About
Why create a degree program in Sustainability Science?
by Dr. Nicholas J. Smith-Sebasto

In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. It began: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about".

Sustainable Roots

This warming was endorsed by over 1,700 of the leading scientists in the world. Eight years later, in 2000, the Johns Hopkins University School of Health, Public Information reported in Population and the environment: The global challenge, that “As the century begins, natural resources are under increasing pressure, threatening public health and development...In the past decade in every environmental sector, conditions have either failed to improve, or they are worsening.”

In 2005, 1,360 experts from 95 countries completed the most comprehensive assessment of ecosystem health ever attempted. The Secretary General of the United Nations called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment . A panel of 80 additional experts reviewed the comments from nearly 900 other experts and government representatives before the assessment was published. Among the findings were the observations that

  • Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history;
  • The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services;
  • The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century; and
  • The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met…but [will] involve significant changes in policies, institutions and practices, that are not currently under way.

In her influential book, Earth Wisdom, the late Delores LaChapelle asked, "How did we reach such a state of insanity? [Where ecologically unsustainable behaviors predominate; where the ability of Earth to sustain life is questioned.] Can we honestly believe that the human being, a product of [4.5] billion years of evolution, came into the world totally cut off from the entire process?"

In Ecological literacy: Education and transition to a postmodern world, David Orr may have provided an answer when he wrote, "Nearly all discussions about the transition to a sustainable society have to do with what governments, corporations, and individuals must do. But one thing that these have in common are people who were educated in public schools, colleges, and universities. We may infer from the mismanagement of the environment throughout the century that most emerged from their association with these various educational institutions as ecological illiterates, with little knowledge of how their subsequent actions would disrupt the Earth...the ecological crisis represents, in large measure, a failure of education".