04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating the Next Generation of Sustainability Professionals

I confess that working at a university and teaching environmental policy and management probably distorts my perception of the current generation of college students. Nevertheless, the growing interest in sustainability studies on campus is pretty hard to miss. At Columbia, the Earth Institute has partnered with a number of the university's schools and departments and over the past decade has initiated several new sustainability programs:

Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy
Ph.D. in Sustainable Development
Master of Arts in Climate and Society
Master of Public Administration in Development Practice

And, if all goes according to plan, this fall we will initiate an undergraduate major in Sustainable Development and a Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Why do I mention this? Yes, it is a bit of shameless self-promotion, but it also represents the massive shift on the ground in what people want to learn. In 1981, I left a job in the federal Environmental Protection Agency to teach at Columbia. One of the courses I was supposed to teach was called "Environmental Politics and Policy." The people in charge of our school's curriculum at the time came to me shortly after I arrived and said, "Listen, we'd like you to teach more management courses. No one comes to New York to study the environment." So, naturally, I taught more management courses. It was six more years until I got to teach in my field.

Today, the picture is very different. Sustainability studies is probably the fastest growing field on our campus and on campuses throughout America. Students are challenging faculty to move beyond theory, to teach about everything from financing green energy to the politics of adapting to climate change. Last year I advised a team of students studying energy efficiency for the New York City Housing Authority. This year a new group is analyzing New York City's system of food supply for the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Hundreds of students here at Columbia are engaged in similar projects for governments and nonprofit organizations all over the world.

While climate legislation is locked up in our dysfunctional national Congress, thousands of local communities all over America are focused on reducing pollution, saving energy and making progress on a wide variety of sustainability issues. Just as my students are a source of optimism and energy for me, so too are all of the community-based and business initiatives across the country that I see and learn about every day.

One of the reasons we are starting a degree program in Sustainability Management at Columbia is the sharp increase in the number of businesses and local governments that have added sustainability goals to the management of everything from bank branches to municipal ice skating rinks. The people managing these operations cannot leave work to go to school full-time, so the Earth Institute and Columbia's School of Continuing Education have developed this part time masters program specifically designed for these working professionals. A decade ago there was no market for a program like this. Today the demand is incredible.

All of this activity and all of this energy represents a sea change in the appreciation of the importance of protecting our planet. The old trade off between environmental protection and economic growth is fading fast, and it is being replaced by an understanding that sustainable economic growth depends on protecting and sustaining our biosphere. The efforts of the overpriced lobbyists and lawyers in Washington are no match for the energy I see on campus and in communities throughout America. And it is not that Americans are willing to give up their consumptive lifestyles - they have no intention of doing that. It is simply that they want to use their intelligence and creativity to ensure that their consumption has the least disruptive impact on the environment as possible.

The scare tactics being used to de-legitimize climate science and environmental policy will not work, because people see that we can in fact manage our businesses and run our homes without destroying the planet. We will not be sitting alone in the cold and in the dark protecting the environment. Companies like Wal-Mart, General Electric, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Hewlett Packard and Starbucks have started to demonstrate that there is a connection between excellent management and the principles of environmental sustainability. Corporations that waste energy or water resources and then dump toxins into the river tend to be sloppy in other areas as well. Before long the definition of high quality management will be sustainability management. The students I teach know this and no amount of propaganda is going to change their minds.

As an educator, I have to believe that the imaginative application of brainpower can reduce the intensity of the crisis of global sustainability we face. I may be deluding myself, but a few hours with the students around here can restore hope to all but the most disillusioned cynic.