Director’s Almanac

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. —Aldo Leopold

Hi there! Welcome to “Director’s Almanac,” where I write about things on my mind, stuff I’m up to, and miscellaneous stuff that has me jazzed at the Institute on the Environment (IonE), the University of Minnesota and elsewhere.

Why read it? Maybe because you have time to kill. Maybe because you’re wondering how my weird mind works. Or maybe you’re just so committed to IonE that you can’t read enough about it. I welcome your feedback. So here we go!



It’s November – and in the United States that means election season. Across the country, many U.S. residents are still coming to terms with the election results, and some contests remain undecided. It’s clear that Democrats gained strength around metro areas and Republicans remain strong in rural areas. Emotions ran high this year, and voter turnout was high.

One thing we did not see on the campaign trail this year: talk about the environment. Here in Minnesota, a Minnesota Public Radio–Star Tribune survey suggested that only 6 percent of likely voters identified the environment as a top election issue, with more than three times that number calling out jobs and health care as priorities instead.

Does this tell us that people don’t care about the environment, or other issues like climate change that we often associate with the environment? If so, that’s pretty frustrating and downright worrisome.

Or, perhaps it’s high time we stopped thinking about clean water, our changing climate, the energy transition that’s sweeping the globe, and the biodiversity crisis that is undermining global ecosystem services as “environmental issues.” They are much more than that—they are socioeconomic issues, job issues, immigration issues, and cultural values.

This is what MPR’s Paul Huttner invited me to come talk with him about this election season on his program, Climate Cast. And here’s the crux of what I had to say:

There is a variety of evidence across the United States that there’s room to work on water, energy, and conservation in a bipartisan way. Politicians on both sides of the aisle see the connection between quality of life, economic opportunity, and addressing socio-environmental problems.

That’s why Republican Senator David Senjem is talking about renewables from his district in Rochester, Minnesota, because wind resources are abundant in Minnesota and an economy based on renewables can attract investment for Minnesota residents. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Minnesota also sponsored a bill last year (as a MN House member) to increase the state renewable energy standard, co-sponsored with a Democratic colleague.

More than a decade ago, Tim Pawlenty, at the time Minnesota’s Republic governor, joined with neighboring governors to sign the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Accord, an ambitious plan to transform the equivalent of the seventh largest carbon economy in the world. With turnover in nationwide governorships this year, perhaps that structure will be open for conversation again.

While many American politicians are committed to reducing taxes, they’ll also need to financing changing infrastructure under a warmer climate. (Think of the pipes and green space necessary to handle increased storm water and the demand for irrigation under drought.) If funds don’t come from taxpayers, we’ll need creative ways of generating and attracting private investment.

Bipartisanship can and does exist at the local level. This is where creative leaders armed with solid information and new ideas can have impact. And this is a key reason why IonE focuses considerable attention on our state, cities and counties. Here we strive to develop intellectual and human capital because Minnesota is a our natural laboratory and a useful case for the whole world.

Not all local political are rosy, of course, with obvious sustainability opportunities. Many still do not see the connection between jobs, the economy, and health care to environmental change. And we have failed to act on issues like climate change while knowing quite well that catastrophe is coming.

But after this election season, I’ll still be doing the work I do as the leader of an mission-driven learning organization. Action — wherever it occurs across the political spectrum — grows from public will, and public will grows from awareness and engagement, from new knowledge and novel insights that help us see what’s possible.

At the connection between the environment and other things people care about—that’s where transformative, engaged scholars can find a willing public.



On September 28, IonE hosted its second annual meeting, the one time per year where the entire IonE community gets together to share ideas, inspire one other, and strategize. More than 150 people attended who are part of or connected to the Institute on the Environment. What brings us together is the mission of a future where people and planet prosper together – and a common desire to use our university expertise to do what we can, in an interdisciplinary way, to change the trajectory of the world.


This year I shared some important news that builds off last year’s annual meeting – news that bears repeating here. At last year’s meeting, many in our community asked: What can IonE do to help us operate not just as individuals but also as a collective force? There was a resounding sense that collective impact could become core to what IonE is and how it serves its community.

To all of our current and future community members, I want to say: We heard you.

To enable collective impact and better serve the IonE community, I announced at this year’s annual meeting a new structure for IonE operations, a redesign emphasizing three core capacities:

  1. Knowledge initiatives, a home for work that fills those essential knowledge gaps needed to build a future where people and planet prosper together.
  2. Leadership and education, to create and support leaders with the soft skills and sustainability chops to put knowledge into practice including students and affiliates, but also legislators, community organizers and corporate executives.
  3. J-Lab, a “laboratory” that will produce world-class storytelling about both knowledge and leaders, with reference to journalism and its duty to serve the public good.


