'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

University programs are focusing research and resources on environmental and social responsibility.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Somewhere in the curriculum, most colleges and universities include Henry David Thoreau. Now, many of them are trying to emulate him.

Yes, sweeping the academic world is Walden Pond 101: the art of living in a sustainable manner. Think environmental and social responsibility.

One of the best examples of the ivory tower's effort to tread lightly on the land is at Arizona State University. Next month, ASU will inaugurate the nation's first School of Sustainability – whose classes will look at everything from water scarcity to urban air quality problems.

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It is one of many universities putting its intellect and talents to use in the name of ecology. These institutions are devoting more research to solving global climate problems, and they're redesigning their own campuses to be examples of better ways to use and protect Earth's resources. For some schools, the financial commitment to these issues has started to run into the millions of dollars, as they foot salaries for new specialists and pay the costs of creating green buildings. At the very least, many universities are creating new courses in response to student interest.

"We have always looked to academia to think creatively about the larger problems of our day," says Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "There is not a more complicated problem than how to survive and flourish with a growing population and finite resources."

Universities are quickly latching onto the issue as several developments show. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has quintupled in size this year, as it went from a West Coast-based organization to a national group. Also, an increasing number of schools, from New York University to the University of Central Oklahoma, are getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. And next month, a group of colleges and universities will launch an effort encouraging 200 universities to develop a plan that would make their schools "climate neutral," meaning the schools wouldn't adversely affect the environment.

Many institutions are proud of their innovations. At the University of Rochester in New York, a new optics lab will have stairwells designed to absorb heat and radiate into the building to reduce heating costs. At Berea College in Kentucky, sewage from an "Ecovillage" is treated in a series of tanks filled with plants and fish. The University of California at San Diego has identified campus rooftops where it can install 500 kilowatts of solar panels, which equals the power needed for 325 homes.

ASU's green efforts

But ASU has ratcheted up the effort with "a holistic approach" that is probably unique in the nation, says Mr. Roberts.

Any new building erected at ASU – a school adding facilities quickly – must be built to exacting environmental standards. Some professors in the university's labs are concentrating on understanding nature and then using the knowledge to solve problems. For example, a team of professors is growing a strain of bacteria that feast on carbon dioxide. The bacteria could then be used to convert emissions from a power plant into bio-fuels.

By the fall, the university hopes to integrate its work so that students in other schools, such as the law school, can minor in sustainability. Some students will come from China as part of an agreement in August to launch a Joint Center on Urban Sustainability.

In October, ASU hosted 650 academics, administrators, and students from AASHE who took part in a conference on the role of higher education in creating a sustainable world. The university is attracting donors and business people, including heiress Julie Ann Wrigley and Rob Walton, chairman of Wal-Mart, who last month agreed to chair the board of ASU's Institute of Sustainability.

Behind the university's efforts is its president, Michael Crow, who arrived at ASU in 2002 after 11 years at Columbia University, where he played a lead role in founding the Earth Institute.

Like many environmentalists, he counts reading Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" as a landmark in his life. However, he says it wasn't until he matured that he realized "all of these 70,000 chemicals and synthetics that we have put in the atmosphere and water were all derived mostly by universities with no thought given to what the other impacts may be to what they are doing."

At ASU, Dr. Crow reorganized the life-science departments, and began hiring experts in sustainability. A central goal, he says, "is that we work in concert with the natural systems as opposed to in conflict with the natural systems."

And Crow goes a step further: He believes that nature, through 4 billion years of genetic change, provides "the pathway to everything we need. Nature has adapted to all kinds of problems: hot climate, cold climate, high carbon dioxide, low carbon dioxide."

In May 2004, Crow organized a three-day retreat in the Yucatan, with leading experts from around the world, to brainstorm what an institute of sustainability would have to do to succeed. "We asked them, 'If you could design an entire university to attack sustainability issues, what would you do?' " recalls Crow. "What they said is that 'You can do this, and we need you to,' and they urged us to move forward."

At the meeting was Ms. Wrigley, who later wrote the university a check for $15 million as a planning grant.

Crow subsequently allocated the university's resources. He committed to dozens of new faculty positions, four distinguished chairs, and a new building that would meet exacting environmental standards. Included in the mix: a $6 million "Decision Theater" that allows community leaders to see the complexities of their decisions on the environment – not just now, but also in a virtual future.

Phoenix: laboratory for sustainability

In some ways, Phoenix makes a good laboratory for studying sustainability – a fast-growing metropolis that is in the middle of a desert. "It is a daunting environment," says Patricia Gober, codirector of the Decision Center for a Desert City, part of ASU. "But we are also an open system, composed largely of migrants, so we are open to innovation, change, new ideas."

Phoenix, like other cities in hot climates, confronts some major "sustainability" problems. One, the nighttime temperatures here now average 10 to 12 degrees warmer than 40 to 50 years ago when the area was less developed. Called the "urban heat island," the higher temperatures mean a greater demand for air conditioning, which requires additional power generation.

