Reflections on Our Guiding Principles

As part of an ongoing effort to promote Montclair State University’s PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies, I recently participated in a photo shoot at Jersey City’s downtown waterfront. Looking out at the harbor vista while the professional photographers did their work gave me an opportunity to reflect on the reasons for establishing the Institute and what it can contribute to New Jersey, as well as the nation’s, sustainability transition. Few can argue with the premise that we are not living sustainably and are increasingly exceeding the planet’s ability to provide the resources we depend on, perhaps threatening our very survival. A new set of skills will be required to tackle the exceedingly complex interactions among humans and their environment. Reconciling human uses of natural resources with the planet’s ability to replace them is the great challenge before us.

Reflections on the Jersey City Waterfront

I am standing at the epicenter of human dominance of the planet. Nowhere else on earth are the issues of sustainable development captured in their most fundamental form. Nearly 80% of humanity lives on the coast, most in megacities of the type I am observing, places where the great economic engine of human well-being generates the societal benefits that contribute to our quality of life. Here is the world’s great financial center, here, in the coastal zone, is where nearly 50% of the Nation’s Gross National Product is generated, or $4.5 trillion dollars. Here is where New Jersey’s largest economic sector resides, ports commerce, a business that contributes more than $30 billion in annual revenues to the state. Here is one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, an estuary that provide the resources and foodstuffs that we all depend on. Yet here is where the greatest conflicts and challenges reside in our attempts to balance our way of life with the life support systems around us:

Because of the complex relationships among people, ecosystems, and the biosphere, human health and well-being are closely linked to the integrity of local, regional and global ecosystems.

National Science Foundation, Advisory Committee
for Environmental Research and Education

Hence any sustainability transition will require a systems approach to understanding the complexity and interactions within the coupled human-environment and forecasting the consequence of our actions. It is this newly emerging trans-discipline1 that we call sustainability science that underpins the goals and objectives of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies. Our approach sets us apart from any other academic institution in the region.

Research, Education and Outreach in a Sustainable World

Sustainability science is problem driven and solution oriented. Although underpinned by traditional educational goals, among them critical thinking, sustainability science goes beyond these fundamentals to introduce and apply ‘new’ knowledge as transformational actions in participatory, deliberative, and adaptive settings (Wiek et al. 2011). The skill profile of future graduates will be those of problem solvers, change agents and transition managers. By acquiring key ‘competencies’2 for problem solving in a complex world, sustainability science graduates will be set apart. Much has been written about emerging sustainability curricula in higher education, but these skills generally fold into a new toolkit that can be used to address multiple interacting stresses on the coupled human-environmental system (CHES).

What Skill Set and Knowledge do Students need to Acquire?3

What are the unique and high value contributions that a graduate in sustainability would bring to any organization? First, many have suggested that achieving sustainability will require a “solutions orientation” that includes addressing tradeoffsamong different solution pathways.

Where multiple desirable but competing objectives exist, it is not possible to maximize each… [and] in any system with multiple competing objectives, it will not be possible to meet every one.

US Commission on Ocean Policy (2004)

Secondly, sustainability graduates should be skilled in moving beyond a limiting focus on immediate problems to constructively reframing challenges within complex systems in terms of overall success. That is, sustain¬ability graduates should have the ability to bound challenges not only in classic ways, such as the fac¬tory floor or institutional reach, but also in terms of success in both the short and long term at increasing scales. Third, the competencies gained function in complex systems while engaged with experts and non-expert decision makers in contexts with inherent uncertainty, i.e., in almost any real-world situation where one seeks sustainable solutions.

Graduates with this mix of skills can help others understand, think, and act— across multiple aspects of a system. Mixing use-inspired research with values and cultural and ethical decision-making perspectives across the natural and social sciences is something that a graduate in sustainability understands is part of the process of building effective and strategic efforts that will last. It becomes a matter of not doing more of what we already do, which has placed us in this untenable situation in the first place, (creating the potential collapse of our life support systems), rather it becomes a matter of redefining planning boundaries and horizons in terms of sustainable success; understanding and managing resource potentials; handling trade-offs and compromises while minimizing new sustainability problems; integrating the growing knowledge and tool-base for sustainability into increasingly robust and flexible strategic pathways; supporting cross-sector collaboration and cooperation; embracing uncertainties that are inherent in our emerging planning reality; and, while possibly the greatest challenge today, translating all of this given today’s context of unsustainable concepts and institutions.

As Basile (2011) concludes; “luckily, a growing list of graduates from new sustainability science programs and longer-standing efforts are beginning to demonstrate how much a degree in sustainability is not only worth, but how much these graduates change the entire game. And, if sustainability is highlighting one thing, it is this: the game has changed and we’d better change too. Having some sustain ability graduates on your side will be just the ticket.”

1 … an overarching scientific and practical approach, transcending and crossing disciplines and professions, aiming together towards a common system goal ... achieved by closely interwoven cooperation between many fields of knowledge…(Naveh 2002)

2 Competencies are a functionally linked complex of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem solving’. Examples of targeted competencies are: systems thinking competence, anticipatory competence, normative competence, strategic competence and interpersonal competence. We adopt the definition of competencies from Wiek et al. (2011): ‘ A functionally linked complex of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem solving’.

3 Adopted from Basil (2011).