What I Learned in Sustainability School

Rachelle Peterson

Sustainability is a massive movement on college campuses right now, where 680 institutions have pledged to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and 380 have active student campaigns to divest from fossil fuel holdings. I got a close-up look into the heart of the ideology over the past few weeks as I took a class from a career sustainability researcher and advocate, Professor Jonathan Tomkin of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. Professor Tomkin is a research associate professor of geology and the associate director of the School of Earth, Society, and Environment. He is an expert in geodynamics, the study of geologic changes in the earth’s landscape and internal workings. His research focuses on how climate change and plate tectonics shape the earth’s physical landscape. He has also co-edited a free electronic textbook Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, which provided the conceptual framework for the course.


I sat under Professor Tomkin’s teaching for the past eight weeks. I say “sat” metaphorically, because there was no classroom or desk at which I perched to learn about global warming and the pattern of demographic transitions. The course was a MOOC, a massive open online version of a course that Professor Tomkin teaches at the University of Illinois.

Each week focused on an aspect of sustainability: population, ecosystems and extinction, climate change, energy, agriculture and water, environmental economics and policy, and measurements of sustainability. We didn’t read research papers from climatologists or atmospheric scientists but we did trudge through statistical reports on demographics and charts depicting the diminishing worldwide marine fisheries. Most weeks, we also read sections from Professor Tomkin’s online textbook.

“Introduction to Sustainability” provided a rare insight into sustainability as an academic discipline. The movement’s public face for the most part consists of a hodgepodge of activist groups loosely joined by their worry about depleting resources. The course—scripted, backed by citations, and addressed to a wide audience—took on a soberer, more rational tone.

My classmates, from what I could tell, seemed to have already converted to the sustainability lifestyle before joining the course. Our first assignment (ungraded and optional) was to post a short self-introduction into the ice-breaker discussion forum. Randomly selecting classmates’ bios to read, I found a New York businessman starting a sustainability-inspired restaurant, a DC denizen prepping for grad school in sustainability, and a man from Bangalore, India, hoping to improve his prospects of getting promoted at a sustainability-focused organization. I also found a young woman who was studying "social work and community organizing" at a private college in Wisconsin.

The Triumvirate

On first glance, “social work and community organizing” don’t seem intrinsically related to environmentalism, beyond organizing a parade on Earth Day or a summit on environmental policy. But sustainability is not just about the environment, and it’s not focused primarily on global warming. In fact, social work is a major tenet of the sustainability movement.

According to most advocates, sustainability has three main pillars: society, the economy, and the environment. Many colleges and universities use a Venn diagram to depict these three as interlocking circles. The center is where “sustainability” takes root.

That Venn diagram didn’t make a pictorial debut in the MOOC, but the ideas took center stage. One of the goals listed in the syllabus was for students to “be able to connect the role of the scientific, technical, and social elements of Earth Systems”—in other words, to find the hypothetical sustainable spot where all three connected.

And the weekly course segments emphasized sustainability’s three circles. The weeks on population, agriculture, and water investigated sustainable societies. Environmental economics, policy, and energy probed the economy. Climate change, ecosystems, and extinction gave careful attention to the environment. Each topic bled into the other, making the individual categories virtually indistinguishable. The world’s population, as Professor Tomkin oft reminded us, partly determines the environmental “footprint” on earth’s otherwise pristine ecosystem, which in its own right contributes resources and services to our economies. Agriculture requires water use (a potential drain on the environment) but relieves global poverty and malnutrition. Meanwhile, the environment is itself intrinsically valuable, just as, Professor Tomkin noted, we treat human rights as inherently good.

Three Cheers for Malthus

Society’s weight on the environment was a central concern in “Introduction to Sustainability.” That the environment might be resilient and humans might be innovative in finding new ways to replace nonrenewable resources faded in comparison with the imminent doom-of-the-commons tragedies, species extinction, and the impending threat of famine. Neo-Malthusianism, I found, is alive and kicking, despite two centuries of evidence to cast its predictions in a doubtful light. Whether proponents of Malthusian thought are multiplying at a geometric or arithmetic rate, I’m not sure, though it’s clear that they’re gathering force.

