With just over a decade left to prevent irreversible damage caused by climate change, the value of a degree in sustainability has never been higher.
Consumers, organizations, and businesses across all types of industries have put an unprecedented focus on becoming more sustainable. Many have already laid out substantial plans with ambitious goals.
But, for all of these entities to successfully achieve all of their sustainability goals, they need the leadership of qualified sustainability experts. So, in recent years, colleges and universities across the United States have put a tremendous focus on growing their sustainability departments. And students have naturally become increasingly interested in the subject.
The rise of the sustainability major
Sustainability, as a college major, originated at Arizona State University (ASU) in 2006.
Back then, leaders at ASU correctly recognized that a rapidly urbanizing world would pose complex environmental, social and economic challenges. And they predicted the need for a new generation of workers equipped with the skills and mindset to develop real-world solutions.
“We’re living in a world that is not only increasingly smaller — in terms of how we’re all interconnected and connected to the environment — but it’s also increasingly complex,” said Andrew Maynard, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. “Which means that it’s harder to understand, if you’re a business, how your actions are going to lead to certain consequences around the world.”
Sustainability programs teach students to think of the world as a complex system and prepares them to navigate the future that is coming along, Maynard explained.
Within a decade of ASU establishing its sustainability program, 475 other colleges and universities across the country followed suit.
And ever since, students have become more interested and invested in sustainability studies.
Heidi Hutner, an associate professor of sustainability, English and women’s and gender studies at Stony Brook University, has witnessed this increasing student interest first-hand.
“During the time that I have been teaching in the (sustainability) program, it has grown significantly,” said Hutner. “Obviously, there is a strong interest on our campus in the topic. And I would say, in general, in the 20 years that I’ve been teaching environmental issues — even before we had a sustainability program — the level of interest from my students is definitely greater, and awareness is definitely greater.”
Rising career prospects for sustainability majors
Part of the reason colleges and universities are seeing more and more students interested in sustainability studies may be that the major presents tremendous post-graduation career opportunities.
“Our students definitely do extremely well in the job market,” said Hutner. “I can say that for sure.”
Sustainability degree holders have the opportunity to work at some of the world’s largest companies as sustainability officers and directors in charge of creating and deploying corporate sustainability policies. Google and Amazon, for example, recently established ambitious sustainability plans. They will presumably continue to need sustainability experts to ensure smooth transitions of their operations to sustainability. And so will other entities.
But those aren’t the only careers available for sustainability grads. Their cross-discipline training qualifies them for many other positions.
“I see (sustainability grads) going out and doing various things from journalism to working in government positions to working in planning and policy, as lawyers. You name it, they’re doing all of it,” Hutner said. “They’re doing conservation, teaching, science — a wide variety of things.”
Moral obligation to study sustainability
With less than 11 years before climate change could cause irreversible damage to the planet and its ecosystems, there is also a moral obligation for students to pursue sustainability studies.
For thousands of years, civilizations have only continued to survive because they lived and passed without sacrificing the land, soil and water that sustained them. But today, with many of the world’s individuals and companies dependent on fossil fuels, future generations are in jeopardy of living on a depleted earth.
“It is easy to believe that someone else will save our planet,” Ernest Nkansah-Dwamena, a visiting assistant professor for SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry who was brought on to manage the school’s online sustainability management program, said in a statement. “In reality, you are the one to save it for future generations. From climate change to sustainable urbanism, renewable energy to action planning, thinking differently will be what saves our world. Leveraging the knowledge you acquire today will make a difference in tomorrow’s society.”
Will the field of sustainability continue to grow?
For the sake of the earth, there is no question that the field of sustainability needs to continue to grow. But, Maynard doesn’t think it’s a given that it will.
“That potential depends on how we teach sustainability and how we frame it matching what organizations need,” said Maynard.
Hutner, however, takes a more optimistic approach. She thinks that because there is already such a need for expertise in sustainability across all industries, its growth is more or less inevitable.
“There is no area that I can think of that does not need the infusion of this thinking,” said Hutner. “And it’s a thought process too. It’s a way of looking at the world. How could we do this so we do less harm? How can we do this more efficiently?”