Organizing IonE around these core capabilities will help clarify the unique role we play in advancing sustainability in Minnesota and the world. Going forward, IonE will have three new associate directors, each of whom champions a core capability while also building and strengthening IonE as a whole.

At this year’s meeting, we also shared a new approach to our work that we’re calling IonE Impact Goals. Impact goals are specific outcomes that IonE will support and that we will work on together over a three to five year period. Our first set of goals – in the areas of carbon neutrality, safe drinking water, and sustainable land use – resonate with many members of the IonE community, as we discovered through many focus groups this past year. At the meeting, we heard from our new IonE goal leads (Ellen Anderson, Kate Brauman, and Eric Lonsdorf) and began the process of co-creating the goals in our afternoon breakouts. It is my sincerest hope that everyone in the IonE community can find a way to connect with one or more goals, whether in a large way or in small ones – getting in on the collective action.

There are few things that energize me more than smart and committed people brainstorming and strategizing together. I love living the life of the mind and believe we have a duty to use that mind power for positive social change – for the benefit of all. In the afternoon breakout groups, I was moved to see academics at the height of their careers intently listening to the perspectives of student attendees who are just beginning their own careers.

Another thing I love about the annual meeting is the many different ways of knowing and doing that are represented. At one breakout table, I found a group composed of an artist, two hydrologists, an ecologist, and an economist. Nothing can stop that D1A29924-ECE0-4E1A-848C-59B8B586FE97combination of scholarship.

All of the ideas shared in the breakout groups will be collated by the Impact Goal leads and communicated back to the IonE community. We will use that information to refine the goals and identify subgoals, and we will create research, education, and action teams around those subgoals. My wish for the annual meetings is that they hold us together from year to year, so that ideas raised in one meeting sustain and propel us forward until we meet again. I’m already looking forward to meeting number three in September 2019.

In planetary prosperity,




Most people think of spring as a time of renewal and rebirth. But if you’re an academic, that feeling is reserved for fall. It’s fall when the students come back to campus and when we begin teaching and mentoring a new crop of young and inquisitive learners.

It’s also when the Institute on the Environment opens its doors to more than 6,000 incoming undergraduates — a chance for new “gophers” to see firsthand the experiences they can have at the University of Minnesota that relate to the environment. This year’s SustAction! Day (below) was inspiring and happily exhausting. Seemingly each year more than the one before, students are expressing an interest in sustainability, both personally and academically.

It’s not that the summer isn’t busy, of course. It’s a common misperception that academics spend their summers frolicking in the warm weather, free of obligations. IonE took on a particularly ambitious project this summer — albeit structural. We have been working through an organizational redesign, a re-envisioning of our services and programs to better facilitate team scholarship, more clearly articulate our core capabilities, and increase our efficiency.

Soon we will welcome new leaders to IonE in the form of three new Associate Directors who will lead three new programmatic groups: knowledge (filling essential knowledge gaps needed to move the needle on sustainability), leadership (building future leaders to put sustainability in practice) and a journalism lab (telling the stories society needs to inspire sustainability action). Searches for two of these positions will begin soon, and a committee including members of our Faculty Leadership Council, students, and IonE staff has been formed to guide that process.

But as the fall arrives, a natural focus on leadership and education emerges each year because students are a major target for IonE leadership development. We reach students through courses such as GCC 3005, Global Venture Design (our own Fred Rose, with IonE Fellows Steve Kelly and Tom Fisher) and my new class (with IonE Fellow Dan Phillipon), GCC 3025, Leading the Good Life at the End of the World. We touch students through the university-wide Sustainability Studies minor as well as our Acara program, a leadership incubator for students from any discipline who want to solve real-world challenges (which is hosting its annual open house on Monday, September 24). And we already started the semester’s offering of programming for graduate students, to prepare them for diverse careers in sustainability inside the academy and out.

We do know that sustainability leadership is much more than understanding key principles – how carbon cycles around the globe or how nutrients flow off agricultural fields. It’s also about soft skills – an ability to collaborate, work across differences and divides, and persuade others with good data and compelling narrative. Leadership is about self-discovery and a willingness to take risks in service to a greater good. And it’s a lifelong pursuit, not just for students but also for faculty, nonprofit and government leaders, executives, and other decision-makers who confront environment and sustainability challenges professionally. That’s why we direct leadership programming to these audiences too.

