For the past 48 hours, I’ve been taking a deep and nourishing drink from the campus sustainability firehose at the AASHE 2012 conference. Going all the way back to the very first AASHE conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2006, I’ve found these gatherings to be both educational and inspirational. Other than that magical first gathering on the Arizona State University campus six years ago, this year’s conference in Los Angeles might very well have been the best one yet. As I pour over my pages and pages of notes and reflect on the experience, I find that three themes emerge from the pages: empathy, transformation, and leadership.
First, empathy. This was the theme that caught me by surprise. The moving keynote performance by Dr. Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet humanized our collapsing environmental systems in a collage of images, music, and scientific data so effectively that many in the audience were in tears by the end. I had to spend a few minutes gathering myself after the session, reminding myself that this is why I chose this profession, that this is why I – and so many others – continue to fight for a better future. As Monty Hempel observed the next day, human empathy is the gateway to sustainability. This led Dave Newport to ask a most important question: “How do we turn our human empathy back on?” I’d like to think that if we can an answer to Dave’s question, we might actually transform the world.
Yes, transformation. From the opening keynote to the closing awards ceremony, transformation was interwoven throughout the conference. Hunter Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in higher education. Unfortunately, aside from Hunter Lovins, there were to my knowledge no further serious discussions about online education and sustainability in any of the conference presentations. If the same holds true next year, I will truly be shocked.
Numerous sessions explored transformations in how we design and construct buildings for university campuses, including experiences with net-zero energy buildings as well as those that meet the stringent guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC). But even the LBC was itself challenged as not being sustainable, with restorative design identified as the next milestone on the horizon. Steve Baumgartner of Buro Happold suggested that next year at AASHE, we need to discuss what the word living actually means when applied to a building, because the “living building” designation of the LBC is in itself misleading. The state-of-the-art has progressed dramatically since the first AASHE conference in 2006, but whether the average new campus building has transformed all that much in the past six years is another question altogether.
That 2006 conference witnessed the announcement of the founding of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, a truly transformational moment in sustainability education in higher ed. Far too few schools have followed ASU’s lead, although the number of majors, minors, and certificate programs related to sustainability has blossomed. Shirley Vincent of the National Council for Science and the Environment presented a detailed census of such programs, reporting that there are now 143 sustainability degrees, 298 sustainability specializations within degree programs (such as civil engineering or architecture), and 294 minors and certificates in sustainability. The numbers look impressive – until you realize that there are about 3,400 two-year and four-year institutions of higher education (not including the for-profits). In other words, there are only 0.2 sustainability major, minor, specialization, or certificate programs per college. The transformation might very well come from online programs, because the pace of change at most schools to date – including my own – has been far too slow.
The final emergent theme from AASHE 2012 was leadership. Mike Shriberg presented a compelling sustainability leadership program at the University of Michigan, with a limited and tightly-knit cohort of 25 students admitted per year traveling together through an 11 credit sequence to equip them to become leaders for a sustainable future. But what does sustainability leadership mean? A team from Portland State University led by Dr. Heather Burns posed this question in a workshop at the end of the conference, and the responses from the participants included the following:
- “Sustainability leadership is a change of heart… beating in rhythm with the world” [there’s that empathy theme again!]
- “It’s leadership embedded in natural systems, educating and communicating to bring others to that frame.”
- “It’s setting the example.”
- “It’s being humble and knowing when to ask the right question.”
- “It’s being a catalyst, a change agent, a co-creator, a collaborator.”
- “It’s the ability to reimagine the world, and to motivate others with that vision.”
- “It’s an emergent quality, shared for a period of time, and then passed on to others.”
- “It’s showing instead of telling.”
- “It’s a burden!”
Empathy, transformation, leadership… these were the threads that tied together the AASHE 2012 experience for me. As Robert Davies instructed, “It’s now time for us to believe what we know… None of our efforts are enough just yet… We must transform, or collapse.” Sobering words. If ever there was a time for empathetic and transformational leadership, now is the time. But this is not a task to outsource to others; it’s one to take on ourselves. As Gandhi observed, “We must be the change we wish to see.”
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