diversity or carbon footprint terms. If he can offer any explanation how 6.8 billion people might all live the lifestyle of the President of the NAS, then I would love to see it.

35. jenvendemia - October 08, 2010 at 10:56 am

I thought diversity was silly in the beginning, but over the past decade I have watched African American students appear in my classrooms; at first in the very back seats. Now a days, the performance of my African American students is equal to or better than my European American students, and no student questions whether or not a minority has a right to be in the classroom. I no longer feel like I'm loosing out on teaching some of the very best and brightest because they didn't have access to educational resources. Most importantly, the variability of human experience that comes when you promote diversity in the classroom, directly contributes to the knowledge that emerges from a dynamic classroom environment. I've never been an active participant in the diversity movement, but the improvement in the intellectual environment of higher education is clear. Are you not able to observe your academic environment? Do you not teach? Or do you simply allow your adherence to decades old dogma cloud your perception of observable phenomena?

36. tom_rooney - October 08, 2010 at 11:41 am

I recent report came out indicating environmental costs consumed 11% of global GDP in 2008 (over $6 trillion US). I realize I am just a radical tree-hugging elitist, but this strikes me as a terribly inefficient allocation of global capital. This study was developed by the very same menacing forces of "the sustainability movement" decried in the article.

I think once you remove the ideological blinders, eliminate the hyperbole, and take an evidence-based look at the sustainability movement, it is impossible to conclude it is all radical ideas and pure wackiness. Much of what passes for the sustainability movement is science-based and market based. And should the mythical "recycling police" haul you off to jail, let me know--I'll bail you out and gladly pay your criminal defense costs.


37. scupterry - October 08, 2010 at 11:56 am

I'll not further comment on the logic and ideology in this opinion piece, but I will share some places for people to go to learn more about sustainability in higher education, or to engage with others in discussions about it.

* www.aashe.org - the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE, pronounced A-she)
* www.nwf.org/campus ecology - the Campus Ecology Project of the National Wildlife Federation (Campus Ecology)
* http://www.campussustainability - Campus Sustainability Planning Network (CSPN)
* http://www.secondnature.org - Second Nature
* http://www.heasc.net - Higher Education Associations Consortium for Sustainability (HEASC)
* http://www2.aashe.org/dans/ - Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability (DANS)
* http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/ - American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)
* http://usp.umfglobal.org/ - US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development

People might also want to learn more about the National Association of Scholars - http://www.nas.org/membership.cfm. Membership in NAS is stated as possibly very dangerous to the career of an academic, so be very, very careful.

38. dank48 - October 08, 2010 at 12:11 pm

ColorLessBlue, #25, seems to me to point out a major problem today, one hardly limited to but certainly epidemic in academia, or what passes for it these days.

Too many people have fallen for the mistake of thinking that no reasonable, intelligent, well-informed person could possibly disagree with them. We've long seen this unfortunate tendency active in e.g. religion. There seems to be something about human beings that makes it difficult to believe that someone who disagrees with us "really" does. We drift toward acceptable explanations for the other's obstinate refusal to accept the "self-evident" truth of our beliefs. That person must be prevaricating. Or he's got a hidden agenda. Or he's just pretending. Or he's not sincere. Or he's just plain dishonest, or stupid, or deluded, misguided, ill-informed, misinformed, poorly educated, ignorant, insane, irrational, or--eventually--evil.

Social interactions of human beings, on the large and the small scale, are very complex. Climate is also very complex. Some people claim to understand one or the other or both, while others admit to varying degrees of ignorance. Claims on one side or the other lead to doubts, misgivings, qualms, discomfort . . . and from there it's a short trip to the heresy trial, excommunication, autos da fe, and lynch mobs.

And the political complexion of a stampede isn't really all that important if you're just trying to keep from getting trampled.

39. softshellcrab - October 08, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I still think diversity is silly. It is an evil goal that embraces racial prejudice. I wish that ANYTHING would replace diversity as a goal. As the author notes "Diversity is second-wave affirmative action". All it is, is a modern buzz-word for the affirmative action and quotas that are falling out of favor as their basic and obvious unfairness is repeatedly driven home. Diversity is a stupid goal. Novel idea: bring in the best students, and hire the best faculty, and let the chips fall where they may. Diversity is simply racial and gender prejudice all dressed up to sound better.

I love the idea of #19 barrycooper. Let's have moral sustainability as a goal. Let's have rigrous standards as a goal. Let's have meritocracy as a goal. Let's have personal responsibility as a goal. Why are these kinds of things never ballyhooed in higher education?

