Education and the Rush to Catch Up With Pressing Environmental, Economic & Social Needs

You have to be quick to adapt these days when it comes to business and commerce. That’s been increasingly the case in education as well. Educational institutions – certainly in the US, now in Western Europe and increasingly in developed and developing countries around the world- are usually pretty damn quick to adapt and develop programs in-line with current topical trends.
And that’s been the case as rapidly growing interest in and concerns about climate change, environmental degradation and how to support a world population approaching 7 billion has quickly given rise to a bevy of new degrees and programs, some with some rather odd, even seemingly oxymoronic, combinations of words in their names.
When I first read about NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science & Technology’s MSc. in Industrial Ecology the joining of “industrial” and “ecology” struck me as an unlikely and incompatible combination. The more I looked into it, however, the more it struck me how appropriate, and meaningful, their juxtaposition is.

Ahead of the Curve
ppp020-trondheim.bmp Originally established in 1994 at the suggestion of Norwegian industry, NTNU launched a “comprehensive educational curriculum” in 1999 and a fully fledged international MSc. program in industrial ecology in 2005. Six MSc. and two PhD degrees were awarded in 2007 while 11 Master of Technology students took their thesis in IndEcol, as it’s known at the university.
I first came across it a year or so ago while searching for well-structured yet flexible interdisciplinary programs focused on affording students the means to develop a set of skills they could readily apply in efforts to more sustainably manage natural resources.
The definition of this new field of study, which proposes to use nature as the model for designing and developing man-made industrial and commercial products, services and processes, is succinctly set out by the program’s managers as follows: “Industrial ecology is the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effect of these flows on the environment, and of the influence of economic, political, regulatory and social factors on the flow, use and transformation of resources.”
Growing Interest & Demand
“The sudden prominence of climate change has clearly had a big impact on us at IndEcol,” director Edgar Hertwich writes in the program’s 2007 Annual Report. “All of a sudden our research is in public demand…Unfortunately, the recognition that climate change is a serious threat requiring a rapid response hits the world unprepared: the public funding of renewable energy research is at an all-time low and the world has grown comfortable with emissions-intensive habits and a development pathway that requires the use of massive quantities of fossil fuels. So far, politicians have not acted on their promises and individuals have responded as if they were powerless, or not concerned.”
NTNU professors and students are working to remedy that situation in a variety of ways, along with growing numbers of similarly concerned undergraduate and graduate educational programs. PhD candidates, such as Johan Pettersen, are working to find ways of reducing the energy demands and environmental pollution associated with drilling offshore for oil and gas. Yale University geology graduate Catherine Izard is researching ways of better understanding and sustainably developing and managing associated with our use of tin. NTNU mechanical engineering graduate Magnus L√∏seth and his advisor Helge Bratteb√∏ are using material flow analysis to examine the Chinese power industry’s past and future greenhouse gas emissions.
On the environmental policy and management track, former Singapore and Hong Kong banking industry employee Caroline Cheung is developing her thesis around the theme of environmental management and corporate social responsibility.
Research Efforts
The nexus of all the various forms of human activity and the natural environment are at the heart of the IndEcol program’s research. Looking to develop sustainable innovations in the built environment is a particular focus. A group of researchers from the IndEcol program, NTNU’s Faculty of Architecture and Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and the National Housing Bank approached their home city of Trondheim’s government and proposed a “climate neutral” residential or mixed use development.
Aiming to move the city into a leading position when it comes to urban efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the quality of life and health of the natural environment, the proposal takes an integrated approach to urban planning and fostering a low carbon society that takes into account transport, recreational activities and food supply. It was taken up by Trondheim’s mayor the proposal was included in a formal policy document of a new city council this autumn.
With offshore oil playing such a large role in the Norwegian economy and society, IndEcol researchers are looking to find ways of improving the eco-efficiency of oil industry technology and processes, as well as developing mutualistic symbiosis among the oil industry, the natural environment and society.
With funding provided by StatoilHydro, a team of researchers is focusing on evaluating the possibility of developing two broad industries alongside Mongstad, the country’s largest oil refinery: energy conversion facilities and aquaculture. The first currently includes evaluating different heat and power options with carbon capture and storage and the production of synfuels and hydrogen. Related to the latter involves investigating the feasibility of lobster aquaculture using 25¬∞C cooling water expelled by the refinery as waste energy. The research team plans to continue this line of research while also adding cod to its research efforts.

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email:

Leave a Reply