This is the season when my colleagues and I spend a lot of time reviewing applications for graduate school, most of which were submitted after the recent election. I direct two master’s programs at Columbia, one a Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy and the other a Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Together, the two programs enroll about 300 students. Columbia also has programs in climate and society, sustainable development and development practice. Among this student body there is a deep sense of unease with the direction of the U.S. federal government, but that is coupled with a high degree of confidence in the importance of the emerging green economy. Over the next several years, they’ll be avoiding the U.S. federal government and devoting their brainpower to nonprofits, local governments and the private sector. As I reviewed applications this past weekend, I was struck by the number of essays where applicants wrote: “I was thinking about focusing my career on federal service, but given the results of the recent election, I think I’ll direct my networking toward community-based organizations and sustainability private sector start-ups.”
Our national government is very important, but as many presidents have learned in the past, it is not the only source of political and economic power in the world or even within the United States. No amount of rhetoric about putting America first will be able to overcome the technological and economic momentum of global communications and the global economy. Maintaining a high throughput economy on a finite planet requires an economic transition from one-time resource use to the use of renewable resources. My students know this and are getting prepared for the jobs that are becoming available in the new economy.
The transition from one-time use of resources is not a theory but an emerging reality. In 1960 nearly all of America’s garbage was dumped in landfills. Today, half of it is treated in some way: recycled, burned for energy, converted to fertilizer or mined for resources. Climate change is only one element of the sustainability crisis we are now engaged in. Despite the lobbying and political power of the fossil fuel industry, fossil fuels and the use of toxic substances pose long-term threats to our economic life. One threat is from climate change, another is from the growing price of treating water and detoxifying waste. In the long run, renewables will beat fossil fuels on price. To generate energy, the sun and wind don’t need to be pumped out of the ground, transported thousands of miles and then burned. As the price of absorbing and storing renewable energy comes down, the fossil fuel industry will go the way of the telegraph machine, horse-drawn buggy, or tape cassette.
Ideology and belief have impact—that’s why China had its “great leap forward,” that’s why America had slavery and a civil war, and that is why there are people in America who think that the new president can bring back American manufacturing jobs. The fact is that we manufacture as much in America as ever, but a lot of manufacturing jobs are automated and a lot of today’s high-paying jobs are in service industries and green businesses which continue to grow like weeds. Ideology has impact, but reality has a way of asserting itself and influencing people’s perceptions of how the world works. Those factories may be rusted and abandoned, but they are not coming back. This is not a new idea. In 1984 Bruce Springsteen wrote in “My Hometown: “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back.”
The transition from manufacturing to services nearly bankrupted New York City, but after a generation of pain we came back. Here in New York, the buildings that once housed the rag trade or clothing industry now house art galleries, software start-ups and communications firms. America never stopped being great, it just changed and not everyone has benefited from the economic changes that continue to confront us.
My prospective students know that sustainability will be a major factor in the economic life they are entering. They know that their patterns of consumption, career paths and lifestyles will not be the same as their parents. Not necessarily better, not worse, just not the same. My parents felt that way about their parents and I know my immigrant grandparents understood that America would be different than Poland and Russia.
Trying to isolate America from the rest of the world is a losing strategy. Cutting better deals with global partners is always worth a try, but most of the deals in place are the result of strategic objectives that include both security and economics. If we change our national strategy and no longer seek to project power and stability around the world, if the dollar ceases to be the world’s most important reserve currency, it is difficult to predict what comes next, but I doubt it will make America “greater.”
Many of my prospective students come to graduate school already holding significant educational debt and are deeply concerned about advancing professionally in an uncertain world. Engaging with them about coming to school requires that we confront the future and attempt to help them develop a strategy for succeeding in the face of uncertainty. I am personally very cautious when doing this. Sometimes debt can be seen as an investment in the future and one that will pay off with a higher income and a better life. Sometimes debt is like visiting a casino, throwing your money down, and waiting for the house to win since it always does.
It is easy to see the apprehension and insecurity that a large part of America is living through. For people of my age, time and mortality itself will relieve that anxiety. But for young people applying to college or graduate school, the story is different. They can grab on to former President Obama’s theme of “hope” and “yes we can,” or they can accept President Trump’s vision of an America ravaged by carnage.
The ones that find their way to my classrooms tend to be hopeful. Many of them participated in the mass demonstrations the day after Donald Trump became president. But I know there are many others who can’t, won’t or don’t pursue the education that is required to succeed in our brain-based economy. Perhaps President Trump will get some public works funding through the Tea Party in Congress and be able to employ a large group of uneducated workers for a few years. I hope so. But if it’s not seen as a transition strategy, it too will end and lead to even greater and more destabilizing unhappiness.
The future economy of the United States is easy to see in New York City and in many parts of Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Colorado, Washington State and California. That’s because the economic future has started to arrive in those places. Young people do more, but own less. They participate in the sharing economy. They have to constantly learn how to build and use new technologies and software. Their work involves little manual labor, and so they need to self-consciously find gyms or outdoor forms of exercise to maintain physical well-being.
It’s easy to find America’s greatness and hope if you look in the places where the new high tech economy has taken root. I know that the young people in New York City and in an Ivy League university are not typical. I know that for many young people the future looks scary and bleak. But I think that isolation from the world economy and a return to labor-intensive, polluting manufacturing is a losing strategy for America. Our freedom, environmental quality and capacity for innovation are a magnet for global talent. We have the potential of being the center of the sustainable, brain-based economy of the 21st century. We just need to look forward instead of backward.