The Unbearable Lightness of Campus "Sustainability" Schemes

Universities often support causes, usually with a distinct leftish orientation, that they think demonstrate their social consciousness and, arguably, moral superiority. A decade ago, “diversity” was the key buzz word, but I think it has lost considerable campus market share to “sustainability.”

             Universities want the world to know that they care about the planet and are working hard to reduce human desecration of it. Allow me to be contrarian: I think the sustainability frenzy reveals more about collegiate moral unctuousness, disdain for long-taught verities that have evolved over centuries, political bias, and economic stupidity than it does about advancing the public good.

            I somewhat randomly explored ten university and college websites, and every school bragged about its sustainability activities. Stanford claims it “builds sustainability practices and innovation into every aspect of campus life.” The University of Wisconsin’s “Sustainability Forum 2014” is focusing on “Climate Change in Wisconsin.” American University offers a Master’s Degree in “Sustainability Management.” Not to be outdone, Tulane has a Master’s of Sustainable Real Estate Development.” Miami of Ohio offers a “co-major’ (whatever that is) in sustainability. The University of Massachusetts offers advice for student on “launching your sustainability careers.”

            During Earth Week 2012, the sustainability apparatchiks at Boise State planned eight events, including a “Trashion Show,” a fashion event showcasing “upcycled” (?) clothing. Coe College in Iowa brags that its president was a “charter signatory of the President’s Climate Commitment.”

            Some 679 presidents signed this commitment, proclaiming “we recognize the scientific consensus that global warming…is largely… caused by humans. We further recognize the need to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80% by mid-century at the latest.…” Each president then pledged to use resources to help his/her school meet this goal, such as a “target date for achieving climate neutrality as soon as possible.”

            There are at least five problems with this. First, and most important, universities are supposed to be environments where diverse views on issues of the day are discussed. They are ideally marketplaces of ideas, where all views circulate without the institution itself trying to impose a “correct” solution. University climate commitments might have a stifling effect on the research of scientists not adhering to the alleged consensus.

            Second, the assertion that there is a scientific consensus that global warming is mostly human-caused is false –perhaps 80 or maybe even 90 percent of scientists agree with that, but far from all. Scientific truth is not determined by majority vote: a majority of scientists in 1450 probably thought the world was flat.

            Third, I am willing to bet big bucks at least some college presidents signed the “commitment” without a full discussion and vote of the institution’s governing board. What is the purpose of such boards if they don’t ultimately make policy?

            Fourth, even if global warming is human-caused, how do we know that 80 percent greenhouse emission reduction by 2050 is the appropriate response? Why not 92 percent by 2035? Similarly, might an extremely expensive university plan to meet the institutional commitment cause serious financial harm and maybe even bankrupt the institution?

            Fifth, related to the previous point, some university presidents undoubtedly have promoted higher tuition fees to finance their actions arising from their sanctimonious moral outcries about “sustainability.” They do not bear the costs of their actions –they have no skin in the game—but their students do.

            In fairness, presidents of most of America’s top universities did not sign the commitment –the proportion of institutions signing rose as the quality of schools fell. In the list of 27 top universities ranked by US News, for example, 21 did not sign (but Duke, Penn, Cornell, Rice, and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles did)

            Sometimes, sustainability initiatives promote economic ignorance and hostility to modern technology. The Sustainability Spring Film Series at my university is featuring a flick called Bitter Seeds. Its description suggests that, “as industrial agriculture spreads…many small-scale farmers are losing their land. Nowhere is the situation more desperate than in India….The film explores the impact of genetically modified seeding, globalization and the loss of heritage seed varieties.…”

            In other words, the Bad Guys (large-scale farmers using modern machinery and utilizing scientific advances in seeds) are pushing out the Good Guys (those using old technologies and inefficient modes of production).

            Another, I think, more accurate interpretation: a Green Revolution utilizing new plant technologies and modern capital equipment has dramatically lowered the cost of key agricultural commodities, reducing malnutrition and raising living standards. Globalization has also allowed poor countries like India to expand export markets, acquire Western technology embodied in imports, exploit what economists for two centuries have called their “comparative advantage,” and double income per capita over the past generation.

