Getting an Empty Diploma


I get periodic announcements from Mary Ann Liebert’s journal, Sustainability. Most of the time I don’t find anything I follow further, but this time one of the free articles got my attention. The subject was academic “sustainability” program. Having placed sustainability in quotes, you should guess where I am going to go. The article, “A Review of Non-Major Sustainability Programs in American and Canadian Higher Education: Trends and Developments across Institutions,” by Madeline M. Giefer surveyed some 20 plus programs at US and Canadian universities. I followed my reading by checking in at the websites of a sample of them.

The article summarized the goals, in general terms, as

…to produce students who can become change agents to further the goals of sustainability, which involve improving social and environmental welfare while balancing economic priorities. These programs are generally intended to prepare students to advance sustainability goals in their careers, whether they ultimately work in business, government, education, or nonprofits.

The first sentence in the quoted part above is simply a reworking of the Brundtland principles of Sustainable Development, which was more challenging by including the needs of future generations. My comments below are shaped by my direct experience with several programs of the type examined, but not included. I have direct knowledge of one or two of the ones in the article.

I looked in detail at the academic offerings and requirements of several. What I found reinforces my already well developed opinion that all are misnamed. They are based on an uncritical sense of sustainability and generally are predicated upon the tacit notion that current societal structures are what is to be sustained. I saw only a smattering of course offerings that could, in any way, be viewed as critical, either questioning the sustainability of modern, market economies, such as the US, or looking at alternate systems of beliefs and norms. My usual comment is to say that these programs are designed around the premise of reducing unsustainability at the symptomatic level. But that is as empty a promise as is the word, sustainability, itself.

Without a more intensive search, I am unable to comment in detail about the various curricula. They are full of the usual suspects: environmental economics, environmental science and technology, demography, policy, leadership, strategy and so on. A few offered or required courses on complexity or systems, but only a few. Most had something about preparing the students for jobs carrying the title, sustainability X. For those few students aware and concerned that the world is not working at present, that is a dead end because these jobs are invariably about maintaining the status quo by avoiding or reducing the unintended consequences produced in the course of the organization’s activities.

If I were able to design a sustainability offering, it would have some of the same subjects, but also would have some of the following courses at its core:

SUS 101 Fundamentals of sustainability (flourishing): semantic; cultural; psychological; philosophical…
SUS 102 Critical studies of modern cultures
SUS 103 Pragmatism as method (for complex systems)
SUS 104 Human ontology
SUS 104a History of the “self”
SUS 105 Culture as an complex adaptive systems (Giddens)
SUS 106 Un-neoclassical economics or the economics of empathy/care
SUS 107 Critical study of technology (Kuhn, Latour, et al.)
SUS 108 Systems thinking
SUS 201 Decision-making in complex systems
SUS 202 Management of complex adaptive systems
SUS 203 Participatory design theory
SUS 204 “Democracy” theory (a la John Dewey)
SUS 205 Introduction to brain science (with emphasis on plasticity and continuous learning)
SUS 206 Communicative action theory and practice (a la Jurgen Habermas)

I probably should add something related to the learning of patience because anyone completing a course based on these subjects is going to have to wait a very long time to find a job with the name sustainability in the title or function. Business schools, one of the slowest places to think about sustainability as I am think about it, have lots of people who know the need for parts of the kind of thinking I advocate. Systems thinkers, like Argyris, Schön, Senge, Ackoff, Sterman, etc., are part of many MBA programs because the Deans know that businesses will always face sustainability problems, writ small, focused at the enterprise scale. Organizations always face persistent problems that cannot be solved by applying methods derived from the bulk of the courses MBAs take. Only systems thinking can deal with the complexity of life in businesses.

But it is not just businesses that live in a complex world. We all do and, consequently, face problems much more daunting than businesses do. Climate change is one example. Inequality is another. Indignity is another. And so on. Why, given the scope of these problems, do we continue to think we can solve them with only the major disciplines we acquire in schools? If MBAs need systems thinking to be competent to deal with the messes and wicked problems in business, others, who want to take on the equivalent problems out in society clearly need this and much more. To send students at all levels out into society with the belief that they are equipped to deal with the problems that concern them is mischievous and worse. It is fooling both the faculties and the students.

Change is always difficult. We humans do not like uncertainty about the futures we create through acting. That’s partly why we tend to continue to apply the same old, same old to everything we do even when the problems persist. When we fail, we call in the experts who, then, apply the same old, same old with not much better results. What I have just written in the last couple of sentences is the definition of insanity according to Einstein and others. We moderns were not always insane; for some long time our actions did produce a future that we could argue was taking toward a vision or destination that we could see. But more recently, we have caught some sort of mental disease, maybe a societal form of Alzheimer’s, that has blinded us to what is going on. The parts of our societal brain that are sensitive to the real world, and that learn and use the learning to help us get back to the correct path toward our goals are increasingly non-functional. Fortunately for humanity, this form of Alzheimer’s is reversible, but we need to apply the correct remedy. The academic program I propose above would be part of it.