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 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!
NOVEMBER 2022: What COP27 tells us about connecting climate ambition to climate action
The 27th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties: COP27. 40,000 people gathered in one spot with a global, far-reaching agenda and a ticking clock each year. Corporations and NGOs and youth advocates and students and researchers – and even a few negotiators. All with the unenviable task of creating climate action against the backdrop of powerful, entrenched interests, a war in Europe, political division in one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters (the US), and a growing autocracy in another (China).
At the meeting itself, there’s an undeniable sense that abating climate change is actually achievable – that despite repeatedly falling behind in our shared ambition, it’s still possible to achieve the goals of the original UNFCCC charter and the Paris Agreement: holding the global average temperature increase to 2 degrees above historic baseline, if not 1.5. It’s not blind hope because rapid transitions do in fact happen. And without the hope of possibility and commitment to keep striving, what do we have at all?
For “observers” (everyone other than negotiators and the press), the main reason to attend COP27 is to be part of this global conversation and shared ambition. There are hundreds of panels and presentations at country pavilions, corporate-sponsored side events, and civil society venues. These presentations are extremely high-level; they are much more about rhetoric than substance. It’s not a place to learn the latest science or hear particulars about what climate actions are actually happening.
Instead, the key is to listen for what is being talked about and how folks are talking about it, as well as the variation in that conversation among countries and constituencies. And to join in that conversation with your own expertise or agenda. It’s the blend of my own interests and the new things I learn from being in the mix of the moment that makes being at the COP so valuable. These are the things I’m watching and learning at COP27…
The gap between action and commitment
Because the science and impacts of climate change is so clear, countless countries and corporations have set emission reduction goals. Yet, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, revealing a substantial gap between commitment and meaningful action – or at least kicking the can.
What’s causing this gap? Sustainability goals that live so far out in the future that it’s easy to delay action today, thinking there’s still time to take action later. And goals for which a current president, prime minister, or CEO won’t be around to be held accountable when the deadline arrives. We also lack incentives for longer-term thinking and robust, reliable, and independent measures and methods of accountability. Most current accounting and reporting methods are self-reported and based on process, not outcome. But new research can change that; in fact, it’s already starting to.
A case in point is methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with known sources. Approximately one-quarter of anthropogenic methane emissions comes from the oil and gas sector where technology exists to stop the leakage. But we lack verifiable measurement to generate accountability.
That accountability is now coming online through public and private satellites, together with smart analytics, resampling of satellite data, and packaging atmospheric data with other information. These data make it possible to know how much methane is entering the atmosphere, where it is coming from, and who is responsible for that source. Researchers at universities, governments, and several start-ups, including a spin-off from the Institute on the Environment called Geofinancial Analytics, collect, collate, and distribute this information. New detection and accounting tools are critical to bringing greater attention and action to methane – and other greenhouse gases in other sectors, too.
The connectivity of nature and climate
In some respects, climate change has become so prominent on the international stage that it outshines other critical issues, but no issue that affects people and the environment operates in isolation. Thanks to the confluence of COP27 under the UNFCCC (climate, Nov. 6-18) and COP15 of the UNCBD (biodiversity, Dec. 7-19) it’s more likely than ever that nature and climate, and their relationship to human well-being, will interact on the global stage. Climate change ranks among the top three threats to biodiversity globally (some argue it’s the top threat) and nature solutions offer some of the most cost-effective techniques for greenhouse gas abatement and enhancing climate resilience.
Increasingly, NGOs, scientists, and government leaders are advancing the idea of “nature positive,” that addressing climate change is essential to limit biodiversity loss and offers unprecedented opportunity and reason for ecosystem restoration and expansion. We need new science to achieve this potential, from reducing uncertainty about the capacity for carbon uptake and storage in soils, grasslands, and forests to testing viable techniques for helping ecosystems adapt to a changing climate. Fortunately, IonE is doing that scientific work through Impact Goal grants on interdisciplinary soil health and sequestration project teams and leading a Climate Adaptation Science Center.
Scaling climate adaptation
The primary power of the UNFCCC (now that the era of compulsory emission reduction of the Kyoto Protocol is over) is its global goal-setting. It establishes a shared commitment to specific emission reduction targets and mechanisms and financing platforms to achieve them. In 2001, the UNFCCC established an adaptation fund to build global adaptation capacity. At COP27, the global community is exploring the possibility of setting adaptation goals. These goals would need to be specific, equitable, and traceable with regular national reports to the UNFCCC, like occurs for mitigation today.
But setting adaptation goals is really difficult. Adaptation does not have the comparatively easy units of tonnes of carbon (or CO2-equivalents). Unlike greenhouse gases, adaptation does not circulate globally, and almost all adaptation happens locally. Yet, common frameworks for adaptation tactics and priorities are possible, and measurable outcomes of lives and ecosystems protected may be possible.
Here again, science is critical to the UN ambition. Researchers provide robust empirical standards for adaptation evaluation (e.g., emerging from the field of monitoring and evaluation), and academia is a key place for innovation in adaptation techniques. For example, managed relocation or assisted migration – a concept that first emerged in the ecological literature – is now actively considered part of the ecosystem-based adaptation tool box. I’ll certainly be watching the UNFCCC for its evolving global understanding of adaptation, and I’ll be fascinated to see what goal-setting for adaptation gets settled at COP27, if any.
Of course, it’s my job to help represent science and education in the climate change ecosystem, and make sure that the University of Minnesota is active and recognized for its leadership and commitment to sustainability, climate action, and justice. I come home with gratitude for that opportunity and responsibility.
The duty of all COP observers is to share – share what we’ve seen and what we think, to bring further attention and context to the UNFCCC process and the parties that enliven it. To strive in our way to bring about change and protect the things that make life on earth possible for humans and enable a future where people and planet prosper together.
Video: Report from the field, COP27, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 11, 2022
JUNE 2022: Making sense of W. Virginia v. EPA
On June 20, 2022, the US Supreme Court released its W. Virginia v. EPA decision, and I sent the following email to members of our Institute on the Environment community (students, faculty affiliates, and staff).
In the message, I share my initial thoughts about the significance of the decision — and my frustration about setbacks along the road to a clean and prosperous future. But I also want to inspire and rally an important group of people: researchers and educators on the front lines of sustainability who are working with communities, practitioners, decision-makers and others to generate and demonstrate sustainability innovations and help build the capacity for change. All of the members of the Institute on the Environment (representing one of the world’s most powerful research universities), share a commitment to the field of sustainability. Their work is exciting, important, and often invigorating. But sometimes it’s also full of fits and starts. Still, we strive together; we make sense of the world together; and we keep going together.
Dear IonE community,
Today is the last day of the current term of the U.S. Supreme Court, and, as I am sure you know, there have been a bunch of consequential opinions released recently – opinions that affect all Americans. Whether you agree or disagree with these decisions, there is no doubt they are intense shifts, with consequences still unfolding. Earlier this week we heard from President Gabel about Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and its implications for education, research, and health services at the UMN.
Today brings a decision about if and how the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate greenhouse gas emissions – and I have something to say about what I think this means for the IonE community, for environmental scholars at the University, and for folks pursuing sustainability work in collaboration with partners in Minnesota and around the world.
In the immediate aftermath of today’s Supreme Court opinion, three things stand out to me.
First, this decision (W. Virginia v. EPA) puts up a roadblock to developing and implementing national strategies for greenhouse gas emission reduction – and I think that’s disappointing. At times in the past, the judiciary has forced federal agencies to take action in response to environmental harms, but that’s clearly not the case today. But, W. Virginia v. EPA doesn’t block pathways to greenhouse gas emission reduction. Instead, it points to Congress and legislative decision-makers – people who we engage through IonE. Non-governmental sectors are critical to developing a clean economy as well, and we work with those folks too. And following this decision, we can expect state action to be increasingly important in shaping federal legislative responses on climate change. Supporting our state is central to our University’s mission.
