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At the moment, our species seems to be outgrowing this world at tremendous costs. The villainous Agent Smith from The Matrix films put it best by distinguishing humans from other mammals, arguing that we don’t live in equilibrium with the environment. We are a cancer, he says.  Sustainability as a practice, seeks to prove him wrong by finding ways to restore harmony between planet Earth and human civilization.

Sustainability blends environmentalism, economics, and sociology to confront issues concerning conservation, industry, and prosperity. As land and resources begin to deplete, there’s increasing pressure for corporations, governments, and people to find ways to cope with these changes. This alone opens various career paths that you can take, and some schools have taken that extra step to offer complete studies focusing on this field.  Peterborough’s Trent University, for instance, offers a Master’s of Arts in sustainability studies. Their curriculum looks at innovation in technology and policy, but also places emphasis on economic and social implications that may affect businesses and other institutions. London’s University of Western Ontario (UWO) also has a Master’s in environment and sustainability degree. Within this program are courses involved in engineering, consulting projects, and examining the relationship between the health of a population (including humans) and its ecosystem.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has a number of graduate programs that deal with the different aspects of sustainability from forestry to mining. From a technological and energy perspective, their Master’s of engineering and clean energy program aims to reduce environmental impacts. At the same time, the university provides an MBA for sustainability and business. This program examines responsibilities that business leaders have towards both the economy and the environment.

According to Dr. Eric Mazzi, an instructor at UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), the Master’s of Engineering and Clean Energy program takes in about 24 students each year. “We focus on the energy aspects of sustainability,” says Mazzi.  “Sustainability is important because our use of energy and other resources extracted from our planet is at a rate that’s not considered to be something we can continue indefinitely.”  He explains that sustainability is also important because even if we don’t exhaust our resources, the impact of such prolonged use on the environment can still have unpleasant results, such as the atmosphere loosing its capacity to assimilate chemicals.

Mazzi stresses that students should have respect for all disciplines and all fields of study, whether it’s engineering or the social sciences. Although it’s nice for professionals to specialize in one discipline, at the same time it’s important to appreciate and be willing to work with those in other fields, since sustainability encompasses so many areas. “[Politics] is certainly a critical area,” he points out. “The policies have a big role to play, perhaps a bigger role than specific technologies. A healthy respect for politics and public policy making is essential.”

In terms of careers, there are many areas available. For engineering, Mazzi explains how students aren’t only looking into energy management for schools and government institutions, but also consulting positions with industrial operations, and various enterprises in alternative energy. Co-op programs may have students work in consulting firms, pulp mills, energy technology companies, including software, and government agencies.

By its nature, sustainability is interdisciplinary. Along with  required core courses, students may be encouraged to take electives in architecture, policy, and economics. “Some students take commerce courses for electives,” says Mazzi describing the UBC program. “It’s not just the technical aspects of engineering, it’s the cost aspects.”

These programs aim to provide students with enough in-depth knowledge and fundamental training so they can enter the real world and find solutions to environmental issues themselves, even the complex ones that have different view points. “People have different attitudes and different priorities,” says Mazzi, “so we strive to help students appreciate the full spectrum of the challenge before us and give practical tools to get started.”

Nevertheless, all the sustainability programs or miracle technologies wouldn’t be enough to make a significant difference. Real change begins with how we live. “It’s a multifaceted thing,” says Mazzi. “Keep the options open and keep promoting newer technology; but at the same time, it’s important to make better use of the resources we have.“

Photo: DAJ/Thinkstock