“We need excellence in bringing things together” – the rise of sustainability programs at universities

If you look at your career path and the choices you have made to engage with sustainability, do you consider yourself as part of a larger movement or even an overall trend? Well, maybe you should, at least according to a recent feature in Nature.


Mascarelli, A. (2013): Sustainability: Environmental Puzzle Solvers. Nature 494, 507-510. doi:10.1038/nj7438-507a

Published online 27 February 2013
This article was originally published in the journal Nature

In “Environmental puzzle solvers”, Amanda Mascarelli argues that sustainability training is on the rise and institutions all over the world are working out how best to translate it into marketable skills. Her observations about the need for skilled sustainability practitioners and scientists and the rising number of higher education programmes dedicated to sustainability are in line with a number of related voices; among them – to name only a few – are Lubin and Esty who, in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, described sustainability as a „business megatrend” that also affects the labour market, or the author team of Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable Low-Carbon World, which emphasizes the tremendous opportunities for the labour market in an overview of future demand and global green and sustainable job trends. In essence, they all conclude that first of all there is a need for what one might call “key agents for change” (right, this is you!) to respond to the challenges of our time – a need that manifests itself in an emerging “market” for such sustainability experts both in science and in the economy. Secondly, an increasing number of training courses and (higher) education programmes worldwide are responding to this need.

So why am I telling you this? Well, besides the obvious fact that this is the very topic of interest in in my research, Mascarelli addresses two aspects that seem to be worthy of consideration. The first is her remark regarding how the teaching of sustainability varies from institution to institution. Over the last couple of years I have been actively looking into the various ways in which sustainability is integrated into higher education and education for sustainable development is reflected in the curriculum. What I was interested in and found remarkable is how different patterns of implementation have evolved and started to coexist and the different consequences these might have for the individual learning outcomes. Based on that research, we can distinguish three main patterns for the integration of sustainability:

  1. The ‘general study’ approach, in which sustainability is considered as a main principle with which any student should engage. Here universities offer a course or a number of courses for students of all disciplines, often as part of the mandatory curriculum.
  2. A discipline-oriented approach, in which an existing discipline-based curriculum is broadened and supplemented with sustainability issues.
  3. Finally, sustainability as an autonomous study programme, often organized as a new, inter- and transdisciplinary programme that coexists beside the more traditional, disciplinary programmes.

What makes this such an interesting field is, not only that this variety offers many more choices for prospective students who are interested in the topic, but even more that these different approaches support and create different types of sustainability professionals – a consequence that has attracted little attention so far. If you are interested in this topic and want to read more about how these differences can be analysed and the consequences they may lead to, you might want to look into my forthcoming book “Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education: Learning in an Age of Transformation” which will (hopefully) soon be published as part of the Routledge Studies in Sustainable Development series.

To return to Mascarelli’s article, her second remark might be of even greater interest to you as an early-career scientist in sustainability science. Mascarelli cites Thaddeus Miller who was one of the first PhD graduates from the school of sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe (which is, by the way, one of the most active and innovative frontrunners when it comes to sustainability and higher education programmes):

“There’s definitely some risk in doing these types of programmes, both broadly for the programme and also for the individual”

is what Miller cautions. This tension is something that might sound only too familiar to you. As the second-generation sustainability researcher I consider myself to be, I am continually facing the challenge of learning and researching in inter- and transdisciplinary settings and at the same time “selingl” myself in an academic arena that is largely disciplinarily organized and still lacks any incentives to follow interdisciplinary career paths. So, a constant struggle to prove your scientific expertise in a niche that is still emerging and constantly changing is something to which all of us have to become accustomed.

However, features like those of Mascarelli’s article make me believe that this struggle is only an episode in what will be a much more respected and established field of research in the not-too-distant future: a future that all of you are actively going to influence to make a difference! Until then, I hope that resources like this blog will help you find your very own way through the manifold challenges. Stay tuned!


Barth, M. (2013, in prep.). Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education: Learning in an Age of Transformation. Routledge Studies in Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.

Lubin, D., Esty, D. (2010). The Sustainability Imperative. Harvard Business Review 2010, 2–9.
Renner, M., Sweeney, S., Kubiit, J. (2008). Green Jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world. Washington, D.C.


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