Ecocentricity Blog: Calling All Generalists

By: John A. Lanier
Mar 24, 2021 10:30 AM ET
Campaign: Ecocentricity Blog

Ecocentricity Blog: Calling All Generalists

I’m at a really fun part of my career. This year marks a decade since I left school and became a full-time professional, and I’ve been with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation for nearly eight years. We’ve hit our stride as an organization, and I’m far enough along as an individual that I don’t feel like the newbie I once was. That said, all of our work is still growing and evolving, which keeps it fun and engaging.

There’s one aspect about this stage of my career that still feels weird to me though. From time to time, usually after giving a guest lecture about Ray Anderson and our Foundation’s work to university students, someone occasionally asks what advice I have for a young person looking to start a career in sustainability. This question always catches me off-guard, because I don’t yet feel like a person who has earned the right to give career advice. In many ways, I still feel like a young person who has just started a career in sustainability myself! I know that I still have so much to learn.

I also know that “Uhhhhhhhhh” is not a suitable answer to this question, so I’ve come up with a go-to answer that I think is helpful. Who knows, maybe it isn’t. I suppose you can be the judge of that, because I’m about to give you my unsolicited sustainability career advice – “Learn as much as you can about as much as you can.

”Here's what I mean by that. I’ve come to realize just how multidisciplinary sustainability is, and to actually solve our environmental challenges, we need to become generalists. You can pick pretty much any environmental challenge, and I can rattle off at least three different traditional disciplines that relate to it, all of which play a role in addressing the challenge.

Take biodiversity loss. As background, it helps to know enough evolutionary biology to have a basic understanding of how some species naturally go extinct, and what causes new species to emerge. Then you need to know about all of the stressors that are causing far more species to go extinct than normal each year. For one, you would need to understand the agricultural sector and how demand for products like beef and palm oil are causing habitat loss. For another, you would need to understand how global warming impacts average ocean temperatures and the acidity of the oceans, and why both are a threat to aquatic ecosystems. You might also need an anthropological understanding of different cultures and how they drive demand for things like elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, and shark fins.

How about renewable energy? First, you should understand the history, economics, and engineering of our current energy system, particularly how coal, natural gas, and nuclear provide the majority of the electricity we all use on a daily basis. Then you should get up to speed on the technical capabilities of current forms of renewable energy, paying close attention to the intermittency challenges they face. I would also suggest a general foray into public policy, given how broadly the governments of the world subsidize different forms of energy production. And if you want to be on the leading edge of renewable power, I think a strong understanding of finance is in order.

I could go on and on. Every environmental challenge we face is a systems problem, meaning we need systems thinking to solve them. To be the best systems thinker, you should become a generalist who can both see the big picture and get in the weeds a bit. Doing so requires learning – lots and lots of learning. Fortunately, that’s something at which young people are quite adept!

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