Naomi Schaefer Riley of the New York Post recently published a piece attacking the rise of college “sustainability” programs. In between criticizing college administrators for setting ambitious carbon footprint goals and taking predictable swipes at academia, she manages to throw out a big LOL to the readership by characterizing sustainability as “environmentalism gone wild.” Personally I think she was confusing highly celebrated degree programs with the local cannabis club, but of course, I cannot be sure.
Riley, throughout her paper, attempts to discredit these programs as not only a second “infiltration of environmentalism” but also as complete “nonsense” degrees. She leans heavily on testimony from the National Association of Scholars, which is funded largely by conservative organizations and think tanks. This setup permits conservatives to cobble together a trojan horse to pose as an unbiased academic organization, while actually being anything but.
In the event that we all opened our eyes and realized the prime witness was lining their pockets with the prosecution’s dollars, Riley supplemented her argument with disparaging remarks about some of the classes offered under the umbrella of sustainability.
[…] [There is] a class at Cornell called “The Ethics of Eating.” As one student explained: “This class demands one of two things: 1. That you defend the way you eat, or 2. That you change it. And in early February, I stopped eating meat because of what I’ve read, watched and learned in this class.” This is one of 403 courses Cornell has put under the rubric of “sustainability.” The others sound even sillier.
I wonder if perhaps Riley here has, herself, provided the undoing to her own argument. She spoke about one of four-hundred and three classes offered in the program at Cornell University. 1 / 403. That is to say, 0.25% of all classes. While a class that challenges students to defend their consumption choices does not seem particularly offensive to me, unless there is some very bizarre requirement at Cornell, any sustainability student would be perfectly within their right to avoid this class altogether. But worry not, for Riley has even more examples of so called “silly” courses:
The NAS cites more: ‘Earthquake!’; ‘Microbes, the Earth, and Everything’; ‘Race, Social Entrepreneurship, Environmental Justice and Urban Reform’; and ‘Magnifying Small Spaces Studio,’ which teaches students how best to live in mini-spaces and answers the question, ‘In reducing one’s carbon footprint, how small is too small?’
Maybe I’m crazy, or just a brainwashed millennial, but none of these classes stand out to me as particularly ridiculous. Also, maybe we shouldn’t be judging all classes from an outsider’s perspective. I used to make fun of a Meat Science program we have at Ohio State, up until a member of that program actually explained to me how crucial the information taught there was to ensuring our meat was safe to consume. Or, also, how about I cherry pick some classes offered by Chemistry or Physics departments throughout every school in America! Wanna bet I won’t find five or six weird ones? No? Okay, didn’t think so.
Her somewhat ungrounded argument then takes a turn off into outer space by arguing that while colleges are spending “only a little more than 1 percent of its annual budget” on sustainability, such programs have some kind of relation to “[…] hiking student fees” at universities.
The gist of Riley’s assertion is that these sustainability programs and the idea of “sustainability” in general, is either a red herring for radical environmentalism or is completely useless. But if I am unilaterally rejecting Riley’s opinion, which I am, that begs the question of what exactly is sustainability then?
Sustainability exists at an intersection of the economy, society, and the environment. In colleges it operates as an interdisciplinary field that exposes students to elements of both the liberal arts and STEM fields. By the time I graduate with my Sustainability minor, I will have taken classes in the fields of environmental science, economics, business, and engineering. This isn’t a major filled with a whole lot of nothing, as Riley suggests, but rather a major stuffed to the brim with classes bursting with the most recent research and ideas. Yes, from time to time we suggest concepts like “minimalist living” or “urban gardening” that might annoy people like Riley for some indiscernible reason; those things do not comprise the bulk of our education, but rather they allow us to consider unorthodox solutions to unprecedented problems
Still think the field is posh? The vast majority of large companies today employ a Chief Sustainability Officer who oversees large teams to promote sustainability compliance and innovation. Oftentimes this position is only one or two positions below the CEO herself.
The Sustainability mission is most aptly described in the United Nations 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
So while Riley’s implications that sustainability lacks academic rigor are wrong, so also are her implications that it is simply radical environmentalism in sheep’s clothing. Sustainability is about finding ways to move “green” processes from the “cost center” to the “profit center” for private firms. It is about finding new ways to introduce innovations into impoverished areas that may be resistant to them. And overall, it is about finding problems to challenging solutions.
Sustainability is the way of the future. It was the way of innovative problem solving, creative consensus building, and discovering the best of both worlds. The “sustainability” Riley is attempting to combat exists only in her imagination. She has made assumptions without doing her homework, in order to score a cheap hit against a growing degree program that is equipping students with practical skills.
In sustainability we learn about turning the clock away from “us” vs. “them” thinking (i.e. environment vs. business or vice versa) and toward “we” thinking, and how to create a world with both profits and biodiversity. My hope is that Naomi Riley will, in this spirit, fully research what sustainability truly is, and join us in building a world that can provide for our children, their children, and many generations on and on.