Second, the IonE community brings valuable and unique knowledge to complex sustainability issues – including greenhouse gas emissions – and decision-makers need us to continue to share that knowledge. West Virginia v. EPA suggests that legislators particularly need that knowledge. Further, the future of our nation and the world is not decided by a single decision in time. Creating a more just and sustainable future will be a long effort that requires moments of action but also endurance – the endurance of creativity and building capacity and collaborative relationships. We find resilience in our community connections and partnerships.
And, third, if you’re like me, you may have friends and colleagues who work in U.S. federal agencies. The folks I know bring a breadth of expertise about climate change and other pressing issues to public service, and this decision limits the application of that knowledge and expertise. As Justice Kagan suggests in her dissenting opinion: Think about all the times that federal experts have helped us make America safer, as in the cases of food and transportation safety, by crafting particular policies that follow from sound science and societal need. As scholars, educators, and practitioners, we must do our part to help science come alive in policies that protect people and the planet.
Whenever the Supreme Court of the United States makes a decision or issues an opinion, there are important consequences. And there are a lot of next steps needed now that we have a decision. IonE has always encouraged its community of experts to exercise their voices, so look to us to be sharing analysis from colleagues in the coming weeks. Importantly, look to the work we’re doing together to discover new paths and solutions that work for all people and make our future brighter and more sustainable. For that, I’m extremely grateful for each of you – and for the commitment to inquiry, learning, engagement, and action that you bring to your work every day.
Lastly, I wish everyone a very happy 4th of July weekend, a time when we celebrate our nation and commit ourselves to the promises it has yet to fulfill and the possibilities of what it can become.
In planetary prosperity,
Almost as proof for some of the points raised in my message above, the very next morning, the NY Times released the following article about the University of Minnesota Morris and the City of Morris, long-term collaborators, grantees, and affiliates of the Institute on the Environment. The article shares how the “Morris Model” has put sustainability ideas into practice, not through regulation but through hard work and collaboration — by moving ideas from the laboratory to the real-world, by leveraging international learning collaborations, and forging town-gown relationships. With W. Virginia v. EPA now out there, it’s clear that Morris lights the path forward.
SEPTEMBER 2021: The IonE Annual Meeting
Each fall, the members of the IonE community — faculty, staff, students, and partners/collaborators — gather for the Institute’s Annual Meeting, and this year the theme is “reconnecting.” Despite our best intentions to create some in-person time, the 2021 Meeting was virtual (again) this year. We also shortened this year’s “directors’s remarks” knowing that it’s hard to hold folks’ attention on Zoom. Still, when the meeting agenda turned to me, this is what I had to say…
Good evening everyone.
I’d like to open today’s meeting – our fifth annual IonE gathering – by acknowledging that I currently sit on the ancestral and sacred lands of the Dakota People – and I know many of you are sitting there too. The Dakota were forced to cede their lands, and the treaties compelled upon them have not been upheld. This is a harmful and painful history – and we must speak this truth as a step toward reconciliation and healing.
At this gathering – as every day – we honor Dakota peoples’ history on the land, their sovereignty, and their present-day contributions. The State of Minnesota shares geography with 11 Tribal Nations; all of these Nations contribute to cultural and planetary stewardship and to the ideals and practices of the IonE community.
Land acknowledging is a pertinent opening to our Annual Meeting because challenging times demand that we speak the truth and turn toward wisdom to find a just path forward.
We are gathered this annual meeting meeting to share expertise and ambition, to be inspired, and to be committed to the work that is needed to build a future where people and the planet prosper together. We do not do this work alone, of course, but all of us – folks associated with universities – we have a critical role to play in realizing that prosperous and sustainable future.
Why? Because not all the answers to environmental and sustainability problems are known – and even when solutions present themselves, we are still learning to apply them justly and effectively. And we need more people to build a sustainable future – people schooled in sustainability and with the skills to put knowledge into action. In short, we need research and education.
Tonight I have a few thoughts about the state of the institute that I’d like to share. Specifically, I want to describe three priorities for the coming year. They’re really quite simple:
1: to build and strengthen our intellectual community,
2: to make progress on our Impact Goals,
3: and to continue our institute’s journey toward anti-racism.
Now I understand that challenges of the world loom large right now: a pandemic, catastrophic storms and fire, stalled national progress on climate and other environmental goals, and persistent societal injustices. Given our unique role, however, these priorities are things we must do to address society’s big challenges: to be effective and persevere in the face of headwinds, we need to work in community; for maximum impact on the most urgent challenges, we should work toward specific sustainability goals; and we must do this work in a way that pushes against systemic racism, so that all people can enjoy the benefits of sustainability.
Let me say a bit about each of these three priorities. I want to start, actually, with an update on IonE’s journey toward becoming an anti-racist organization. Many of you may remember that the intersection of environment and racial justice was the focus of our meeting last year, and work at this intersection continues across many people and groups.
IonE is currently operating under a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) action plan, a plan that is scheduled to be updated this year. I’m proud of the plan and the work guided by it, and I want to acknowledge the effort of all the people who helped develop the plan, have taken up its many parts, and challenged us to work harder and dig deeper.
For example, we’ve been: revising the criteria for granting programs; diversifying our external advisory board; increasing support for students working at the interface of justice and the environment; and working to be a better partner with communities and groups outside the university.
The action plan lives within IonE’s DEIJ committee, and all community members – everyone here – is invited to attend meetings and participate in that committee. We also deployed a team of staff this year who are taking stock of DEIJ and anti-racism practices, barriers, and opportunities at the Institute. Those findings will inform policy change and feed into our next strategic plan, a plan we need for 2023 and beyond. That team is hosting a session tomorrow.
And there’s one more important work group, composed of staff and affiliates, that have been developing an equity statement that describes our commitment to DEIJ in a way that informs and inspires. That team is working deliberately and is soliciting input and feedback; we need to make sure this statement has meaning for all of us. They are continuing that process this fall, and you may hear from them individually. The final statement is expected this academic year and will be shared with everyone when completed.
Of course, everything we’ve done is not as important as all we have yet to do. I think we could say that about most things that really matter… But I want to recognize the effort and progress of the people working on DEIJ – while also affirming our direction and our continued commitment.
A second priority this year is making progress on IonE’s “Impact Goals.” We introduced the idea of Impact Goals in 2019 as an integrative purpose for programming, events, and granting, that directs activity toward sustainability objectives. Our current Goals are: clean drinking water for all Minnesotans, Minnesota as the first carbon-neutral state in the nation, and discovering sustainable land use at a state scale.
How do we do Impact Goals? Through our granting programs, which we’ve aligned to seed these goals; through community-engaged workshops – in fact, our Energy & Equity workshop, chaired by Gabe Chan, starts in October; through impactful storytelling in our communications and publications; and through intentional network engagement – supporting project teams who are looking to move the needle.
And YOU do Impact Goals too: If you have shifted a class or a program toward our current Goals, or if you are working on a research project that is inspired by these goals. You are doing Impact Goals if you are working to overcome a barrier to sustainability alongside the people most affected. In other words, Impact Goals isn’t just a strategy: It’s a vision of what we can achieve when we direct our activity toward outcomes. And it’s a vision that the University’s has embraced too: in the new strategic plan‘s “MNtersection” goal to “build a fully sustainable future” and the recent adoption of the Times Higher Education ranking of contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Since we rolled out Impact Goals in 2019, we’ve learned a lot – and it’s time to start thinking about our next set of Goals. It’s not that we’ll forget or stop working on the current goals; the projects and activities we’ve seeded will continue. But we’ll turn the spotlight to some new, urgent ambitions. And I invite all of you to participate in the process of deliberating new goals – which we will embark on this year.
