12/15/2014 08:37 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Educating the First Generation of Sustainability Managers

The field of organizational management is undergoing a fundamental transition, one of a number that have taken place over the past century or so. At the start of the 20th century, management needed to understand mass production and the first complex supply chains, and so, under Taylorism, labor was mistakenly seen as an almost machinelike part of the production process. Eventually we learned that people were not machines and management embraced human resource development. After the Great Depression, we developed generally accepted accounting principles, and at that point all CEOs had to learn a little accounting and needed to learn how to read a financial statement. From the 1960s through the 1990s we saw the price of information and computation start to drop, and so CEOs needed to learn performance measurement. At the start of the 21st century, developments in communication and transportation stimulated the global economy and CEOs found themselves managing international enterprises.

Today, as our growing economy stresses the ecosystems that make human life and wealth possible, CEOs must manage what I have termed the physical dimensions of sustainability. Both service and manufacturing organizations must manage their inputs of energy, water, processed and raw materials, their production of waste, and the environmental impact of their activities and actions of their consumers. What used to be a small, negligible part of management has become a core function of management. While America's business schools have generally not yet figured this out, by the end of the next decade I believe that all competent managers will become sustainability managers.

For that reason, here at Columbia we have developed a number of master's programs designed to educate sustainability professionals. I personally direct three of them: the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the Executive MPA Concentration in Sustainability Policy and Management at the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Master of Sustainability Management at our School of Continuing Education. Taken together, these programs enroll more than 300 students. In addition to these programs, the Earth Institute has worked with schools at Columbia to develop master's programs in Climate and Society and Development Practice, along with undergraduate and doctoral programs in sustainable development.

Why is sustainable development so important and why are we so focused on educating sustainability professionals? The political pressure for economic development continues throughout the world. We see it in the United States when the economy contracts or growth slows, and we see it in the developing world as people hunger for the lifestyles they see in the developed world. The public pressures governments to deliver economic growth and economic growth in turn pressures the environment. This inspires some people to believe that we must trade off economic growth for environmental quality, but this is factually incorrect; environmental quality is a prerequisite for economic growth. People can't consume anything if they are killed by a toxic environment. The resources we all require to live--air, water and food--come from ecosystems. Moreover, while U.S. GDP growth and environmental pollution grew together until the late 1970s, by 1980 the absolute level of most environmental pollutants started to decline and have largely declined ever since. Meanwhile, America's GDP and population continued to grow--and is growing still.

Through regulation, technology, and better management we have begun to learn how to build our economy while improving our air, water and land. While we have begun this learning process, we have a long way to go. People know that it is important that natural resources be used carefully and need to be protected from irreversible harm. That doesn't mean we have the finances, organizational capacity and technology needed to do the job, but at least we know it's a job we need to do.

While the climate crisis dominates the environmental agenda these days, it is a relatively simple problem when compared to the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity. Those living systems are incredibly complex. Some are very resilient and some are quite fragile and we often don't know which is which until we've destroyed something and it is too late.

In our increasingly urban world, one of the positive outcomes of urbanization is population stability and even decline. In agrarian societies, children are economic assets; they work the farm and support their parents when they can no longer work, hence the need for large families. Another historic reason for large families was that many children died before birth or when they were very young, but with improved prenatal and child health care, some of the pressure on population appears to be easing. In fact, in urban societies, children may well be a luxury and an economic liability instead. Those economic forces are helping reduce the rate of population growth. However, there still are a lot of humans on the planet. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are about 7.2 billion people on Earth. In the 1960s that number was closer to 3 billion and by the time population peaks it will likely be somewhere between 8.5 and 10 billion.

So, the task at hand is to deliver a high throughput economy that does not destroy the planet's system for a large number of people. This will be a technological, financial and political challenge, but it will also be a management challenge. We need to develop the organizational capacity to understand our planet well enough to manage and control our interactions with it. We need to understand what our production and consumption patterns and behaviors do to natural systems. We need to adjust our behavior to maximize production while minimizing damage. We need to do this to ensure that a reasonable facsimile of the lifestyles that many of us live today can be shared across the planet and can be maintained for us as well.

This will not be easy to do, but building this organizational capacity is the main goal of the field of sustainability management. The argument for doing this is that we do not have any real choice. The technology of mass destruction requires political stability for human survival. Economic development is required for long term political stability. People must have an ownership stake in society, and a vested interest in its stability.

This is the lesson learned in America by the great post-World War II drive for home ownership. Before World War II we were a nation of renters; by the 1960s we were a nation of owners. Owners put their sweat equity into their homes. They paint, prune, add rooms, buy patio furniture, and worry about what is being built nearby that might affect their investment in their home. How did this transformation take place? What was the engine of change? It turns out that it was a historic partnership between government and the private sector. Government made interest on mortgages and local property taxes deductible on federal income taxes. They also used the Department of Veterans Affairs and the FHA, which developed the guaranteed mortgage, essentially using the equity in a home and government backing to insure and extend the payback period of loans. Without these acts by government, the dream of homeownership would have been limited to the wealthy. Today, anti-government ideology and excessive student debt are endangering this bedrock foundation of American political stability.

The transition to a renewable economy will not be achieved without an even more sophisticated partnership between government and the private sector. We will not see any progress toward that partnership in Washington when the new Congress takes office in less than a month. We didn't see much progress under the old Congress either.

While I do not expect much progress from America's dysfunctional national government, the movement for sustainability will need to gather momentum elsewhere. We will do it in cities, local communities, and in private for-profit and non-profit organizations. Sustainability principles and practices will be developed and implemented from the ground up. As an educator, one small contribution I can make is to help educate the next generation of managers to be our first sustainability managers.