40. addled - October 08, 2010 at 12:45 pm

#8 meshabob: I hope that you don't allow your students to use ad hominem attacks instead of actually offering counter arguments.

41. jffoster - October 08, 2010 at 01:07 pm

Danke schön, Dank 48, for a thoughtful considered contribution in 38. . And thanks to Mr. Wood for the original post, and for reviewing some history I was unacquainted with.

42. dank48 - October 08, 2010 at 01:46 pm

Bitte sehr, Herr Professor Foster. Ich haette gerne von Ihnen gehoert, weiss aber wirklich nicht, wie ich meine Emailadresse Ihnen geben kann, ohne sie zu veroeffentlichen.

Allerdings moechte ich Ihnen danken.

43. cazort - October 08, 2010 at 04:03 pm

Sustainability is not some fringe viewpoint and it is not a fringe ideology. It's common sense. Sustainability is the basic idea of meeting our current needs without borrowing from future generations. Hardly a liberal idea, it's actually quite a conservative idea, very similar to the philosophy behind fiscal conservatism.

Furthermore, nearly all the practices advocated in the interest of sustainability are win-win practices. This article does give a nod to lowering utility bills, but that's only the beginning. True sustainability is a holistic. Unlike traditional environmentalism which is a strictly liberal ideology, sustainability can be embraced by people of different political persuasions, as I argue here:


Sustainability is also good business. In industrial processes, sustainability equates to efficient use of inputs, and creative ways to turn "waste" into a resource. Sustainability, from a business perspective, is about integrating into the community and society as a whole in such a way that creates a lasting positive bond--a far cry from the antagonistic relationship that some big corporations have with communities, faced with lawsuits, regulation, and other troubles. If a business practice is unsustainable, it's probably not good business.

I'm surprised the Chronicle even published a piece like this, so littered with glaring fallacies of reasoning. I think we all welcome debate on how to achieve sustainability, and there is room in this debate for people of conservative, libertarian, and other non-liberal perspectives. But being opposed to sustainability? That's like being opposed to prosperity.

To Peter Wood, if you don't like the way sustainability-related issues are playing out on your campus, why not start by making a personal commitment to sustainability, and then coming to the table with suggestions about how to approach it from a more ideologically neutral perspective? Or perhaps, come clean about what your own ideological foundation is, and find out how sustainability can be achieved within that framework? Those approaches would be much more constructive than writing a piece like this.

44. jffoster - October 08, 2010 at 08:02 pm

Sehr geehrte Dank48 (42),
Ich schlage es vor, daß Sie _Universita"t v Cincinnati Abteilung (Fakult"at) v Menschenwissenschaft gugeln. Auf der Abteilungsheimatseite werden Sie eine "Speisekarte", d. h. "Menu" finden, und Sie durfen "Faculty u Staff" wa"hlen. Es gibt nur einen 'Foster', (wofu"r meine Kollegen zweifellos sich freuen!). Es gibt auch eine in der Universita"t angenomene (d.h. ein Alias) Emailadresse, die Sie anklicken du"rfen, um mir ein Signal zu machen.


45. goxewu - October 09, 2010 at 10:09 am

Re #39:

One notices that softshellcrab has taken what one might call his "negative action" game from the "Ticker" item on Hispanic college graduates (he's afraid that any programs to encourage Hispanics to get college degrees will mean that they won't "EARN" [emphasis his] them) to comments on a sustainability post, where he inveighs against "diversity." He probably hopes his nativism will get lost in the shuffle.

El puede correr, pero no puede ocultar.

46. yaco8 - October 23, 2010 at 04:56 am

"Sustainability is, not far beneath the surface, a doctrine of privation, offering only the psychological comforts of asceticism" .. "sustainatopians" .. "sustainabullies".. "We all must run in the same direction for fear of some rumored and largely invisible threat. The real threat is the stampede itself"

It seemed to me to be an elaborate but still very "american" way of seeing things; the author seems typically scared of anything encroaching on his freedom or reducing his lifestyle, whatever the reason. He is trying to downgrade sustainability to a simple "fad" that is more akin to a moral fight for utopists or a political buoy for post-communists than a real and needed scientific model and solution for humanity to our current global "challenges".

One valuable insight he indirectly brings however: if we don't act together in a coordinated and scientific way, "systematically", it will look "comic and burlesque". Hence the value of basing our understanding and actions on some basic principles. That is done already: http://www.naturalstep.org/the-system-conditions

Sorry Peter Wood but you are a sustainabilignorant :-)

47. pwnzors - October 29, 2010 at 01:57 pm

Dear Peter Wood

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