Finally, a priority for the year is community-building. Why? Because community is the foundation of IonE, and it is the basis of interdisciplinary, translational and co-produced scholarship and education. But also because we need community right now.
Research tells us that community helps us stay in the game, knowing that others are toiling alongside us. Community helps forestall the effects of isolation, and staves off fears that, as individuals, we can never do “enough.” Community is also the basis of creativity, and diverse communities are more creative and effective than groups of people with similar backgrounds or similar disciplines. And creativity is essential for managing in the face of uncertainty, to mitigate risk, and to discover solution pathways.
We do not know what the next stages of this pandemic will look like; we do not know where the next climate extreme or other environmental hazards might emerge. But managing these challenges requires adaptability and lots and lots of innovation that stems from community.
Fortunately, there have been some terrific examples of new networks forming over the past year, showing it’s possible to innovate collaboratively, even in a pandemic. For example, six new NSF Science and Technology Centers were announced last week, and two of them involve U of M researchers and IonE affiliates – one on artificial intelligence to improve climate forecasts, with Vipin Kumar, and the other on the science of ice cores, with Heidi Roop. Nearly a year ago, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Peter Reich, and others were awarded a NSF Biology Integration Institute that focuses on the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss. And just this Monday, the U took on leadership of a consortium of five universities, a Tribal college, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Nature Conservancy to create the new Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. The Center is housed at IonE, and with it we’ll welcome USGS scientists into our community. The Center will be publicly announced next week [Sept. 29], and kudos to Sue Galatowitsch, Lucinda Johnson, Mike Dockry, and Heidi Roop who helped to bring the Center to the U of M.
And, like every year, we are thrilled to welcome new affiliates to IonE – this year 23 new people are joining our community; now we total more than 250 associates, educators, fellows and visiting scholars. The new affiliates come from three campuses and three organizations outside the U – adding breadth and depth to the IonE community.
These new networks and new IonE community members are very exciting. Now, not all members of the IonE community agree or see things the same way – we don’t, and that’s good. But we strive together, and collectivity can help keep us going.
I’d like to end by saying how grateful I am that you are all staying in the endurance sport that is sustainability – it’s like a marathon! And I’m grateful that you see value in being part of IonE as you run that marathon. I wish I could tell you we’re in the final stages of the marathon, but I don’t think we are. I do know that in the face of anti-science, disinformation, and autocracy around the world, truth and hope must shine a bright light. This is the torch we must carry on the marathon – and we must keep on running, together.
APRIL 2021: Remembering Deb Swackhamer
Rigorous and relentless. Straightforward and honest. Warm and caring. Visionary.
These are just some of the words that people use to describe Deborah Swackhamer, who died on Friday, April 23, and who shaped not only the Institute on the Environment, but also countless other institutions and lives – at the UMN and around the world.
As the current executive director of IonE, I know how much we owe to Dr. Swackhamer. She co-chaired IonE’s founding committee and insisted – as fellow “blueprint” committee member Lucinda Johnson recalls – that IonE be established as a system-wide entity, with a commitment to reach across all UMN campuses and beyond.
Those connections – and the kind of impact they enable – mattered to Deb, who then served as IonE’s first director. “I consider helping to launch IonE one of the great achievements of my University career,” she told us in 2017, when the Institute celebrated 10 years. “It created these wonderful and fruitful connections among colleges and campuses. I am pleased that our vision from so long ago has been so well realized.”
It’s a testament to her legacy, however, that IonE is just one of the many corners of the University that Deb Swackhamer touched. She was faculty at the School of Public Health and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and she served as co-director of the Water Resources Center. In these roles, Deb touched the lives and work of thousands of students and colleagues. Her contributions to the broader scientific community and public policy were also expansive, including high-stakes, influential service as a scientific advisor to the International Joint Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.
There’s no easy way to sum up a life like Deb’s – which is undoubtedly the point. There are countless stories, innumerable points of impact.
To honor the role Dr. Swackhamer played in the creation of IonE, we asked some of her fellow founding committee members to share reflections. Their words are below. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that legacy lives in people – and Dr. Swackhamer touched so many.
Deb leaves big shoes for all the rest of us to fill. I feel that every day, and I do my best to live up to her vision for IonE. I’m committed to carrying that vision forward, and I invite all members of the IonE community to strive for impact that benefits all people – just like Deb showed us how to do.
With gratitude and respect,
Deb Swackhamer was smart, funny, and visionary. She had a unique way of communicating complex concepts, and as a result became a nationally recognized leader and communicator, even appearing on the Rachael Maddow show. Her impact on the University of Minnesota system was broad and deep; serving as a faculty member in the School of Public Health, and the Humphrey School, and co-director of the Water Resources Center.
In her capacity as the chair of the committee that developed the Blueprint for the Institute on the Environment, and as founding director of IonE, she insisted that the Institute would be a fully system-wide entity. That role led her to be named to the Natural Resources Research Institute’s Advisory Board, where she served for many years, always advocating for a holistic view of environmental issues. Deb’s impact in the state was [also] profound; among two of her most influential leadership efforts were the Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan (2009) and the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework (2011). Deb was also an effective science advisor, serving on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the Board of Scientific Counselors, and the International Joint Commission’s Science Advisory Board.
I am not alone in having benefited greatly from Deb’s friendship and her professional mentoring. Her warm demeanor, incredible work ethic, and ability to balance her personal and work life were an inspiration to me over my entire career at the U of M. She will be sorely missed.
Associate Director, Natural Resources Research Institute
University of Minnesota Duluth
Dr. Swackhamer’s visionary leadership helped drive development of the Blueprint and organizational structure for the Institute on Environment. She helped the Blueprint team members coalesce and come to consensus on many thorny issues. Her efforts as founding director helped the University become a major national leader in addressing environmental issues through IonE.
In addition, her leadership and vision helped advance my career by enabling me to find and collaborate in meaningful ways with scientific colleagues from other colleges and campuses that would not have previously been possible without IonE.
Professor and Larson Chair for Soil and Water Resources
Department of Soil, Water, and Climate
College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Deborah Swackhamer was a champion for the environment, for public health, and for the truth. She had tremendous integrity and the courage to stand up for what was right. She was also a tremendously warm and caring person with a wonderful laugh.
I got to know Deb well when we served as co-chairs of the advisory committee tasked with forming the blueprint for the Institute on the Environment. Deb had been the co-chair of another committee on strategic positioning. As part of the strategic positioning process, Provost Tom Sullivan challenged the committee to come up with new and innovative ideas. Deb’s new and innovative idea was to start a system-wide environmental institute. She articulated a need felt by many engaged in environment research that although the University had an amazing array of environmental talent, we were spread thinly across many colleges and campuses without a core and were not reaching our true potential. As she succinctly summarized the state of affair by saying “Currently, we’re less than the sum of the parts.”
During the summer of 2006, Deb and I talked with administrators, faculty, and students across the University of Minnesota system and with center directors from across the country, to gather the best ideas for what the new Institute on the Environment should be. Deb was a great ambassador for IonE. She presented a compelling vision. She was also a great listener. These characteristics generated a lot of positive excitement about the Institute and diffused doubts by some department heads and deans about starting a new Institute not under their control. After we launched the Institute, Deb served as the initial interim director.
Deb was a person I truly admired. You could count on her to do the right thing. She faced tremendous pressure at several points in her career. Industry groups attacked her research when it showed that certain compounds were public health hazards. In the early days of the Trump Administration, the administration pressured her to change her Congressional testimony, which she refused to do. The Trump Administration later removed her as Chair of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. Anyone who wants to see a profile in courage should watch her testimony before Congress and her appearance on the Rachel Maddow show describing the pressure she faced.
Along with many others, I will miss Deb. She was committed to using science for the public good, and to protecting public health and the environment. Perhaps even more so in this era of alternative facts and conspiracy theories, I will miss her straightforward and honest way of talking about science and its application in supporting good public policy. And like many others, I will miss her as the positive, honest, and wonderful person that she was.