Each of us needs to continually grow as a leader so that we can reach our full potential – and to grow, we must practice. I know that leadership is needed to steer IonE through its redesign, so this summer I sought out the wisdom of others leading impactful organizations, including people on our own External Advisory Board. I know that leadership is needed to make IonE a more diverse and welcoming place, and that’s why I took a course this summer on institutional racism. And I know that IonE itself can be an academic leader in creating a new kind of university, and that’s why I’m especially excited about a new grant from the National Academies to scale interdisciplinary research.

For the like-minded people who choose to associate with IonE – as employees, students, affiliates, and friends – our institute has to show leadership of its own. We must continue to push boundaries, create new ways of working at the overlap of disciplines and sectors, and hone our focus on impact. This is IonE’s role in the university and the broader world – and it’s what will keep that fall cycle of change-makers coming.

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. While we’re talking fall… it’s also the time of year when we invite a new class of affiliates to join the IonE community. (If you’re interested, don’t delay: The deadline is Monday, September 17!) It’s also the time of year when we gather our students, staff, affiliates, partners, and friends at the IonE Annual Meeting (Friday, September 28). There’s still time to RSVP for that, too. The Annual Meeting is when hundreds of like-minded people come together to interact and rejuvenate their commitment to helping create a future where people and planet prosper together.


JULY 2018

Wege entstehen dadurch, dass man sie geht. (Paths are made by walking.) –Franz Kafka

The Institute on the Environment (IonE) is dedicated to bringing about a future where people and planet prosper together. (Is it possible for me to say that too many times?!) And one essential element of a sustainable future is clean, renewable, and reliable energy — energy that is affordable for everyone and brings new opportunities for economic development and human thriving.

In Minnesota, we are already leading the nation in the renewables revolution, thanks to forward-looking electric utilities, an ambitious state renewable energy standard, and abundant renewable resources such as wind. But another key ingredient to the clean energy economy — one that cannot be overlooked — is people. People who will do the testing, coalition-building, and deployment of new technologies and new business models. Because decarbonizing the economy is not an easy task. Energy leaders will need knowledge and expertise; they will need to be nimble and creative, both technologically and economically; and they will need to work collaboratively, across disciplines, sectors, and communities. We work to build these people — inside and outside the university — at IonE.

All of this background leads me to the subject of this month’s blog: an IonE travelogue from one of the world’s top renewable energy producers, Germany. This month I offer a postcard from the future, a future you can find today just a plane ride away.

IonE has a grant from the German government to support education, outreach, and renewable energy demonstration projects, and this grant supports bringing a delegation of Minnesotans to Germany to experience the energiewende (or energy transition) firsthand. The grant and its associated program are run by our own Sabine Engle.

The United States pales in comparison to Germany and many other parts of Europe in renewable energy production and reinvention of the energy economy. For nearly two decades, Germany has been committed to transforming its economy, building out gigawatts of new, clean electricity, while also advancing energy efficiency of buildings and rolling out “e-mobility,” in the form of electric vehicles, rail, car sharing, and commuter biking. Why are they doing this? To shut down their nuclear power plants — a social imperative arising from Fukushima — and to substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This German energy revolution hasn’t been without some bumps along the way, but the energiewende has allowed the country to stay in front of the international technology race.

Here in the United States, we owe a debt of gratitude to Germany because its government-backed incentive programs created a new, countrywide market for renewable technologies. And this rapidly increased the supply of new, cost-effective technology for the rest of the world. That we can build wind and solar electricity generation in the U.S. for the same — or even lower — cost than coal or natural gas plants is thanks, in part, because of the German people, their ambitious green energy plans, and the early-adopter costs that they incurred.

Our 18-person delegation started our adventures in Munich, the economic and political capital of Bavaria, a German state near the border with Austria. Bavaria is one of the most conservative parts of Germany, a region with strong religious beliefs and rising nationalistic and anti-immigration sentiment. Yet Bavarians strongly support renewable energy with wide endorsement for energy transition among their conservative politicians.

There we visited with the state government and met with MunichRE, one of the world’s largest reinsurance corporations. The reinsurance industry — if you are not familiar with the term — insures primary insurers, and in so-doing, provides financial backing for thing such as clean energy assets and renewable development projects. MunichRE is also on the front lines of confronting global financial risks caused by climate change. 2017 was the most expensive year MunichRE has ever experienced, with growing insurance claims from extreme weather around the world.

