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View from the Lectern: Sustainability and 21st Century Professions

If our water pipes break we call a plumber. If our car stalls we call a mechanic.  If our yard-tree gets infested with insects we call an arborist.  Who do we call to fix an unsustainable town, city, nation, or lifestyle?

Environmental professions emerged in the 20th Century to address problems of scarcity and pollution: foresters focus on wood, agriculturalist manage food, agronomists heal soil, hydrologists find water, civil engineers manage waste steams, and so on.  These professions served necessary functions solving problems relevant to a 20th-century context that had not yet come to grips with the challenges of living sustainably with 8 to 12 billion people on a finite globe, many of whom need better access to water, food, and shelter and most of whom aspire to more comfortable, materialist lifestyles.

The 21st century is urban, connected by a global economy, powered by information, and increasingly middle class.  Our challenges are more complex than providing enough food, materials, water, soil and other resources.  We now alter the very fabric of life through climate change, nitrogen fixing, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and synthetic biology.

We need new types of professions.  In addition to those that fix symptoms (i.e., resource scarcity, pollution) we need professions that focus on fixing the causes.  That is, we need to fix the institutions, cultural norms, economic markets, and governance systems that are propelling us towards an unsustainable future.

Higher education resists initiatives of this type.  These emerging professions have no established constituency to lobby administrators or contribute to endowments.  Existing university structures are composed of 20th-century professional and disciplinary departments staffed by people whose whole careers and very identities are deeply embedded in the success of 20th-century programs, and thus understandably resistant to questions about their relevance to 21st-century challenges or changes that might tarnish their legacy.

But the new class of problems embodied in the ideas of sustainability demand new solutions.  As Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

For more information read:  Bryant, R. L., and Wilson, G.A. (1998). “Rethinking environmental management.” Progress in Human Geography 22: 321-343.

Posted on: February 10, 2011, 1:03 pm Category: View from the Lectern Tagged with: , ,

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