Regents Professor, Fesler-Lampert Professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics
Department of Applied Economics
College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
College of Biological Sciences
Deb was rigorous and relentless in her commitment to protecting public health and the environment.
Director, Minnesota Geological Survey;
State Geologist of Minnesota; and Professor,
Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences
College of Science and Engineering
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
DECEMBER 2020: The impact of patience
You know that pause, the moment of anticipation, right before something important happens? Like the breath an actor takes before going on stage to perform, or the pregnant pause that, cleverly timed, makes a great speech?
Those moments remind us that, more often than not, impact hinges on patience.
For those of us working on sustainability or the environment, “patience” isn’t always top of mind. At the Institute on the Environment, we often put “urgency” at the center of our work, knowing that action is needed – now – to make a better future possible.
A sense of urgency drives our Impact Goals, our way of not just working on important topics but also directing our research, education, and storytelling enterprise toward tangible socio-environmental outcomes. And, no doubt, we made great progress on catalying teams, convenings, and student action around our three Impact Goals this year.
But “patience” is part of urgency too. Patience – persistence in the face of challenges and setbacks – is critical to building a sustainable society. Patience is needed to do the relationship work that sustains genuine, quality collaboration. Patience is part of designing, piloting, and, yes, revising an actionable idea. And we’ll need patient, deliberative, in-it-for-the-long-haul work to make progress on racial justice too, a priority in IonE’s strategic plan that I see as more important than ever.
So however urgent we may feel, it’s patience that quietly carries us forward. The patience to accept that we all work everyday to bring about a future that feels too slow in coming. The patience it took to make it through a year like 2020.
In ways professional and personal, many of us were pushed to our limit this year. Yet at IonE, across the University of Minnesota, and among our partners and collaborators, I’ve also seen remarkable resilience and creativity. I’ve seen these people move cutting-edge research forward, pursue creative virtual engagement, and continue putting sustainability into practice when so many forces were pushing in the opposite direction.
This is more than run-of-mill endurance. This is radical, strategic, mission-oriented patience. I’m in awe of this capacity for patient, persistent collegiality and dedication – and it makes me truly thankful to be part of this network we call the IonE community.
I’d like to address a special thank you to the staff of IonE who this year made a rapid transition to work from home, who contributed to the stability of the University through pay cuts and furloughs, who supported the needs of friends and family, and still kept our organization humming. We implemented a number of changes at IonE in response to COVID-19, some that we’re eager to build on and others that we’ll be ready to jettison when the pandemic is over. Needless to say, the Institute would not be the welcoming, ambitious, and intellectually invigorating place that it is without our extraordinary staff.
I plan to carry this gratitude forward into 2021, where much need and opportunity awaits us. Importantly, next year brings the responsibility and necessity to #buildbackbetter from the devastation wrought by COVID-19. At IonE, I’m looking forward to announcing some new programs and ambitions, including financial support for work on Impact Goals and new opportunities to gather around the goals toward collaborative action. And the Institute will be right there with the University as it rolls out its system-wide strategic plan, including one of the three “MNtersection” pillars that is focused on helping bring about a sustainable future. Of course, we’ll welcome new affiliates and new students as the new calendar year unfolds, and that will be an exciting time of new possibilities too.
I’ll look to our extraordinary Faculty Leadership Council, External Advisory Board, and other formal and informal advisors to the Institute to make sure that we’re up for the challenges ahead. With great partners and collaborators, I have no doubt that we can continue to rise to the occasion and do our part to build a future where people and planet prosper together.
In other words: We’ll get there. But we’ll most certainly need a bit of patience along the way.
In planetary prosperity,
SEPTEMBER 2020: Seeing the common causes of environment harms and racism recommits us to impact and public service
We live in difficult times.
It seems like most days bring challenging news about stoked embers of conflict and people and places in harm’s way. Some of this harm could be avoided, but the problems underlying the harm endure.
For example, those of us working on climate change are pretty used to public skepticism and outright denial of science, but now we see shocking rejection of science around COVID-19. It seems that a lack of trust in science now extends to public health.
And our ability to overcome this denialism is stymied by political and ideological fragmentation. We are deeply divided, and our country is struggling to find sure footing as we head into our November election.
Again, these are tough times.
I want to draw your attention to two key aspects of where we are today.
First, several of the environmental issues that researchers and educators have been talking about for years are raging before our eyes.
Millions acres have burned in the west this fire season – so far. Of the ten biggest fires that have ever burned in California, half of them have occurred this year. And while those fires were burning, one of the largest hurricanes recorded in the US came ashore in Louisiana. Last week there were four storms churning in the Gulf of Mexico, making 2020 the most active hurricane season on record. Fire and storms are natural processes, but these natural phenomena are juiced with the power of a warmer atmosphere, rising air and sea temperatures, and mega droughts.
Another example is a UN Global Biodiversity Report released last week and explains that none of the international biodiversity goals set 10 years ago have been achieved. Progress has been made on aspects of invasive species control, natural area designation, national biodiversity strategies, and the understanding of biodiversity science. But many other issues including: conservation of fisheries stocks, pollution levels, threats to coral reefs, and protection of ecosystem services are all static or slipping backward.
And, second, we can’t talk about any of this – climate change or biodiversity conservation – without also talking about racial justice and systemic inequities. We certainly can’t in 2020, the year of George Floyd.
Here’s what’s also happening in 2020: We see these threats clearly. The effects of climate change, a pandemic, and racial injustice are all laid bare before us. Of course, some scholars and practitioners already saw these vulnerabilities and truths and have been working to dismantle them and raise awareness. But others were “surprised” by the political polarization of 2016, or “confused” when the public wasn’t embracing the guidance of scientists. The last several months have cleared the fog on this surprise and confusion.
One of the most important things we can learn from seeing these patterns so clearly is the interconnectivity of these issues.
For example, Black Lives Matter leaders, allies, and thinkers not only rallied against police brutality, but they also shined a light on racism in the environmental movement. They helped us see the connection of racism and environment in the viral video of a birder and a white woman threatening him in Central Park; the disproportionate impacts of climate change across income and neighborhoods; the racist origins of some of the most prominent environmental groups; and the lower numbers of Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color in environmental professions.
It’s no longer viable to claim concern about biodiversity or climate change without connecting it to concern for racism and marginalization. And that’s because it’s no longer viable to deny, ignore, or leave unaddressed the link between the systems that expose people to environmental harms and the systems that expose people to other inequitable policies and practices.
For some of us, seeing this linkage has been a journey. It has been for me.
It’s taken me some time to realize the connection between the police shooting an unarmed Black man, for example, and the environment. When Philando Castille was shot by police on Larpenteur Avenue, just 1 mile from the Institute on the Environment’s headquarters on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, members of the IonE community walked to the site in solidarity. We encouraged discussion and held space for staff, faculty, and students to share information and feelings, but we did not scrutinize our programming or activities. We did not directly ask the critical question: What can or should our organization do differently, knowing what Philando Castile reveals about our society and our world?
My own view at that time was that we needed to “stay in our lane,” making space for what had happened but staying focused on environmental issues. I was concerned about mission drift, and I couldn’t see the full connection between what had happened to Mr. Castile and our organizational mission and responsibilities.
But today I see a common thread of racism – from disproportionate violence at the hands of police to disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution and increased risk for experiencing flooding or fire, as I mentioned above, as well as difference in access to environmental benefits – like parks and other green space. These impacts have overlapping root causes and drivers. To help build a future where people and planet prosper together, we must ground ourselves in the common cause of inequality and environmental harm – and deploy our theory of change in overcoming them.
