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'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

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

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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.

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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.