Rachelle Peterson | June 1, 2016

Sustainability: The Left’s New Façade

Rachelle Peterson


Rena Schild /

By Rachelle Peterson

The Sooner State suffers less from eco-apocalypticism than most, but it isn’t immune to environmental groupthink. Look no further than the college campus, where ill-conceived ideologies flourish under the innocent-sounding label of “sustainability.”

At the University of Oklahoma, the student government has created a “student sustainability department” with deputized ambassadors responsible to “spread environmental awareness.” Every year these sustainability czars hold an annual “Green Week,” during which they shame their peers into signing the “Crimson and Green Pledge” to live a more sustainable life. Tips include such energy-squeezing actions as switching unused computers into “sleep mode” rather than “screen saver” because “screen savers DO NOT save energy,” shunning energy-sucking space heaters, and setting thermostats to 75 degrees in the summer and 68 in the winter.

No carbon footprint is too small to shrink further, so the student group OUr Earth (playing off the university’s abbreviation) recommends various forms of environmental penance. No smokers should use lighters, OUr Earth admonishes: too much plastic. Much better to strike matches. Likewise no self-respecting climate citizen should drink water from disposable bottles, which can take “thousands of years” to decompose. Students should also line-dry their clothes and eat at least one vegetarian meal each week. Carnivores ought to be ashamed, according to the group, because producing a pound of beef requires the astonishing waste of “2,500 gallons of water,” along with the destruction of “55 square feet of rainforest.” How many of America’s cattle are raised in rainforests is a question left unanswered.

These gestures of environmental care won’t do anything, of course, to protect the Ozarks or curb pollution in the Red River. Will giving up plastic lighters really save much trash or trim tons of carbon dioxide emissions? These small steps toward “sustainability” more closely resemble the genuflections of a radical devotee than the rational plans of a pragmatist.

We know these aren’t the unauthorized antics of activist students, though, because president David Boren started the university’s sustaina-myopia. In 2007 he signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge that requires the university to eliminate 100 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and to “take immediate steps” toward “integrating sustainability into the curriculum.” Nearly 650 college and university presidents have signed up for this roster of sustainability programs, but Boren took the lead as one of the first “charter signatories.” When he announced this new commitment, Boren characterized it as part of “our patriotic duty as Americans.”

Boren established an “Office of Sustainability” and an “Environmental Concerns and Sustainability Committee,” and added B.S. and B.A. degrees in sustainability, along with a sustainability minor. Already OU has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than half and shifted two-thirds of its energy supply to renewable sources. In its quest to achieve “zero-waste” status, the university even shelved the dining trays, which required water to wash and enabled students to take too much food. The curriculum, too, has undergone a thorough greening. There are now several dozen sustainability-focused courses, including offerings such as “Gender & Environment” or “Population and Society.”

Sustainability has grown into one of the leading ideologies shaping today’s college campuses—and a generation of new voters. But what is “sustainability”? To most it’s simply the newest word for “environmentalism” or even “thriftiness,” but that’s not quite right. The University of Oklahoma’s Environmental Sustainability degree program offers a definition:

Environmental sustainability studies how human societies can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Achieving this goal requires balancing short- and long-term needs related to jobs and economic growth, societal well-being, and environmental health.

That’s lifted almost verbatim from Our Common Future, the 1987 UN document better known as the “Brundtland Report,” named for Norway’s socialist prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired the committee on “sustainable development.” Sustainability presumes that everything is a zero-sum game, that using resources now necessarily means running out of them in the future. It ignores the human capacity for ingenuity and emphasizes worst-case scenarios.

Sustainability measures those worst-case scenarios according to something called the “triple bottom line,” which includes the environment, the economy, and society. (You can see it peeking out of the second sentence of OU’s definition.) Sometimes this is illustrated as a Venn diagram of three interlocking circles, with “sustainability” occupying the sweet spot in the middle where all three overlap. In this view, “sustainability” cannot simply involve protecting the environment. It must include equitable distribution of economic resources, as well as the imparting of mores and norms in line with “social justice.”