Having recognized these connections, those of us who work within academia – university researchers, educators, and staff – have to take stock of this truth: We are part of the problem because we’re not part of the solution, enough. At a minimum, our information and our purported solutions aren’t working, or working well-enough, or fast enough, or for enough people. We are working hard, but are we working in a way that engages and helps people directly, that allows them the benefits of our work?
I believe we must engage in a new era of accountability to specific socio-environmental outcomes. This accountability isn’t just code for “applied” research and education. It means pursuing discovery and learning that is relevant, meaningful, inspiring, participatory, co-produced, useful, and used.
The higher education sector has the essential ingredients to more purposefully and completely fulfil our public mission, including – importantly – expertise and capacity within the university itself. We also have a powerful way of working: interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity promotes relationships and allows us to address complex issues more synergistically and more completely. This way of working is at the heart of IonE.
But have we done enough to bend these ingredients toward action with – and for – people and their communities? From where I sit, American universities have not paid enough attention to outcomes, consequences, and issues that affect all people and the environments they depend upon and care about. And where we do deliver on those outcomes, we haven’t sufficiently valued or celebrated those achievements within our university culture.
If we were living up to our social contract and our obligation to bring about specific and tangible public benefits, the problems before us would be less debilitating, less heart-breaking, and more manageable. I also think we’d lay the groundwork to build a new kind of public trust in science, the value of expertise, and learning.
IonE is here for this work. In June, I wrote on this blog that we – the Institute on the Environment – would work toward becoming an anti-racist organization. I’m proud to be able to report today that that work – that process – is underway.
We are starting to apply an anti-racism lens to our flagship initiative, Impact Goals, through which we strive toward sustainability outcomes through interdisciplinary research and education, in direct partnership with communities and other entities. Earlier this year IonE selected six Impact Goal research projects that are direct collaborations with communities and other stakeholders; target specific technical and social outcomes; and are responsive to racial justice. Imagine if there were 600 projects – or 6,000 – like this, and if they were connected together so that the benefits and beneficiaries of each one spilled over to all.
We have also been thinking about anti-racism in adjustments demanded by COVID-19. We were confronted this summer with dozens of worthy, ambitious undergraduate students with financial need, who were watching traditional summer internships vanish. So we wrote to dozens of community-based organizations and programs and asked if they could benefit from hosting a virtual intern, in this difficult, disrupted summer. In total, we were able to place 22 undergraduates from 17 majors in 20 organizations, from small NGOs to community projects and young companies. The increase in access to opportunities was immense; the benefit, immediate. Imagine if this pilot became the seed of a sustainability corps of university students who could be placed in community organizations, near and far, every summer.
I share these two examples in the spirit of transparency and learning – fully aware that the process becoming authentically anti-racist is long. One of the most important things we’re doing inside IonE has been preparing to open a call for a change team: a supported, standing workgroup of staff, students, and faculty/affiliate advisors who will help us chart the path for long-term change.
I want IonE to be the place where fulfilling social responsibility and taking action to reduce inequity is happening, at scale. By extension, I also want American universities to be shining examples of higher education delivering on social responsibility.
Dismantling racism while protecting the environment — understanding that it is actually one stream of work — isn’t easy. Importantly, we must not be afraid to tackle hard things and stay with them when the temptation to retreat is strong. As academics, we must recommit to impact and the importance of our obligation to society, and we must extend that commitment to dismantling racism. This is necessary so that our university — all universities — can reverse the direction of deep challenges before us, become a stronger force for good in the world, and lead through action and example.
In planetary prosperity,
P.S. This blog post is adapted from my director’s remarks at the 2020 IonE Annual Meeting. You can watch the full presentation here.
JULY 2020: Taking responsibility for racism and #build(ing)backbetter
In my last blog post, I wrote about #buildbackbetter, a hashtag on Twitter that was helping me, and others, feel more hopeful about COVID-19. I was thinking about how important it is not to go back to “normal” as we awake from this global pandemic, but to use the crisis as an opportunity to rediscover what’s important and make lasting investments in sustainability when pursuing economic stimulus.
And then Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Protests and civil unrest erupted across the Twin Cities, and within days, the nation and the world. More than a month later, large peaceful protests continue on a regular basis.
Police violence is a trend here in Minnesota; George Floyd’s killing was not an isolated incident. In just the past few years, Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police, and Philando Castile was shot, repeatedly, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. We also know that there is substantial racial inequity in Minnesota in education, income, home ownership – and now, coronavirus deaths.
None of these injustices and inequalities is ok.
Because of George Floyd, many Americans are awakening to the systemic racism that runs through our society (I’d include myself in this), realizing that we must address racial injustice head-on in policies and practice, each becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Many voices I know and trust – from smart graduate students, to Black journalists, to environmental justice advocates – have been calling over the last several weeks for White people to take responsibility for educating themselves about racism and taking action on racial equality. We all need to heed that call: Reading and self-education is a small but essential step toward action.
Personally, I’ve been focused on the ways in which the environmental movement has historically privileged White lives over other lives, and plants and animals (and even carbon molecules) over struggling communities. And I’ve been reading about racism and barriers to racial equality in our universities and scientific institutions – organizations I’ve dedicated my life to serving. I know there are many voices out there worth listening to, but a few that are speaking to me right now are:
On environment and racial justice–
On being White in a racist society–
I like to read and learn, but – I’ll be honest – I feel uncomfortable writing and talking about race and racism. This discomfort has affected my ability to be an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, as a student of the environment and environmental movements, learning from giants such as Bunyan Bryant, I know about environmental justice, but I didn’t see a clear role for myself as a White person in confronting (let alone causing) environmental racism. As a researcher, I’ve studied the differential impacts of climate change, but I hadn’t examined my own race and biases.
I have to tackle these shortcomings because, as an institute leader and senior scholar, I’m responsible for – and in a position to implement – institutional changes that are necessary to address racial inequities. There are a number of ways I know I can bring about that change, but I commit to doing more – and doing it more visibility and intentionally.
I also know we must confront White supremacy culture, including at the Institute on the Environment (IonE). Within the institute, we have begun grappling with what it means, and what it will take, to become explicitly anti-racist in our operations and programming.
So what can I do?
For my part, I first commit to making funding, staff time, and space available in IonE for research and education on environmental justice, and learning from those in our network who have already invested themselves in this work. Second, I will include equity in my own scholarship and the work of my institute, by incorporating demographic data and evaluating environmental impacts and solutions across a wider range of stakeholders. And, third, as a mentor and hiring supervisor, I will prioritize and hold our unit accountable for the diversification of students, IonE staff, and institute affiliates.
I also have power and seniority – and I will use it: I will speak for equity, diversity, and inclusion and call out institutional racism in faculty meetings, professional societies, social media, and blog posts, like this one. And as a person with a platform, both organizational and individual, I will seek Black voices to give talks and share ideas, data, and experiences.
This is not an exhaustive list; I’m just getting started. I expect this list to grow and change as I learn. Further, these actions seem rational and reasonable; they should be expected of me. But it’s not always easy to be accountable for action and leaning into White discomfort. Still, I understand that my individual leadership toward anti-racism is necessary if our institute is going to achieve its mission to help people and the planet prosper together.
Lastly, I’m beginning to understand that sometimes things have to come down to #buildbackbetter. In an essay in the LA Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar expressed this in a way that makes sense to me:
“The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges…
Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”
This means that #buildbackbetter – as I wrote about earlier in the pandemic – should take on a richer meaning. In the Twin Cities, #buildbackbetter now includes restoring damaged buildings, businesses, and infrastructure. More important than physical reconstruction, however, we need better policies and cultural change. And I realize that for many, “better” isn’t enough because our pre-pandemic “normal” was downright bad.
Nationally and globally, we must #buildbackbetter in a way that creates a sustainable future with equality and justice – for Black people, for Indigeous people, and other marginalized groups. That future must topple White supremacy and White supremacy culture. In a globally connected world experiencing rapid environmental change, we are all related and intertwined. Therefore, the path toward justice is also the path toward a sustainable future.