Malthus, of course, was the eighteenth century Briton (1766-1834) who popularized the notion that the rate of human procreation outstripped the rate of increased food production, and that as human societies outgrew their food supply, war, famine, and disease would reduce the population to a livable size. The concept became popular again in the 1970s as thinkers such as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) gave it new life. Demographic data indicates the opposite conclusion, though: wealthy (and thus well-fed) countries tend to have fewer children, and poorer countries have more. Worldwide life expectancy has risen alongside worldwide population. And the widespread famine that Malthus, Ehrlich, et al. predicted hasn’t happened, thanks in great measure to the “green revolution” that improved farming techniques and bred heartier crops that have fed a worldwide population now approaching eight billion. Today “hunger” more often means poor nutritional habits in overfed populations rather than literal starvation.

Professor Tomkin gave even-handed acknowledgement to each of these counter-evidences, and he assigned TED talks and demographic digests that explained as much. Still, the fear of population increase outranked hope. Population was the opening topic of the course, the only issue that the course devoted two weeks to, and the context for Professor Tomkin’s closing remarks in his final lecture, titled “The Future.” Malthus himself received prime coverage. Portions of his “Essay on the Principle of Population” were the focus of the first week’s reading assignment.

In his lectures, Professor Tomkin explained the significance of j-shaped and s-shaped growth curves—terms that Malthus himself did not use, but that reflect his line of thought. J-shaped curves are exponential and eventually unsupportable. Professor Tomkin cited a case study involving the moose population on an island off the coast of Alaska. The number of moose grew exponentially and then died—all of them—after a drought devastated their food supply. S-shaped curves, on the other hand, are sustainable as they approach the asymptote of the earth’s “carrying capacity,” or the maximum level of consumption and resource use it can consistently provide for. Cells in a Petri dish, apparently, are sagaciously sustainable; their rate of growth slows to match the resources available in the dish.

Of course the predicted collapse of a j-shaped human population curve presumes limited human ingenuity and ignores the success of the green revolution. There are other problems with the idea, too. Consider Professor Tomkin’s example. The moose died after an anomaly—an unusually bad drought—not after exceeding the long-term capacity of the island. And the moose, introduced to the island only a few decades before their deaths, were not indigenous.

Professor Tomkin engaged in a game of advance and retreat, putting forward a dismal projection of humanity’s plight before retracting a small portion of that projection. We spent two weeks on growth curves, population statistics, and demographics, and we read about the dire straits humanity may face because too many of us have too many children that use too many resources. Then, at the end of the second week’s lectures, Professor Tomkin encouraged us to cheer up, because “population growth may not be the horror it could be.” Why is that? The places with high population growth are mostly third world countries that emit fewer pollutants. If their population grows, as opposed to the population of an average first world nation, greenhouse gas emissions won’t necessarily skyrocket, and the planet might not overheat so badly.  Of course, though, the rest of us are also asked to take action, too, because the Malthusian specter is just around the corner.

The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons

This idea of inevitable doom explains why words like “tragedy” and “devastation” become linchpins of the sustainability movement. Often proponents invoke the tragedy of the commons, the idea that self-interest will lead individuals to overuse and deplete common resources. Hear Professor Tomkin’s description:  

“The tragedy refers to its inevitable destruction, and that’s why it’s referred to as tragic, instead of, say, unfortunate or unlucky. This land is destined to be doomed, because the system means that there is no way that we can save it.”

This concept is well-documented in numerous cases: common pastureland, marine fisheries, and groundwater in desert regions. As environmentalists love to remind us, the tragedy can also explain pollution. Every LA resident wants to drive his car, but each one wishes everyone else would quit so the smog would let up. The situation becomes much more serious than an asthma attack or a delayed work commute, though, when the tragedy overtakes the entire earth. When too many irresponsible self-interested actors emit too many greenhouse gas emissions and the ecosystem collapses, that’s the real tragedy.

Sustainability tends to care more about maintaining resources than in removing pollutants, and here the analogy isn’t quite so clear. Professor Tomkin explained that because of climate change and human pollution, animals are going extinct. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the current rate of animal extinction is between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate. (How either rate is calculated isn’t clear.) Apparently the average lifetime for a mammal species is about 1 million years. (How that is calculated also is unclear.) Based on these calculations, over the past 400 years of observation, we should expect only 1 species to go extinct. Instead, there have been 89.

