Both sustainability and environmental science are relatively new fields in the academic world. Emerging out of necessity, these disciplines train students to understand the science and real-world workings behind today’s environmental issues in order to find solutions. Depending on the college, these degrees may be classified as either a B.S. or B.A. So, what’s the difference?
“It’s important to recognize what brought each of them about,” said Nathan Stewart, Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies and Department Chair at Colorado Mountain College, Steamboat Springs. “Both of them are call to action disciplines. You can recognize in environmental science how some incredibly serious environmental problems in many ways mandated this science to become what it is.”
Steward explained how the study of environmental science emerged out of the 1960s after pollution issues started to affect human life. Many look to the Cuyahoga River fire as a major turning point, as public outcry over pollution spurred political changes and prompted creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Addressing these issues called for trained experts, hence the new domain of environmental science in academia.
“The main topic taught in environmental science would really be, ‘Wow, we need to look left and right between a couple of traditional disciplines like physics, chemistry, and biology to solve some environmental problems that are emerging and pressing.’ So, no longer can we be siloed in these traditional sciences. We need to start to work together to create solutions. So there’s sort of a monitoring for the goal of creating solutions piece that’s pretty key in environmental science,” said Stewart.
Sustainability studies is more recent. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, scientific discoveries called for a more broad, global focus rather than just local clean-ups and regulations.
“We were pressed to look beyond the immediate landscape as we understood more that oceans are coupled with atmosphere in really meaningful ways. And of course we humans have become the central force in understanding these larger system dynamics,” said Stewart. “So, what’s often attributed to the kickstart of our discipline in sustainability studies is the Brentwood Report, which was delivered to the World Commission on Environmental Development.”
The Brentwood Report was the first to outline and put forth the idea of sustainable development. From this, sustainability studies emerged as a trans-discipline, combining the basics of environmental science with other disciplines that are relevant in the practical world: economics, business, communications, etc.
“The way we really look at sustainability studies here [at Colorado Mountain College] is, there cannot be a trade-off in our seeking goals and promoting economic vitality, environmental health, and wellbeing – in all three of those there is no room for trade off. The charge of the normative field is we have to rigorously look at these three areas and find avenues for change, and not just find those, but undertake applied work to create that change.”
Stewart emphasized that sustainable studies focuses on the applied piece of putting knowledge towards a sustainable end, and creating social change that requires this knowledge and understanding of multiple stakeholder inputs.
This leaves us with environmental science being interdisciplinary among sciences to conclude findings and come up with scientific solutions to environmental issues, while sustainability works across both science and other disciplines to create change in societal structure. But what does this look like from a classroom and training standpoint?
“They have similar attributes. If it’s a B.S. program they both will have a solid STEM component,” said Ken Lindeman, Professor of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences and director of the Sustainability Program at the Florida Institute of Technology.
Lindeman explained how the first two years of these degrees involve many of the same courses, focusing on physical sciences and math including biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. However, the two degrees tend to diverge in the student’s junior and senior years.
“In general the focus in environmental science curriculum is going to be on earth systems,” said Lindeman. “In a sustainability program, you’ll [definitely] have some of that, but you will have more classes typically on economics, climate science, and renewable energy.”
While environmental science students may also take classes in climate science and renewable energy, sustainability students will often focus more in these areas. Additionally, they will learn how to create new business and policy actions pertaining to these areas.
“One of the differences is that in a lot of sustainability curricula, there’s not just one economics course. It’s integrated heavily into the curriculum. So our sustainability studies program here has a lot of science, but from the first semester they’re also indirectly or directly getting multiple business or economics experiences, so that by the time someone graduates with our sustainability bachelors of science, they’ve got at least three and up to seven business classes,” said Lindeman.
This is a big differentiator between sustainability and environmental science programs, as most environmental science programs will have maybe one or two economics classes.
“The idea [in sustainability degrees] is that we’re training people who are not only STEM fluent, but that also we’re producing a new level of scholar that not only is strong in science, but strong in application in the outside world, including business and politics,” said Lindeman.
Of course, the main concern students have today is what their post-grade career options are and how marketable they’ll be for jobs after college. One thing to keep in mind is that while there are certain positions each field trains students more directly for, the career options are fairly interchangeable–someone with a degree in environmental science could still be a strong applicant for a sustainability officer position at a company or government agency, while someone with a degree in sustainability could have the skills necessary to be an environmental consultant.
To distinguish the main goals and intent of each discipline, Stewart categorized environmental science in the realm of reclamation, or identifying, monitoring, and researching degraded lands and species, while sustainability is more related to restoration–returning a system that’s been degraded back to what it was or to a new novel place that also has natural functions.
“For an environmental science major, really strong career opportunities would be in the consulting realm, [avenues] like mitigation and management, and clearly in the environmental regulation realm, monitoring and reporting. There can also be a really fruitful career path in environmental education, which is super necessary and needed,” said Stewart.
For students trying to understand the field of environmental science, Stewart said to think of it as a core reporting and detecting major that will have you in the field, taking measurements to provide for informed solutions to environmental problems.
As for sustainability careers, Stewart attributes a large amount of growth in the field to peer pressure among both government and business sectors. While some of this is mandated, such as federal requirements placed on states, counties, and cities, businesses are pressured to improve their company’s sustainability and want to hire people who specialize in this. Stewart gave the example of ski resorts in Colorado.
“There are some pretty heavy hitters out here like Aspen that are producing a really phenomenal quantitative report and quantitative description of their sustainability. When a player like that comes in, mountains alongside them are really conscious of their lack of activity or inability to communicate their vision for the future relative to the change we’re all experiencing here. That call is new, so the sustainability potential in these areas is really high,” said Stewart.
While ski resorts are an obvious market sector to be interested in sustainability due to the direct effect climate change has on them, this phenomenon continues across all businesses.
A study conducted by the United Nations on the future prospects in sustainability reported that 93 percent of CEOs “believe that sustainability issues will be critical to the future success of their business.”
“For sustainability studies, in some ways we’re wanting to attract doers and thinkers that are going to hold some of these positions like a sustainability studies director or, in my mind, a research principal investigator looking at any system that has more than one variable. That’s a much better principle investigator to guide our research and research findings than we’ve had within a single discipline in the past,” said Stewart. “So that’s the value. As we create more and more sustainability scientists, going forward, we’re going to be more successful at the conservation goals that we’ve had for the last 30 years.”
Both environmental scientists and sustainability scientists are needed to tackle the contemporary environmental issues we face. While environmental scientists are needed to possess a deep, science-based understanding of these environmental needs, sustainability scientists are trained to communicate this between fields and thus, implement solutions.
Deciding which path to follow depends on your strengths and passions, so talk to each department at your school–or the schools you’re interested in–to gain insight into their specific academic structure and how that intersects with where your interests lie.