Creating a Sustainable Future Demands an Undisciplined Approach
What is shared by an international environmental non-profit, a renowned innovator, and a college off the Maine coast? Each of them acknowledges the complexity surrounding us and merges ideas from a multitude of disciplines to find creative solutions to build a sustainable world. They understand that problems and solutions, from the forest to the boardroom, defy neat and tidy categories. Indeed, they have seen that the most innovative solutions often come from unexpected places and require a mash-up of ideas that reach beyond the normal limits of a disciplinary expertise. As we head back to school now is a moment for all of us to embrace new ideas and realize that sustainable solutions may well come from unexpected places.
Environmental leaders are using a multitude of tactics to preserve our planet. In a recent speech, Carter Roberts, the President and CEO of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), spoke of how conservation leaders must now be multilingual, speaking the languages of business, policy, politics, ecology and sociology to prevent ecological disaster. "If we have the right person in the right place...Someone who can knit together the various disciplines of science, economics, politics, indigenous voices, culture, civil society, and business - what I call incandescent personalities who can connect the dots between disciplines...Then I know we will succeed in our work." Like WWF, the Environmental Defense Fund (once famous for a singular approach of suing corporations) is also embracing this methodology and is teaming up with former adversaries such as McDonald's and Wal-Mart to help companies reduce their environmental footprint and improve their bottom line.
Amory Lovins, the renowned sustainability innovator, co-author of Natural Capitalism, hybrid car inventor and MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, offers the following advice to higher education leaders and students. "We need people with vision that crosses boundaries, harnessing hidden connections to solve or avoid not just one problem but many, without making more. Problems created by blinders require "un-disciplined" people educated in the disciplined practice of linking supposedly disparate learnings."
Our world demands thinkers who can build bridges - recreate capitalism based on natural principles, create inspired technology from the arts and connect the dots between disciplines.
College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, has heeded this call for the past 40 years. COA is an experimental college on the coast of Maine founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning - human ecology - that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world.
Learning at COA is self-directed, interdisciplinary and students go beyond the classroom to experience the fields of study that interest them. For example, if students have a primary interest in food systems, they also take business, arts and policy courses. They learn how to communicate with those sectors and to find new ways of expressing their interests and uncover new opportunities. In short, they study and experience solutions from a multitude of perspectives. As a result, graduates of this approach are disintermediating the agricultural value chain with urban agriculture to keep a larger share of revenue with the farmer; solving a solid waste problem and reducing costs by using food waste as the raw material for biofuel; pulling together a diverse constituency to delivering the youth remarks at the recent United Nations Climate Negotiations.
Given the multitude of challenges we are facing, perhaps it's time for this type of learning to be the norm?
Jay Friedlander is the founder of the Sustainable Business Program and the inaugural Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. College of the Atlantic, the first climate neutral college in the U.S., has been cited by the Princeton Review, the Sustainable Endowment Institute and others as a leader in sustainability. He is also on the Board of Directors of Maine Businesses for Sustainability.