'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses
University programs are focusing research and resources on environmental and social responsibility.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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.