John Leo on the Multiple, Hidden Meanings of ‘Sustainability’

By April 30, 2008

Over at Minding the Campus, John Leo has written an excellent blog post on the use of the codeword "sustainability" in university programs across the country.

As FIRE has previously discussed, colleges and universities conceptualize sustainability in a much different manner than most people do in everyday language. Most people would assume that when a university seeks to teach its students about sustainability, they are talking about environment-friendly practices, ecological concerns, and the like. In reality, however, Leo points out that schools use this codeword to attempt to coerce their students into accepting beliefs and ideas which go well beyond such matters:

Only recently have the goals and institutionalization of the movement become clear. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability [in] Higher Education (AASHE) says it "defines sustainability [in] an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods and a better world for all generations."

Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) says, "It turns out that virtually the entire agenda of the progressive left can be fit inside the word ‘sustainability.’"

Leo quotes FIRE’s Adam Kissel on this point:

Adam Kissel of the educational watchdog group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote: "Documents written or promoted by [Residence Life] officials demonstrate that sustainability is a highly politicized[,] comprehensive agenda including positions [on] such topics as affirmative action, gay marriage, abortion[], corporations and worldwide distribution of wealth."

As further proof of the true meaning of sustainability, Leo observes the following:

Pushed by the cultural left, UNESCO has declared the United Nation[s] Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 20052014, featuring the now ubiquitous symbol of the sustainability movementthree overlapping circles representing environmental, economic and social reform (i.e., ecology is only a third of what the movement is about).

Just how deceptive is the implementation of university programs on sustainability? Leo points out:

[T]he movement apparently features codewords within the master codeword "sustainability." "Secure livelihoods" and "strong economies" seem to mean redistribution of existing wealth, not economic development to create new wealth.

In addition to the extremely broad reach given by university administrations to the concept of sustainability, there is reason for concern in the growing popularity of these programs:

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.

To understand the dangers posed by these deceptively named sustainability programs, one need only look at the ill-conceived residence life program at the University of Delaware. Leo points out that the program, which he aptly characterizes as "possibly the most appalling indoctrination program ever to appear on an American campus," was presented by Res Life director Kathleen Kerr as a sustainability program. It should come as no surprise that:

At a conference, Kerr explained "the social justice aspects of sustainability education," referring to "environmental racism," "domestic partnerships" and "gender equity."

From there, Leo generalizes the lesson to be learned from the Delaware example:

[M]ost people have no idea what they are buying when they support sustainability…. It is not an educational program at all. The social and economic nostrums are pre-packaged, with nothing in the literature about reaching out for discussion and analysis of nostrums the movement doesn’t already hold. Like many schools of social work and education, the movement has lost sight of the distinction between instruction and indoctrination. The leaders don’t want to discuss. They have doctrines they want to impose.

Well said.

And Delaware has not yet learned its lessons: the latest ResLife proposal is another sustainability education program.