Education and the Sustainability Professional of the Future

By Neelam Ferrari

Many of my posts talk about the numerous global issues that are related to sustainability, and more particularly, how these important topics relate to human health and nutrition. As food and nutrition security will likely become defining societal issues over the coming decades, and we see no slowdown in the evolution of technological progress, the demands of sustainability professionals working in fields related to these topics need to be responsive to emerging global trends. These trends include not only environmental components, but also encompass changes in business, socioeconomics, technology and culture. When we hear the term sustainability, we often immediately focus on the environment and natural resources. While this is appropriate, it is only a piece of the broader puzzle. The definition, and the acknowledgement of topics related to sustainability encompasses perspectives from many different fields ranging from finance to medicine. Therefore, the foundation education for future sustainability professionals must embrace a multidisciplinary approach, while also emphasizing depth in one or more of the related components.

I can think about this from my own perspective as I will be entering college in the fall. After college, I plan to embark on a career in medicine. However, I plan to do more than practice in a clinical setting. In addition to working directly with patients, I also want to work to address some of the issues that are at the root of the development of disease, and I believe that many of these issues can be addressed through the lens of sustainability. Some of these sustainability/health issues center around access to a clean and plentiful water supply; this brings in the perspective of science and engineering. Others relate to food and nutrition, which can include genetics, biotechnology and education. In addition, we can connect some diseases to the lack of access to markets, which includes knowledge of economics, politics and business. From these high level examples, it is clear to me that while my primary education will focus on medicine and biotechnology, I will also need to develop a foundation in other contributing fields that are part of the sustainability spectrum.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Platform has been a leader in highlighting the importance of education in meeting sustainability goals. Further, education has been selected as one of the priority areas to help advance their agenda. As we broaden our definition of what a sustainability professional is, we can start to see that no matter what your primary occupation might be, a sustainability emphasis can be incorporated into your job and this is important in truly making effective strides towards addressing global problems. Core curriculum emphasizing sustainability subjects is a start, and supplementing this with ties to the business world, such as those developed at Wharton IGEL at Penn, Columbia’s The Earth Institute, and the NYU Stern Center for Sustainability, are great examples that other institutes can emulate.

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