Posted by: bmeverett | January 23, 2014

“Sustainability” at US Universities


Most American Universities now have an Office of Sustainability or something similar. If you Google “university, office of sustainability”, you will get roughly 217,000 hits. Tufts University, where I teach, certainly has one with a Program Director, an Education and Outreach Coordinator, a Communications and Outreach Coordinator plus 5 interns and numerous “partners” from other university departments. So what exactly does an Office of Sustainability do?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of “sustainable” are (1) able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed, (2) involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources, (3) able to last or continue for a long time. So how are any of these definitions to be applied on college campuses? The mission of the Tufts Office of Sustainability (which you can find at http://sustainability.tufts.edu/about-the-office-of-sustainability/mission-statement/) isn’t much help.
Tufts Office of Sustainability serves as a resource, a catalyst, and an advocate for environmental sustainability at Tufts. Often we serve as a bridge between ideas and their practical implementation. The OOS is supported by the university and works to:
Enhance Tufts’ reputation as a leader.
Ensure that Tufts’ efforts are comprehensive and focused on meaningful projects
Identify, evaluate, and implement opportunities for leadership
Promote the strength of Tufts sustainability efforts, including those of faculty and students.
Measure Tufts’ progress toward commitments and regional goals
Identify sustainability opportunities that may provide Tufts with significant benefit such as reduced risk, financial savings, and avoided problems/fines.
Coordinate among other existing programs and sustainability efforts (e.g., food, transportation, landscaping, planning and policy, personal action, and related citizenship activities)
Integrate sustainability issues into research, scholarship and student life.
Work with interested faculty to develop meaningful class projects and support students in those efforts.
Work with interested students on academic and extra-curricular projects
Provide student internships when possible.
Identify appropriate ways for faculty and student research to be pilot tested on campus

This is all fluff. Tufts bases its general environmental policy on the 1990 Talloires Declaration, signed by 440 institutions in 50 countries. The Talloires declaration includes 10 points:
1. Increase Awareness of Environmentally Sustainable Development
2. Create an Institutional Culture of Sustainability
3. Educate for Environmentally Responsible Citizenship
4. Foster Environmental Literacy For All
5. Practice Institutional Ecology
6. Involve All Stakeholders
7. Collaborate for Interdisciplinary Approaches
8. Enhance Capacity of Primary and Secondary Schools
9. Broaden Service and Outreach Nationally and Internationally
10. Maintain the Movement

All this verbiage suggests that universities should enhance, foster, educate, involve, enhance, collaborate, etc. But what is the real objective?

Although the word “sustainability” has come into widespread use only recently, the idea has a long and checkered past. When I was a student at the Tufts in the early 1970s, a fashionable view on campus was that industrial society itself was “unsustainable” because growing populations and increasing living standards inevitably created air and water pollution of such magnitude that it would kill us off. In 1970, Life magazine claimed, “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution … by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” Serious allegations.

The solution proposed by the environmental community was a radical and coercive restructuring of society in which free markets would be replaced by central planning and regulation. The wishes of the population would have to be subordinated to the decisions of smart people who really understood what was going on. True, this approach had failed in the Soviet Union and China, but smart, properly motivated people could make it work.

The problem for the environmentalists was that their predictions turned out to be untrue. The industrialized countries, including the US, have enormous strides in reducing air and water pollution through reasonable, cost-effective steps. Current environmentalists often take credit for this progress, claiming that we would never have taken these actions without activists scaring the daylights out of us. This is essentially the model of parents telling us to go to sleep or the bogeyman would get us. Most of the air and water quality problems today occur in countries with moderate, not high living standards. As incomes rise, people in these countries will follow our path and take the steps needed to improve their environment. In any case, industrial society turns out to be sustainable after all.

The environmental community, however, came to believe that its solution – the substitution of central planning for free-market economies – was the right one, even if the problem had to be redefined. After the oil crisis of 1973-74, air pollution was replaced by natural resource depletion as the imminent crisis of western civilization. Industrial society was based on fossil fuels which were in limited supply. Therefore, we couldn’t possibly continue with society as then structured, because we would run out of everything and start killing each other. This was not a fringe view in the 1970s. Reputable groups like the Club of Rome warned in their famous treatise “The Limits to Growth” that rapid resource depletion required urgent action. The term “renewable energy” was coined to contrast solar and wind energy, which were inexhaustible, with “depletable energy” like oil and natural gas. This view reached its zenith in the “peak oil” argument of the 1990s.

A funny thing happened, however. In 1970, global proven reserves of oil were about 600 billion barrels. With production running at about 12 billion barrels per year, the world would run out of oil in about 50 years. In the last 43 years, we have consumed about 850 billion barrels, yet current global oil reserves are about 1,600 billion barrels or about 52 years’ supply. Instead of running out of oil, we have found more than we have used decade after decade. The same is true for natural gas. In both cases, the technology available for oil and gas exploration has outpaced the depletion of the resource. There are still a few holdouts, put “peak oil” alarmists have pretty much been pushed to the side. Facts, as they say, are inconvenient things.

Having failed to convince the public that either air pollution or resource depletion was an existential problem, where were environmentalists to go next? The answer of course is climate change. As discussed in many previously posts, there are real scientific issues around climate change. The Environmental Community (now renamed the Climate Community), however, has worked hard to establish the alarmist view of climate science as orthodoxy or, as many environmentalists like to say, as a “fact”. They have failed in the society as a whole, but they have largely succeeded on college campuses. Herein lies the real meaning of “sustainability.”

Since you can’t find any meaningful definition of the term just by looking at the public statements of Offices of Sustainability, let me offer my own.

Roughly 1% of their mission is to evaluate issues affecting the actual quality of life on campus, such as toxic materials and air quality. The other 99% is pure political advocacy in support of drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Tufts Office of Sustainability has only one set of meaningful commitments (http://sustainability.tufts.edu/greenhouse-gas-emissions/) – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve these goals, the University must establish in the Tufts Community, particularly among incoming students, that there is no debate over catastrophic climate change, that we are headed for disaster and that any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are valuable, regardless of cost.

Most of the actions that the Tufts Office of Sustainability takes are relatively innocuous. Campus-wide programs to reduce energy use. Increasing student activity fees by $20 per year to fund the purchase of green energy. Changing out lightbulbs. Participating in meaningless carbon trading systems. These programs are largely symbolic “feel good” efforts with little cost and even less impact on atmospheric carbon levels. There are, however, hidden non-financial costs which are much greater. Sustainability programs teach students to accept without question the anti-market views of the political left. They support a distorted view of science in which authority and “consensus” trump empirical research. They reinforce an environmental view that many of these students have been steeped in since kindergarten that passion and commitment are more important than analysis and understanding and that life is about making moral statements rather than having positive impacts. They try to convince students that anyone who disagrees with the established University view is to be treated with some mixture of amusement and suspicion. They consistently argue that classical economics is not only wrong, but immoral. In this context, “environmental literacy” does not meet knowledge of environmental issues and how to analyze them, but rather the ability to recite the talking points of the Climate Community and to refute alternative views. In many ways, the Tufts Office of Sustainability runs against the grain of what the University is supposed to be teaching.

There has been a great deal of debate recently about the skyrocketing costs of a college education and its declining value in society. At many universities, non-teaching staff now outnumber faculty. “Sustainability” programs are one symptom of this bloating, and they should be examined critically (along with “diversity” programs). I would encourage my readers to have a look at the programs in place at their own alma maters and decide for themselves whether these efforts are truly worthwhile.

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