            Yet our sustainability folks try to argue that new technologies, new forms of agricultural production, new higher-yielding seeds, and even trading beyond the local area are morally wrong and perhaps on balance harmful to the populace. It is a new, albeit more intellectual, form of Luddite behavior –reminiscent of hand weavers in early 19th century England breaking into factories and destroying equipment.

            Being thoughtful and concerned about the environment is noble. But devoting vast energies and resources to push faddish, expensive, and often half-baked ideas diminishes the Academy. The youthful romantic idealism of today’s sustainability movement should emulate that of young romantics of two centuries ago, when John Keats memorably penned “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Richard Vedder heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


I find myself largely in agreement with Richard Vedder, which is unusual for me. However, I think he probably underestimates the degree to which the sustainability movement on campuses is being driven by students. Like it or not, they really do in large numbers have deep feelings of concern about "the planet" and what humans are doing to affect it now and for the future. Being against sustainability now is probably something like being against civil rights back in the 60's -- a losing proposition on most campuses. Maybe better to grab hold of it and run with it -- for example by introducing science-based sustainability ideas into classes, with open consideration of various points of view. In my experience, questioning of the global warming "consensus" -- just indicating that there are serious, rational, scientific people who don't go for it whole hog, even if they are a small minority -- can be a revelation for undergraduates. By the way, the flat earth analogy is probably not a good one. It's very unlikely that educated people in 1450 believed that the world was flat. It was known as far back as the Greeks that the earth was spherical. Nobody capable of even beginning to appreciate Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo would have entertained the notion that the earth might actually be flat.
Soon everything at university will be sustainable except the cost of tuition.
Concerning the following: " Second, the assertion that there is a scientific consensus that global warming is mostly human-caused is false –perhaps 80 or maybe even 90 percent of scientists agree with that, but far from all. Scientific truth is not determined by majority vote: a majority of scientists in 1450 probably thought the world was flat." While I do agree that AGW is false, some better examples of misplaced or wrong consensus are lobotomy and phlogiston. The former won a Nobel Prize for Phisiology or Medicine, but now is considered horrific. Phlogiston is an obsolote scientific theory pertaining to combustion that was discarded due to discoveries in the chemistry of gases.
Many of the practices in agriculture decried as "unsustainable" have as a matter of fact sustained for hundreds and hundreds of years, and in some cases, thousands of years. Whereas practices proposed to replace them have been tried only on a limited scale and for a short time--that is to say, they've in no way demonstrated themselves to be sustainable. This kind of ass-backwards thinking, however, a particular mark of distinction among people with college educations, is without a doubt sustainable,.
Dr. Vedder threw a lot of questions, challenges and criticism, but failed to come up with a single solution to the existing problems of depleting non-renewable energy sources, food crisis (yes even in USA, not just in 'poor' countries like India), environmental and health hazards from GMO food, pharmaceutical exploitation, etc. I agree with him largely on the universities almost bordering on housing and travel companies in some of their policies and actions. Even in case of sustainability, many universities put up an expensive show, just a void facade, instead of any real intent behind it. that is sad. The universities should foster and lead ethical practices....neither just affordable, nor just trendy ideas. it is their responsibility (primary being teaching). I agree with Jonathan above that the older agricultural systems are way more sustainable, which the modern technology are yet to prove but potentially can be. The point there is monopolizing by the 'bad' guys and not just making technology affordable for the 'good' guys. that is a profiteering tendency at the cost of wiping out livelihoods. That is not what technology is meant to, Dr. Vedder. With his level of knowledge and wisdom, it would have been much helpful, if Dr. Vedder could provide some brilliant plans for solving the issues, rather than just aiding in making the debate more vicious with rampant negative criticism of some genuine efforts amongst the phoney shows of sustainability worldwide.


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Posted by: Richard Vedder

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