State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Emerging Sustainability Professional

Since the start of the 21st century, the Earth Institute has incubated a large number of sustainability education programs at Columbia University: a Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy, a Master of Arts in Climate and Society, a PhD in Sustainable Development, an undergraduate major in Sustainable Development, an MPA in Development Practice, a Master of Science in Sustainability Management, and, most recently, a Master of Science in Sustainability Science. At this point several thousand students have completed these sustainability degrees. Columbia is a leader in this field, but we are far from unique. Students all over America and the world are developing the skills required to maintain our economic well-being while preserving the planet.

While ideological ignoramuses walk the halls of our nation’s capital, huffing and puffing about a world they refuse to understand, the still-young graduates of our sustainability programs work quietly and effectively to ensure that leaders all over the world are paying attention to the environmental impacts of their decisions. The vision is of a world at peace, carefully stewarding resources and using our brainpower to develop the technology and techniques we need to live the way we want to live, without destroying the planet that sustains us. There will always be evil and vigilance is always required. Wars, terror, mass murder, and even the unbearable catastrophe of the Holocaust provide all the examples we need to understand the potential for great pain, but human progress is equally undeniable.

The next phase of the progress that I believe is characteristic of the broad sweep of human history is to spread economic development throughout the world, but to do it in a way that preserves, rather than destroys, the planet. To achieve this vision and to continue this progress, we need bring an understanding of environmental sustainability to engineers, policy analysts, lawyers, medical practitioners, financiers, accountants, organizational managers, media figures, elected leaders and other key decision makers. The growth of a variety of technical, analytic and managerial sustainability professionals and of organizations that employ them is a trend that is hard to miss. Some older folks believe that environmental sustainability is a luxury item or a frill, but young people see it as a necessity. At Columbia, these young people are drawn to our sustainability education programs by a profound and deeply held set of principles about the importance of environmental protection.

This sense of mission and purpose results in a wonderful learning environment characterized by a sense of teamwork that can be thrilling to see. Sustainability is a multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary field. It requires environmental science, ecology, law, policy analysis, business and financial analysis, law, medicine, economics, political science, philosophy, engineering, design, architecture, communication and fields in data science that are still being defined. To address sustainability issues, experts in one field must be brought together with experts in other fields; without their interaction, we cannot solve sustainability problems. One role played by sustainability professionals is to ensure that these experts are simultaneously teaching and learning from each other.

The role of the sustainability professional within an organization can vary, depending on the organization and the centrality of sustainability to its organizational strategy. For some organizations, sustainability is an organizational form of greenwashing; their goal is to make the place seem more interested in environmental protection than it is. These make-believe sustainability organizations are easy to spot, and important to identify. The definition of sustainability can also vary legitimately with efforts to subsume social justice, equity, or corporate social responsibility within a very general concept of “sustainability”. I support efforts to achieve equity and organizational responsibility; however, while many disagree, I believe we must focus the definition of sustainability on environmental sustainability, or what I have termed the physical dimensions of sustainability: energy, water, waste, material use and environmental impacts. Issues of social justice are quite important to the world and to me personally, but they deserve and need their own professionals and unique analytic approaches. A focus on the physical world enables objective scientific indicators and analyses to play a central role in the development of sustainability metrics and in the definition of sustainability success.

As this profession emerges, my hope is that several assumptions and professional principles will develop with it. The overall approach should be to assume that economic and human development will continue and not end. While population growth and the growth of non-renewable material consumption will end, economic growth of services, ideas, art, entertainment and human interaction will continue. The goal of the sustainability profession is to ensure that as humans undertake our activities we work as hard as possible to minimize our inevitable negative impact on the planet. But we must assume and accept the fact that there will be damage. Our goals are to reduce it as much as possible and, where we make mistakes, to restore the planet as much as we can. We do this not because we love nature, although we might well love the outdoors, but because we are organic, biological creatures that require air, water and food to survive. A central value of the profession is the rigorous deployment of fact and science and a knowledge of history to understand where we are, who we are and how we got here.

Sustainability professionals must be scientifically literate. The sustainability professional must understand cutting-edge science and new discoveries about our planet. They must be able to assess the impact of our ever-changing technology on the planet. They do not need to be scientific experts, but they must be capable of learning new science. Scientific debate is a central part of the evolution of our knowledge and an important part of the sustainability professional’s code of ethics must be to accept scientific uncertainty where it exists, and act accordingly. In the same vein, when scientific consensus has been achieved, as in the case of climate change, they must accept that consensus and act upon it.

To be effective, sustainability professionals must serve and facilitate their organization’s goals. Other professions do this all the time. A company’s lawyers aren’t interested in creating the most elegant contract or most visible lawsuit, they are interested in applying their professional skill to achieving the organization’s goals. The goal of the sustainability profession is to help organizations pay attention to the physical dimensions of sustainability in routine decision-making. For example: When a decision is made to move offices, have we thought about the source of energy and the energy efficiency of the new location? When we select a company to ship our packages, what type of packaging does this company use? What type of vehicles do they have? Are energy savings reflected in their cost structure? There are many options, new technologies and new practices that can be considered, and new vendors are constantly entering the marketplace and must be evaluated. Sustainability professionals bring this thought process and analytic capacity into the organization.

Finally, I hope the profession develops a pro bono tradition similar to lawyers where we donate our services to individuals and organizations who do not have the resources to pay for them. A key part of our work is to achieve the very idealistic, yet realistic, vision of growing the economy while protecting the environment. Some organizations will not have the resources needed to invest in the analytic or capital requirements of sustainability. The profession should take care not to leave these individuals or organizations behind.

We are at the start of a new era in organizational management. It is as profound a change as mass production, generally accepted accounting practices, real-time computerized performance metrics, and the emergence of the global economy. We are seeing the start of the sustainably-managed organization. It will be led by a new generation of sustainability professionals: recent graduates and more students entering sustainability education programs than ever before.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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