We have all heard that the global environment is in trouble. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen think that humans are heading toward creating the world’s sixth great mass extinction (when 75 percent of species are eradicated in a geologically short time period).
Those same scientists fear the impacts from a loss of biodiversity might be more pronounced and immediate than those from climate change in our lifetime. This is not encouraging, given climate change is happening, and is caused by human activities, with no real signs of that change slowing down.
It was with this in mind that I felt compelled to do something, and I decided to enter the sustainability management master’s program at Columbia last fall. The goal of sustainability managers is to refine society’s standard processes so that we collectively become more environmentally, socially, and financially harmonious.
As I enter into my second and final year as a graduate student, I have come to an unsettling realization: The general approach currently we are taught is glaringly inadequate if we hope to achieve global sustainability on the necessary timescale.
This is not a reflection on the level of teaching being offered to us. Rather, the problem lies within our objective and our modus operandi. The common formula taught in my program to achieve sustainability is to make businesses and organizations more environmentally friendly, and to learn how to make the business case for sustainable endeavors.
But driving sustainability through the language of profitability cannot work by itself. The main reasons are because the roots of our problems are as deeply psychological as they are technical, and because, as implied by researchers in Copenhagen, we are rapidly running out of time.
Thinking that material acquisition helps define who you are as an individual leaves us disconnected from the impacts of our lifestyles, and from each other. Our societal love affair with individual consumption and the supreme prioritization of the economy are mindsets that must be modified if we want to create the change we need.
I do not want to discount the strides made by the business community, public organizations, or non-profits because they are a critically important component of the solution. However, we have to create new perspectives on growth and consumption, and quickly, to avert the impending ecological catastrophes of climate change and the collapse of ecosystems.
It is true that both growth and consumption are necessary and inevitable. But think about it this way: You have to consume food to survive and grow as an individual, right? Yes, but what you eat, how much you eat, and how often you eat are all crucial factors in determining long-term personal health. It is the same with the economy and societal well-being: Investing more in healthy choices leads to decreased future costs.
Somewhere we lost sight of the fact that the quality of growth and consumption should supersede the quantity, and this is one of the most critical psychological shifts we must employ.
It has been said that consumption and modern conveniences are too seductive for people to ever change their personal habits en masse, and that is why technological advances must save the day for us. Maybe that is true, but if any group is capable of proving that wrong, I think it is Columbia students. If we start with ourselves, changing our own consumptive psychology, maybe we can inspire others to do the same.
With that in mind, I would like to issue a challenge: This fall, let us see if we can each change one negative consumption behavior for the better. If looking for inspiration, Oxfam America states that if just four Columbia students switched from eating burgers once a week to lentils, over a year it would save about 13 Olympic-size swimming pools of potable water, not to mention a long list of other benefits.
Personally, I plan to stop buying campus vending machine junk food. I plan to purchase potted plants for lady-friends instead of disposable flowers, and will avoid consuming even a single plastic bottle of water.
If we succeed, we will know voluntary sustainability-driven psychological shifts can happen quickly and be maintained. And, if we don’t, well, there is always a master’s degree in sustainability management for all the problems that are here to stay.
The author is a masters candidate in Columbia’s sustainability management program.