New Environmental Social Sciences Department formed | Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability – Stanford University

The new department within the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability incorporates the human element into interdisciplinary efforts to tackle humanity’s greatest sustainability challenges.
The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability has formed a new Department of Environmental Social Sciences, with William Barnett as chair and Marshall Burke as associate chair. The department, which was approved by the Board of Trustees at its December meeting, elevates the critical role of the social sciences in sustainability scholarship and education.
“The formal approval of this new department represents a major step forward in the school’s ambitions to realize global impact in sustainability,” said Dean Arun Majumdar. “Given the urgency and magnitude of the challenge, helping create a sustainable future requires leveraging our full potential as a university. It goes without saying, that dedicated research and education in the social sciences is essential to fostering the knowledge, innovations, and leaders necessary for real and lasting solutions.”
Barnett helped envision the structure for the school as it was forming and was an advocate for the importance of including social sciences. “When we created the vision for what would become this school, one of the things that made it so different is that it not only includes the sciences and engineering, but also the social sciences,” he said. “We imagined a school that is broader in scope than anything that exists at any other university. We all acknowledge that the world is going through a revolution, and the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability is dedicated to advancing knowledge on the sustainability of humanity in our research, teaching, and impact across disciplines.”
Combating climate change and advancing sustainability cannot be done with technological and scientific solutions alone, Barnett said. Creating large-scale economic and social transformation requires changes in human behaviors at the individual, organizational, and broader institutional levels. That’s where anthropology, business, economics, education, human health, law, political science, psychology, and sociology come in.
“A wide variety of disciplines in the social sciences are addressing questions central to sustainability,” said Barnett, who is also the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The beauty of having social sciences within the school is that we’re interacting directly with scientists and engineers, so our research and teaching is informed by them, and theirs is informed by us.”
The beauty of having social sciences within the school is that we’re interacting directly with scientists and engineers, so our research and teaching is informed by them, and theirs is informed by us.
Social science research and coursework has been part of the school since its launch in September 2022 through a social science division. However, there were initially not enough dedicated faculty to form an official department with degree offerings. Today, 23 faculty are affiliated with the new Environmental Social Sciences Department, and it is recruiting more.
Over the next year, the department’s faculty will work on developing their first degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Additionally, the department will offer courses in support of other majors within the school. 
Studies within Environmental Social Sciences fall in two broad focus areas: Global Environmental Policy (GEP) and Environmental Behavioral Sciences (EBS). Barnett oversees the EBS area, while Burke heads up GEP.
“Most of the sustainability challenges we face are a result of human actions and choices, and so addressing these challenges will require us to make different choices,” Burke said. “Social scientists are central in understanding these choices – why we behave the way we do, and how we can develop policies and institutions that lead to outcomes that we want.”
Degrees in the new department will focus on examining the role institutions and individuals play in sustainability, effecting change, environmental economics, democracy and capitalism, and policy development. Many of the department’s courses are cross-listed with other departments and schools, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of the work. 
Students have gotten a taste of this approach in the course COLLEGE 106: Environmental Sustainability: Global Predicaments and Possible Solutions, co-taught by Barnett and Professor Chris Field.
“How you think about sustainability depends on the lens through which you view the world,” Barnett said. “We often view it through a technical lens – we view it as an engineering problem. That’s a legitimate way of looking at sustainability, but at the same time, sustainability also can be understood as a set of behavioral and ethical challenges. Only by seeing sustainability through all three lenses – the technical, behavioral, and ethical – do we fully understand humanity’s greatest challenges.”
Barnett is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Burke is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). 
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