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Sustainability: General Education or Technology Training?

Over the last few years I’ve had the good fortune to work on teams developing new undergraduate and graduate degrees in sustainability.  I work at a university known for its world-class engineering, architecture, business, and applied science programs.  Our motto use to be “putting knowledge to work.” Now it is “invent the future.”  Like most institutions, we follow the adage of “lead with your strength.” Thus, understandably, our discussions about new academic programs reflected a technology-oriented mindset.

But technology will not solve the big challenges of sustainability. The Jevons Paradox, the rebound effect, the collapse of complex societies, civil apathy, political polarization, poverty, and a host of other factors limit what technology can do, or at least that is what I believe.  Technology is a necessary part of sustainability, but it is not sufficient.  We need to change our institutions—business, civil, and government—and we need to change our expectations of each other and of the good life.  That is, we need social and cultural transformations.

My perspective has prompted productive debates with technology-oriented colleagues who believe a sustainability degree should emphasize the technical tools and disciplinary perspectives of our strong, existing programs that have demonstrated success at solving the problems society identifies.  That is, we should teach lifecycle analysis to engineers, triple bottom line accounting and sustainability planning to MBAs, climate change science to foresters and hydrologists, geographic information system skills to land use planners, green chemistry to materials scientists, LEEDS to architects, integrated pest management and no-till farming to agriculturalists, and so on.  The debate, as I previously blogged, has gone so far as to suggest we don’t need a new sustainability degree, just tweaks to current ones.

So what do I think should be the learning outcomes emphasized in a sustainability degree?  Let me start with what might seem a self-contradiction: I think learning outcomes should specialize in technology.  Students should know GIS, cost-benefit and life-cycle analysis, green chemistry, green consumerism, green engineering, green building, and the green dimensions of other disciplines and professions.  They must grasp and master the tools society uses to solve problems.  They also must know about climate, water, ecology, accounting, business management, poultry, and public administration. That is, I think we need specialization within sustainability-oriented versions of existing professions and disciplines.

But we need more. Graduates of sustainability programs must understand and practice:

  • Philosophy and Vision: They must be able to engage in meaningful debates about alternative development paths, challenge the status quo, have formed an opinion on weak versus strong sustainability, and be able to integrate sustainability concerns with religion, justice, equity, and dignity, and human nature.
  • Divergent Thinking and Language: They must be able to redefine the questions we ask while seeking sustainability, see and appreciate that multiple right answers are possible, and possess the sensitivity to operate within and across the disciplinary and professional silos that define themselves by providing a narrow subset of answers to a narrow subset of questions.
  • Nonlinearity and Resiliency: They must possess a systems orientation that sees everything embedded in an integrated socio-ecological system full of positive and negative feedback loops, nested and hierarchical interconnectivity, and stochastic unpredictability that produce system conditions that can irreversibly flip.
  • Entrepreneurship and Deliberation: They must possess the confidence and courage to act, fail, and lead.  They must possess the savvy to target and deliver meaningful messages to appropriate audiences.  They must nurture the patience and empathy needed to engage in constructive discussions that uncover solutions on higher ground.
  • Planning and Psychology: They must be able to change institutional and individual behaviors by understanding the various strategic planning strategies government agencies, businesses and other organizations employ as well as understand how individuals learn and become motivated to action.
  • Partnership and Collaboration: They must be humble to the solutions that exist outside their influence, sensitive to the motivations and methods of others who can have different influences, and capable of building and sustaining collaborative efforts across business, public, non-profit, religious and other sectors.
  • Learning to learn:  They must be able to facilitate social learning by the organizations in which they are embedded as well as pursue personal wisdom by managing and evaluating the explosion of information made possible by the the digital revolution.

How should a sustainability education program be organized?  The structures that dominate current higher education provides several solutions:

  • A “minor” or concentration could be offered university-wide for students specializing in existing technology-oriented degrees,
  • A new addition to the university’s many general education requirements,
  • A new general-education undergraduate major designed to direct graduates towards specialization at the graduate level in existing professions and disciplines, or
  • Graduates of the current specialized, technology-oriented undergraduate degrees could be persuaded to continue for a graduate degree in a big-picture, integrative sustainability program such as our XMNR.

I’m unsure which, if any, of these options is better than another, or whether structure matters at all.  We must learn by doing.  Different universities will pursue different strategies according to their strengths and cultures and at some point in the future we can evaluate their outcomes with the benefit of hindsight.  Let’s get started.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: June 7, 2011, 9:30 am Category: Opinions, Sustainability and Education, View from the Lectern Tagged with: , , ,

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