In March 2015 the National Association of Scholars published a report calling sustainability “higher education’s new fundamentalism.”¹ George F. Will, opinion writer for the Washington Post, picked up on this theme in an article in April, 2015 titled “Sustainability gone mad on college campuses.”² The essence of these critiques seem to be that sustainability embodies a belief system rather than a rational or scientific process, and that criticism of the fundamental tenets of sustainability is not tolerated within the academic community.
The dogma that Mr. Will and others are referring to is the sustainability framing from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)³ and Second Nature’s Climate Commitment4, which arose as a result of collective action on campuses in the past decade. The basic critique is that these ideas will threaten the ability of industry to engage in commerce through creation of some eco-authoritarian state. This debate is as old as the basic philosophical disagreements on human rights, common resource management, and property rights that have been part of our civil discourse for hundreds of years.
Of course those of us who work in the science of sustainability across our campus and with industries, conservation organizations, and government agencies know all too well that criticism and disagreement are the norm rather than the exception. The only dogma I have observed as I have worked with serious people around the world trying to solve very difficult technical challenges is the recognition that we have to work together to create a prosperous future for all of humanity. The University of Arkansas decides the programs we engage in to make our campus and our community more sustainable through the UA Sustainability Council, a representative body of faculty, staff, students across each college, auxiliary, and program, as well as the community at large. When we find alignment with the priorities of AASHE or Second Nature we share our experiences and data; otherwise we create our own path.
Sustainability initiatives around the world are being led by industries, not by governments, and certainly not by universities. These industries, representing the manufacturers of most of the things we buy every day, see sustainable continuous improvement as the most effective strategy for managing supply chain safety and security. These are smart people from across the political spectrum who are working together to create a more prosperous future for the employees and shareholders of the companies and their customers. Open debate and exploration are the hallmark of these engagements; decisions are informed by science and contextualized by values of the stakeholders.
This call to collective action seems to be at the core of the concern that NAS and Mr. Will are articulating. It is telling that Mr. Will includes in his catechism of academic misguidance other initiatives such as diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusivity. Some world views are different enough that they cannot be reconciled.