A spate of recent articles condemns sustainability in higher education. The gist is that educators are foisting a “tightly organized set of beliefs” on students. These beliefs are alleged to be unfounded, inconvenient (one article cites “trayless cafeterias” in which students have to juggle their plates), and are depriving us of our fundamental freedoms. A National Association of Scholars (NAS) report goes so far as to assert that sustainability is not a discipline or even a subject area, it is an ideology that “takes aim at economic and political liberty.”
Such attacks miss the point that environmental, health and social issues have become the defining concerns of our generation. No matter what discipline or field of study―and no matter where you study—you cannot escape the reality that food, water, and shelter is a daily struggle for one-in-seven people. Nor can you dispute the growing gap between rich and poor at home and abroad. Even climate skeptics no longer deny that burning fossil fuels is contributing to extreme weather in some parts of the world. If visceral experience has not convinced you, a careful examination of the facts will.
Tackling these environmental, health and social concerns makes it easy to paint sustainability as costly and controlling. “Sustainability’s alternative to economic liberty,” says the NAS report, “is a regime of far-reaching regulation that controls virtually every aspect of energy, industry, personal consumption, waste, food, and transportation.” This too readily portrays a forced choice between freedom and sustainability. The alternative view is that the economic engine of capitalism is the best vehicle to address the world’s social, environmental and economic problems. It is not about the transfer of wealth from rich to poor nations, but growing the wealth and wellbeing of poor nations for the benefit of all. Studies conducted at Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research show sustainability actually drives above average financial performance. At Case Western Reserve University’s Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, a wealth of evidence exists for sustainability as an engine of innovation with over 3,000 interviews of business leaders and 200+ published cases.
Sustainability represents an opportunity for students to study, for scholars to invent, for businesses to innovate, for nonprofits to influence, and for governments to legislate—all in service of outcomes desired by a democratic majority. Homes that generate more clean energy than they use, e-readers that give rural poor access to literacy and education, micro-credit loans to women in poor communities, and sustainable apparel and footwear are only a few examples of such innovations that are good for the economy and good for society.
So why is there such a strong reaction to sustainability? One reason is that people feel unsettled by what they perceive to be a dominant mindset that is increasingly different from their own. This growing fear is a good indication that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point. It foreshadows the birth of a new paradigm – a new story of what it means to be human and the world we live in. As Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, said, science is not a steady cumulative acquisition of knowledge but “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions.” We are on the brink of such a revolution.
Critics complain that the goal of sustainability is a radical transformation of the relation between humanity and nature. In many ways, they are right. But instead of mourning the passing of the industrial revolution, we should look forward to a future in which leading institutions are working together to create a world in which people excel, business prospers, and nature thrives. Through new thinking based on sustainability, students and educators can work with business and government to increase not only our liberties but prosperity and flourishing for all.