We also visited a small Bavarian town called Wildpoldsreid, which reinvented itself with renewable energy, making money for its farmers and small businesses and financing capital projects such as a new kindergarten. Wildpoldsreid’s transformation all started with eight wind turbines in the 1990s and now includes a biogas plant and a community microgrid that supports electric vehicles, rooftop solar, and battery storage. Here and across Germany, electric reliability consistently beats the United States with fewer than 12 hours of outage on average per year. Ensuring that reliability despite the intermittency of renewable energy sources like wind and solar has been a challenge that the Germans have proven can be overcome.

Above, Thomas Eberl (eGRID) explains how batteries connect to the Wildpoldsreid residential microgrid, while Mos Kaveh (Dean, UMN College of Science and Engineering), Senator John Jasinski (MN District 24), Rolf Weberg (UMN Natural Resources Research Institute), and Greg Ridderbusch (CEO Connexus Energy) look on.

In the outskirts of Munich, we also visited a municipal geothermal plant (above) that supplies heat to businesses and homes and generates electricity. One of the major challenges to overcome in building a renewable energy future in cold climates like Germany and Minnesota is carbon-free home heating. Southern Germany is blessed with hot water deep underground that is naturally 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and they have found ways to tap this renewable resource at a large scale.

From Bavaria, we hopped on a high speed train powered by electricity, whipping through the German countryside — riddled with solar panels and wind turbines — toward Berlin. Our first stop in the capital city was the German Foreign Office, where the Bunderstag (German parliament) hosted a dinner of our Minnesota delegation and German guests.

This year’s seminar focused on the benefits of renewable energy for rural economies, so during our time in Berlin we also took a day trip to a farming community near the Poland border. This photo shows the delegation at a dairy farm that pumps its cow manure to a biogas digester that feeds electricity on to the grid, generating income for the farmer each month.

That day ended at the home of a friend and colleague of IonE, Gerard Reid. The co-founder of Alexa Capital, which specializes in the energy sector, Reid invited local business owners to join us for dinner, where Connexus Energy CEO Greg Ridderbusch had a chance to talk about his solar and storage projects in the north Metro of Minnesota. Above, you can see Greg sharing his insights, while the locals and our Minnesota delegates look on, including the former public utilities commissioner, Beverly Heydinger, state Senators Julie Rosen and David Senjem, and the commissioner of agriculture, Dave Fredrickson.

We had a full schedule, visiting dozens of agencies and sites, but we had some time for fun too. Here the NRRI’s Rolf Weberg shows off the rented bike that he used to tour Berlin one afternoon. An app on your phone allows you to find a bike, rent it and return it. The perfect way to get from point A to point B on a beautiful afternoon in a carbon-free way – a perfect ending note for another successful exchange with Germany.

Part of what is special about this program is the extraordinary access our delegates have to German decision-makers  – and the remarkably frank assessment these leaders share about Germany’s successes and failures. We also shared with them aspects of energy transition that are working in Minnesota – including a robust electrical grid that can move electrons generated from renewable sources to a wide area and aggressive closure of greenhouse gas-polluting coal plants. By sharing ideas and experiences across countries, we build relationships to support one another on the journey toward a clean energy future.

In planetary prosperity,



JUNE 2018

Earlier this year, as an outcome of the 2017 IonE Annual Meeting, we launched some focus groups to ask a quietly provocative question: Would members of the IonE community be interested in working together to achieve particular sustainability goals, and, if so, which ones?

About 60 conversations later, involving faculty, staff, and students, the answer seems to be “yes.” Now we are working to refine a set of initial goals into specific outcomes that are both needed around the world and that can come alive in our region. We are striving to roll out these new IonE Goals, and metrics to track them, at our next annual meeting in September.  Over the next three years, we will organize around the goals and form teams of university scholars and non-university partners to make progress on them.

Why do I say our question is “quietly provocative?” Whether you agree or disagree with this characterization probably depends on where you’re reading from. Out in the broader world, the idea of organizing efforts and aligning resources to achieve tangible outcomes is not particularly radical. But it is not how research universities traditionally work. We’re in the knowledge business, and we tend to divide our business among disciplines and departments. We do have profound capacity to explore, discover, and create, but, historically, we’ve carried out those activities for their inherent value in a rather uncoordinated way.

Universities have made immense strides in how they conduct research and discovery, no doubt. Today there is widespread recognition that the modern university, comprised of departments and deep specializations, inadvertently created siloed perspectives that limited the ability of scholars to work on complex and interconnected issues in the wider world. To overcome that shortcoming of disciplinary siloing, several U.S. universities have built formal programs to build and support teams of researchers that span multiple disciplines, to promote so called “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary,” or “transdisciplinary” work. Most of these programs call out societal ills or other “grand challenges” as a motivation for interdisciplinary work. Here at the University of Minnesota, we have our initiative on Grand Challenges, of which IonE is an immensely proud partner.