In prosperity for all,
MAY 2020: #buildbackbetter
Want to feel better about the state of our country and planet today? Search social media for the hashtag: #buildbackbetter.
I did – and what I saw strengthened my conviction that the dogma of “returning to normal” from the COVID-19 pandemic is not the right way to tackle the problems at hand. Instead, we should be striving toward a new normal that is more sustainable, just, and prosperous than the socio-economic system we’ve been living with for the last 50 to 100 years.
I mentioned this possibility of a “new normal” in a recent interview with Tony Loyd on his podcast, Social Entrepreneur. Because, in fact, that new normal and the environment have a lot to do with one another. I told Tony that, to my mind, we can group the connection between COVID-19 and the environment/sustainability into three buckets.
The first bucket is the connection between humans and wildlife – including deforestation, human encroachment into wild areas, and the trade of wild animals. Scientists have known for some time that these things make us vulnerable to the outbreak of new diseases (e.g., this study), and we’ve largely ignored their warnings. If “normal” is the status quo, we’re just inviting the next pandemic. (A lot of people are thinking about this, which is why we invited some of them to a public conversation and Q&A next Monday.)
The second bucket is a feature that the spread of infectious disease shares with every environmental issue – the complexity of interconnected systems. Humanity and nature are deeply interwoven in ways that don’t match simple notions like the linearity of supply chains (instead of their circularity), the rigidity of national borders (that natural systems don’t obey), and “wellness” reduced to a metric of GDP. Stewarding complex systems requires a strong understanding of leverage points and feedback loops. If we saw the world in its full complexity – if that were part of a new normal – we’d have a better shot at sustaining our health and planet.
Thirdly – and this is top of mind for so many of us right now – there’s an economic link between COVID-19 and the environment. Part of this link you may have already heard: There are bears peering in the windows of a shopping mall in Duluth, Minnesota; there are blue skies in New Delhi; pollution in U.S. cities is markedly lower; and greenhouse gas emissions are down worldwide. The momentary reduction in energy use and other activities, thanks to stay-at-home orders, shows how much we affect our environment, but these changes are temporary. Nothing about how we “normally” power or organize our society has fundamentally changed.
But if we wanted to, we could change those processes. We could rebuild our economy to be better than the one we had before. We could make a “new normal” and #buildbackbetter.
First, we would need to face the truth that the consumption of fossil fuels, release of chemical pollution into our environment, sprawling land use, and other harmful activities are flourishing in our current economy. We’ve been coming to terms with these harms and their “normality” for some time, after compiling overwhelming evidence and discussing it for decades. Yet, we direct subsidies to harmful industries and fail to monitor, regulate, or compensate those who bear negative consequences of these harmful behaviors.
We let this happen pretending that doing better is either too hard or too expensive. Because of the pandemic, however, cost is no longer an argument for inaction. Economic losses are happening already, with massive accumulating costs, whether we want them or not.
But we do have the tools to do better. We have solutions to many socio-environmental problems already in hand, from technologies such as solar and wind power that are alternatives to fossil fuel-based electricity production, to techniques such as cover crops that reduce nutrient runoff and soil erosion on farms, to policy tweaks such as carbon dividends that create incentives for shifting our economy. These strategies are shovel-ready; they can be deployed at scale given funding and labor. Other strategies are still under development but would benefit from real-world demonstration.
Meanwhile, millions of people and thousands of businesses now need economic assistance to stay afloat. And this need for economic stimulus provides an opportunity to invest in doing better. For example, local, state and federal governments could put conditions on bailouts to industries hard-hit by COVID-19. We could require carbon-reductions in exchange for bailouts of the airline industry, as was done on fuel economy for the auto industry in 2009. We could compensate for agricultural losses with payments for soil carbon storage or other ecosystem services. We could invest in public infrastructure such as neglected city water systems that provide clean drinking water and protect streams and lakes from contaminants. And all of these projects would employ labor.
In a healthy economy, this could seem to some like government overreach, but our economy isn’t healthy. It needs an influx of financial capital to help it get back on its feet, and there’s no reason we can’t work on the problems it already had while we’re at it.
These are just a few example ideas, and there are many more out there. Which leads me to a final thought, one I neglected to share in my conversation with Tony…
To my university colleagues, to community organizers, to innovators and entrepreneurs and other dreamers: Dust off your best ideas and share them widely – again. Epidemiologists are modeling this engagement for us right now. They’re building scenarios to assist policymakers, and they’re floating ideas to manage the spread of disease. We also need great ideas for economic stimulus – ideas that allow us to #buildbackbetter. Let’s speak up.
In planetary prosperity,
MARCH 2020: harnessing science to tackle COVID-19 and environment too
The world is reeling. Stock prices have been falling. Schools and museums are closing. College seniors might have to graduate online. Yes, it’s the early days of COVID-19.
Between moments of preparing work-from-home plans for the Institute and implementing decisions coming from our University president, I’ve been thinking about what the spread of COVID-19 means for us environmental folks and vice versa. In short: a lot.
Now more than ever, we must recognize that the spread of infectious disease is tied to so many other challenges we face as a society, and there are lessons to learn from the right way to fight COVID-19 that can be expanded to other vexing problems.
Our success in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19 relies on our willingness to follow the science — actually using what we know about disease transmission — on a very large scale. Many environmental problems also share features with COVID-19: We have a lot of knowledge about what is needed; we need people who are in the position to make decisions to understand the problem and possible solutions; and we need the social and political will to implement those changes at a large scale, for the benefit of society at large. And we need to be able to do all of those things in the face of uncertainty and complexity. It’s a tall order, but not impossible. In truth, we have no choice: If we don’t do these things, the human, economic, and planetary consequences will be severe.
I acknowledge that disease is more immediate and personal than, say, tropical deforestation or climate change – and that immediacy helps people take action. It’s extraordinary to see the personal sacrifice and economic cost that society is currently bearing to tackle this disease. It’s harder to motivate around problems that feel less immediate, but they are not as different as you might think.
Here are a few critical linkages I see between the work of preventing the spread of disease and the work of making the world more sustainable. I share these with the goal of supporting smart decision-making in the face of COVID-19 – listen to the science! – and the hope of learning from this experience so that we can tackle other crises too, including those with an environmental connection.
Global problems require global cooperation
Viruses can cross international boundaries, but knowledge can too – if we let it. It’s not on the front page of many newspapers, but there is extraordinary international cooperation taking place on COVID-19. For example, a collection of Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of COVID-19 on January 10 and – before it appeared in published form – they posted it to a public database so that scientists around the world could start using that information. Independently, another group in the United States obtained the x-ray structure of the key virus coat protein. And less than one week later, a Canadian group published a study describing more than one billion possible drug leads that could inactivate the virus. This spectacular progress comes only from fully engaged international scientific cooperation.
Sadly, global trends toward nationalism put this kind of collaboration at risk. While it might be appropriate at times to restrict travel or distance ourselves from one another, we need more intellectual connectedness and collaboration than ever. COVID-19 first emerged in southern China, but so did the science that will eventually help take control of it. International collaboration is also critical in the environmental sciences, where sharing data and models leads to improved climate predictions, for example, and policy and technology experiments in one location can be shared and improved for application elsewhere.
Science should be not be in silos
No single expert or academic discipline knows what to do about COVID-19, but together they do. Geneticists know the bases that make up the virus. Physiologists and immunologists understand how the virus overtakes the cell of its hosts. Public health professionals and medical doctors interface with real patients. And there’s been a groundswell of mathematicians and population biologists who’ve turned their computer modeling expertise toward COVID-19. They are showing policy-makers how interventions today prevent infections tomorrow.
