THE BLOG

A Reason to Be Optimistic: The New Generation of Sustainability Professionals

05/11/2015 08:22 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

We are approaching the commencement season here at Columbia University and, in fact, at every American university. Graduation is a time to look back at where we've been and look ahead to where we are going. I live in an apartment owned by my employer and so Columbia's Morningside Heights campus is both my workplace and my backyard. This time of year, the campus is filled with tents, temporary bleachers and thousands of seats. In about a week, people will be walking around in medieval robes surrounded by family and friends in a rite of passage that never fails to move me.

While I have a number of jobs at Columbia, the one that I care most about is the one that allows me to be an educator. I serve as the director of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management, a partnership between the Earth Institute and the School of Continuing Education, and I direct the Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy, a partnership between the Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). I also direct the sustainability concentration in SIPA's Executive MPA program. These programs enroll about 300 students and this year nearly 150 will graduate and take their place in the growing field of sustainability management, policy and operations.

The other degree programs sponsored by Columbia's Earth Institute in collaboration with schools at Columbia include:

None of these programs existed before 2002. All provide rigorous, hands on education in sustainability science, policy and management, and all are evolving rapidly. Our faculty are quickly adapting to the changing needs of this rapidly growing field. In my case, it has required that I expand my knowledge of private sector management and finance. In fact, the fast-growing field of sustainability finance has created demand for new courses on green accounting and sustainability metrics, and at Columbia this fall we are launching a new certification program in sustainability finance.

This is not just happening at Columbia. Here in New York, the City University has launched a number of new sustainability programs, as has the New School and Bard College. Bard has begun the region's first green MBA program. And of course, sustainability education is not limited to New York. The Bren School of Management at UC Santa Barbara has been at this longer than anyone else. The Atkinson School of Management at Willamette University has a sustainability concentration and Arizona State University, under Earth Institute founder and ASU President Michael Crow, has a thriving set of programs in its path-breaking School of Sustainability. Last week, I had the honor of visiting with the excellent faculty and students of one of the nation's newest sustainability masters programs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. This program is ending its first year of operation and I watched its students present superb capstone workshop projects undertaken for local clients on key sustainability issues. I even got to hear a project completed for Sustain Charlotte, an organization founded by Shannon Binns, a graduate of Columbia's MPA in Environmental Science and Policy.

All of this growth and student interest is inspiring. I started studying environmental policy in 1975 under the late Lester Milbrath, the environmental politics professor at SUNY Buffalo. I remember that fall he taught a seminar on environmental politics to about a dozen reasonably skeptical graduate students. We read The Limits to Growth, Mankind at the Turning Point and An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, and tried to understand the root causes of what we called "the environmental probelmatique". Today, thousands are learning about these issues and working on practical solutions to some of the world's most daunting problems. Here at Columbia, most of our sustainability programs feature pro-bono capstone projects for public and non-profit clients. The group I advised this spring did a high-quality study for the State of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation on the costs of cleaning up marine debris (garbage in the water) in the New York region. Our client was another one of our alums, Venetia Lannon, the head of the New York City regional office of New York State's environmental agency.

I am providing all this detail not just to brag about what sustainability educators are accomplishing, but also to convey the excitement and energy in this growing field. These students are dedicated and mission driven. Our faculty is attracted to this field for the same reason, and has the luxury of feeding off the optimism and can-do spirit of our students. Of course, that energy and enthusiasm is both a blessing and a curse. The downside is that sometimes the enthusiasm descends into a mindless groupthink and an urge toward political correctness. Our job as sustainability educators is to provide students with the analytic tools and conceptual framework to challenge easy answers. The problems of creating a sustainable economy are difficult. There are no easy answers. Many of the issues we teach about require tough tradeoffs. Our job is to provide the means for our students to perform the sophisticated analyses required to undertake critical thinking. In my view, that analytic rigor is what separates high quality from low quality sustainability education.

Sustainability issues are not simple. A case in point is a controversy at Six Flags amusement park that was in the news this past weekend. Six Flags is thinking of cutting down several acres of forest to put up a small solar farm. They want to reduce greenhouse gases and save money. But of course, they have not yet done an analysis of the environmental services provided by the small forest. What ecosystems are damaged if the trees are cut? Will the tree-cutting impair groundwater? What will it do to drainage and does it increase the cost of flooding? What happens if and when solar cells get smaller and more efficient and require less space? I do not know the answers to these questions, but a well-educated sustainability professional should be capable of leading or conducting an analysis to address those issues.

The task before sustainability educators is to take the inspiring energy and enthusiasm of our students and channel it into an effort to develop the conceptual and analytic tools needed to conduct high quality management and policy analyses. I've been involved in this work for many years and I find that while my students often start their studies as advocates and activists, many complete their studies as analysts and professionals. They still care deeply about the planet and its wellbeing, but they have the tools to speak truth to power and to even achieve power themselves.

Student interest in this field is a source of great optimism and hope. What gives me an even greater sense of hope is the growing number of Chinese students seeking to study sustainability in our universities. Over the past year I've read many emotional and heartfelt admissions essays by Chinese applicants to our programs, all focused on China's increasingly toxic air, water and land. They are eager to learn more about these problems and to help shape solutions. I know that many projections of our environmental future are bleak. These projections do not account for the brainpower, creativity, and ingenuity of this coming generation of sustainability professionals. They are the future, and in my view, the best guarantee of a sustainable global economy.