It is against this backdrop that our quietly provocative question is, in fact, to a revolutionary claim: Working toward sustainability outcomes, rather than just working on a sustainability topic or working on an interdisciplinary team, is the wave of the future in academia. It is the next way to stimulate interdisciplinary scholarship, the kind of scholarship that builds durable outcomes for people and planet. I think that nimble, mission-driven institutes like IonE have a duty to push interdisciplinarity beyond grand challenge topics to grand challenge impacts. If we, as researchers and educators, are not working toward an outcome, our interdisciplinary view may not – and probably will not – translate into action. (Now, I do not think that all parts of the university must be interdisciplinary or take on the mantle of outcomes and solutions because disciplines are powerful ways of knowing and knowledge for its own sake is critically important. But we also have a responsibility to create an impact in the world.)

How can we do this? In collaboration with partners on the front lines of sustainability challenges, academics can set goals that serve as a flags in the sand. Engineers and clinical medical scholars are used to striving toward a functioning prototype, a new drug, or eradication of a disease, and the rest of us can learn from them. We also can update standards for university seed funding. Through grand challenge initiatives or others, many universities incentivize interdisciplinary research with internal grants, inviting applicants to submit ideas built around a team with diverse expertise. We do this at IonE too, but, going forward, we will ask those proposals to describe not just the importance of their work but also how they will solve a grand challenge.

We stretch the idea of interdisciplinarity further when teams work toward a shared, societal goal – and are willing to be measured against it. And when we achieve a shared, societal goal, we not only harness the specialized, significant resources of the university to create meaningful impact, we also create a university that can no longer be accused of operating in a bubble, isolated from the concerns of the wider world.

So, what do you think? If you’re an academic, could you see yourself working with others toward a shared objective? What if that goal is related to – but not strongly aligned with – your core area or expertise? And if you’re in the private, nonprofit, or government sector, would you join academics if they were working toward specific, tangible outcomes? Leave me a comment here or send me a tweet!

In planetary prosperity,



MAY 2018

Over the last week or so, I’ve been part of an effort to file a comment with the Environmental Protection Agency, criticizing its plans to rescind the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

You might know about the CPP. It was a key way that the Obama Administration planned to meet its Paris commitments: to reduce emissions about 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And it was the one of the first actions taken by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, something the U.S. Supreme Court mandated with its ruling on Massachusetts vs. EPA.

Now the Trump Administration intends to ditch the CPP, changing the Obama guidelines for carbon emissions from “stationary sources,” a.k.a power plants. Without another plan to replace it, this repeal will roll back U.S. efforts to tackle climate change. We won’t have a plan to meet the Paris goal to prevent catastrophic climate change, and we won’t regulate one of the three major sources of climate change. (And short of fuel economy standards for cars, we do not have regulations for the other sources – transportation and agriculture – either.)

The repeal of the CPP, with nothing meaningful to replace it, has the climate science community worried. So, with the help a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, 22 leading climate scientists from across the country, including me, got together to write an official comment to the EPA, urging against rescission of the CPP. (This same group also organized earlier this year to defend the CCP as amici in an earlier D.C. circuit case.)

Our comment – which soon will be publicly posted to – goes on for about 10 single-spaced pages, chock full of research about the observed and future effects of climate change. And the comment covers just the most recent research and changes in the climate that we have seen since the CPP was introduced in 2015 – three of the hottest years on record, catastrophic storms and fires, and redistribution of species worldwide. We are not arguing for the CPP per se, but stress the importance of taking meaningful action, of going forward not backward, because a tipping point is near.

And we realize that – at least with respect to current EPA leadership – our comment will probably have little effect. So why write it at all?

At least part of the answer has to do with posterity.

Posterity is having concern for future generations, about being concerned about what those people will think, how they will live, and how they will reflect on those of us who lived and worked today. You don’t hear much about posterity these days (figure), but you should. It’s part of helping to build a future where people and planet prosper together – the very mission of IonE. Building a better future requires concern for that future: truly caring about a time you may very well not live to see.

There won’t always be a receptive audience for the right thing to do in the name of posterity, but it’s crucial to show up regardless, particularly when the stakes are high.


Figure: Use of “posterity” over time according to

In the case of greenhouse gas emissions, our government is ignoring a problem that’s undermining humanity. And as purveyors of knowledge and a best-as-we-can commitment to intellectual honesty, we – the scientific community – cannot let roll-backs in government responsibility go by unremarked. That’s why we write when the direct benefits are unclear: because we are supposed to. Both the EPA comment and the amicus brief are now part of the public record, and I’m grateful to have had a chance to be a part of that record.

