Looking at graduate programs in #sustainabledevelopment 10 years later. Spoiler alert: #greenwash

It was summer of 2006, and I was to graduate the following spring with a BS in landscape architecture. I was still excited about my choice of study and was energized by the upcoming senior studio projects that would challenge us to draw from our cumulative collection of skills and training over the past few years. However, the more i thought about the idea of my formal education coming to a close in a year, the more evidence i collected in my head to delay this event from happening. Two big factors kept circling my thought processes. First, my particular program had a reputation for it’s focuses on environmental sustainability as well as practical aspects in design-build projects. There was less focus in design theory and research methods, and a part of me wondered if I needed additional training to acquire this aptitude if i were to succeed as a design professional. Second, I chose not to study abroad during my program, opting out of semester long studios in Rome or Japan. This was primarily due to extra-curricular activities on campus as well as PT jobs. Knowing the importance of travel to draw from foundations of design over time, I viewed this experience as non-optional. My major rationalization and thinking was that because I purposely chose a 4 year BSLA/BLA versus a 5 yr program, that offered me more flexibility to justify future training down the road.

Torn between applying to MLA programs or entering the job market upon graduation, a keen interest in landscape archaeology led to me to briefly explore courses abroad in Europe, where I was lucky to discover the ubiquitous concept of 1 year masters courses found at all highly regarded universities, especially in the UK. Unlike the traditional two year graduate courses in the US, the most common masters degree offered in the UK were nine month “taught” courses with three months for original research in the form of a dissertation. The concept sounded ideal: nine months of study abroad afforded the opportunity to travel as well as build additional skills in research.

And the rest is history. The revelation led me to discover the field of sustainable development and several established courses in the UK. I felt well trained in environmental sustainability, and was interested in the other two pillars of the concept [at the time] being economic and social sustainability. There were about a dozen MSc Sustainable Development programs offered in the UK in 2007. I found the course at the University of Exeter to be perfect for my needs, as the school of geography was highly regarded and the university was the highest rated in my preferred location in the southwest of England. Presently, the University of Exeter consistently ranks as a top 15 school in the country.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs [source: Brundtland Report]

The three pillars of sustainability are a powerful tool for defining the complete sustainability problem. This consists of at least the economic, social, and environmental pillars. If any one pillar is weak then the system as a whole is unsustainable. [source: thwink.org]

Sustainability was a relatively new concept ten years ago in 2007, and most definitely was not a common word in the average person’s vocabulary. I remember first learning about the concept in 2003 in a class called Natural and Built Environments, which was basically a sustainability 101 class that touched upon all the concepts surrounding environmental sustainability. We did projects and assignments about biological processes such as the carbon cycle, and learned about emerging industry trends such as LEED. Remember, just a few years earlier Al Gore was mocked in his presidential campaign bid for even mentioning a need to protect the environment, so the idea that humans had a part in climate and global warming was not yet ingrained in the conscience of Americans. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the term “sustainable development” first showed up in books around 1980, and by the year 2000 the term represented .0003% of the Google books collection. Compare that to “sustainability” at .0005, and the control word of “gasoline“.

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Of all the words contained in the entire Google books digitized collection written in English and published in the United States, .0003% contained the phrase “sustainable development” in 2000. By comparison, these phrases are approximately twice as prevalent in books published in British English.

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Out of curiosity, I also looked at available sustainable development courses in America back in 2006. The results echoed and supported what what happening in the early 2000s. The only relatable course i recall finding at the time that addressed the complete concept of sustainability was Columbia University’s MS in sustainability management. The next best thing were graduate programs or certificates that were limited to only one of the three aspects of sustainability, those being social, economic, and environmental sustainability. This included curriculum like MBAs with a focus on sustainability, or degrees in environmental management, of even MA programs in human managment. The higher ed options in America were just not there yet as compared to Europe, where sustainability was commonplace in politics, public discourse, and at the dinner table. Policy such as renewable energy targets, or goals, truly precipitated this culture and suddenly entire countries seized on the moment as an opportunity for business as an emerging market. Meanwhile back in the US, if you recall, we never agreed to set targets for reducing emissions on the federal level.

Sustainability programs in higher ed today

It’s no surprise that these days the term sustainability is a buzz word that has infiltrated nearly every discipline. Its used to to suggest improvements in the financial world. It’s used when talking about lasting relationships, diplomacy, and social cohesion. And most commonly, is it arguably over-used in an environmental context to show a regard for the earth’s resources.

And it’s also no surprise that the higher ed industry has seized upon this term, injecting it into its course catalogs to convey currentness. In actuality, for most cases the word is used as a synonym for contemporary buzz words like “best practices”, “industry standards” and “cutting edge”. I’ll support this point by listing the top 10 US-based results when searching for “master of science in sustain*” in Google. Note how many of these are truly connected to sustainable development, as well as the great efforts in SEO by some of these universities.

  1. The M.S. in Sustainability Management at Columbia University, co-sponsored by The Earth Institute and the School of Professional Studies, addresses the need for formal training and education in sustainability.
  2. UW Master of Science in Sustainable Management, U. of Wisconsin
  3. MS Sustainability Management, American University
  4. Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding (MSP) | College of Nursing – UWM, U. of Wisconsin
  5. Sustainable Development Masters Degrees at SIT
  6. UW Online – Sustainable Transportation Master’s Degree
  7. Master of Professional Studies in Sustainable Urban Planning, GWU
  8. The master of sustainable tourism degree, ASU
  9. MCAD’s master of arts in sustainable design
  10. The Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) degree, Tulane U.

The big question to ask here is how much exactly does the curriculum change by adding the word “sustainability”? Is the univeristy simply capitalizing on the popularity of the sustainability term to spur enrollment, or are there direct distinctions in coursework? In some cases, there’s some greenwashing going on.

(grēn’wŏsh’, -wôsh’)

Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.


To get back on point, we have gone through a period in American higher education when there were literally no programs focusing broadly on sustainable development in 2007, while in Europe they were commonplace. Fast forward to 2017, there are now several great programs in the US that rival long established programs such as the one at Columbia. However, higher ed curriculum has at the same time been green-washed, where the term sustainability is being added to hundreds of course names to project the image of currentness, global awareness, and progressiveness while in fact the curriculum would most likely be the same if the term was omitted.

I hope you enjoyed this personal story and historic overview on sustainable development in higher ed over the last decade. My best advice for those seeking coursework in sustainability is to scrutinize the curriculum, look to see if the class syllabi aligns with what you’re looking for, and ask tough questions such as the ones i have in this post. Because in 20 years “sustainability” may not be a buzz word and may even be passe, yet you’re still carrying that degree in sustainable fashion design. The good news is that sustainable development with always be a global challenge for as long we human occupy the earth, and will thus always remain current in name and function.

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