Forget Green Jobs

Colleges that boast about the environmental training they provide need to remember that these issues must be part of every program and every job, not just a subset, writes David Schejbal.

January 25, 2011

We have spent a lot of time debating the number of green jobs likely to be created in the future. What will they be? By when? How many? Where? How can I get one? How will I know a green job when I see it? And for educators, we ask how we can prepare students for these jobs.

The problem is, we’re debating the wrong issue. There are no green jobs. A green job is like a math job. Every job is a math job. And every job is a green job. We need to step back from this conversation to focus on the real issues: new skills, new competencies, and a new world view.

Higher education is hustling to prepare students for green jobs. We’re congratulating ourselves for teaching green job skills. For studying recycling. For protecting endangered species. For teaching conservation. All this is laudable, critically important, and helpful to individuals, companies and the economy. But none of it is enough.

We’re teaching skills, but failing to lead the world into a new way of thinking that must govern the behavior of all of the residents of the earth if we are to leave an economically and environmentally viable planet to our children.

Understanding the intersections of the systems at work — natural systems, social systems, and business systems — is critical to every aspect of how we live and work. For instance, if we recognize and understand that the earth is a closed system, then we must look at manufacturing very differently; we must look at the making of stuff (whatever it might be) as a loop and not as a line. The manufactured product, all of its byproducts, and every bit of the waste is ours to keep forever. We inhale it, we drink it, we walk on it, and we eat it in one form or other. Short of resettling on Mars, we cannot escape it.

The recent crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is a particularly visible, but hardly unique, example of our inseparability from the world in which we live. Long after the public tires of hearing about our mess in the Gulf, the ripple effects will continue across local beaches and economies as well as in America’s waning confidence about the readiness of corporate leadership to respond to environmental issues. A recent national Harris survey shows that 82 percent of Americans believe that in order to remain globally competitive, U.S. business leaders must understand how to manage business in an environmentally sustainable manner. Yet only 13 percent of U.S. adults are confident that corporate America has the knowledge to make decisions that consider long-term impacts on the environment.

A key lesson learned from the crisis? That everything we do has an environmental impact of one sort or other, and all environmental changes impact us. It’s for this reason that every job is a green job. It’s not just the solar-powered battery manufacturer and the biofuel engineer and the recycling manager who have green jobs. Marketers, human resource directors, supply chain managers, and even university faculty confront sustainability issues every day.

For too long, our focus has been on preparing students to take on "green jobs," so college after college boasts about creating a green technology degree program or a sustainability studies major or a green M.B.A. and so forth. Teaching green skills is like teaching kids to toss a ball and swing a bat and never teaching the rules of baseball. They can become accomplished practitioners of these skills and not understand how to apply their knowledge to lead their teams to success.

The world works in terms of interconnected systems, and we have to teach our students how to think in those ways. Unfortunately, systems thinking is not readily taught at any level, and most people tend not to think in terms of systems. In part it’s because thinking in terms of systems is difficult and complicated; there are many more variables than when we look at linear processes and drill down within the disciplines. It’s also inconvenient to think in terms of systems. We would have to assume far more personal responsibility for our behavior — including consumption — if our thinking was focused on complete systems and the full consequences of our actions. It’s just not much fun to think in terms of systems.

First and foremost, we need to understand the cycle. And to understand the cycle is to have a systems understanding of natural, social, and economic processes. This requires more than just new skills; it requires a new literacy.

This new systems literacy will require a holistic understanding of our relationship to the natural, social, and economic world around us. Copernicus taught us that our planet is not the center of the universe. We must now come to understand that humans are not at the center of the earth but rather a highly impactful part of it. If our impact becomes part of our daily lexicon, and if we are able to incorporate and monetize the full consequences of our actions into the economy, then we will be in a much better position to develop a systems economy that creates economic incentives in all parts of all of the systems that govern our lives. This is what is required to ensure that our children’s futures will be no worse than our present, and this is where the jobs of the future will be.

So I return to where I began this perspective. We need a new literacy, a new way of talking and thinking about the world around us, and that new perspective must govern our behavior.

Education is just beginning to develop curriculums that help people acquire these new skills and this new perspective. The University of Wisconsin launched an online bachelor of science in sustainable management last fall. It focuses on thinking in terms of natural, social, and economic systems. For example, with "Triple Bottom Line Accounting," not only do students gain a basic knowledge of the preparation of financial statements and their analytical use, but they explore how this accounting information is applied by managers in the decision-making process helping organizations meet the triple bottom line (strong profits, healthy environment, and vital communities).It’s a great start. A few other universities have also begun to incorporate these principles into their curriculums. However, we have only begun to think this way, and the world around us is changing much faster than we would like.

Bill Sullivan, the president of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, sees the Harris survey referenced above as a call to increase the diversity of environmental programs as much as possible to prepare students for the wide range of jobs that require this knowledge to succeed. "Future success rises and falls on access. Our job as educators now is to focus on increasing access and flexibility for the curricular foundations needed to develop this new literacy and world view, and we need to deliver those programs to students of all ages so that we can begin to make the kind of impacts that will improve the chances that the future will be even better than the past."

That’s not just a green job. That’s everyone’s job.


David Schejbal is dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He is a member of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors.


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