05/13/2013 09:58 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

A Positive Take on the Web-Enabled, Sustainability Generation

Each year at this time, graduate students in the two sustainability and environmental masters programs I direct at Columbia present their capstone workshop projects, which they perform pro-bono as a service for public sector clients. This year, our sustainability management masters students conducted analyses for the New Jersey Audubon Society, The New York State Energy Research and Development , Authority (NYSERDA), The Chilean Federation of Tourism Enterprises, the City of Stamford, Connecticut, and the Ashoka Foundation for Public Innovation in Mexico. Over the past several months, students in our MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program completed projects for: The Safe Water Network, The World Resources Institute, The Mary Robinson Foundation, The New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, The New York City Department of Education, West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT), and the Arbor Day Foundation. The idealism, brainpower, work ethic and determination of the students and faculty who undertake these projects is worth celebrating and I hope serve as a small counterweight to the pessimism and gloom and doom of many observers of the state of the planet.

I realize that working at one of the world's great universities is a privilege and my experiences are far from typical. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there is an entire generation coming of age that understands the importance of learning how to grow our economy while sustaining the planet's critical ecosystems. The group of students that I advised this semester consulted for The New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. They completed a study of sustainability planning in thirty American cities and six cities outside the United States. They learned that while international treaties may languish, and the U.S. Congress can't manage to quickly confirm EPA's capable new Administrator, the world's cities and communities are transitioning to sustainability management each and every day.

The world's cities are working to increase energy efficiency and parkland while reducing greenhouse gasses. They are also busy implementing pollution controls, green building codes and innovative methods of recycling and managing waste. Over the course of this semester, my students interviewed over 50 key decision makers and sustainability planners, and collectively worked over 1,500 hours to write a superb report on the work now underway to make our cities more sustainable.

The quality of the work presented by all of our students was amazing, and I hear similar stories from faculty I know at many other universities. While I am hopeful, I am also aware of the fact that the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere has reached disturbing levels. I know that here in New York and all over the world there remains far too much poverty, pain, homelessness and hopelessness. It is hard to be unaware of all of the sad and destructive events that surround us. But I think we need to take stock of positive developments as well.

I strongly believe that we can live together and live well on this planet if we learn how to use this planet's wealth without exhausting it. That is both the challenge and the opportunity of the world that today's students will inherit. Given our tendency to view the world through a media lens rather than through our own experience, I worry about the picture of our world that the media presents. I think the images presented by the mass media leads to more pessimism than is warranted by the facts. Since the modern media is a business that sells advertising, it presents us with a distorted picture of the world we live in. The news is not designed to convey the truth, but to attract audience.

The world we see through the media is violent, conflict laden and painful. The real world can be painful, but is also a place of great joy, wonder, achievement and promise. You never read in the newspaper that millions of cars have safely driven the roads today, or that air travel is safer than crossing a street. The nightly news rarely tells you about the joy a parent feels when their baby is born or when their child takes a first step, or when they blink their eyes and their baby graduates from college. You hear about the explosions, accidents, death and destruction. Bad news sells; good news doesn't. If it bleeds it leads. The images of neighbors coming to the aid of neighbors after 9-11, Hurricane Katrina , Hurricane Sandy or after the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing and Newtown Massacre presents positive examples of our ability to reach out to each other and of the compassion and charity that is embedded in our culture.

I feel the need to apologize for this optimistic rant, to blame it on a case of spring fever, or my relief that the trees and other greenery in the city's parks are finally covering up the litter. But I'll resist that temptation. It may well be that we are on the "eve of destruction", but a few hours with today's sustainability science, policy and management students convinces me otherwise. Those of us engaged in education are far from blind optimists about the generation now in school. Watching them "multi-task"--simultaneously texting, listening to music, surfing the web, writing a paper and saying "ugh" to any adult asking a question--is far from inspirational.

But I think that this group raised on the internet understands the world's potential and limits in a way that my generation simply cannot. They have seen images from every corner of the globe for most of their lives. They have grown up with and mastered tools such as search engines that give them the sense that they have a right to information about their world, and a deep belief that information should be accessible to everyone. In a world as complicated as the one they will inherit the ability to rapidly process and distill massive bits of information will be critical. In this country, I see the rapid social change on issues such as gay rights, women's rights, racism, and sustainability as examples of their ability to cut to the heart of the matter.

I'm reminded of the time when I heard Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak to some college students a few years ago. To my astonishment, some of the members of the audience appeared almost receptive to his message. But then he walked into a cultural trip wire. One of the questions posed by the students was about the treatment of gays in Iran. Ahmadinejad's response was that there were no gays in Iran. He was greeted by a type of derisive laughter that accompanies total dismissal in an American classroom. In one moment, like the air escaping from a balloon, the momentum shifted and any message he had hoped to convey was totally delegitimized. I suspect that due to their virtual and actual experiences travelling the world, this is a generation that will resist ideological nonsense and fundamentalist rhetoric. This willingness to understand the world as it is will be critical if they are to learn how to sustainably manage the damaged planet they will inherit.

Here at Columbia University, our facilities people are working overtime to make sure the campus sparkles for graduation. The grandstands and tents are being assembled and soon the spring commencement ritual will begin at this and all other American universities. Rituals give us a moment to pause and reflect on who we are and what we hope to be. The world that today's graduates will enter is far more challenging than the one I stumbled into when I left school. But I think they are up to the challenge.