Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Sense and sustainability

New movement aims to take campus radicalism beyond the classroom

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," but you could have fooled the 648 college presidents who have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) since 2006. The earth is theirs, to make or break.

Academic fads come, but over the last 40 years they haven't completely gone. The student uprisings of the late 1960s led to identity politics, which cleared the way for political correctness, which solidified into multiculturalism and "diversity." The ACUPCC pulls all these together under the rubric of "sustainability." Sustainability has a much broader application than clean air and water; it's a doctrine and a worldview that aims to influence every academic discipline. Its success so far is remarkable. "Five years ago, it [the sustainability movement] did not exist," writes Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars. "Today it is nearly everywhere, and declares itself as having over­whelming importance."

Wood traces the historical milestones of the movement from Murray Bookchin, an anarchist inspired by the success of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to marry his radical views to sentimentality about nature, coining the term "social ecology." Over the next decades, public concern over pollution, the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, and various UN ecological pronouncements and treaties have helped to create an undercurrent of hostility to capitalism and industrial development. Or rather, grounded a preexisting hostility in pseudo-science rather than philosophical theory. Forget dialectical materialism-we have a planet to save!

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Second Nature, an activist organization founded in 1993, has emerged from a cluster of similar groups to lead the sustainability charge. John Kerry, prestigious senator, and Teresa Heinz, the wealthy heiress he married in 1995, were co-founders. But the main driver of the organization is Anthony Cortese, president and spokesman.

Their stated goal is "to accelerate movement toward a sustainable future by serving and supporting senior college and university leaders in making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in high education" [emphasis in the original]. Wait, thinks the casual reader: the "foundation of all learning and practice"? Meaning hard sciences, mathematics, history?

Yes indeed, if the "sustainatopians" get their way. For years, students (or their parents) have paid good money to be subjected to the anarchist, feminist, and Marxist professors who tilt most universities far to port. But professors are merely individuals, with little influence outside the classroom. The sustainability movement is systematically imposing itself from the top down: first signing up university and college presidents by such means as "Climate Commitments." Next to get on board are deans and student life coordinators, who see themselves as equally qualified with professors to enlighten frat rats and sorority chicks.

Sustainability thus becomes more than one academic subject among many-it's an overarching philosophy, the approved way of life. Two years ago, a controversy erupted at the University of Delaware, when students reported an unusual level of indoctrination going on in the dorm. All resident undergraduates were required to participate in consciousness-raising circles that subjected any "bad" worldviews to ruthless mocking and criticism. The Residence Assistants in charge were to check off desirable responses (such as, "The student will recognize that systematic oppression exists in our society") and report undesirable ones. When word got out about the program, public outcry forced its suspension. But it's back in a modified form.

How are these browbeating techniques justified? By sustainability, which forces leftist environmental, economic, and social goals into a one-size-fits-all pattern for citizens of the world (who pledge to reduce their carbon footprints by 20 percent while still in school).

So the modern university, founded on the old liberal principles of free inquiry and individual development, is being deliberately reshaped into an illiberal institution of intimidation and groupthink. How far the process will go is unknown, but it's well underway.

Peter Wood writes, "What the sustainability movement aims to sustain above all is the earth. What higher education aims to sustain above all is civilization." One guess as to which is the more fragile.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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