Educating Sustainability Managers

by |April 29, 2019

In 2001, I started to work on environmental education for the Earth Institute and in 2002 the Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs launched the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy. Working with a group of Columbia’s top environmental scientists, we built a path-breaking 12-credit sequence of environmental science course work designed for nonscientist policy analysts and public managers. The rest of the curriculum is a traditional public policy degree with management, economics, quantitative analysis, ethics and politics — but all focused on environmental issues. It is an intensive year-long program where students enroll in 18 graduate credits per semester in the summer fall and spring, take many of their courses together and do a great deal of group work, including a three-semester workshop sequence that culminates in a public service client capstone. As we had hoped, its graduates have become some of the top leaders in environmental sustainability in the public, private and nonprofit sectors throughout the world.

As proud as I am of the Environmental Science and Policy program, I realized that it required a year of dedicated full-time study to complete and for some of the people I wanted to reach, that was simply impossible. So, in 2009, along with several Earth Institute colleagues, I began to work with what was then called Columbia’s School of Continuing Education (now its School of Professional Studies) to develop a program for working professionals. That effort led in 2010 to the creation of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management, a 36-point degree, with a great deal of flexibility that can be completed with course work that takes place between 6 P.M. and 8 P.M. Monday through Thursday. That program and its community have grown over the years and focused more on the private than the public sector with a particular emphasis on green finance. Most of its graduates remain in the New York region and are helping to build a sustainable New York. In fact, it is difficult these days to attend any gathering of sustainability professionals in this region without running into more than one of our graduates. A few years after that program began, we made its courses available to students in the Executive MPA program and began a small concentration in Sustainability Policy and Management in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs Master of Public Administration program for mid-career professionals.

The result of all of this is that each year, over 300 graduate students at this one university are studying sustainability management and preparing for careers that build economic growth while protecting our environment. There are about 700 students each year studying in educational programs involving the Earth Institute. I have long believed that the path to environmental sustainability would not be achieved by a transformative public policy or a transformative technology (although we could really use both) but by the slow, daily effort of millions of dedicated professionals working in organizations to deliver goods and services while protecting the planet. These professionals would reflexively work to reduce the impact of their organization’s activities on our ecosystems. They would develop and implement sustainability metrics and incorporate those measures into their organization’s routine goals and actions.

The education programs I’ve described at Columbia are only some of Columbia’s offerings in this area: We have programs in sustainability science, climate and society, development practice, energy and environmental policy, environmental health science, environmental engineering and sustainable development at the undergraduate and doctoral level. And we are far from alone.  Many universities around the United States and around the world are also building programs in environmental sustainability. The demand for trained sustainability professionals is growing and the field’s sophistication and analytic rigor is growing as well.

We need all of those now being trained as sustainability professionals and we will need many more in the future. We need innovation in the management of our organizations in order to create the standard practices and capacities needed for sustainability. We also need scientists and engineers to focus their attention on renewable energy, toxics, waste processing technology, energy storage, and pollution control. Since I am not a scientist or engineer, but a management and policy analyst, I focus on the areas I understand, but we need more than sustainability policy and management — we need sustainability science and engineering. These fields are also growing as the private sector begins to understand the huge market for all of these technologies.

These days mass and social media focus attention on the anti-environmental acts of the Trump Administration. However, I find that while people who care about the planet are concerned about the U.S. federal government, they are as determined as ever to press forward. Unlike the past, few of my graduates are expressing interest in careers in our federal government, but they are finding many opportunities in state and local governments, international organizations, foreign governments, nonprofits and most of all in the private sector. It turns out that despite the federal government’s stance, the green economy is booming. Last week I wrote about New York City’s effort to modernize the energy in its built environment; there are many opportunities emerging in that line of work.

The pressure is growing on organizations to reduce their environmental impacts, carbon footprint and environmental risk. This pressure comes from investors, consumers and from young people entering the workforce. Many young professionals are concerned about personal and planetary wellness and are expecting their employers to pay attention to these emerging issues. There are also cost savings when an organization reduces waste of materials and energy. Organizations that ignore environmental sustainability and exploit natural resources or pollute find that they suffer reputational damage. This can harm their efforts to cultivate consumers and can impair their ability to recruit talented managers and staff.

It is not just that people expect the organizations that they work for to act with a sense of responsibility and ethics, but that sustainability management is an indicator of overall management competence. Put another way, those organizations that ignore sustainability management may be ignoring other key management dimensions as well and are probably poorly run. If some of your compensation includes an equity stake in a company, an organization that puts its long-term future at risk, may be putting your long-term future at risk as well. In my view, competent management requires sustainability management. Just as it requires sound financial management, communications, human resource management and strategy, a concern for planetary impacts is not a frill but a necessity.

We live on a more crowded planet and economic consumption is not only growing in quantity but in global complexity. It is no longer sufficient to try gloss over mistakes and wasteful practices that harm the environment due to neglect. The old saying that in order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs, is simply an out of date, inapplicable analogy. Today’s senior managers need to understand environmental sustainability and many if not most, do not. That is why so many educational programs have been started over the past decade to train tomorrows managers to become sustainability managers. In the next three weeks, we will be graduating several hundred sustainability professionals here at Columbia. Throughout the world thousands more will enter the workplace over the next hundred days. Their emergence is a source of hope for our future that feeds my optimism and my belief that we can address today’s global crisis in environmental sustainability.

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