The Purpose and Goals of Sustainability Education

by |June 18, 2018

In the fall of 1975, my first semester in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, I enrolled in a seminar called “Environmental Politics” taught by one of my now-mentors, the late Professor Lester Milbrath. Les was well ahead of his time, and had us read books about environmental science, quality of life, and the possible limits to population and economic growth. Our world’s population has nearly doubled since then (it was about 4 billion in 1975; over 7.5 billion today), and our need to pay close attention to our use of natural resources and our impact on the biosphere has moved from the fringes of our awareness to its center.

The environmental issue in the 1960s and 1970s was not considered particularly serious or important by mainstream policy analysts in the newly emerging field of public policy analysis. The top schools of public policy at Harvard, Princeton, Syracuse and Berkeley paid little attention to the issue. The exception was Indiana University, where Lynton Caldwell founded the field of environmental policy with a seminal article in Public Administration Review in 1962, helped invent the environmental impact statement, and helped found Indiana’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. At Columbia, where I’ve worked since 1981, we did not begin an environmental policy concentration until 1987.

Starting with the toxic waste disaster at Love Canal in 1978 and continuing to this day, the issue of environmental sustainability has become an issue of human health, well-being and even survival. As an educator, a political scientist and a student of organizational management, I’ve spent decades trying to understand the dimensions of the environmental problem and understand the causes and effects of our efforts to address that problem. Starting with the environmental policy concentration at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs back in 1987, I’ve spent large parts of the past three plus decades developing new education programs focused on the issue of environmental sustainability. Working with my Columbia colleagues we’ve created an undergraduate major, a doctoral program and a number of professional masters degrees, including two I direct: the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the MS in Sustainability Management.

What has been the propose of these education initiatives? It is about preserving the earth’s resources for our descendants while continuing human progress. I see human development since the Enlightenment as a gradual progression to a world where the average person lives a better and more meaningful life. Before the development of the technology that both enables our lifestyle and threatens our environment’s sustainability, nearly everyone lived lives that today would be defined as impoverished. The quest for food, clothing and shelter was all most people had time to do. What little you owned and even people you loved could be taken from you by force unless you sacrificed your freedom and most of the fruits of your labor for the security of protection by some authority. Today, the average person in the developed world has time for leisure, learning and reflection. In the developed world we often take security from harm for granted. While I do not minimize the misery experienced by many, most people in the developed world live better than their grandparents did. It seems to me that we should do all we can to ensure that we do not lose this lifestyle due to errors of omission or commission. It is also obvious that those who still live in poverty must be given the opportunity to rise from it, and that society must take care of those who cannot care for themselves. But security, opportunity and justice cannot be achieved if our planet is poisoned or we damage the biosphere beyond repair. The purpose of these education programs is to help ensure that our natural environment is sustained.

The first environmental policy issue I worked on in the mid and late 1970s was water quality. I worked at EPA in 1977-1978 staffing a working group on public participation in water pollution control programs, and in 1980-1981 I worked on community relations in the Superfund toxic waste clean-up program. In 1979 I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the issue of public participation in regional water management planning. My concern was that environmental issues were so scientifically complex that the average citizen might not be able to provide meaningful input into government’s environmental policies. I based this on personal experience. Even though I had taken science courses as part of my liberal arts education at Franklin College of Indiana, I had never taken a single course in ecology or environmental science. Yet, here I was working at EPA trying to help formulate national environmental policy. Fortunately for me at the time, I was far from alone in my ignorance. Moreover, the impact of pollutants and toxic chemicals on people and ecosystems was far from well understood, even by experts.

It struck me that we needed to learn a lot more about the science of our planet, and we needed to learn how to communicate that science in terms that people could understand. We then needed to take that knowledge and bring it into the decision making process in corporations, governments and nonprofits, as well as into the values that shape family and individual life. Developing, understanding and applying knowledge of environmental problems and the solutions to those problems is the purpose of sustainability research and education. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made enormous progress in building this field of knowledge and in applying this knowledge in the practice of environmental protection.

But we have made significant mistakes as well. The politicization of climate science has been a particularly profound error. The blame for this failure is shared by climate scientists proposing politically infeasible solutions to the problem of global warming and fossil fuel companies, acting much like tobacco interests a generation ago, seeking to deny the reality of scientific knowledge. The science of climate change is as real as the science of the impact of toxic chemicals on human health. But it is complicated science, still debated, and continues to require learning through additional research. Nevertheless, unresolved scientific issues should not be used as an excuse to ignore settled science. If we are to continue to grow the world’s economy we need to become more sophisticated consumers of sustainability science. Growing that degree of scientific literacy and sophistication is a key goal of sustainability education. Eventually, climate science, like cancer science, will be accepted, but many will suffer for the sake of delusion and unenlightened self-interest.

Back when I was a graduate student studying environmental policy, Professor Les Milbrath frequently expressed a deep distrust and skepticism about “technical fixes”. To Les, we had to change our values and our way of life if we were to protect the environment. Technology was not the answer; it was the problem. Four decades later, I’ve come to the conclusion that Professor Milbrath was only half right. We had to change our values and learn to build an environmental ethos. We needed to be more respectful of nature and our dependence on it. America’s environmental values are stronger today than they were forty years ago. But Professor Milbrath was wrong about technology. The lifestyle we lead has been built on a steady diet of new technologies, and some have had unanticipated impacts. But the solution to the problems created by technology turns out to be more technology. That dreaded technological fix is how we have made America’s air, land and water cleaner in 2018 then it was when EPA was created in 1970. From the catalytic converter in our autos, to smoke stack scrubbers in our power plants, to advances in sewage and waste processing plants: new technology has made our environment cleaner, while our GDP continues to grow.

Understanding what’s succeeded and what’s failed in addressing environmental problems is another key goal of sustainability education.  We need a pragmatic, multi-dimensional and nonideological approach to sustainability problem solving. Multidimensional means that we can’t solve environmental problems if it destabilizes a government, destroys opportunity or denies people popular benefits. Pragmatic means we cannot make our human dominated world environmentally pristine.

To reiterate: Developing, understanding and applying knowledge of environmental problems and the solutions to those problems is the purpose of sustainability research and education. Growing our scientific literacy and sophistication is a key goal of sustainability education. Understanding what’s succeeded and what’s failed in addressing environmental problems is another key goal of sustainability education.

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