Sustainability leapt from the pages of a UN report into American culture by way of the college campus. It did so through the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, the same commitment David Boren was among the first to sign. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz absorbed the sustainability message at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and came back determined to promote sustainability in the U.S. The next year they founded the nonprofit Second Nature to target college campuses as the likeliest incubators of sustainability. In 2006, Second Nature launched the Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Since then the sustainability movement has expanded exponentially. Besides the Presidents’ Climate Commitment (which Don Betz, president of the University of Central Oklahoma, has also signed) the sustainability movement has spawned the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), a group with more than 900 university members, including Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma. According to AASHE, nearly 500 colleges and universities offer 1,386 sustainability-related degree programs and hire nearly 500 sustainability staff.

AASHE members may submit extensive reports on their sustainability endeavors and earn bronze, silver, and gold rankings. Oklahoma State University-Stillwater earned a silver ranking for actions such as adding sustainability instruction into new student orientation, sprinkling sustainability courses throughout 37 different academic departments, having a Diversity Advisory Board and a Women’s Program to support gender diversity, and offering support to low-income students. This is the “triple bottom line” at work.

Students have taken their sustainability training to heart with a zealotry that eclipses that of their sustainability instructors. The latest example is the fossil fuel divestment movement, a student-run campaign at 1,000 universities asking their institutions to sell off endowment investments in coal, oil, and gas. (Both Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma have campaigns.) The students claim such investments are “unconscionable” and promote the undue influence of oil barons in politics. They got that message from Middlebury College professor and national icon Bill McKibben, the founder of the international activist group, which sparked the divestment movement. McKibben, one of the highest-profile high priests of sustainability, says oil companies are “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

McKibben and his student followers are, on the whole, too radical for all but the very greenest of the college presidents—though McKibben did deliver the McBride Lecture on Faith and Literature at Oklahoma Christian University in 2008, a few years before divestment took off. Fewer than 40 American colleges and universities have agreed to follow McKibben’s divestment plan, and most of those opted for a severely curtailed version of divestment. No Oklahoma university has agreed to divestment, and David Boren has acknowledged the oil industry’s importance to Oklahoma’s economy. But cutting campus investments in fossil fuels was never really the goal, according to McKibben. Championing divestment—like forgoing cafeteria trays or fastidiously choosing matches over lighters—builds habits. It nudges students toward green conscientiousness and sets voting patterns and purchasing priorities during impressionable college years.

When students speak, politicians listen. Green regimes on campus build voting blocs in public. Since McKibben launched divestment, California has enacted a law divesting public pensions from coal companies, and Vermont and New York, along with New York City itself, have taken up similar bills. State attorneys general, eager for a press buzz, have jumped in, too. AGs in New York, California, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have launched a witch-hunt investigation into ExxonMobil on the McKibben-endorsed allegations that the company lied to the public about global warming. Another 13 attorneys general have announced themselves ready to take up the investigation as well, and the Virgin Islands AG has gone the extra mile to subpoena think tanks that express skepticism of anthropogenic global warming and that at some point in their histories received funding from ExxonMobil. Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, has shown admirable pluck in announcing along with his Alabaman counterpart Luther Strange that they believe scientific debates should remain open, rather than “silenced with threats of criminal prosecution.” Pruitt and Strange deserve hearty praise for their courage, but alas, the sustainability juggernaut moves on.

Already Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has satisfied part of McKibben’s anti-fossil-fuels demands, when in January she announced a moratorium on new coal mining leases on public lands. Senators Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) have sponsored federal legislation named for one of McKibben’s slogans, the “Keep It in the Ground Act,” which would prohibit new leases for extracting fossil fuels from public lands. McKibben, who has endorsed Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and stumped for his fellow Vermonter, is in no small part responsible for Sanders’ surge in popularity among the youngest voters. Of course it’s also the case that Sanders is a proud Democratic socialist, and Millennials favor socialism by a wider margin than any other demographic. But socialism fits nicely with sustainability’s triple bottom line, and at times it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

Citizens should take note—or else our constitutional republic may not find itself sustainable.

Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars. She is the author of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels and co-author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.

Rachelle Peterson


Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars. She is the author of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels and co-author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.

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