This is precisely the same for environmental problems. To prevent deforestation we rely on botanists and forest ecologists to tell us what level of harvesting is sustainable. We rely on global carbon scientists to tell us how much deforestation destabilizes the climate, and we rely on economists to study policy tools and incentives for decreasing deforestation rates in different social and market contexts. The more we stimulate discussion and share information among these fields, the more creatively, strategically, and efficiently we tackle the most important challenges of our day.
COVID-19 also reminds us that environmental and disease scientists must work together. COVID-19 jumped from an animal to human because of increasing intrusion into natural ecosystems. Its effects might be exacerbated by environmental problems including air pollution. And whether or not the virus stays with us for years to come will be determined by the climate, our environment, economic practices, and human behavior. It’s all one big interrelated problem, and experts must work together.
Acting now is better than acting later
The school closings and event cancellations we are seeing today are not, primarily, about protecting individuals. They’re about slowing the spread of COVID-19 for the collective good, for lots of people you don’t even know. The goal of social distancing is avoiding a spike of infections that could overwhelm our health care system and reduce the quality of care for infected individuals. Every action we take on social distancing now – today, not tomorrow – reduces the size and immediacy of that spike, slowing the spread to a more manageable pace. In the case of disease transmission, interventions today pay off in higher survival rates tomorrow.
We have understood for years that a similar phenomenon happens with climate change. The impacts of climate change accumulate over time, with greater effects in the future than we see today, due both to continued emissions and the time it takes for the planetary processes to shift. But the costs of dealing with climate change accumulate over time too. That’s because the cost of taking corrective action in the future is high, higher than the cost of implementing greenhouse gas reductions today. It’s true that the cost of alternative energy technologies can – and does – decrease over time and as those technologies become more widespread, but only if we invest in discovering and testing those technologies today.
It’s all about systems
Many features of our daily lives are built around simple abstractions. For example: One producer sells to a distributor who sells to a retailer, forming a supply chain. But that’s not the way the world really works – that’s not even how real supply chains work. The real world is made up of complex, interconnected networks of people and processes. One input rarely leads to a single output because each entity in the network is tied to many others.
Perhaps more than anything else, COVID-19 reminds us that people are embedded in complex networks of relationships and interactions. If we want to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we need to understand the complexity of those interactions. We must recognize that pulling one lever, such as halting international flights or closing schools, has waves of cascading consequences.
People working on the frontlines of environmental issues understand systems. They are champions of systems thinking. They know that modern agriculture simplifies the ecosystem and that’s why increasing the diversity of crops and intermixing crops with natural habitat can decrease pollution and even increase yields. In natural landscapes, chemicals, materials, and energy are not created or destroyed, they simply move from one place to another within a connected system. All changes – and interventions – have consequences, intended and not.
The sooner we all grasp the interconnectedness of systems, the better we’ll steward our planet – and one another.
Elbow-bump a scientist
Before last week, I would have said “hug.” Yesterday, from my office at the University of Minnesota, I listened to Governor Waltz describe new guidelines for social gatherings, and just about every other sentence of his remarks – and responses to questions – referenced science and guidance the state is receiving from scientists and public health experts. Virologists, immunologists, climate scientists, ecologists, and earth systems scientists have a lot to offer society. Thank goodness for them all.
My hope for overcoming the coronavirus pandemic is the same hope I have for climate change, for deforestation, for water pollution, and for other environmental challenges. I hope our elected and business leaders are ambitious, collaborative, and work across boundaries. I hope they have an inquisitive mind and an open ear to science. And I believe if they’re able to do these things, a healthy and sustainable future is possible.
In planetary prosperity,
P.S. Thanks to Larry Wackett for several of the points above and for the encouragement to make these thoughts in a public space. Thanks also to Peter Reich who has been working tirelessly in the last couple of days to sound the alarm in our state, helping our decision-makers understand what ecology and population has to say about the spread of disease and strategies for saving lives.
FEBRUARY 2020: A #scicomm role model for us all
This month I’m writing about my friend and author, Hope Jahren. Hope was the keynote speaker at our recent symposium, Speaking Science, and I had the pleasure of introducing her. The opportunity caused me not only to think about why Hope is such a compelling and interesting person, but it gave me a chance to share some thoughts about the broader topic of science communication. I reproduce some of those thoughts here because I know this topic is top of mind for many of us these days.
More than a decade ago now, the Institute on the Environment started pursuing science communication – the deliberate effort to inform and inspire the public with science, and to seek input and feedback. We were part of a small group of people and organizations that believed that environmental scholars could and should be engaged in active conversation with society—even that they had a duty to do so. At first it was a bold claim that academic researchers deserved a public voice and a seat at the table of societal decision-making.
Today we find ourselves in a different moment—a moment when science communication (or in short-hand, #scicomm) in all fields is much more widely accepted. Scientists that value and engage in science communication are now part of a broader movement—a transformation in the amount and extent that scientists engage the public in conversation. Today, communicating with non-scientific audiences is not just an add-on, but a core part of many scientists’ work. Fortunately, the idea of communicating data and ideas extends beyond the sciences to other fields now too.
Even in this heyday of science communications, studies suggest–including a very recent one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences–that a persistent barrier to engagement in public communication is a perceived lack of institutional support. Close on its heels is lack of confidence –a perception of those who have important stories to share that they lack ability or skill.
At IonE, we are proud to have helped build a University where #scicomm is not only respected, it’s the topic of a university-wide symposium. We not only respect the need for #scicomm, we spend an entire day building #scicomm capacity for anybody and everybody with an interest and commitment.
But, speaking from my experience – and what I’ve observed and heard from others, too – there’s a third barrier to engaging in #scicomm that leads me to Hope Jahren. That barrier is a lack of role models and mentors. Hope Jahren is a role model to me.
I’ve known Hope since 2011, when we were members of a cohort of environmental scientists called Leopold Fellows. Being a Leopold Fellow basically meant joining #scicomm boot camp. Most of us were relatively early in our career, and though we had ambition, none of us really knew what we were doing or how we were going to pull off what was being asked of us. Two intensive weeks of training and a decade later, each of us has come a long way. Today we actively support one another in our #scicomm work. And all my Leopold mates have gained the pleasure of calling Hope Jahren a friend.
Now, I won’t recount Hope’s entire bio here, like I did in my intro. There are plenty of places you can go to learn about her significant accomplishments and contributions to her field, which is the study of fossil and living plants with the use of stable isotopes. She is a scientist of the highest caliber.
But Hope is something most scientists aren’t: she is the author of the highly acclaimed Lab Girl, a personal narrative about a life of science, and The Story of More, a forthcoming book that explores the underlying causes of climate change and what we can do about those causes.
According to a review of Lab Girl in the New York Times (Michiko Kakutani), Hope “communicates the electric excitement of discovering something new — something no one ever knew or definitely proved before — and the boring scientific grunt work involved in conducting studies and experiments: the days and weeks and moths of watching and wanting and gathering data, the all-nighters, the repetitions, the detours, both serendipitous and unfruitful.”
What I think is extraordinary about Hope’s popular writing is her ability to speak with an authentic voice. I invite you to think of any long-form narrative about a living, breathing scientist that is both brutally honest and awe-inspiring. Lab Girl does exactly that.
Hope writes in Lab Girl that as a scientist, she’s really just an ant: “insufficient and anonymous, but stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger than I am.” I don’t see her contributions as insufficient, and certainly not anonymous. In writing about herself—and really about all of us who work as scientists, in any field or form—Hope has given the world an extraordinary gift. She has shown us the human side of science—that science is conducted by real people—and she produced a stellar example of how to write about scientific ideas in a compelling and approachable way.
That gift of inspiration and example is much bigger than Hope herself. We all have much to learn from it. And we all owe her gratitude for it.
Sometimes reflecting on a role model can make all the difference. Hope inspires me, and I hope she can for you too.
