Green Jobs is an occasional series on Sustainable Utah featuring people who currently make their living working on sustainability issues.
By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center
Dr. Tariq Banuri, professor in the City & Metropolitan Planning and Economics at the U, has enough accomplishments under his belt that it’s pretty hard to decide where to begin. So, let’s start with the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Banuri contributed as a coordinating lead author to the reports of the International Panel on Climate Change, which was jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 along with Al Gore for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
Besides that, Banuri is considered an international expert on sustainable development and formerly served as director of the United Nations’ Division for Sustainable Development, senior fellow and director of the Future Sustainability Program at the Stockholm Environment Institute, and as founding executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an influential think tank based in Pakistan. He sat down with me to discuss sustainable development and his advice for students interested in working in the areas of environmental and social policy.
Q: What exactly is sustainable development?
TB: A long time ago, there was a radio interview by John Lennon. At the end, when there was only half a minute left in the program, the interviewer asked Lennon to list three things that he wished for in the world. John Lennon said, “Well… peace on earth and… that’s it.” The point is, once you’ve said peace on earth, you’ve said everything. I feel the same way about sustainable development.
There are three main areas of sustainable development, based on the necessities or compulsions we have as humans: environmental, economic, and social. We try to work with them, not ignoring any of them, but trying to integrate them into a common agenda because they can’t possibly exist by themselves. They’re all synergistically intertwined.
It’s an agenda that is as of yet unfinished. In the last 200 years, we have discovered ways of enhancing our prosperity. Through the enhancement of our prosperity, we’ve also discovered ways of pursuing social justice, not just as a value in its own right, but because it is the basis of long-term peace and nonviolence. Historically, this agenda seems to be based on an optimistic assessment of the absence of environmental limits. The challenge of the moment is to discover whether the environmental limits will subvert our quest for prosperity and social justice, or whether we can continue to pursue this agenda within the limits set by the environment.
Q: Your original training is in economics. How did you become involved in sustainability issues?
TB: A lot of what happened was just accident. I didn’t really set out to do environmental work, since for me, environmental work is just a part of the larger quest for the creation of a humane society. Within that broader goal, it just turns out that the environment is the cutting edge of that quest.
If I could trace a thread through my career, it’d be the search for social justice. I got interested during my undergrad [at the University of Peshawar] in issues of development and how to eradicate poverty and create prosperity. Coming from Pakistan, which is a very poor country, I thought that was the obvious way to proceed.
But at the time that I was earning my Ph.D. [in economics from Harvard], I became concerned that my unidirectional single-mindedness was actually doing more harm than good. There are some areas where single-mindedness can be helpful: if you’re trying to build a house or a machine. But when you’re dealing with social issues, you have to take a more integrated approach.
When I started out my work, I began by looking at questions about what could generally be called the philosophy of knowledge: How do people think about issues of power and justice? At the same, how do they think about nature? What difference does it make?
I ended up writing a book about forests, not because I was someone who could be called environmentalist at that time, but because I was motivated by questions of social justice and how we think. But this book was published in the late 1980s, at a time when then whole world was waking up to the environment. All of the sudden, people started talking to me about what could be done about various environmental and social issues. Eventually, I just sort of drifted into that process.
Q: How did you get involved with the United Nations, and how can people wanting to do the same get involved?
TB: There are essentially three types of ways or channels to work with the U.N. The first is through recruiting, which usually happens very early on. You take a qualifying exam when you graduate, and if you qualify at some point in time, you end up on a roster and are eventually selected. The second way people get in is from the political side. There are a number of positions that are allocated to rough groupings of countries, which put forward their candidates for ministerial positions. To do that, you really have to be part of a political process; the people who get in are oftentimes diplomats or people nominated by their respective governments.
The third way is through your technical work, and that is the path that I followed. For people who are interested in issues of international scope, and certainly sustainability is one, the main thing to do is essentially to show your worth. Build a track record that is seen as useful.
Also, remember that the international world is one with no kind of central authority, so what is most useful is if you can write something that enables people to agree. There is nobody forcing them to agree, everybody in some sense has sovereign equality, so if your writings create a framework that enables people to agree, that would be very useful.
Q: What was it like working with the IPCC?
