The Role of Universities in the Transition to Environmental Sustainability

by |December 27, 2022

Last summer, I completed the manuscript for my new book, Environmentally Sustainable Growth: A Pragmatic Approach. My team and I have spent the last several weeks reviewing the page proofs and the index, and Columbia Press tells me in about five months, it will be published. The book’s main point is that we are in the midst of a generation-long struggle to transition our economy from a throw-away linear model to one based on renewable resources and a deep concern for environmental preservation. It will be a long transition, but it is well underway. As I reviewed the manuscript, I started thinking about the various jobs I do at Columbia and the role of the university in facilitating this critical transition.

Few people are interested in the complexity of long-term change, and many people do not have the patience for it. I dedicated my new book to my three granddaughters because I suspect that this transition will be more important to their lives than to mine. I want them to live in a world of hope and promise, and building that world requires that we utilize new technologies to address the problems created by our existing technologies. The type of change we need demands the type of governmental leadership Joe Biden has demonstrated in attacking the climate crisis and the type of corporate leadership I discuss in my new book from companies like Apple, Etsy, and, yes, Walmart. It will also take leadership from universities.

Columbia has a mixed record on sustainability, but it is improving. Of course, I go back to my arrival at Columbia as an assistant professor in 1981, when one of my four courses was to be a course in environmental politics and policy. Shortly after I arrived, a senior administrator put his arm around my shoulder and said: “Listen, Steve, no one comes to New York City to study the environment. We’d like you to teach another management course instead.” I didn’t get to teach the environmental course until I became associate dean of faculty at the School of International and Public Affairs in 1987, and I was able to create a new concentration in Environmental Policy Studies. But things improved, and soon, our Lamont earth scientists were teaching an environmental science course called Environmental Science for Policymaking — a course designed for the scientific illiterates like me who studied and formulated public policy. In 1996, Mike Crow founded the Earth Institute, and we were off to the races. I became the institute’s education director in 2002, and we established a comprehensive suite of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs focused on environmental sustainability. Thousands of students have studied with us, and our alumni network is growing, inspiring and impressive.

Our researchers, especially those at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the other important research units on the Lamont campus, continue to produce world-class insight into the state of the planet. We were even able to attract one of the nation’s best environmental lawyers, Mike Gerrard, who established the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at our law school. My colleague Shahid Naeem recruited now university professor Ruth DeFries to our ecology department. Many other brilliant environmental scholars followed. I guess people do come to New York to study the environment.

But there remains a lot that other universities and Columbia have not done. The funding base for research about our planet is thin, and the hundreds of soft-money researchers that Columbia hires are constantly hustling for grants to keep the lights on. The federal government under Biden has reopened the environmental research business that Trump closed, but who knows what’s coming next? Universities seem to be able to raise money for medical research, but endowments for environmental studies remain rare. We know a lot more about the human body than we do about our planet’s biodiversity. We also have not raised enough scholarship money to ensure that our educational opportunities in the environment are accessible to everyone qualified to study with us. Our undergraduate and doctoral programs are very good at supporting students, but the funding model of our professional master’s programs considers tuition an investment for the student. For the most part, the investment pays off, but for some students, the cost or debt required discourages study. In the Sustainability Management program I direct, we recently created an advisory board that is helping to generate new scholarship money, but we have a long way to go.

My focus thus far has been on my own university, but we are only one of many. Many schools are establishing educational programs addressing the various elements of environmental sustainability. When Mike Crow became president of Arizona State University, he founded a school of sustainability, and recently John Doerr made a $1.1 billion gift to Stanford to create a school of sustainability.

The fundamental job of universities is to create and disseminate new knowledge. We are slowly getting the area of planetary sustainability institutionalized at American universities, and that is at the heart of our task.

But it is far from our only job. Our campuses and endowments give us the opportunity to lead by example. Here at Columbia, we occupy very expensive land in a very expensive city. Our iconic campus on Morningside Heights is largely landmarked and mostly filled with old buildings, ancient energy and waste infrastructure, and a high operation and maintenance budget. It’s taken over a decade to convince our facilities folks about the importance of environmental performance. Many are now onboard but face the expensive obstacles presented by our beautiful but inefficient campus. Our new campus, a quarter mile away in Manhattanville, is filled with modern and more environmentally sound structures, but sadly is built right next to the Hudson River and is only a few feet above sea level. The new campus required expensive engineering to control the flooding that climate change will certainly bring.

The transition to environmental sustainability also requires a transition to organizational sustainability, and that involves encouraging diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, along with a concern for community impact and organizational transparency. Columbia has come a long way from its fortunately failed effort to build a gym in a treasured community park, with separate and unequal facilities for the students and for the Harlem community. Back in the late 1960s, Columbia student activists closed the university and stopped the gym from being built. Fortunately, institutions are capable of learning, and when the Manhattanville campus was sited, the university and neighborhood developed a $70 million community benefit agreement to try to ensure that the new campus became a community asset.

Universities, like all large and powerful institutions, need to internalize a concern for their environmental impact in their standard operating procedures. They must transition to electric vehicles and utilize renewable energy. While Columbia students do not drive to campus, most students at most universities do drive. Those huge parking fields at many universities could be enclosed and then covered by solar arrays. Charging stations could be built in those new parking structures. The construction costs could be recovered by lower energy costs and charging fees. Food waste at universities should be separated from other waste and either composted or treated at anaerobic digesters. These are only a sample of the wide variety of best environmental practices that universities should adhere to.

Finally, and perhaps most centrally, universities must teach environmental ethics and reverence for our planet. Urban universities must bring students to the countryside to experience nature firsthand. One of the greatest threats to environmental sustainability is that we might somehow allow virtual nature experiences to replace real ones, that we allow technology to replace the natural world. Protecting nature is necessary to preserve human life today, but someday, technology will have the ability to supplant the natural world. The only way to prevent that is to include in our education system the same reverence for planetary life we teach for human life. Environmental protection is a value requiring belief and even a certain spirituality. For religious folks, the issue is straightforward: What gives humans the right to destroy what our deity created? For less religious people, the issue is more complicated, but at its heart a critical part of an ethical value system that treasures the natural world. Preserving the planet is as self-justifying as preserving any other valuable and beautiful creation. It is the job of universities to develop and teach environmental ethics and ensure it permeates education from preschool to graduate school.

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