12/24/2012 11:15 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

Educating Sustainability Professionals

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, on December 23, 2012 there were 314,992,253 people in the United States and 7,060,464,677 people on this planet. It is likely that the world's population will grow and possibly peak at ten billion, and it is also likely that more and more of the people in the world will enjoy higher levels of economic consumption. Much of this economic consumption is built on one-time use of non-renewable resources, especially energy. This is what creates the problem of global sustainability. The sustainability problem has many dimensions: ethical, technological, political and financial; in my view, it helps to take all of these factors together and think of this as a management problem. It is a management problem that has at its core a single question: Can we increase the planet's production of goods and services to meet the needs of a growing population without destroying the planet's natural systems that we depend on? The emerging field of Sustainability Management assumes that the answer to this question is yes, and tries to figure out how to do this.

At Columbia University I teach a graduate course entitled "Sustainability Management" and direct three programs designed to educate sustainability professionals:

1. A full-time intensive one year Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy
2. A part-time (or full-time for 25 percent of its students) Master of Science in Sustainability Management
3. A part-time Executive MPA Concentration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management

While each of the programs has a similar disciplinary focus of environmental sustainability science, policy and management, each program targets professionals with unique interests and scheduling needs. Each of these programs includes these curriculum elements:

1. Integrative Courses in Sustainability Management
2. Economics and Quantitative Analysis
3. The Physical Dimensions of Sustainability Management
4. The Public Policy Environment of Sustainability Management
5. General and Financial Management

All management programs, public or private, require an understanding of economics, quantitative reasoning, and financial and nonfinancial aspects of organizational management. A key element of all organizational life is to understand the private and public marketplace that must be navigated to obtain resources. Money, labor, information, technology and communication are the building blocks of organizational existence. Since all economies are mixed economies that include public and private elements, a successful and sophisticated manager must understand politics and public policy. These organizational functions are standard elements in most professional management programs. Unfortunately, something quite important is left out. That is what I have come to see as the physical dimensions of organizational life and management.

What are these physical dimensions? First there is resource use: water, air, energy and other materials used in production. Are these resources used efficiently and returned to the ecosphere undamaged? Second are the processes used to produce goods and services. Do production processes pay attention to the use of resources and work to minimize their ecological and carbon footprint? Or does the organization's culture dismiss waste and pollution as necessary "breakage," arguing that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs? If you think this is only limited to manufacturing, you have not considered the vast amount of energy used by data farms that host "cloud" computing. Or that all organizations work in a built environment and some office buildings are green and others are not. Finally there is the impact of the organization's product and waste on the environment. Does the organization pay attention to its environmental impact and seek to minimize it?

All of these physical issues are now central to routine management. They cannot be dismissed with the old economic cop-out: "assuming all things are held equal." Environmental and physical factors cannot be "assumed away." These factors can be as important to management decision making as issues of finance, labor and strategy. Managers can no longer focus all of their attention on finance, marketing, information, labor and communication; they must also focus on the physical dimensions of organizational life. These issues used to be seen as unimportant. They are of increasing importance.

For people running organizations, the physical dimensions of sustainability require that they learn some science. Management education must include some of the basics of ecology, environmental science, engineering, hydrology and possibly toxicology. On a more crowded planet that constantly faces resource stress, managers cannot afford to be scientific illiterates. I am convinced that in the 21st century, all effective management requires sustainability management.

As I often tell my classes when distinguishing sustainability management from environmentalism: Sustainability managers do not care about ecosystems because they love nature, but because they need it. We do not wish to preserve nature for its own sake, but for our own sake. I recognize that students of environmental ethics would argue that my perspective is an unethical, human-centered perspective. I guess that's a fair critique -- I am a big fan of the human species. I'd like it to continue and I do not think it will be able to if we do not learn how to manage the planet's resources more effectively.

We have a long way to go before we learn to manage the planet's resources without destroying them. Developing renewable energy is key; so too is a better understanding of the effect of human settlements and production on natural systems. But we have begun. Here at Columbia and at universities all over America and the world, students are flocking to sustainability science, policy and management programs and are preparing for employment in the fast-growing green economy. While it is not clear that we can really succeed in developing a sustainable economy, a new field of study has begun and a new aspect of organizational management is well underway. Since there are too many people on the planet to get back to the land and be "one with nature," we have little choice but get better at sustainability management. Paradoxically, it's our lack of choice that is our source of greatest hope.