Saturday, October 07, 2006

AASHE- The Role of Higher Ed in Creating A Sustainable World

So, I am in Tempe, attending a conference on sustainability in what must be one of the least sustainable places on the planet. But I have made peace with this sustainabilty paradox. This has been a really good conference; and it is the "first", so maybe in a few years we can all be talking about it, and selling the organic cotton T-shirts on Ebay.

So, here are a few impressions of a diverse and excellent group of keynote speakers:

Lead off speaker- Bill McKibben. Quote: "Climate change is the defining issue of our time." OK, so I was coming from another meeting on infectious diseases, plagues and flu pandemics which was, actually, pretty optimistic about our chances for figuring out these problems. Bill's message is kind of gloomy (while not over in the "doomy" camp, yet, he's definitely moving in that direction). Citing NASA's Dr. Hansen, he is concerned that we may have less than 10 years to address climate change, or perhaps it is already too late. Maybe we have already hit some trigger points and and climate change will accelerate rapidly. Bill is a passionate speaker and talented writer, but little bells were going off in my head. After his dire warnings of rapid sea level rises of 60 feet, more earthquakes in Greenland, methane bubbles inSiberian swamps and thawing artic tundra, he concluded that we "have ten years to reorganize the economy of the planet".

Hmmm. I always like to observe whether those crying "fire" are running to get a bucket of water, or just yelling. As with Al Gore's movie, there seems to be an urgent call to action, but then not a lot of details about what we should do about it. Vote. Write a politician. Buy a hybrid. McKibben's personal actions seem to involve giving speeches, writing a lot of articles and books (and he is an excellent writer) and organizing a "sustainable journalism' club at Middlebury. They are working on implementing some cogen facilities and getting the students to turn the heat down to 68 degrees. Don't get me wrong, that is fine. It's all good work! He is a passionate speaker and he is spreading the word. And he is using his talents to catalyze change. But his personal actions imply that we probably have a bit more time than a decade to do something. I don't see the radical actions that so dire a predicament might require. I mean, if you really believe the world is going to end in 2015, what would you do?

So, props for the passion and story telling. But disappointing on several points. First, sustainability is not just climate change. There are legitimate arguments that other challenges are equally worthy of time and resources- poverty alleviation, disease, water pollution, oceans- I fear that these are being lost to many of the conference attendees. Second, I really question the use of fear as a motivator. It doesn't do much for me. It's a personal thing, but I prefer hope. It seems to be, well... more sustainable. Perhaps that is another dissimilarity between activists and entrepreneurs that we will need to work through together.

Next up: Ray Anderson. Quote: "Today's third graders will be college grads in 2020- what must they have learned to work for Interface?" While I was a bit disappointed with McKibben, I was really impressed with Anderson. He gave a great talk about his journey to becoming a true leader in sustainability. Humble, a southern gentleman, still in learning mode at age 72. Bill McKibben writes about it; Ray Anderson gets it done. He tells us "Educators have an awesome role of responsibility- do we want to teach our students how to make the next PCB? or how to practice petrochemically based agriculture?" Great examples of getting engineers and business people to rethink the way they work. An optimist, an activist in a dark gray suit, a leader of a company and a movement. Inspired by Hawken's book- Ecology of Commerce when he was 60- look at all he's done in 12 years. If I am in a battle for the future of the planet, I'd like a bunch of Rays on my side! Definitely deserved the standing ovation.

Interlude: cool students abound at this conference. Check out Mark Orlowski of Sustainable Endowment Institute, Billy Parish at Energy Action Coalition, Leti McNeil at Engineers for a Sustainable World, and Brandon Armstrong at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Passionate, articulate, thoughtful, persistent... maybe our next Ray Anderson, Oprah or Bill Gates.

Next up: Beverly Wright. Quote: (oops, didn't take notes on this one... it was late). An interesting speaker on a topic that didn't get enough attention at this conference. The close ties between environmental degradation and poverty. The social aspects of sustainability. Society can't just aspire to be green, it must aspire to be just. Her work pre- and post- Katrina was inspiring.

And last, but not least, Hunter Lovins. Quote: "Hypocrisy is the first step toward real change."(discussing Wal-Mart's green initiatives). OK, this is the crack cowgirl of sustainability. Sincere, passionate, smart, funny as hell, frenetic and inspiring. She probably gets more done in a day than I do in a month. (And, in case she ever reads this, I am not bitter that her session earlier in the day was the same time as ours- it just made ours a more "intimate" workshop). Hunter is a systems thinker...drawing connections from disparate sources. She had a very well rehearsed, humorous and thoughtful presentation. A message of hope, innovation and belief that natural capitalism is the right path. I also liked the questions from the students that called Hunter out on a few topics: what about the social aspects of Wal-Mart's operations? Aren't the corporations the low hanging fruit- what about individuals? And, the best question of the conference as far as I'm concerned: "So, what does the sustainable future you envision look like?" Hunter couldn't answer that one, and I get the sense she is rarely at a loss for words. It is a very provocative question.

I will leave you with another impactful moment, and it also didn't come from any of the big name speakers. It came from Kai, in dreadlocks and a Seuss Lorax shirt, who shuffled up to the mike at the end of a session on university initiatives on "sustainability" (that had again focused heavily on climate change). "What about war- Isn't that a threat too?" he asks. "Good Question" says the speaker (they always say that here) but doesn't really answer (and the speaker was a boomer who presumably remembers something, dimly, about another war). I would urge sustainability folk to remember that there are 3 legs to the sustainability stool. They need roughly proportional attention. At this conference, environment and economy got the focus. The social leg came up short. Kai brought that home with his question.

There was much more. I took a whole pad of notes in various break out sessions. But, just like those old rock concerts, "you had to be there."

Kudos to the AASHE organizers and ASU for pulling this off. It was informative, fun, and energizing. I look forward to next year and seeing how much progress has been made.

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