THE BLOG

The Sustainability Generation Comes of Age

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

The political noise of self-aggrandizing interest groups and people willfully dismissing the science of sustainability is receding in the face of the energy, intelligence and common sense of the students that I work with here at Columbia University. The views of this generation of students are not a reflection of some giant left wing conspiracy to propagandize young people in the nation's K-12 education system. They are a reflection of the reality of modern life. When I was growing up in the 1960s, our planet had about three billion people -- today we have more than twice that number. This nation has grown by over 100 million people during that time. While this is a big country, and an even bigger planet, everyone knows of a place that they hiked or camped as a kid that's now a strip mall or a condo. You don't need to be a scientist to know that while population and material consumption are growing, the size of the planet remains the same. That's common sense.

It's true that technology and better management can help us enhance the planet's ability to sustain its human population. The students I work with know that and are eager to work on those solutions. They do not see the future as one in which they are sitting alone and hungry in the dark. Their world view is built upon a deep understanding of the challenges of global sustainability and represents both a generational and cultural shift that has accelerated in the 21st century. This world view is widespread in this county and is even growing in places like China, despite state-supported efforts to suppress it.

I think that the increased interest in sustainability comes from a sense that the world is getting more complicated and that the future belongs to those who study it, understand it and learn how to manage it. One of the dangers of the modern world is the simple fact that the global economy, the 24-7 media and the biosphere can be hard to understand. Lots of folks make their living hawking oversimplified answers to issues they don't really understand. Climate science is a good example. There is no question that the planet's atmosphere is getting warmer and that the impact of nearly seven billion people and their fuels is real and substantial. What we don't know is what impact these realities will have on human settlements and the planet's ecosystems. We have a lot to learn and more to study, and we can easily get into trouble when we confidently predict future impacts as if they are certainties and not simply probabilities.

As an educator, I believe in the power of knowledge and the importance of humility in the face of uncertainty. As a public policy analyst, I know that action cannot wait until we achieve perfect understanding. We never achieve perfect understanding. Government and public policy never really solve problems; they simply make them less bad. We will never end poverty, crime or environmental degradation; our real goal is simply to reduce these evils. In the case of sustainability management, we need to teach our students how to understand and draw upon diverse fields of knowledge. We need to learn how to draw on real expertise and how to reduce the temptation to impose ideological interpretations on empirical data.

I believe over the next decade or so all management will become sustainability management. In other words, it won't be enough to simply know about organizations, strategy, marketing and finance. The people who run our institutions and industries will need to know about energy efficiency, waste and environmental impacts as well.

Student interest in these issues is matched by interest in what those of us on college campuses sometimes call the "real world." The "green jobs" market is growing as the economy begins the long transformation into what many of us hope will be a more sustainable form of economic growth. The cultural shift I see in the current generation of students is having an impact on the media, politics, the economy and even that slow moving, slow changing place called the American university. Our society's powerful institutions know they must respond to this impulse toward environmental sustainability. They know this because they are themselves being transformed from within. As this sustainability generation takes its place in business, government and academia, the pace of change will accelerate. And that more than anything else provides hope for the future.