Sustainability as a layer of thinking

January 10, 2022

Over the past decade, a number of academic programs in sustainability and climate change have popped up, looking to address the need for expertise in one of the world’s most pressing problems. I was a part of one of these programs at the University of Copenhagen, and then went on to work for a climate technology company. These programs frame sustainability and climate science as disciplines, alongside medicine, law, sociology, etc.

From my experience of studying these subjects and then applying them in the private sector, where we badly need sustainability perspectives and expertise, I’ve come to believe that for many, sustainability is most usefully framed not as a discipline in and of itself, but rather as a layer of thinking and mental models that cuts across all disciplines.

Many of us know how sustainability principles (and climate change specifically) can and should be applied to all sectors of our society and economy. But in practice, it isn’t always treated this way in the academic and working worlds.

Many of these academic programs in sustainability do a fantastic job in illustrating the inherent intersectional nature of sustainability, but in a broad sense, the private sector is still often looking for graduates with a more “packaged” set of hard skills that can be fit into the boxes of other disciplines such as accounting, law, etc. Particularly at the Masters level, when many programs help students narrow their focus in their study area, sustainability programs tend to broaden one’s scope of knowledge in a way that’s crucial for solving today’s sustainability challenges, but perhaps challenging for many employers to evaluate. While sustainability consulting firms may have relatively straightforward needs where a graduate of a sustainability program is a clear fit, I’ve found that we often simply need folks talented in their individual disciplines to have the mindset and enthusiasm to work in sustainability in the private sector. For example, at electricityMap, we were building software, and would focus on hiring the best developers, designers, and data scientists that demonstrated interest and the ability to quickly learn about climate change concepts, as opposed to finding the best climate scientists (in our case, more likely energy professionals) who also had tech skills.

An important caveat: sustainability and climate science are legitimate disciplines that deserve to be seen as such. But in the context of the private sector, many sustainability-focused organisations are primarily looking for experts in other disciplines with a passion and/or knowledge of the basic principles of sustainability and climate change. In so far as we believe academic programs are tasked with preparing graduates for the working world (which is not a universal belief), then perhaps educational institutions are over-indexing on sustainability-focused academic programs and under-indexing on broader sustainability education for students in all programs. A great example of this is Radboud University in the Netherlands, who recently made sustainability courses mandatory (link in Dutch) for all students, no matter their study area. Outside of traditional education, programs such as seem like a great way for experts in a variety of fields to learn the “layer” of thinking of sustainability in order to orient their work towards this cause.

Ultimately, my motivation for writing this is having countless conversations with folks who want to transition their work to focus on climate/sustainability, but are worried they don’t have the necessary domain knowledge, while simultaneously (anecdotally) seeing many students graduating from academic programs in sustainability having trouble defining their incredible skillsets to companies in the private sector.

Climate change is such an overwhelming issue; it’s already hard enough to feel like you have the tools to take action. So let’s structure our educational system to show everyone that you don’t need to be a climate scientist to help solve climate change, while finding a better way to show the true value of the broad perspective sustainability graduates can provide.