In standing up for posterity, however, we are also standing up for today. IonE is a what’s called a boundary organization; we work with people both inside and outside of the University – and it is important for our partners and collaborators outside the university to see us share our thoughts and work in the public domain. And although theories about society suffering from information deficit have been debunked (i.e., that explaining science more and better will change hearts and minds), discourse about ideas does shift the social conversation over time.

Cultural and structural change – especially change as difficult as transforming our economy – does not happen overnight. Rarely will any scientific paper, analysis, or even relationship with a decision-maker have dramatic and immediate effects. Action does happen – just not on the timeline we, as humans, would like to see. And just like science itself, we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and we make mostly incremental change. We should strive for breakthroughs in all the work we do, but posterity simply asks us to do our best and keep showing up.

We do this at IonE. We show up. This is why people like to work here, and this is why our faculty affiliates want to be part of this special place and special idea. I doubt many university scholars include “posterity” in their list of core values. But for me and others at IonE, it is there, even if sometimes hidden from plain sight.

In planetary prosperity,



APRIL 2018

This month I’m back from the Natural Capital Project’s annual symposium. A whole crew of IonE folks make the trek to Stanford University each year to give talks, meet collaborators, host workshops and network with ecosystem service practitioners from around the world. I did too.

At the symposium, The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Tercek reminded attendees that great science is essential to getting natural capital on the books in every country and company around the world. When we put our best science about natural capital up against other considerations (like profit and cost), it won’t sway every decision – but it will more often than not.

My part of the symposium was a panel (with leaders from Stanford, the University of Washington, TNC, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that addressed the role of academic scientists in real-world decision-making – something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I talked about how important it is for scientists to find common ground with the public so that we can earn and keep a space at the table of decision-making, about taking responsibility for finding solutions in our research, and about moving faster, to better match the pace of real-world decisions. All of these things are alive at IonE, and we have plans to grow and expand in each of these areas.

The IonE community has impact in the world, and this month several of our people and projects were recognized publicly for their transformative work. This summer, IonE Associate and Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology prof Laura Dee will receive the Ecological Society of America’s Innovation in Sustainability Science Award – for a paper she led that asked “To What Extent Can Ecosystem Services Motivate Protecting Biodiversity?”

As the ecosystem services approach I mention above takes root, Laura and her co-authors studied its effectiveness at preserving biodiversity. They found that a focus on ecosystem services won’t always do a good job of conserving species diversity in an ecosystem, so that additional species will need attention. As Laura said: “The framework we developed balances the currents costs of protecting species with the future risk of losing ecosystem services. In this way, we can determine the optimal number of species to protect.”

Meanwhile, Ellen Anderson, director of IonE’s Energy Transition Lab, was named a “critical collaborator” for 2018 by the Environmental Initiative. In the nomination letter we wrote for Ellen, Fresh Energy’s Michael Noble offered this perspective: “No single public sector leader has had more influence on Minnesota’s success as a clean energy leader than Ellen Anderson.” Wow.

And just a couple of weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released four landmark reports – years in the making – assessing the global state of biodiversity. These reports were a collaboration among 550 scholars, including IonE affiliates Jeannine Cavender-Bares (CBS), Forest Isbell (CBS), Laura Dee (CFANS), Lee Frelich (CFANS), Susan Galatowitsch (CFANS0, and Kate Brauman (IonE), among other University of Minnesota contributors. (Kate was making waves at the Natural Capital Symposium too: From the podium, Mark Tercek called out her work to put the best numbers we can on the social and ecological value of clean water.)

This recognition–and other current events in the world– have me thinking about my own motivations, my reason to get out of bed each morning. Different parts of the IonE community have different reasons, but I decided recently that I get up in service to the 10 percent of biodiversity that experts think could be go extinct due to climate change in the next several decades. Ten percent is a relatively conservative estimate, and if our estimates of global biodiversity are right, it amounts to 900,000 species! (And that doesn’t count declines in ecosystem health or other change in biodiversity.) If we are going to craft effective strategies for stemming that loss, we need to know who those species are, why they are sensitive and what corrective actions can be taken. The answers to those questions lie in smarter habitat management, new ideas like managed relocation, and building an economy that incentivizes the natural capital that houses the life on earth. Being in service to those 900,000 is not just about aesthetics and a moral duty to other creatures. It’s about sustaining the life on earth that sustains ourselves. I think that’s a good reason to put my feet on the floor each morning.