But is this really a human-induced tragedy of the common resource of species diversity? The effects of climate change on animal habitats are broad-ranging and impossible to assess categorically. And the reality of climate change, not to mention its anthropogenic causes, are topics of live scientific debate. It’s as if the rhetoric of tragedy was itself a commons, overused and exploited by every ideology hungry for the limelight.

Humans have clearly played a primary role in the extinction of some animals, such as the North American passenger pigeon or the New Zealand moa, but the key factor in these cases was heedless overhunting, not the mere presence of a human population.

Climate Change

There was no debate on this MOOC whether climate change was real and whether it was caused by humans. Professor Tomkin assumed it to be real, and, as best I could tell from the discussion forums, so did my fellow classmates. The course syllabus declares confidently that the world is changing in dangerous and unstoppable ways:

[This course] explores how today’s human societies can endure in the face of global change, ecosystem degradation, and resource limitations. …This subject is of vital importance, seeking as it does to uncover the principles of the long-term welfare of all the peoples of the planet.

The title of week 4 declares that the question of global warming is one of degree, not of reality: “The climate of the near future: hot, hotter, or hottest?”

Such confidence stems from a “scientific consensus” among researchers who believe, but have no conclusive evidence for, the existence of continued global warming. Dissatisfied with the easy treatment of global warming in the course, I found Professor Tomkin’s email address online and asked him about it. I wanted to know whether justifying climate change by scientific consensus rather than by clear scientific proof undermined the credibility of the scientific method. He graciously wrote back, and encouraged me to have faith in the consensus because “Acknowledging the likely existence of AGW gives us a greater understanding of how the world works and strengthens us.” At the very least, he argued, I should make use of Bayesian probability and conclude that even if climate change is not very likely, it is at least possible, and that possibility should give reason to pause.

Sustainability as Metanarrative

This absence of serious debate is characteristic of sustainability, which functions less as an academic discipline devoted to inquiry into a particular topic and more as a pedagogic tool to inculcate a set of beliefs and habits. This “vital” topic, as Professor Tomkin describes it, covers practically everything related to human and animal life, and so subsumes all other disciplines to its view of the world. As the syllabus explains,

As Earth Systems is a cross-disciplinary field of study, this foundation requires intellectual breadth: … understanding our motivations requires the humanities, measuring the challenges of sustainability requires knowledge of the sciences (both natural and social), and building solutions requires technical insight into systems (such as provided by engineering, planning, and management).

Sustainability sees itself as the head of the hierarchy of disciplines, picking and choosing from each area of study and providing the lens through which to interpret them. Sustainability effectively corrals all other disciplines into its camp, simultaneously absolving itself of the need to conduct original research and arrogating to itself the power of an intellectual metanarrative that orders all of reality.

Decline and Fall?

“Introduction to Sustainability” came at a time of unusual public scrutiny and pressure on the sustainability movement, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report shows a pause in global warming and an increase in Arctic sea ice. Grudgingly re-evaluating earlier predictions, the IPCC reduced the predicted 2016-2030 temperature increase of 0.4 to 1.0 Cº warming to 0.3-0.7 Cº, and admitted that the likeliest outcome is at the low end of the spectrum. It’s also conceded that predictions of drought, hail, and heat waves were “overstated.”

These blows to the credibility of anthropogenic global warming have led sustainability activists to clamor for greater environmental protectionism in an attempt to drown out counter-evidence with an ever-louder “scientific consensus.” The UN is preparing a report—the “darkest” one yet—predicting deadly floods and famines. And the U.N. World Meteorological Organization has downplayed the falling temperature predictions as abused and exaggerated by "climate skeptics." The American Association for the Advancement of Science began a vociferous “What We Know” campaign, centered on the tendentious claim that “97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening.” Sustainability idealizes climatic tranquility and simple living, but the movement itself thrives on worldwide apocalypse.

So what did I learn in sustainability school? That the earth is fragile, free markets are dangerous, and society’s consumption is killing animal species and draining the environment. The solution—as popularized in Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science piece “Tragedy of the Commons” and reiterated by Professor Tomkin—cannot rely on individual consciences. The individual who dutifully reduces his resource consumption only leaves more resources for the avaricious to devour. Privatizing the commons can help for a while, but short-term opportunists threaten the sustainability of private solutions. No, to some degree, we must monitor environmental behavior and regulate human environments to protect the natural one. Welcome to the age of environmental Big Brother. 

In-text image: Wikimedia commons

Image Credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, cropped.

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