TB: There is an organizing bureau that runs the IPCC, and all the positions in that bureau are political. However, the technical work of IPCC is done by volunteers, who give their time like I did. Some of the volunteers bring a group of people together to start the process. They are called lead authors, which means that they will actually write some part of the paper. Then, through some kind a process based on reputation and interaction, the bureau designates some of them as coordinating lead authors. When you’re writing a chapter, for instance, you might have anywhere between five and 20 people co-writing that chapter, so somebody has to actually coordinate and have the last word on the draft chapter, and this is what I did as a coordinating lead author.
It was a good experience in a whole range of ways. It introduces you to aspects of the subject that you normally wouldn’t have studied. It introduces you to a lot of other professionals working in the same field as you are or in related fields. It also introduces you to a discipline in which you have to work with others and take into account their concerns to bring a common position together. For all those purposes, it was a really a good experience and one of my professional accomplishments that is best to relate.
Q: What kinds of skills and knowledge should students interested in working in sustainability be learning during their education?
TB: There are traditional disciplines, and every student who comes into the university has to have some kind of academic focus, but sustainability is a discipline in its own right. You really need to be able to work the different pieces of the puzzle together. This means that, both on the part of the university and on the part of the students, there has to be an active effort to make sure all the necessary ingredients are there. Just as the pursuit of sustainability itself has to be balanced, the educational system surrounding sustainability has to be balanced in its own right.
People are looking at the environment more and more through the lens of natural sciences. They have realized that bringing natural science into the curriculum is important, and it is now filtering in more broadly than it would have otherwise. That sort of information is seeping in so that students learn it and know it in their guts.
However, bringing social sciences in has not been as effective. Here at the University of Utah, I feel that a major weakness is that economics in particular, but social sciences in general, don’t get represented enough in the broad mix of courses students are taking. I feel that ignorance of economics is a major weakness because you need to know how sustainability works in a social domain as well as the natural environmental domain.
I feel that understanding of the third aspect of sustainability, social justice, is somewhere between the high understanding of natural science and low understanding of economics that I see. I think there is a broad recognition that you cannot have sustainability without social justice, so some of those aspects, like ethics and human rights, are moving into the discussion.
Q: What should sustainability students be thinking about as they transition into the workforce?
TB: We are now in a world in which the issues that I accidently started working on are going to assume more and more importance. When I started to do my graduate work in the 1980s, there was only a glimmering of how important these issues would be. And I think it was only people who were a little unworldly that would work on it; more career-minded people wouldn’t touch it. That is changing now because everybody can see that these issues are important and will make a difference. By the time current students reach the pinnacle of their careers, these issues will be even more important; I don’t think we’ll have entirely solved the current problems in the next 20 to 30 years.
It’s important that students think about the way things will be at the time they reach the height of their careers. What will the world look like and what sorts of contributions can you make to that world? When navigating through career choices, they should select professional experiences that will be forms of getting experience to make that contribution. Those choices will make sense when looked at in retrospect.
Q: What are some of the challenges that you see the rising generation facing during their upcoming careers?
TB: One trend that is really staring us in the face is the potential impacts of climate change. Those impacts are not only in the physical domain, but also in the social and economic domains. As those effects begin to bear in, it will affect the way our economy operates, the way our political systems operate, and even the way political movements organize. Trying to really get an understanding of what is going on and being on the better side of the climate change equation is going to be really important.
We also live in a very integrated world. Things happening in one place very quickly affect things in another place. We will need that global sensibility to bear upon the situation.
Related to that, there has been a tectonic shift in world power. When I was growing up, there were the powerful countries, usually Europe and its offshoots, and then the other countries that were just … the others. That kind of neat equation no longer exists. This change has the potential to be very disruptive unless we are able to manage it carefully and properly.
Finally, because of climate change and other reasons, the permanence of economic growth, the foundation that we’ve gradually learned to build our modern society on, can no longer be taken for granted. That creates enormous threats for the future. The ability to learn to live in a world that will not grow indefinitely is a very important imperative.
When students get to be my age and look back, they’ll realize that understanding these issues will have allowed them to lead a much better life, one that is both professionally and personally fulfilling, than they would have had if they had ignored them.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.