Phoenix Rising

A Report on the Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), October 4-6 2006

My only previous experience with Phoenix Arizona was a couple of years ago changing planes on a flight from San Luis Obispo to New York. On the descent to the airport I was arrested by the sight of an L.A. scale megalopolis in the middle of a vast desert patched with hundreds of golf courses, thousands of swimming pools and dozens of artificial lakes bordered by marinas and mansions. It struck me at the time that this must be the most ecologically unsound, resource-wasteful place on earth.

That impression was reinforced earlier this week, when I walked out of the air-conditioned “Sky Harbor” terminal into a 95 degree atmosphere which burned my eyes and clenched my chest. I had arrived to attend a conference of AASHE: The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The choice of location seemed bitterly ironic.

Three days later, by the end of the conference, I understood that choice differently. The mistakes of development causing the present environmental crisis can only be rectified by massive transformations of places like Phoenix Arizona. And right there such transformations are beginning.

The conference was held at Arizona State University, with a student body of 65,000 the largest campus in the world. At the opening session, we were greeted by Jonathan Fink, its Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs, announcing the launch of the ASU School of Sustainability, offering interdisciplinary B.S., M.S., and Ph.D degree programs–part of its larger “Global Institute of Sustainability.” These new degree programs forwarded the effort to “bring sustainability to the center of what the university is about.” Or, as Jim Buizer, Director of the the President’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives, said the next morning, this is just one expression of “the conviction that the whole university will be devoted to sustainability.” And President Michael Crow stated his intention to change the name of ASU to “America’s Sustainable University.”

These announcements were delivered to an audience of 700 attendees, administrators, staff, students and faculty from 44 states and five countries–almost twice as many as conference organizers originally planned for. I was there from Cal Poly, sponsored by the President and Provost’s office, along with Kate Lancaster Associate Professor of Accounting in the College of Business and Visiting Professor at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute of Business, and with Linda Vanasupa, Professor and Chair of the Materials Engineering Department and Co-Director of Cal Poly’s Center for Sustainability in Engineering. Attendees here were motivated not by career enhancement or “professional development,” but by personal calling to an urgently felt mission.

I’d planned to bring back an extensive report of what I’d learned from the speeches and panels, but my outline of notes reached 50 pages, so instead, I’ve focussed on three topics: central themes, inspiring people and action items.

Central themes

1. Among the many presenters and attendees, there was consensus on what Bill McKibbon called “the most important task on earth today.” Speakers repeatedly invoked the testimony of James Hanson of NASA, chief climate scientist for the U.S. government:

“We have to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade, or temperatures will warm by more than one degree. That will be warmer than it has been for half a million years¦ This decade, that means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that do not burn carbon. We don’t have much time left.”

This “inconvenient truth” now trumps all other concerns. With every passing month the evidence for the crisis grows, as do the accelerating consequences”the raising of the earth’s temperature by one full degree, the melting of icecaps, the release of methane from the tundra, all destabilizing global climate equilibrium.

Since Hanson made his statement, one year has passed; only eighteen semesters are left. The window is narrowing, as McKibbon said, “this is a sprint¦for us to reorganize the entire economy of the planet.”

Despite the present federal government’s “state of denial,” understanding of the emergency has has dawned elswhere: substantial change has begun at local and state levels of government, witness the Mayors’ Climate Agreement encompassing 300 cities, and California’s recent legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in corporate and institutional behavior have also begun to shift our course away from fossil-fuel-caused disaster. Movement is afoot.

2. Though government and business leaders are getting the picture, the massive shift of values required to reduce pollution and develop clean energy before it’s too late must come through education. The second prevalent theme at the conference was the responsibility of Colleges and Universities to get the word out. They can remold our younger generation”those who will suffer most from global warming, who are amenable to change and capable of leadership. Universities and colleges also conduct the research that will provide clean energy, and, as huge consumers, strongly affect the energy market.

3. The third prevalent emphasis of the conference was on successful reforms providing models and inspiration. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the worlds largest commercial carpet producer, described ways that his company is “doing well by doing good.” It has converted its petroleum-intensive and inefficient production process to one that conserves resources and will be carbon neutral within a few years, Hunter Lovins described how Fortune 500 companies, even including Wal Mart, are making environmental priorities compatible with growth and profit.

Other speakers described ways that 200 Universities recently have developed Offices of Sustainability with full time staff devoted to forwarding our agenda. Winner of an award for the institution with the strongest overall sustainability advances in the last year was the University of British Columbia, whose annual Sustainability report demonstrates a remarkable range of achievements ( Once established these offices often become self-financed through grants and energy cost-savings they themselves help bring about.

This last point must be emphasized at Cal Poly. Since President Baker signed the Talloires Declaration in 2004, we have two standing Sustainability Committees. But these bodies lack the direction and power that could be supplied by one of those 200 high-level Sustainability Directors. As Amory Lovins said here at Cal Poly in 2002, “if it exists, it must be possible.”