What’s your reason?

In planetary prosperity,


P.S.  I hope you’ll join me at a Minnesota Public Radio event on the evening of April 26 at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul. MPR’s Climate Cast, hosted by Paul Huttner, will host a live event called “Climate Heroes.” I’ll share the stage with Minnesota climate legend Mark Seeley and US Water Alliance’s Radhika Fox. I can’t wait.

MARCH 2018

I’ve heard people say that March is the snowiest month in Minnesota. It turns out that’s not true – or no longer true now that the climate is changing. So spring – now earlier than it was historically – is truly around the corner.

This month I’d like to share some thoughts I recently shared at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advance of Science, the world’s largest general scientific organization. The AAAS annual meeting is a place where new, cutting-edge research is revealed to the public and where scientific leaders talk about the role of science in society.

The ideas in my talk are ideas at the heart of IonE: How do we build an academy that is ready, willing and rewarded for serving the public good? At AAAS, I argued that we need to get academic environmental scientists outside of their traditional modes and mindsets – and I showed how the University of Minnesota is leading that transition. What follows is an adapted version of what I had to say – and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.


Society is experiencing unprecedented environmental change – and we need science to make sense of these changes and help us decide what to do about them. It follows directly from this need that academic scientists have a duty to help society survive, and even thrive, in the face of these profound environmental changes.

Despite this broad duty to the common good, the language we – scientists – use to talk about environmental change reveals a lot about how we tend to see the role of science in society.

First, we love to emphasize that science delivers facts. That’s absolutely true: After all, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But that’s just a fact. But a lot of what the world needs from science – and a lot of what science can and should deliver – isn’t about simple facts.

We also focus on describing impacts: the bad things that happen when the environment changes. Our journals are full of talk about vulnerability, as a measure of risk yet to come. And we prioritize conservation – that is, keeping things as they were. These words emphasize the negative and revere the past.

But now think about some other words: prosperity, freedom, stewardship, and equity. These are things that voters, policy-makers, and students want – and we need science to help us get there. When scientists work toward these things – when we put these kinds of words at the center of our work – we share core values with the public and help create a positive future.

For example, scientists can measure the risk of climate change to biodiversity. Experts expect that 900,000 species could go extinct this century due to climate change. But the methods that estimate risk can also be used to make recommendations about smart climate change adaptation, such as landscapes that promote species migration or urban environments that are climate resilient and embrace biodiversity (like this group and this map).

In principle, there’s nothing preventing academics in the environmental sciences from engaging in forward-looking research – research that tells us not only how the world is but what it can and should be. Some fields – such as engineering and agronomy – already do. But many fields are focused more on assessment than solutions. We can do better.

At the Institute on the Environment, we believe there are some essential ingredients to building an academia that better serves the common good. As a mission-driven, interdisciplinary organization focused on innovation in research and leadership, we take our duty very seriously – to the University of Minnesota, to our fellow Minnesotans, and to the world.

Here are six things we are doing now – and are working to do better every day:

We need to foster academics who take responsibility not just for diagnosing problems but also for offering tangible solutions. At IonE, we do this by funding research that includes solutions in study plans and designs, right from the start. (For example: We’re very proud of our recent grants on water sustainability.)

We need to put people in the center of research about the environment. Scientists might think they study biophysical processes, but it’s people – with values and beliefs – who make decisions about the environment. At IonE, we made this orientation an explicit part of our mission: We lead the way toward a future in which people and planet prosper together.

We should embrace – not fear – public scrutiny. At IonE, we are working to seed public engagement earlier in to the research process, incentivizing co-creation over outreach after the fact (like this recent work with the Minnesota state government).

We must move faster. All of our stakeholders and constituents want us to. At IonE, we’re developing a new model for rapidly spinning up teams that can complete collaborative research – solving partners’ problems – within nine to 12 months. (Stay tuned for more news on this front!)

We have to provide training about listening to and working with stakeholders. Some of the folks that need the most training (and for whom the least support is available) are our most esteemed researchers. At IonE, we work to lift up our whole community – from faculty fellows to undergraduate students – through workshops and peer mentoring.

We need boundary organizations within academia. It takes time and talent to get outside the university, and we need to make it easier for our best researchers to do that. One way we make these connections at IonE is through convenings put practitioners in direct collaboration with researchers.


I’ll be sticking to these six points in other talks this year – and leading by example is one of the most important ways we create a different way of doing. In honor of the season of rebirth (spring!), we are working toward continual rebirth of the academy itself. Onward!

