Design, Social Impact

Generalists to the Rescue: The Emergence of the Sustainability Professional

As humanity has developed and expanded its footprint on our Earth, the complexity and interrelatedness of our systems has increased exponentially. The trend for individuals to specialize has also accelerated, and life as we know it today would be impossible without the brain surgeons, fire fighters and information technology engineers performing their highly specialized tasks. Nevertheless, this trend has also unavoidably led to ever narrowing and isolated perspectives, an unexpected and ironic byproduct in the age of ever expanding information and nearly instantaneous dissemination. In parallel to this trend, the challenges that face our Earth and humanity’s success on it have also increased in magnitude, complexity and interrelatedness. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a field of specialization adept to navigate humanity’s turbulent and uncertain future. However, there is an emerging field of sustainability professionals — generalists by training — who are committed to finding a balanced path forward by approaching our complex system as a whole in order to attain its optimal state.

While the connotation of the word generalist does not provide us comfort by bringing to mind a perspective too wide to describe anything specifically, but in stark contrast, science defines it one applicable to every case and therefore universally relevant. The aim of these generalists is to positively affect the direction of human activity in every situation. Their pragmatism and optimistic resolve characterize the sustainability professional.

Paradoxically, the human activity that has the highest potential to improve global standards of living is negatively affecting the balance of life on Earth and threatening its carrying capacity. Increases in global average temperatures and loss of biodiversity are just some of the consequences directly related to modern civilization’s frenetic consumption of energy, food and natural resources. This spiraling race to the bottom is pitting people against people, condemning billions to undernourishment, and poverty. Unfortunately, the aforementioned conditions are exacerbated by disease, war and poor access to health. However, there is a reason to be hopeful, because for every seemingly intractable problem on Earth, there are countless highly motivated specialists attempting to resolve them. Accelerating the implementation of innovative solution-sets and identifying their optimal deployment to achieve system-wide positive feedback is our biggest challenge. This is where the generalists play a pivotal role in the equation.

The scientific method provides us the frameworks to investigate problems in detail, but fails to render a complete understanding of vastly interrelated systems such as our Earth. By integrating the study of policy, physical sciences, economics, management theory and human behavior with the rigor of the scientific method, the new generation of sustainability leaders is acquiring a unique worldview that is necessary to intervene in and positively transform the whole system. This unique multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach is the promise of a better tomorrow. But what exactly does that look like?

Utopian designs for sustainable living on Earth are abundant, yet a new stable configuration of the global system can’t simply be agreed upon and implemented overnight — to rely on spontaneous change ignores the complexity and lag-cycles evidenced by the state of the world today. Instead, correcting our “Spaceship Earth’s” course towards a balanced preferred state can only be achieved by the cumulative effects of transition measures that will bring about a new paradigm. This, in essence, is the mission of the sustainability pioneers; and to achieve it they must become embedded in every facet of human activity.

Incorporating these values and forward planning into every productive activity that involves the use of Earth’s physical assets is only the first step. Sustainability professionals aim to find ways of incorporating this worldview into the decision-making frame of reference that guide corporate boardrooms, financial investments and policy choices. Recognizing interrelatedness and complexity is not the destination, it is part of the path forward, and finding solutions to our most difficult problems is filled with paradoxes.

The current global system of energy production is a prime example of the intricacies of the puzzle. From electricity to transportation, current energy production is mostly based on polluting fossil fuels. These limited and rapidly dwindling globally traded commodities affect the price and production of global foodstuffs, metals and materials. Ultimately, this means that our financial investments, the food we eat, the way we get to work and the products we consume are all inexorably linked through energy and are rapidly speeding towards unprecedented scarcity. To add to the complexity of the system, it has been proven that gains in efficiency in the use of energy paradoxically result in its accelerated consumption. While seemingly intractable, efforts are underway to generate more clean energy and de-couple food and transportation from fossil fuels. Even though gradual, these advances are being combined, replicated and promoted by sustainability leaders worldwide, and in doing so they demonstrate with action that a transition can be achieved.

The emergence of professional sustainability managers is a product of individual initiative, belief in human agency and responsibility to ensure Earth’s appropriate stewardship. This is the new frontier and it is laden with opportunity. It is fueled by the empowerment for everyone to collaborate to create better outcomes for humanity through strategies that balance the transition from scarcity to abundance with our needs and those of next generations. These generalists are the timely response to the growing global consensus: sustainability is simply not optional.

Read it on The Huffington Post.