Students in Costa Rica. Photo by Barry Allen.

Students participate in a sustainable development course in Costa Rica. Photo by Barry Allen.

Delving Deeper Into the Green

By Leigh Brown Perkins

Sustainable development courses mix environmentalism with good business

Sustainable development courses are as common now on college campuses as recycling bins, but Rollins College was at the vanguard more than 20 years ago, offering some of the first sustainable development classes in the country.

Sustainable development—an academic intersection of environmental studies and international business—has been taught at Rollins since 1986 and the campus was the first to develop a sustainable development program in Costa Rica. “Up until then, no one had organized a program that would bring environmental studies and international business students together,” said Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Barry Allen. “It works because it brings those different viewpoints together and the required field work also allows students to see these issues in practice.”

Green Thumb

Tyler Kartzinel with an elphant in Zimbabwe.

Tyler Kartzinel ’07
Tyler Kartzinel departed Rollins in 2007 with a Presidential Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Georgia’s brand new Odum School of Ecology—the first school of its kind in the world. There, he is using evolutionary theory to study ecology and how it is affected by human developments, such as rapid climate change and habitat destruction. “For my research, I climb rain-forest trees and use population genetics to understand how populations of species that live in the canopy survive,” he said. “This is important to conserving/restoring biodiversity in the face of rampant deforestation.” Kartizinel, who plans to teach ecology and work to improve conservation measures for rare and important species, says his experiences at Rollins led him to this career path. “Swimming with sea lions in the Galápagos, romping through the cloud forest of Costa Rica to conduct an Honors thesis, and working with staff members to spark a solar-power revolution at Rollins are a few memories that continue to inspire me,” he said.
(Kartizinel is pictured above with his favorite orphan elephant, Chizi, in Zimbabwe, 2007.)

A graphic image of a leaf.

Although sustainable development courses center on business and environmental studies, they encompass multiple disciplines on campus: political science, languages, Latin American and Caribbean studies, anthropology, literature, economics, geography. For instance, the sustainable development and the environment minor examines the concept of sustainability in the context of the global economy, with firsthand experience gained during a Costa Rican field study where students learn about the convergence of agriculture, tourism, and ecology and what that means for Costa Rica’s sustainable future. Other students might tour Dominica’s farmlands or Peru’s ecotourism industry, all with an eye on sustainability.

As with all sustainable development courses, a diversity of perspectives is apparent in Sustainable Development in Southeast Asia. Students take classes with Allen, who is an economist as well as an environmental studies professor; with Thomas Lairson, Ronald G. and N. Jayne Gelbman Professor of International Business, who teaches international business and political science; and with Lee Lines, Diane and Michael Maher Professor of Distinguished Teaching, an environmental studies professor with a background in geography. The class travels to Singapore and Vietnam to gain even more perspective.

Sophomore Sarah Griffis said traveling to Costa Rica opened her eyes to the impact sustainability can have on a country’s economy. “They do so much in Costa Rica to conserve and protect the land,” she said. “And they have businesses that are doing great not in spite of conservation but because of conservation. It was all pretty amazing to me.”

Allen said most students assume their study-abroad component is to see how much more advanced the U.S. is than developing countries. “But we’re going there to see how they’re doing it right. Costa Rica is a world leader in sustainability. They have a commitment to be a carbon-neutral economy. We need to learn from them, not the other way around.”

Defining Moment

Since they were born in the “reduce-reuse-recycle” era, many Rollins students may have begun practicing sustainability in their personal lives long before they understood its more global implications. That is where the curriculum engages, highlighting the theoretical—the facts, philosophy, and fundamentals of sustainability—to give broader context to the practical.

An article from the Worldwatch Institute that is recommended reading for sustainable development students asks, “What is Sustainability Anyway?” It answers with a flexible generality: “The ability to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.” The article goes on to state that there are four dimensions to sustainability, from the most basic to the more profound: human survival, biodiversity, equity, quality of life. The choices we make now as individuals, communities, corporations, and countries can either place a heavier load on the earth’s ability to sustain itself or drive changes to ease that burden.

Perhaps proof that this generation senses its defining moment is at hand, environmental studies is one of the fastest-growing majors on campus. “This isn’t about going to live on a farm, off the grid, eating only what you can grow,” Allen said. “It’s about utilizing the knowledge that humanity has gained over thousands of years. There are better ways of doing things. This generation of students will come up with those better ways.”

Students digging in Costa Rica. Photo by Barry Allen.

Sustainability as a Development Model

Familiar solutions to the issue of sustainability are abundant: solar, wind, and hydrogen power; recycling; reducing consumption; habitat and species protection. These have been looked upon in previous (more dubious) decades as last resorts, but today’s students are learning they are also business opportunities.

Many of the countries studied during the travel component of the sustainable development coursework, such as Vietnam and Dominica, have turned ecotourism into a win-win solution: their inhabitants improve their quality of life by earning a better income, while protecting their region’s natural resources. Costa Rican farmers have learned to profit personally and environmentally by going organic on their coffee plantations.

“Sustainability is a hot topic in business right now,” Allen said. “It’s important that business students see the impacts of economic and business decisions on the environment and that environmental studies students understand that there are sometimes costs to protecting the environment. You can’t solve the ‘economic problem’ by ignoring the environment. Likewise, the solution to sustaining the environment must make economic sense.”

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