Want to learn more? You can read more about ideas related to the six points above in this paper led by IonE’s Bonnie Keeler and in a series of three blogsthat colleagues and I wrote for Nature magazine a few years ago.

In planetary prosperity,



Other than kid pick-up, the training plan for my next half marathon and what the family is going to have for dinner tonight, my interest and attention is divided among a few different topics right now.

First, a few things that made my heart swell at IonE this past month…

Congrats to Kate Brauman (one of our IonE lead scientists) and Steve Polasky (an IonE Fellow), who are co-authors on a new paper, published in Science, which advances our definition and understanding of ecosystem services and the value of nature to people to include indigenous and local perspectives, and a wider range non-material benefits. This paper is just one more example of the importance of our institute’s mission: to lead the way to a future where people and planet prosper together. The paper grew out of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Speaking Science was inspiring and fun! IonE was a lead organizer, with the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Biological Sciences, of a day-long communications conference on January 11 for faculty and research staff, plus some lucky post-docs and grad students. The afternoon breakouts were based on our Boreas Leadership Program workshops. Here’s an awesome piece of feedback we heard from one participant: “Overall, it was one of the best trainings/events I have been to in my career.”

And just this past Friday, IonE hosted another Sustainability Education Summit, an outgrowth of the IonE Educators program. The summits include participants from a range of disciplines and are digitally co-hosted on all five UMN campuses, which allows people to connect widely and share best practices in teaching and innovation in sustainability.

With my IonE leadership hat on…

Those of you who have direct connections to the University of Minnesota may know that we’ve embarked on an ambitious capital campaign. For my part – for IonE’s part – I’ve been working to make fundraising a priority for my time and attention each week. Jan Gerstenberger and I are working together to make meaningful connections with more individuals who share our mission and vision.

Individual philanthropy is a key ingredient of fundraising in higher education, but it’s not something IonE has prioritized in past. The great news is that we had growing success with individual giving at the end of 2017 – and I’m so proud that IonE staff and affiliates were among the contributors. Thank you!

I’m also thinking a lot about strategy. In short: Now that we have celebrated turning 10, we have an opportunity to define – together – what our next decade will hold. I’m confident that IonE has the right ingredients for success in our culture and values. We also have the right people. I also recognize that our community has grown and changed in the past 10 years, as has the world – and we have an opportunity to be clearer and more concise about our goals.

Right now I’m strongly influenced by a Harvard Business Review article that asks: “Can you say what your strategy is?” It argues that everyone in an organization should be explain its strategy in 35 words or less. I want us to get there. We will get there.

As always, I also do some research…

This past week I’ve been helping manage a paper arising from a former PhD student that was accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s a cool paper: We studied thousands of butterflies collected in the 1980s and compared them to thousands we collected in the late 2000s, using genomic techniques to see how climate change has affected a zone of interbreeding between two related species. We found that the zone where the two species hybridize has moved: It’s shifting north. And the amount the hybrid zone has moved corresponds to the amount that the climate has warmed.

Why should anyone care? Because climate change is molding and changing life on Earth – and we have to know how before we can design management techniques to stop or slow it. (Of course, you’ll want to read the full paper when it comes out  – yes, you will want to! – so I’ll be sure to include the link in a future blog post.)

I’m also teaching this term with Rebecca Montgomery (another one of our IonE Fellows) and Leslie Brandt, a weekly seminar about climate change adaptation for natural resources. We have about 30 participants and will be working our way through species vulnerability assessments, to climate projection data, to economic assessment of impacts, and ways of building new management strategies that account for climate change. I’m excited about it.

Finally, like the rest of you, I keep an eye on the rest of the world…

Right now, I’m reading about Greek philosophy and the origin of the academy – related to some thinking I’m doing about how IonE is, at its heart, a modern version of the power of inquiry and discussion to bring about wisdom. Feeling smarter as a result.

I’m also still feeling frustrated about last week’s news that tariffs will be added to imported solar panels. The decision is expected to increase solar prices, just as solar is beginning to be price-competitive with coal and natural gas. Think: fewer solar projects, fewer solar jobs. And the U.S. needs, desperately, to increase solar energy production to save ourselves and our future. Would our government put tariffs on other things Americans really need? Life-saving drugs? Medical equipment?


Now with very tired fingers, that’s enough for one post! Please let me know what you think of this blog – and I’ll give it another shot in the coming weeks.

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. Have you ever wondered: Why sign off with planetary prosperity? It reflects our mission statement, and it’s truly what I want. I want to be happy and to do well, and I want other living things to prosper too.

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