State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Sustainability Management, Economic Prosperity, and Scientific Literacy

steve cohen
Steve Cohen is a professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The Trump Administration’s effort to reduce—if not eliminate—the role of science in federal policy making is ill advised and ultimately futile. For the past half-millennium or so, human progress has been driven by advances in science and technology. Modern economic life is unimaginable without technological progress. Nearly all of our economic growth is stimulated by new technologies: electric lights, refrigeration, motor vehicles, modern medicine, indoor plumbing, radio, TV, computers, the internet, microwave ovens, air conditioners… The list is endless, and this stuff was not developed by magic, but by science. President Trump has not appointed a chief science advisor, and the office once run by the eminent scientist John Holdren and staffed by over 130 people is now downgraded, demoralized and down to a staff of about 50. As Scott Waldman observed in Scientific American this past February:

“A job that’s been held by some of the nation’s top scientists is now occupied by a 31-year-old politics major from Princeton University…More than a year into his term, Trump hasn’t identified a potential nominee for the key position held by prominent scientists in Republican and Democratic administrations alike.”

Waldman’s conclusion was that no scientist who denied the reality of climate science could get through a Congressional appointment process, and that President Trump would only appoint a climate denier to the post. Probably true, but the impact of this on the quality of national decision making should not be understated. As important as climate science is, it is not the only science needed in formulating public policy. The products and services central to economic well-being are more complex than ever, as is the process of making those products and services. Simple mechanical products are now built with complex electronic controls, and data and communications technology have revolutionized our lives. The importance of scientific literacy continues to grow. While the world becomes more dependent on science and technology, the attack on science has spread throughout the U.S. federal government. As Carolyn Kormann reported this past April in the New Yorker:

“More than five hundred and seventy members of the National Academy of Sciences published a statement on Monday decrying the Trump Administration’s “denigration of scientific expertise and harassment of scientists.” The members, who are acting independently of the N.A.S., represent many fields (social, biological, environmental, physical), but they note that the White House’s “dismissal of scientific evidence” has been “particularly egregious” in the case of climate change.”

The attack on science is an inadvertent attack on the American economy. It is also a profound threat to our high-tech defense capacity. We need a higher level of scientific understanding by private and public managers if we are to bring environmental sustainability into routine organizational decision making. A transition to a new type of management, to what some of us call “sustainability management,” is essential if the American economy is going to continue to advance. Sustainability management refers to the organizational management practices that result in sustainable development; it is economic production and consumption that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes resource conservation and reuse.

I believe that effective management is no longer possible without sustainability management because physical constraints and environmental impacts are an increasing input to organizational decision making. Part of the rationale for sustainability management is the same we saw for Total Quality Management: By driving waste from the production process, managers can make an organization more efficient and more competitive. Lower resource demand means lower production costs. Maximizing sustainability enables you to reduce expenses and maximize efficiency. Another part of the rationale for sustainability management is that on our more crowded world, the probability of one organization’s production or consumption process damaging another organization’s production or consumption process increases.

While the concept of sustainability and the practice of greater awareness of negative externalities makes sense, there are practical obstacles to managing our way to sustainability. Despite these obstacles, the alternative to sustainability management is also problematic. The political demands for the developing world to develop are increasing and require a response if the current level of political stability is to be maintained. The only way worldwide global economic development is feasible is if we learn how to manage a high throughput economy that does not destroy the planet. We need to pay careful attention to our impacts and steer production and consumption toward practices that minimize environmental damage. This requires a greater understanding of ecology and environmental science than we have today.

Some analysts question if there is enough capacity to produce the food, energy, water, air and biological necessities required to sustain nine billion humans while maintaining a healthy planet. I believe that with careful management and more advanced science and technology, it can be done. It will require sufficient natural resources, scientific knowledge, technology, and organizational capacity. It will need to rely on the nearly infinite resource of the sun and its translation to material goods through photosynthesis.  We don’t have the sustainability technology we need yet, but we will develop it over the next several decades. Managing the planet is beyond our current capacity but the goal of the field of sustainability management is to develop these capacities.

As management has become more sophisticated it has also become more multi-disciplinary. Mass production requires an understanding of statistics; supply chains depend on operations research; accounting depends on economics and finance; and performance measurement requires an understanding of information technology. Different types of production processes require the various disciplines brought together in engineering: mechanical, electrical, hydrological, civil, and environmental.  Sustainability requires at least a rudimentary understanding of environmental science and ecology. This is not a field that has traditionally attracted aspiring organizational managers. It is clear that the folks running the U.S. federal government don’t even understand why it is needed.

Rapid changes in technology can disrupt stable and longstanding organizational processes and business models. In every field, managers must monitor technological developments, a task that cannot be undertaken by a scientific illiterate. It is impossible to understand every field of science and technology that might affect your operation. Therefore, the task of today’s manager is to learn how to learn new scientific facts and theories. This can range from learning about the feasibility of new energy and production technologies to understanding the environmental impact of an organization’s waste stream.

The president, congress, and the media seem more interested in impression management or spin than in the actual management of real organizational actions. President Trump loves to sign executive orders with a big black pen and loves to make dramatic, attention-getting policy pronouncements. As much as I disagree with many of these pronouncements I am stunned by the level of management incompetence exhibited by those charged with implementing these policies. It is as if appearance is everything and field level performance is not worthy of attention.

I wonder, who’s minding the store? Who is focused on the nuts and bolts of tracking immigrant children, the restoration of electricity in Puerto Rico, or the environmental impact of ditching the Paris Climate Accord? All of this work requires scientific literacy and technological sophistication. Our need for more and better science continues to grow. Climate science is important, but so is hydrology, ecology, information science, and engineering. America’s future prosperity depends on enhancing the technological sophistication and scientific literacy of the people running our organizations. We need that knowledge to compete in the world marketplace, and to protect the planet that we rely on for food, water, clothing, shelter, energy and everything else that life depends on. At the very moment when we need to improve our capacity for bringing scientific knowledge into decision making, we are attacking our science and scientists. This is foolish and self-destructive.

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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