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Educating Environmental Professionals in the Sustainability Era

It's been just over 21 years since the United Nations released Our Common Future and introduced the term "sustainable development" to the popular culture.  I was thirty years old when I read it, and I remember highlighting whole sections and inserting exclamation points, and adding notes in the margins like "Exactly!" Many environmental professionals (me included) eagerly embraced the notion that humanity's hopes for ecological health, social justice, and economic security were inextricably interwoven and might be addressed together through coordinated policies and actions. One of the consequences of the "sustainability" idea was a reconsideration of what it means to be an environmental professional. Recognizing that the protection of ecological systems was wrapped up in the economic and social justice conditions of people, we began to imagine a new kind of "sustainability" professional who could develop environmental solutions that simultaneously advanced social and economic goals. Or, I suppose, social justice solutions that promoted ecosystem health. Over time, a conversation developed about how best to educate and train "sustainability" professionals.  Broadly speaking, I've observed three arguments in this conversation. One approach calls for interdisciplinary education of what might be called "sustainable solutions" professionals. The idea here is that mega-issues like climate change, poverty, species extinction, unemployment, income inequality, and water quality concerns can be studied and understood as an interlocking set of ecological, economic, technological, cultural, political, financial, administrative, and social justice issues so that workable solutions can be created. With this in mind, educational institutions have created some innovative programs - especially at the Master's level - which are designed to help future professionals grapple with the complex intersections of different professional worlds and invent creative solutions. Thus, instead of an engineer, economist, biologist, or accountant who "works on climate change," we have a climate change solutions professional who tries to embody many different understandings in one, multi-disciplinary person. A second approach to "education for sustainability" assumes that good solutions to complex problems are best arrived at when specialists bring their unique knowledge, skill, and experience into a conversation with other specialists. Earth scientists remain earth scientists. Social justice activists remain activists. Engineers are not required to read up on creative government financing schemes. Lawyers do their lawyerly thing. MBAs keep MBA'ing. Under the sustainability paradigm, however, it is essential that professionals from different skill sets and perspectives be able to talk to one another respectfully and to incorporate what they are hearing into their own thinking and problem-solving. Understanding this, professional education for sustainability turns on learning how to work together with professionals from other disciplines in a team setting. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds on paper. The third approach to the professional education question challenges the entire sustainability idea, with its assumption that ecological health, social justice, and economic security are interlocking goals instead of competing interests. People who take this view argue that the real world is about competing interests, and that it's not realistic to expect that human beings will invent solutions that strengthen the economy, lift poor people out of poverty, assure greater equality of income, and protect and restore damaged and threatened ecosystems at the same time. In this view, it's both realistic and appropriate for people to set up institutions that are specifically designed to protect the natural world with the full expectation that the needs of ecosystems will often clash with the desires of people - rich and poor. These institutions need educated professionals with deep knowledge, skill, and experience in fields like wetlands ecology, forestry, fisheries and wildlife biology, hydrology, marine science and so forth.  They need environmental professionals to work at our environmental agencies, companies, advocacy groups, and consulting firms. Of course, all three of these general approaches to professional education in the era of sustainability are simplified and the distinctions get blurred once we launch into our actual careers and try to get things done. It's been my experience, however, that the assumptions behind the models are real and often deeply ingrained. Since I'm often asked to provide career advice to college students with an interest in growing a more sustainable world, this issue is of more than passing interest, and I frankly don't have an easy answer. For now, I take the easy way out. We need all three approaches to educating the next generation of "sustainability" professionals. And, employers seem to agree with me.  As I travel about and ask companies and agencies about their workforce needs, I hear calls for interdisciplinary "solutions" people, requests for "team" focused people with a major specialty, and demand for disciplinary specialists who are narrowly focused and really good in their chosen area. So, for now anyway, talented people don't need to be too worried about which path they take to their sustainability career. Or, at least that's the way I see it. I'd enjoy hearing from other Island Press authors and readers. ——————– Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, an independent consulting, research, facilitation and training firm serving the public and private institutions who are growing a more sustainable global economy. He is the co-author of three books about environmental careers (including The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World) and writes the monthly green careers column for Grist Magazine ( He delivers presentations and workshops about green careers on college campuses through “Grist U” and he welcomes your questions. Write to Kevin at