THE BLOG
05/02/2016 08:19 am ET Updated May 03, 2017

Open Dialogue and Sustainability Education

For academics, the month of May signifies the end of the year, a time to assess the work of your students, and the start of revising courses for the next academic year. Here at Columbia, this is reinforced by the transformation of our town center, "College Walk," into a small stadium with bleachers, platforms, big screen TVs and a sound system suitable for a rock concert. I always use this time to take stock of the accomplishments of our students, and to think hard about what we are teaching them and our responsibility as educators.

Education is always about choice and perspective, no matter how technical and complex your subject. A teacher always asks: What do I choose to present? What do I leave out in order to focus more on what I leave in? What are the boundaries of my subject matter? When a subject is new, in the enthusiasm of new knowledge, we sometimes don't mention skeptics and contrary perspectives. After things settle down, a good teacher remembers to mention that his or her view of reality is not the only one. Since I teach sustainability management, my teaching needs to include dissenting views, if only to explain why many organizations do not adhere to those principles.

I direct two sustainability master's programs at Columbia; one is an intensive full-time, year-long program at the School of International and Public Affairs (MPA in Environmental Science and Policy), and the other is a largely part-time program in the School of Professional Studies (MS in Sustainability Management). Both programs are designed to prepare professional sustainability managers and both are taught by full-time academics and by practitioner adjunct faculty. The adjuncts all hold full-time jobs in addition to their teaching duties. Among the practitioners I find an underlying optimism about the degree to which the sustainability perspective is influencing their work world. Among the academics I find a mix of optimism and dire pessimism. It's a recurring theme--can we build an economic life that can preserve the planet, or is it already too late? My responsibility is to ensure that our students hear both perspectives.

My colleagues in environmental and ecological sciences are the most prone to despair. They see the trend lines and are deeply worried about sea level rise and species destruction. They also believe that we've known these facts for some time, have not solved the problem, and so the proper response for the ethical and responsible scientist is to issue dire warnings in the clearest possible language. I have colleagues who tell me I should sell my bungalow by the ocean because it will someday be underwater and who are grateful that Columbia's Morningside Heights campus is many feet above sea level. Well, I'm not selling my summer home and I note that Columbia's new campus is right next to the Hudson River and has been designed for climate resiliency.

Don't mistake my intent here. I am deeply concerned about the future of the planet. I know that our current path is not sustainable. But I believe we have already begun to chart a new path. After World War II, U.S. GDP and population rose constantly, along with our pollutant levels. In response, we saw the growth of the environmental movement, the creation of EPA in 1970, and a comprehensive array of environmental laws enacted through the 1970s. By 1980, GDP and population continued to grow, and the absolute level of pollution started to decline. With the exception of the Great Recession, GDP and population in this country have increased every year since 1980 and pollution has continued to decline.

This is not to say that we have "solved" the problem of environmental pollution, but we have made it less bad. Places like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are no longer known for their air pollution (that's now Beijing's reputation). We have made tremendous progress and there is more to come. In the case of climate change, 2015 was an important year in the U.S.; our GDP grew, but greenhouse gas emissions fell. We have demonstrated that we can grow the economy while reducing greenhouse gases. We have a very, very long way to go, but the turn around has begun. That's my view, but it is far from universal.

Scientists, like journalists, have learned that bad news attracts more attention than good news. The old tabloid expression was, "if it bleeds, it leads." Watching the local evening news, it sometimes appears as if everyone in the world has smashed their car, been robbed, or shot. Traffic slows down as drivers rubber-neck to get a look at a traffic wreck. Progress and success gets less attention than failure and destruction. While too much of the world remains desperately poor, two hundred years ago most of the world's population lived in poverty and today most of the world does not. Human ingenuity has created a powerful world economy that is capable of providing everyone with food, clothing and shelter, but is also capable of destroying the ecosystems that we all rely on.

Presenting that fact with a sense of balance is a challenge to educators. Most of us teach one part of the story and it is easy to despair that problems will outpace progress. As educators, our job is to present our own views, but to also ensure the legitimacy of the views of other analysts and scholars. In the case of climate science, the issue has become so politicized that it is difficult to do. The facts of the planet's heating over the past century are simply facts that cannot be argued. The arguments are over how to model the future and especially the amount of time we have to make the transition to a fossil fuel-free economy. This is compounded by the role played by some fossil fuel companies in trying to influence those analyses and their communication.

I worry less than some about the fossil fuel companies and believe their influence is vastly overrated, but I worry about the actual facts of ecosystem damage and how the future will unfold. All models are simply estimates, and as near as I can tell, no one can predict the future. We can, however, seek to understand the present world that we live in. We can teach our students about our understanding of that world and, more importantly, teach them to engage in dialogue about how the world works.

The problem with focusing only on either optimistic or pessimistic views of the world is that either is a form of propaganda, rather than education. How we feel about the future inevitably influences our choice of topics, reading materials and themes in the classroom. An educator needs to understand the views he or she holds and the way those views are reflected in the courses we teach. But then we need to open our perspective to choice and to an open thought process.

In a management course that is relatively easy to do. Each week I teach a case study or two and I ask my students to answer some version of the same question: What should the manager do? I always stress that unlike a multiple-choice exam, there is no right or wrong answer. Each answer presents a distinct set of costs, benefits and impacts. They are asked to identify and discuss those impacts.

Science has right or wrong answers, but models of the future feature different parameters. A scientist can present all the models that conform to their world-view or their own analysis, or they can present alternative models of the future and enable discussion of those models. Our field has a bias toward warnings of a future of dire consequences. Our responsibility is to communicate those warnings, but also to teach the thought process that opens students to other ideas, creative insights, and contrary views. The danger of our emerging world of political correctness is that people are afraid to counter the loudest and most aggressive voices. History correctly warns us to be vigilant in our defense of free speech. As educators it is our responsibility to encourage it. In many parts of my working life I make decisions to support people's teaching and promotion. Many of the people I support, I disagree with. A key role of the university is to ensure a world safe for vigorous dialogue. This is as true for sustainability as for any other field of study.