The Evolution Of Sustainability Education

05/22/2017 08:25 am ET Updated May 22, 2017

This past week we celebrated graduation at Columbia University. Throughout the week, schools gathered under tents on campus, and on Wednesday the entire university gathered for the official commencement and to hear Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger speak on the importance of free speech and the free global exchange of ideas. Some advocates of sustainability push a particular ideology or set of answers to these pressing problems, but at Columbia we have worked hard to ensure that multiple perspectives are part of our teaching and learning. We teach climate law and command and control regulation, and at the same time offer a certificate in sustainability finance that focuses on market-based solutions to the challenges of transitioning to a renewable resource-based economy. Our search for sustainability must be an open and honest one. My favorite part of President Bollinger’s speech was when he put his own office and prestige behind his advocacy of free speech and observed that:

“Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses were to come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.”

There are environmental advocates who believe that they have a monopoly on wisdom. They don’t. I’ve been working on environmental policy for over four decades and I have made many mistakes. Over time, I think I’ve learned some hard lessons and come to understand that listening is central to learning. Hearing contrary perspectives and stories drawn from many experiences is essential to intellectual growth. Columbia’s sustainability curriculum and co-curricular programming provides opportunities for choice and different approaches. I don’t always agree with the faculty I recruit to teach and I know they don’t always agree with me. And following the lead of our university’s president, one of my jobs as an educator is to ensure the respectful airing of disagreements and to insist on dialogue and genuine free speech. The goal of sustainability is an economy that does not damage the planet beyond repair. There are many ways to achieve that goal; some have not yet been invented.

I direct and teach in two master’s programs at Columbia, the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and the Master of Science in Sustainability Management at the School of Professional Studies. While I’ve participated in many commencement ceremonies, they never get old. This week’s school ceremonies were thrilling. On Monday, I greeted well over one hundred Sustainability Management graduates and witnessed our students and faculty winning several school awards for outstanding achievements. On Thursday, I celebrated with about 50 MPAs in Environmental Science and Policy as they graduated from SIPA. The student bodies of both schools were diverse, happy and surrounded by family and friends. Families travel thousands of miles to participate in this educational rite of passage. At SIPA’s graduation, graduates carried flags from scores of nations. From the stage, the faculty viewed a sea of colors of nations and faces celebrating a globalism that cannot and will not be stopped by the forces of reaction and xenophobia.

Our economic life is changing, and for some the transition has been painful. Education at every level–from K-12 through community college and from college to graduate school–has become key to economic survival in this changing world. So too has specialized technical and vocational training. Last week I saw proud parents who have struggled and sacrificed to ensure that their children could succeed in this changing world. It doesn’t get much more expensive than New York City’s cost of living and Columbia’s tuition. The faces of parents seemed to reflect pride of accomplishment and a little sense of relief. As faculty, it is critical that we always remember our responsibility to deliver on our end of the bargain. Educators must be life-long learners themselves, in order to ensure that we are able to prepare our students for the dynamic environment they are entering.

When I first studied and taught about environmental policy, my focus was on pollution and its impact on ecology and human health. Today, the field of sustainability management seeks to integrate understanding of “the physical dimensions of sustainability” into routine management decision-making. I am teaching tomorrow’s CEO’s to manage their organization’s waste, use of energy, water and other raw materials–to ensure sustainability throughout supply chains and to be aware of the financial risks posed by environmental accidents, pollution and climate change. The field continues to study conservation and pollution, but now encompasses a far broader set of concerns and has come to include the built environment, management, and the transition to sustainable cities. Students are pushing us to teach about start-ups, locally sourced food, and the environmental benefits of the sharing economy.

While the content of our courses evolves, some basics remain. Understanding the planet’s physics, chemistry, ecology, biology, culture, technology, politics, organizations, economics and values are at the center of our curriculum. Academic integrity, civility and hard work are as important as ever. Students of environment and sustainability can be wonderful to teach because they are often idealists with a deep sense of mission. They are determined to apply their new knowledge in the “real world” and spend a great deal of time and effort networking to find meaningful work in an unstructured but rapidly growing profession.

I hear often from our graduates who are applying the knowledge they gained in our programs to the problems they address every day. They are not shy about suggesting improvements, relaying trends and telling me the positive value of the lessons they learned with us. A number have come back to teach or give talks. Many mentor current students, and many are extraordinarily generous with their time. I am sure these experiences feed my optimism that we will meet the challenges of the crisis of global sustainability. A positive, creative and energetic community of sustainability professionals has emerged over the past decade. Many environmental scholars and advocates are skilled at communicating worst-case scenarios. They believe that gloom and doom conveys the sense of urgency that they feel. But spend a few months with our students and alums and you start to believe that even the most urgent crises can be addressed.

The most fundamental evolution of the field from environmental policy to sustainability management is that our profession is no longer limited to advocates, lobbyists and policy makers, but now includes entrepreneurs, green financiers, builders, managers and owners. We know we need to change the world, but the process will take place piece by piece, block by block, within distinct organizations, specific neighborhoods, cities and states. Our graduates are working to improve the quality of our lives while maintaining the quality of the environment. They are trained to do that. They know the questions to ask and how to find the experts needed to provide answers. And each year American universities are producing more and more graduates like the ones we educate at Columbia University.

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