Our planet and society are at a crossroads. While we’ve enjoyed decades of strong economic growth and unprecedented advancements in technology, this progress has not been shared equally with everyone and has come at a huge environmental cost to the planet. As the world’s population surpasses seven billion people and pushes toward ten billion people, it is becoming clearer that an economy built on the extraction of finite resources, fossil fuel energy, and a third world workforce manufacturing goods for first world consumers is not going to be sustainable into the future. In addition, advancements in communications technologies, such as satellite TV, cell phones, and the Internet, have made more people aware of these inequalities and increased the aspirations of more and more people to live a more energy and resource intensive “first world” or “western” lifestyle.Sustainability education seeks to educate a new generation of business and thought leaders on these issues so that they can lead us in developing a more sustainable future. Students study subjects such as economics, sustainable development, renewable energy, ecology, ecotourism, environmental technology, permaculture, earth science, Green IT, GIS, aquaculture, resource management, hydrology, environmental justice, resilience, and systems thinking. Students are introduced to new ways of thinking about business, economics, the environment, society and the interdependent relationship they all have. Rather than just concentrating on economic development, environmental and social development must also be considered.
On a practical note, more and more businesses are recognizing the relationship between economic and sustainable growth. Cutting a companies’ energy use (and in turn, carbon footprint) is not only good for the planet, it’s also good for the bottom line, saving money year after year in energy bills. Providing a healthy, safe work environment is not only the right thing to do for employees, it also saves money in health care costs and improves worker efficiency. Reducing the pollution produced in the manufacturing process does not only make the environmentalists happy, it ensures the long term viability of the manufacturing plant at its current location. Switching from virgin sourced to recycled raw materials not only cuts down on the negative impacts of resource extraction, but also ensures an ongoing supply of raw materials that is not dependent on finding new sources.
In addition, green job growth is now outpacing overall job growth. Between 1998 and 2007, green job growth in the US was 150% higher than overall job growth, 9.1 percent versus 3.7 percent, and this was achieved with little government investment (http://www.pewtrusts.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=53254). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now projects growth in environment related occupations to be 38% greater than all other occupations combined by 2016. Clearly an education focused on sustainability and green processes and practices will provide a leg up in securing a job in the future.
Issues such as global climate change, peak oil, globalization, resource depletion, environmental degradation, poverty, and workers rights threaten our future prosperity, but at the same time offer huge opportunities. Sustainability education aims to arm students with the tools and resources to take advantage of these opportunities and create a better future for ourselves and future generations.