But in an ASU lab, scientists Jay Golden and Kamil Kaloush are experimenting with ways to cut down on the heat, including using coatings on street surfaces such as rubber that absorb the heat more efficiently, but also release it faster. "Reducing the urban heat island effect could mean cities like Los Angeles have fewer days when they are not in compliance with EPA air-quality standards, and that could mean more money for them since the EPA cuts funding when a city is not in attainment," says Mr. Golden. Their work is being closely watched in China, where Shanghai has the same problem.

ASU has built a $400 million Biodesign Institute on the campus, and researchers there are trying to implement Crow's vision of emulating natural systems. One example: Neal Woodbury and his colleagues are trying to mimic the way plants take sunlight and carbon dioxide to split water and produce hydrogen, a potential fuel for the future. By creating and identifying new catalysts that greatly speed up nature's process, the experiment could be commercially producing hydrogen in about two years.

Students seem excited to be part of the university's effort. One is Thad Miller of Malverne, N.Y., who has been accepted to work on a doctorate at the new School of Sustainability. "What is appealing to me is that these problems of climate change, the urban heat island, urban planning, require a real interdisciplinary way of looking at the world, and they do this more so here than any other school," says Mr. Miller, who is leaning toward working for a nonprofit or advising decision- makers when he graduates. "It's fun to be a part of it."

Eventually, Crow hopes to see thousands of new students – future Thoreaus – enrolled in the school. "I think I've read everything Thoreau wrote," says Crow. "And he would have loved this place."

One university president's vision

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, is a leader in advancing environmental issues in higher education. For the adjoining story, the Monitor's Ron Scherer talked with him in Tempe. Following are additional excerpts from the interview.

On how ASU is moving forward with sustainability goals:

We have decided as a university to pick our own low-hanging fruit, so we only build sustainable buildings now. We will be leading an effort to get other university presidents to sign up for a series of renewable-energy objectives and carbon-emission objectives ... as some mayors have done. It's the university climate initiative.

We are going to do that: It's being conceptualized and about to be launched.

On student interest in sustainability:

It's still early but it's high. I would say it's in the hundreds [of ASU students], now but our goal is to make it into the thousands....

One of our other reasons for doing this is we are failing in finding ways to teach science – and one of the reasons is that we are teaching science the way scientists think about science, and nine-tenths of the population don't get it. When you ask how to get them more interested, they always say, give them a context.

The teaching of science through sustainability will attract more people to science.

On what makes ASU's initiatives unusual:

We sat at my house for a couple of days to draw up the design imperatives for the university. We knew what we wanted to do: We wanted a new kind of university. We call it the "new American university."

Part of that means leveraging place: We can't be distant from where we are. We are part of this new American city [Phoenix] and participating in societal transformation. And that means we have some responsibility.

We had Frank Rhodes, a former president of Cornell, out here, and we just gave him an honorary PhD. He said we need a new design for universities. He said they are essential to the design and the creation of the future of our civilization. It becomes so central.

So we took all those lessons and all those dynamics, and we knew that at this point there was still open-mindedness. The one thing that remains here is open-mindedness.

I'm going down to Tucson to meet with the [state] regents. And what they want is a differentiated university of great utility and service and of great excellence.

On his connections to China:

I was in China in August, and we signed off and launched the Joint Center on Urban Sustainability.

We also received the largest Chinese government grant to a US institution to help design solutions to the terrible grasslands management problem in Inner Mongolia.

The joint institute is basically here in Phoenix, which is an emerging brand-new city being built. Eventually China is going to build all these brand-new cities, and eventually they will rework those cities. And everyone realizes the cities are the key: If you can get the cities to be sustainable and if you can lower carbon emissions, you can reach a mass balance state of equilibrium.

What we are focusing on is this interface between the built environment and the natural environment. How do you interface the built environment in ways that the natural environment can be sustained?

On tackling extremely complex issues:

Well, for example, we have built this Decision Theater, which cost $6 million. It's a way to visualize and conceptualize very complex things....

We have too many variables and too many things and too much time. We have to think about thousands of years and multiple generations. We can't do that. We're not equipped. We can think about our grandparents and our children.

So this Decision Theater helps us take on complex problems. You need this 3-D tool. So we are looking to build one of those in China to be linked up with us, working with us on simulating cities and simulating sustainability and dealing with sustainability conceptualization.

When I was in China, you could not see across the street. I go to China twice a year. They are not fun trips: It's arduous; the air pollution is so bad. But enough people understand it. It is in their economic interest to tackle these issues. Economic issues are central to the environmental issue.

Our working with the Chinese is that we are interested in allies and partners who are interested in what we are, which is understanding how to advance sustainability models.

Four or five big countries on the planet are driving everything, and we are one of those. China and India are among the others.

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