Sustainability Education Provides a Reason to Hope

While oil continues to ooze into the Gulf of Mexico and the climate bill remains stalled in the Senate, I might be delusional, but I am feeling optimistic about our planet's prospects. It helps to work at a university, and it especially helps to participate in graduation ceremonies like the ones I attended here at Columbia this past week. While this year's job market remains tough for our graduates, it is not nearly as horrific as the market faced by the class of 2009. The energy and idealism of our graduates is infectious and should be a source of hope for everyone.

At the Earth Institute we have launched a series of new educational programs over the past decade which I described here a few months ago. We are finding that the demand for these programs among young people is strong and only growing stronger. The Master of Science in Sustainability Management program at Columbia's School of Continuing Education was expected to start up next fall with about 30 students and now will enroll closer to 100. Applications are increasing in nearly all of our programs as students focus on entering the emerging green economy.

The first program set up by the Earth Institute nearly a decade ago is the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy- a joint program of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and Earth Institute. These Masters students study intensely for a full year, enrolling in 18 graduate credits a semester for three semesters. They take a year of economics, politics, policy management and finance courses and also a summer of environmental science courses. The science curriculum includes climate science, hydrology, ecology, toxicology and environmental chemistry. In early May, the 67 graduating students in this program completed their capstone workshop projects for public sector clients. These projects are staffed by a faculty advisor and around a dozen students and are undertaken as a public service for government and nonprofit clients. This past semester our students and faculty worked on the following cutting edge policy analyses:

  • Human Impacts on Biodiversity Conservation. Professor Sara Tjossem advised a team that worked with The Nature Conservancy and performed a Geographic Information System analysis of current and future population density, consumption, income, and land use levels in the areas surrounding The Nature Conservancy's major projects throughout the world. The team analyzed the drivers of conservation and suggested how The Nature Conservancy might address issues of population growth, resource consumption, and poverty in their work.
  • Success and Failures: Evaluating Environmental Justice Strategies in Federal Agencies. Professor Gail Suchman advised a student group that worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) to analyze how federal agencies were implementing a Clinton-era executive order mandating that issues of environmental justice be incorporated into federal decision making.
  • Sustainable Water for Abu Dhabi. Professor Nancy Degnan advised a group working on water consumption in Abu Dhabi. The project's client was the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council which plans and regulates Abu Dhabi's physical environment. Our students sought to define the causes and effects of water shortage and produced a report outlining a strategy for producing and conserving water.
  • Evaluating Possibilities for an International Carbon Markets Regime. Professor Kathleen Callahan advised a group working on the possibilities of international carbon markets with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The team analyzed the obstacles to international consensus, the effects of U.S. inaction, and the benefits of technological and financial assistance to developing nations.
  • Understanding New York City's Food Supply. My own student group worked with the New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in an attempt to better understand where New York City's food comes from and how it is grown or processed. The project concluded that New York City's food system is resilient, complex and competitive.

The reports and videos of student presentations are available here. As an educator, I am particularly proud of the analytic rigor and quality of these student reports. One of the difficulties in the field of environment and sustainability policy and management is that there is plenty of advocacy and opinion but too little study and analysis. These reports are evidence of a different and more thoughtful approach. Dozens of similar student reports over the past several years can be found on the program's web site.

Discussions of environment and sustainability are permeated by an enormous amount of symbolic and ideological content. My hope is that this emerging generation of environmental professionals will increase the factual and analytic content of that discussion. They certainly know more than I did when I left graduate school, and they have benefited from the accumulated experience of the pioneers that built the field they are now entering. The only question is whether this job market will be strong enough to provide them with the opportunity to make the meaningful contributions they have been trained to make.