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The Hungry Ocean: Sustainability and the Curriculum

On campus, our universities are increasingly dominated by the view that we live in environmentally desperate times, and desperate times require desperate measures. It is a dangerously intemperate view.
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A political conservative I know is an avid sailor. When the topic of sustainability comes up, he refers to his decades of sailing the New England littoral and reports the evidence he has seen with his own eyes of island coves eroded by rising seas and terrific storms. He has no doubt that the destruction is the consequence of manmade global warming. And thus, when it comes to the sustainability movement, he is all in.

He errs for sure in thinking that coastal erosion is something new. Shakespeare, lamenting the transience of things, writes in Sonnet 64, "When I have seen the hungry ocean gain/Advantage of the kingdom of the shore..." The Atlantic Ocean in the 1590s wasn't hungry because of anthropogenic global warming. It has always had a healthy appetite.

My friend is not alone among conservatives who have been drawn into sustainability. Tory Perfetti, for example, is a Republican politician in Florida is the director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and the organizer of "Floridians for Solar Choice." Perfetti has managed to bring together, under that heading, bedfellows as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Tea Party, both of whom presumably feel the ocean lapping at their feet.

Perfetti is not to be confused with perfection, according to other conservatives. Floridians for Solar Choice draws much of its funding from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which in turn is funded by Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire turned global warming activist. The follow-the-money game can blind people who think the story is only about money, but the sources of financial backing do say something. Steyer is not usually a friend of Republican politicians.

My friend, the sailor, errs in thinking that the coastal erosion he sees is new. He also errs in imagining that the sustainability movement is primarily about rolling back the destructive effects of global warming. Perfetti may be in the same bind. For sure, fighting global warming is one part of the sustainability movement. But sustainability advocates themselves are as tireless as the sea in explaining that they have a "triple bottom line," i.e. environmentalism, plus economic redistributionism, plus societal reformation. The movement is one part conservation, two parts transformation of human behavior.

How deep that transformation, of course, depends on the advocate. Some are relatively mild reformers who are happy to strengthen recycling programs and put up LEED-certified green skyscrapers. Others are anything but moderate, calling for steep reductions in the human population, the elimination of capitalism and the replacement of representative democracy by a regime that can make and enforce the "tough decisions." Somewhere between the mild and the extreme come the people who favor cap and trade or carbon taxes.

When my co-author Rachelle Peterson and I wrote Sustainability: Higher Education's New Fundamentalism we were confronted with the difficulty of gauging the relative size of these competing factions. How much of the movement answers to the concerns of my friend, the conservative, who worries about coastal erosion? And how much of the movement would view him as an Enemy of the People? We met some impressive people who are squarely in the middle such as the executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Steven Cohen. Professor Cohen accepts the global warming "consensus" model without demure, but he is an eco-optimist who believes we should use technology to adapt to climate changes, rather than waste time and money trying to turn back the inevitable.

Is Professor Cohen the mainstream of the sustainability movement? Or does that stream run down to the ocean more in the channels wrought by enviro-radicals such as Bill McKibben?

Rachelle and I thought that we might get at this by studying the college curriculum. It turns out that sustainability has a pretty big curricular footprint. Cornell University, for example, offers 104 undergraduate courses that it says are "focused on" sustainability. A Cornell student has to complete 34 courses to graduate, so offering 104 courses in a single subject might seem to go beyond meeting the need. But wait, there's more. Cornell also lists another 186 undergraduate courses as "sustainability related," and 144 more courses at the graduate level that are "focused" or "related."

A total of 13 percent of all Cornell's undergraduate courses deal in one way or another with sustainability. Cornell is not an outlier in this overemphasis. At Colorado State University, for example, there are 524 courses in sustainability, adding up to 22 percent of all courses offered. And at Middlebury College there are 422 courses in sustainability -- a full 25 percent of all courses offered.

Cornell, however, offers an interesting benchmark. It is an Ivy League college that teaches the liberal arts, but one with a long history of "applied" programs, including agriculture, veterinary science, architecture, engineering, hotel administration, industrial relations and something called "human ecology," which is a brilliant rebranding of what was once the Department of Home Economics.

So how does sustainability play out across Cornell's diverse mixture of liberal arts and applied courses?

Sustainability Focused and Related Undergraduate Courses at Cornell, 2015

Premises 45
Sciences/Math 72
Farming 32
Business 8
Engineering & Design 59
Economics 12
Social Science 44
Humanities 18

At a glance these numbers might encourage my friend, the conservative mariner. The sciences and engineering swamp the other categories. But on closer look, the sea is a little rougher. Many of the science and engineering courses are traditional topics lightly sprinkled with sustainability dust. "Raptor Natural History," "Sharks," and "Soil Science" are "related" to sustainability by way of ecological theory, which is a very wide net. Some of these courses also lose some of the luster of science once you read the details. "Introduction to Chemical and Environmental Toxicology," for example, turns out to be a course on "environmental regulations and statutes of anthropogenic toxins."

The business curriculum surprisingly turns out to be a sustainability desert. Given the billions spent on marketing "green" products and milking the taxpayer for Solyndra-like green energy subsidies, one might think Cornell would do better than "Environmental Issues Affecting Real Estate Investments" and "Sustainable Consumerism: The Retail Studio." Economics is likewise sparsely populated with sustainability courses.

But the most interesting category in this breakdown of undergraduate sustainability courses at Cornell is the one we've labelled "premises." These are courses that pop up all over the curriculum that seem to teach little beyond the basic beliefs of the movement:

  • "The Earth System" is blurbed, "discusses climate change."
  • "Earthquake!" (Exclamation point included) "discusses climate change, severe weather."
  • "Technology, Society, and Development" examines the "social relations" among the three.
  • "Genetically Engineered Crops" addresses the "impact" of GMOs on "self, community, and global health."
  • "Food, Fiber, and Fulfillment" examines "the many ways plants meet our needs."
  • "Science, Technology, and Politics" discusses "environmental politics and global warming."
  • "Politics of the Global North" focuses on "reducing inequality, economic and social justice."
  • "Race and Social Entrepreneurship, Environmental Justice and Social Reform" moves from "critique to sustainable solutions."

These are courses that are plain and simple exercises in selling the sustainability doctrine, and Cornell has 45 of them.

Such courses do little to encourage environmental prudence. Rather, they seek to instill the ideals of a movement that aims for drastic change in the way humanity relates to the natural world. They don't invite students to weigh those claims against alternative views. They present them as settled facts.

But are they really? Shakespeare, after noting what the hungry ocean gains, also observes, "the interchange of state." The ocean wins sometimes, but sometimes the land prevails. "Increasing store with loss, and loss with store." On campus, our universities are increasingly dominated by the view that we live in environmentally desperate times, and desperate times require desperate measures. It is a dangerously intemperate view.

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