09/01/2010 03:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Transition to Sustainability Management Is Finally Underway

Last night Columbia University's Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education welcomed the inaugural class of our Masters Program in Sustainability Management. Originally, we projected an entering class of about 30, but last night over 100 students began their studies. What caused the enrollment to triple our expectations? I think we are finally seeing the maturing of the environment and global sustainability field. The front page of yesterday's New York Times presented further evidence of this large scale change in the centrality of sustainability to the public dialogue. Two front page articles provided evidence of the growing importance of sustainability management

The first of these two articles was filed by Tom Zeller Jr. under the headline:
"Banks Wary of Environmental Risks." Zeller observed that:

"After years of legal entanglements arising from environmental messes and increased scrutiny of banks that finance the dirtiest industries, several large commercial lenders are taking a stand on industry practices that they regard as risky to their reputations and bottom lines."

Zeller reported that Wells Fargo Bank was in the process of ending its relationship with companies involved in mountain top removal coal mining and that this change was similar to:

"...others over the last two years, including moves by Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citibank, to increase scrutiny of lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal -- or to end the lending altogether. HSBC, which is based in London, has curtailed its relationships with some producers of palm oil, which is often linked to deforestation in developing countries. The Dutch lender Rabobank has applied a nine-point checklist of conditions for would-be oil and gas borrowers that includes commitments to improve environmental performance and protect water quality."

As our planet becomes more crowded and we dig deeper and deeper to mine resources on land and at sea, banks and insurance companies have begun to reduce their exposure to the types of risks and the massive liabilities that BP continues to deal with in the Gulf of Mexico. The issue of sustainability is no longer a luxury item or an add-on to those factors routinely addressed by management; it has moved to the apex of management concerns.

This brings me to the second sustainability article in yesterday's paper, although it may not be clear why I see it as related to sustainability. The headline of a piece written by Patrick McGeehan read "New York Rebounds From Slump, Unevenly." The article stated that New York City is recovering from the recession faster than the rest of the country, although poverty persists and far too many people are out of work. It mentioned that the forces driving the city's recovery are the finance industry and tourism. It could easily have also mentioned higher education as well as culture and entertainment. According to McGeehan:

"The typical New Yorker is less likely to be unemployed or facing foreclosure or bankruptcy than the average American. Homes in the metropolitan area have held their value better than in most other big cities as more people are moving to the region than deserting it. Tourists continue to flock to the city, filling hotel rooms at the highest rate in the country, and at rising prices."

What does this have to do with sustainability? More than meets the eye. The reason that Mayor Bloomberg developed PlanNYC 2030 was his concern that the addition of a million people to the city over the next several decades would degrade the city's quality of life and ultimately lead to New York's decline. Bloomberg's sustainability advocacy developed from his goal of making the city more attractive to those with the resources to choose where they lived and worked. The finance industry, tourists, and students are among the world's wealthiest and most mobile consumers of space, facilities and cities. The continued attraction of New York City is based on its dynamism, safety, educational institutions, entertainment and other amenities.

But the city's sustainability, including: its mass transit system, clean water, enhanced public spaces, parks and energy efficiency, is also a key source of its broad appeal. New York City has 5.2 million trees and 24% of the city's land is tree-covered. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg set the goal of planting one million more trees over the next decade, nearly ten times the rate of planting than the previous decade. These additional trees are part of what makes NYC a sustainable city, and they have contributed to Mike Bloomberg's reputation as New York's first sustainability mayor. New York may be an expensive place to live and work, but even in these tough times, lots of people want to come here.

As my new students begin to study the issues and challenges of sustainability management, they do so with the knowledge that sustainability and the environment have fully emerged at the center of our economic and political dialogue. Our nation's wealth requires lots of energy and material resources and a well-managed ecosphere. We need to learn how to use the planet's resources without exhausting them. The BP disaster in the Gulf demonstrated hat we have a lot to learn before we gain control of our technologies. We need to learn the craft of sustainability management. We face enormous challenges on the road to long term economic and environmental sustainability. But, while I may be deluding myself, I really believe that this effort is well underway and a fundamental paradigm shift has begun. A decade from now, all excellent managers will be sustainability managers. Just as the definition of excellent management today includes effective financial, human and information management, soon it will also include effective sustainability management.