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Steven Cohen

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The Growing Field of Sustainability Studies

Posted: 02/13/2012 7:39 am

One of the most encouraging trends I've seen in recent years has been the growth of environmental studies programs in many American universities. For past decade, I've directed an MPA (Master of Public Administration) Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Earth Institute. Today, over 500 graduates of that program are working as environmental professionals all over the world. About a year and a half ago, the Earth Institute partnered with Columbia's School of Continuing Education and launched a MS (Master of Science) program in Sustainability Management. That program now enrolls over 250 students and has already graduated over 30 students.

Many other universities have also initiated programs in this area, including the New School's Master of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, Bard's MBA in Sustainability, Arizona State's School of Sustainability, the Bren School at U.C. Santa Barbara, and American University's MS in Sustainability Management. I could list many more and I know of dozens now being planned.

Students in these programs are challenging their faculty to develop creative solutions to the world's crisis in environmental sustainability. When I tell my students that I believe the current forms of consumption may evolve, and become less destructive, but will still remain central to the planet's political economy -- they question my assumptions and force me to rethink basic premises. When we tell them that it will take a generation or more to complete a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, they tell us why they think it will happen much faster.

I confess that I remain a little skeptical of their perspective, but it is easy for me to see why they believe it is possible to complete such as paradigm shift. The internet, cell phones, digital music and movies have brought information and entertainment to their fingertips. There are now over five billion cell phones on the planet - a technology few of us considered a necessity even a decade ago. This technology is changing our society, our economy and our politics. We see a wave of web-influenced political events like Obama's election, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and even this year's Republican presidential primary season. The world today's students have grown up in is very different than the one I experienced growing up.

The generation of students in our graduate programs, and especially those enrolled in undergraduate programs, recognize the intense challenge they will face as they come of age. They are looking for new approaches to economic life that will permit the material comfort they have grown up with, while keeping the planet intact. They are also dedicated and focused on learning and communicating the lessons they are learning about sustainability. At Columbia, our students have developed a journal called Consilience, which:

...is a global online publication dedicated to promoting interdisciplinary dialogue on sustainable development. By providing a public platform for discussion, we hope to encourage a global community to think more broadly, thoroughly and analytically about sustainable development.

Just as the 20th century's move toward massive, technologically-based economic development changed our educational system in the second half of the 20th century, the challenges of global sustainability are also starting to influence higher education. The liberal arts have begun to re-emphasize science, including earth sciences, ecology and environmental biology. The physics and finance of energy production and consumption are of obvious and increasing importance. My own academic field of organizational management is beginning to study the growing importance of the earth's resources in determining organizational effectiveness.

Throughout the 20th century the field of organizational management has evolved and the knowledge needed by CEOs has continued to grow. This evolution started with the development of mass production during Henry Ford's era, and continued with the development of modern human resource management techniques and generally accepted accounting practices a bit later. In World War II, operations research was used to optimize air combat operations, and eventually found its way into consumer product production lines. In the 1960's we began to see the development of computer based information systems. Today these systems include instant communication of sales and performance data which must be factored into a myriad of management decisions. At the turn of the 21st century we saw the development of an increasingly interconnected global economy.

Today we are adding a new factor to management's information overload: the physical dimensions of sustainability. Organizations must understand their use of natural resources, their production of waste, and the impact of their product and its waste stream on the biosphere. This is not a fringe issue, but is central for many organizations. Management is no longer simply finance, labor, strategy and marketing. In a planet growing to ten billion people, with global GDP rising, we must learn how to manage and maintain a high throughput economy that does not destroy the planet's ability to sustain life -- especially our own.

More and more students are coming into our colleges with an intuitive and profound understanding of the changing nature of the planet. They know that these challenges are not going to be wished away and will soon belong to them. This is fueling the growth of environmental and sustainability education in the United States.

For me, this process began way back in September of 1975 when I walked into Professor Lester Milbrath's seminar in environmental politics as a graduate student at SUNY/Buffalo. At the time, I thought that environmental protection was an interesting if relatively unimportant issue. I soon learned otherwise, and nearly four decades later, find that these issues have begun to enter the center of our political, economic and educational systems. My sense of hope about sustainability comes from this increased level of attention. Every day I see the importance of sustainability to younger people all over the globe.

 

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