Examining the human dimensions of sustainability with Dr. Courtney Kimmel
November 8, 2022
By Lindsay Kuczera
As a child growing up on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, Dr. Courtney Kimmel wondered how decisions about the environment were made and who was involved. She questioned what institutions and systems were in place that affect the environment and reflected on how we can help people to make better decisions to safeguard nature and communities.
Sustainability in human dimensions
This curiosity from a young age led Kimmel to pursue an education in which she studied various disciplines including economics, sociology, political science, and public ecology. The concept of environmental decision-making through a human lens offered her a concrete way to connect sustainability problems, community dynamics, and social issues.
After completing a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment on the human dimensions of natural resources, Kimmel began working very closely with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) to help develop and launch the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program. For the past ten years, she has continued to teach various courses for the Master of Natural Resources (Online) program, all with a focus on urban and human systems.
Sustainability in practice
As a Professor of Practice, Kimmel is teaching in two MNR (Online) electives—Urban Ecology and Infrastructure for Resilience—and one core class, Constructing Sustainability. Since Kimmel comes from a background in fieldwork, her practicality and real-world approach is at the forefront of her curriculum.
For example, in one assignment she asked students to go outside and observe a place in their community. Their task was to map out what natural, social, and built systems they saw and identify how they interact and where the vulnerabilities lie. From there, the class discussed how to rebuild or adapt those systems to be resilient and sustainable. This type of approach to online education enables students to be engaged in their surroundings and teaches them to look at the world through various lenses.
In addition to engaging in their own surroundings, Kimmel teaches students to evaluate initiatives that cities around the world have taken to address their natural resource concerns. These examples contain political, social, stakeholder, and economic considerations, while identifying incentives and barriers. Applying a holistic perspective to sustainability is key to ensuring natural resources, wildlife, and communities all benefit from policy and advocacy work.
Sustainability in action
Kimmel also serves as the Vice President at Captain Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that engages and empowers young people to become problem solvers for the planet, with a network of 3,000 strong from about 90 nations. The foundation partners with organizations that have environmental or conservation missions to help train these young people and offer them opportunities to create positive systems change.
One great example of how younger generations have the influence to create real change took form in the Cayman Islands. Plans for a new cruise ship port to be built in Grand Cayman would have caused destruction to the reef and marine environment. Young activists that Kimmel helped train and mentor petitioned and testified to stop the planned berthing development project, and succeeded; a testament to the fact that age is not a limiting factor to being an effective voice for change in our world.
What’s a green job? According to Kimmel, every job is a green job. All it takes is critical thinking and a different way of framing the issues. “You don’t have to be a sustainability professional to be a sustainability practitioner,” she says.
If you’re making a career transition, Kimmel advises to identify your interests, talents, and skills. Be true to what speaks to you and don’t try to force yourself in any particular direction. You owe it to yourself to honor your passion, because when you work on something you truly care about, everyone else benefits from that good work too.
Dr. Courtney Kimmel is a faculty member with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech. She received her Ph.D. in forestry and a master's degree in political science from Virginia Tech, and a B.A. in economics and sociology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Dr. Kimmel teaches courses in green infrastructure and sustainable development. She received the XCaliber Award at Virginia Tech for innovative use of technology in the classroom, and has published research in journals such as Geoforum and the Journal of Higher Education.