Inspiring People

What I heard during the three days of the conference buffeted me back and forth between despair and hope. But that emotional turbulence was tempered by the steadying affection I felt for the people there with shared convictions. And all of us activists were inspired by the presence of extraordinary individuals who came forward as leaders. Among many more, they included

  • Anthony Cortese, Conference Co-chair, first Dean of Environmental Programs at Tufts University, who spearheaded the Talloires Declaration in 1990, masterly mover and shaker, often on the edge of tears.
  • Judy Walton, Executive Director of AASHE, dainty workhorse, always on the edge of laughter
  • Jim Buizer, ASU Sustainability Director, restrained bureaucrat and architect of a huge path-breaking endeavor
  • Michael Crow, ASU President, person in charge and on the make, young, fearless, and visionary
  • Julie Ann Wrigley, heiress in diamonds and silk, devoting her wealth and intelligence to the common good
  • Ray Anderson, philospher-CEO, all business, all poetry, all grandpa.
  • Bill McKibbon, prolific author, prophet, professor, and cross-country ski coach. Thoreauvian.
  • Beverly Wright, founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Post-Katrina Community Developer in New Orleans, scholar
  • Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Inc., professor of Business, lawyer, Time Magazine Hero of the Planet, consultant for Multinational Companies and ex-Presidents, Community Organizer in Afghanistan, horsewoman
  • Brandon Armstrong, Tennessee Students and Alumni for Sustainable Campus, recent graduate who organized the “Green Fee” campaign, a $16 voluntary tution increase approved by 89% of students, the largest turnout ever, to fund renewable and conservation energy programs in the coal state.
  • Billy Parish, dropped out of Yale four years ago to devote his life to the Campus Climate Challenge and “changing the tone from what’s feasible to what’s necessary.” Taught us a song and dance:

    oooooh! [pull out shirt]
    its hot in here
    there’s too much carbon [lift hands upward]
    in the atmosphere
    take action, take action, take action [boogie around]
    and get some satisfaction

Action Items

Usually going to an academic conference, I’m more concerned with the reception of what I’ll present than what I’ll come away with. This time it was different. From the array of what I learned, what will count most are the calls to action I respond to and repeat.

  • One was sounded in his closing remarks by Tony Cortese. He called upon all of us to work toward developing an ecoliteracy requirement for all students such as one in force at ASU, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota and Humboldt State. A proposal for such a requirement is now being developed by the Academic Senate Sustainability Committee at President Baker’s behest.
  • Another national conference, Campus Sustainability Day, sponsored by SCUP, the Society for college and University Planning, is coming up on October 25. This is a webcast entitled “Where is Your Campus on the Continuum of Integrated Sustainability Planning?” in which Cal Poly is a participant. For more information, see and contact Bob Kitamura, director of Facilities Planning.
  • Campus Climate Challenge is a coalition of 333 campuses and 30 youth organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada organizing young people to organize on their campuses and high schools to win Clean Energy policies at their schools. Working with students is one of the most effective ways for activists to make changes on campus. Cal Poly has an associated chapter.
  • One specific goal of this and other organizations is institutional Climate Neutrality or Carbon Neutrality.

    Climate Cool products, services, and enterprises are those that reduce or offset the greenhouse gas emissions with which they are associated to achieve a net zero impact on the earth’s climate. ¦ Companies or institutions that offset all of the gases resulting from the full spectrum of their internal operations can also receive Climate Cool enterprise certification.

    Global-warming gases can be offset in a variety of ways ranging from investing in technologies that dramatically reduce carbon emissions, such as renewable energy, highly fuel-efficient vehicles or energy-efficient lighting in public schools, to the planting of trees, which absorb global-warming gases.”

  • The conference incubated a new initiative in this regard: getting two hundred signatories on a College and University Presidents Pledge on Climate Neutrality. Similar to the Talloires Declaration, this Pledge will provide specific guidelines and timelines to go beyond general principle to specific action. The idea was effectively conveyed by in a New York Times column, “The Education of Thomas Friedman,” circulated on the Cal Poly campus last April:
  • If Cal Poly is to set up a position of Sustainability Director, many models are available. A variety of excellent people are willing to come here and describe their programs to our Sustainability Committees and Administrators.
  • The most exciting action item I bring from this conference is the call for participation in Focus the Nation by Professor Eban Goodstein of Lewis and Clark College. He has taken a two year leave of absence to organize a nationwide, non-partisan discussion of solutions to global warming to be held on January 31 2008 at over 1000 colleges, universities and high schools. The project’s advisory board includes Senator Gary Hart, David Orr, Hunter Lovins, Billy Parish and Denis Hayes, the original founder of Earth Day. Chapters are springing up on campuses all over the country, and I’m eager to persuade our sustainability groups to sign on and add a green balloon to the map on the website within the next couple of weeks.

The morning after the conference, I recognized the driver of the hotel van to the airport as the same young man who’d brought me three days earlier. On the trip in, as we crossed a dry concrete riverbed, I’d struck up a conversation. With a cynical shrug he’d told me he was studying engineering because his fiancee was getting a doctorate in philosophy and someone in the family had to make money. On the trip back to the airport, I bubbled on about what I learned: the urgent threat of climate change, his school’s new programs in sustainability, the expanding job market for those with that interest. He said, yes, it’s scary. They’d seen the Al Gore film, only the second half, because they snuck into the theatre. I suggested if he got into one of the new fields of green engineering, he and his bride might find there some common ground. As he unloaded my bag at the airport, he said, “Thanks for telling me about this stuff, I’ll follow it up.”

Report on the Sierra Club National Convention 2005

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