A statue of Jesus facing the administration building of the University of Notre Dame (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Let’s stop kidding ourselves about our campus environmental sustainability programs. Their main function is not institutional transformation to seriously reduce our environmental impact. Their function is to make us feel better about ourselves, even as we continue to wreck the environment.

Real sustainability, given our true environmental crisis, would require substantial institutional changes in everybody’s expectations and practices. But most sustainability programs in higher education—like everywhere else—are piecemeal, marginal, token. We recycle cardboard and plastic here, hold “green” campus events there. Students have sustainability clubs, dorms have sustainability reps, and staff have sustainability committees. Occasionally an administrator produces a planning report promising to achieve to carbon neutrality by three decades from now. Then business as usual chugs along as if the problem were solved. Think of this as “therapeutic ‘sustainability.’” It functions as the organized management of appearances and feelings, not the hard institutional changes that real sustainability would require. It also sounds good on promotional materials for prospective students and donors.

Do not blame school offices of sustainability. Their staff are generally educated and committed—and often frustrated, I have found, by how constrained their work is. So what produces therapeutic “sustainability”? People want to feel good about themselves and the organizations they lead, work for, and enroll at. But complex organizations are rarely great at making needed systemic changes, except when facing an immediate existential threat, such as a pandemic. While few appear to regard global overheating and environmental ruin as a true existential threat, most have heard enough to know that something ought to be done by somebody to “save the planet.” That is where token recycling, green events, and planning reports come in. It appears that somebody on our team is trying, so we can feel better about our institutions and ourselves, even though little of substance changes. We happily believe our own greenwashing fraud.

Most sustainability programs in higher education—like everywhere else—are piecemeal, marginal, token.

Another cause of therapeutic “sustainability” is more systemic. Readers will not be surprised that it concerns money, status, and power. Which is to say, money. The constant imperative to keep money flowing in from all sources—tuition, gifts, grants, sports contracts, patent rights, etcetera—trumps all else, even life on earth. And no endowment grows big enough to change that. That is not to say our leaders operate in bad faith. They too would no doubt like to help save the planet. They may not understand the full gravity of our environmental crisis, but let’s say their intentions are good. The problem is that their job descriptions force them to deprioritize sustainability, because that inevitably compromises the money flow. A generous donor or member of the board of trustees may come from the fossil fuel industry. Sports extravaganzas must be as glitzy as possible, maybe even held in Vegas or Europe. Student “customers” must never be made to feel they are being asked to conserve, much less sacrifice. Of course, many schools profess religious and other commitments to moral goods beyond money, which figure into their bigger pictures, sometimes significantly. But achieving those other goods requires money, we remind ourselves. In the end, the Mammon imperative rarely loses. We thus end up with therapeutic rather than transformative sustainability. It requires no conspiracy or callousness, just the standard political economy of higher education.

The wish to feel good is understandable—especially after the traumas of recent years. But, like it or not, life in the coming years and decades is going to be far worse than what we’ve just been through. The laws and effects of physics and biology are not changed by our happier feelings. Modern global industrial and post-industrial civilization is progressively destroying the natural environment on which all life depends, and American higher education contributes its share. Campus sustainability programs and events that enable our believing otherwise only make it worse.

At our best, we in higher education pursue the disciplined search for reliable knowledge about reality in order to live well in it. How about we try to do that with the environment and sustainability? And if we cannot manage genuine sustainability transformations, let’s just be honest and call a halt to our fraudulent gestures. At least then we might claim some shred of integrity as we proceed to destroy the earth. Perhaps then, with present delusions stripped away, some will rise up to demand much better.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches a course called “Environment, Food, Society.”

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