In planetary prosperity,
P.S. Want to hear more about science communication like we do at IonE? Check out a presentation I will be giving with my colleagues at the American Association for the Advancement Science meeting next month: Public Engagement at Universities: Pathways for Institutional Support. I’ll be talking about the importance of peer mentoring and peer support in building the capacity of emerging science leaders.
OCTOBER 2019: Sustainability institute leaders have guidance for the next generation
This month I’d like to share insights from a paper that colleagues and I just published in the journal Nature Sustainability. The authors are a who’s-who of academic leaders in sustainability organizations in Australia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the United States (including Arizona State, Columbia University and the University of Michigan). Some of us have known each other for years; others were new connections. All of us were gathered by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, as part of a working group on fostering interdisciplinarity.
Each of us perceives a crucial need for translational and interdisciplinary centers of excellence in sustainability within universities, and we recognize that leaders of this organizations have much to learn from one another — because we are all making it up as we go along.
That’s right: None of us were trained to lead sustainability institutes. We grew in to these roles thanks to past research success, an aptitude for collaboration and engagement, and an affinity for crossing disciplinary boundaries. Some of us have a passion for transformative innovation and grand ideas. Many of us have a passion for putting ideas into practice, to make the world a better place.
In writing this paper, we agreed that there are some common features and principles to sustainability leadership, and we think that sharing those lessons has value for future leaders. Our paper makes seven points or suggestions about the talent and care that sustainability leadership needs. Here are the “CliffsNotes“…
1. Envision beyond the status quo.
Sustainability science crosses over the traditional disciplines of academia, and this feature helps sustainability institutes break new ground. But it also requires a particular skill in the sustainability institute leader—the ability to talk about and work toward a future that’s different than the past. Leaders have to continually think about, and adapt to, changing needs of the people they work with, and they have to keep an eye on what a sustainable future could look like. My personal favorite is a future when faculty, staff and students explain—when asked—what they are working toward rather than what they are working on.
2. Nurture partnerships and interactions effectively.
No vision of the future is achievable without a sophisticated web of interactions outside of the university where good ideas come from and solutions can be put into practice. This web of interactions will require different kinds of engagement for different occasions (from informing to empowering) and should always be bi-directional. We felt that one of the most valuable things a sustainability institute — and sustainability leader — can provide its community of participants is a network of well-cultivated partnerships that are primed and ready-to-go. Recognizing this need is a key feature of leadership.
3. Harmonize values and empirical rigor.
Many sustainability institutes around the world — at least in our author group — arose from the biophysical sciences, but sustainability outcomes must be informed by social-cultural values that are understood by the humanities, arts and spirituality. Maintaining a balance of the normative and the empirical — with vibrant interplay between them — is an exciting feature of a good sustainability organization. There is much a sustainability leader can do to reach out to the humanities and the arts but an appreciation and an open mind to these disciplines is an important place to start.
4. Promote respect for multiple ways of knowing.
We felt that one of the greatest challenges of being a sustainability leader was overcoming disciplinary bias and becoming open to alternative ways of seeing the world. Some of us have seen outright hostility to other ways of knowing and a lack of respect for disciplines with different epistemological discourse or practice-based knowledge. Great sustainability leaders make it possible for minds to open to a wider world-view.
5. Foster equity, shared leadership and consensus.
In many — if not all — cases, sustainability outcomes mean revising power structures, and this can lead to greater demand for transparency and shared leadership within a sustainability organizations and in interactions with the public and key stakeholders. Practicalities and administrative obligations necessarily push back against transparency, and sustainability leaders must develop sophisticated political judgement toward shared governance while consistently pushing for greater equity and access when everyone can’t have a direct seat at the table.
6. Create nimbleness and flexibility.
One of the biggest truths that our author group agreed upon was the relatively slow pace of consultative research and equitable implementation, in comparison to the typical research timeline. Being consultative and considering the consequences of our actions means spending time with the people affected by environmental problems, listening to their ideas and their needs. This can certainly slow down the research process. At the same time, sustainability institute leaders need to produce timely responses to stakeholder and public needs, and they must find a way to balance timeliness against the conduct of high-quality research. Most importantly, they have to be able to support the work of engaged scholars, many of whom are still accountable to traditional metrics of academia, and advocate for that work in the traditional setting of a university.
7. Persevere and be resilient in the face of substantial pressures
There are nay-sayers and deniers out there in the world, and some people use misinformation and smear tactics to discredit research and research organizations. This is a pressure is real for many sustainability scientists and practitioners — and certainly for sustainability leaders. It requires perseverance and resilience to keep going. Fortunately, sustainability folks can share this journey together, and communities of practice can be helpful in succeeding at this aspect of sustainability leadership. I know I value my colleagues and co-authors tremendously in this way.
Taking these seven points into consideration, we concluded that — above all else — leaders of sustainability research organizations must provide an “environment where interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary science flourish.” And we call for new programs to help develop skills in people with the aptitude and promise for this unique kind of academic leadership.
New ideas and human capital are needed to put sustainability into place (something we embrace at IonE), so society needs universities to bring their A-game. We hope our essay can be part of the pursuit for institutional excellence.
In planetary prosperity,
AUGUST 2019: Having a vision pays dividends, guest post from an IonE Fellow
Over the past year at the Institute on the Environment, we’ve been rolling out new Impact Goals, outcomes that the IonE community can rally around and work together to move the needle on sustainability. One of the first goals now underway is helping to build a carbon-neutral Minnesota – for our region and for our planet.
To achieve this goal, we will need to dramatically reduce, and potentially eliminate, the fossil fuels for energy. This will require new technology, new business models, and other innovations, and all of those things require open and fearless dialogue with one another. To share his thoughts and experiences in this work, I’ve invited Troy Goodnough, an IonE Fellow and sustainability leader at the University of Minnesota Morris, to take over my Director’s Almanac this month. Troy and his Morris colleagues have proven that ambition, collaboration, and openness to new ways of thinking CAN pave the way to a better future, and we all have much to learn from the “Morris Model.”
In planetary prosperity,
What do calculators, TVs, computers, mobile phones, and modern wind turbines all have in common? All of these things were expensive in the not-too-distant past. Lots of folks thought we didn’t need them, and now we can’t imagine life without them. They also all originate from a person (or persons) with a vision, a vision that things could be different. With a few quick internet searches, you can read quote after quote from business leaders who were dead wrong about transformation in their own industries. They were wrong about the speed of adoption and the rate of social change. Here’s a simple example: in 1970, a calculator cost a week or more of wages; five years later, the cost dropped 20x and nearly every household had one.
Americans have a strange relationship with invention. On the one hand, we venerate innovators like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Icon-inventor Steve Wozniak was at HP working on scientific calculators when he imagined a personal computing device. HP couldn’t imagine why people would want them; so Wozniak found another path and invented the Apple computer.
But when it comes to understanding the process of innovation – rather than the inventors themselves – we seem to be much less interested. Perhaps we prefer the cult of personality to the culture of process. When I hear someone say that an important innovation is expensive or slow, I wonder if they are speaking off the cuff or if they really know what they are talking about. In truth, the story of innovation is replicable, but it seems like we have to continually rediscover it.
Innovation is rarely just about a technology, but also the process of uptake and adoption. That takes vision too. In Minnesota, for example, corn ethanol didn’t just appear from the invisible hand. There was an ecosystem of innovation that worked to create policies that promoted it, create a market for it, and bring the technology to the new market. Farmers, co-ops, commodity groups, scientists, and politicians collaborated to create the conditions that opened up new economic possibilities. Ethanol production grew from 1M gallons in 1987 to1B by 2011. Today, the business generates nearly $7B in revenue for Minnesota’s businesses, adds about $2B to the state economy, and provides $204M in state and local taxes.
The same technology and market innovation is happening now–and needs to be accelerated–to stop emissions of greenhouse gases. Only ten years ago, utilities in Minnesota did not think wind turbines would be a good investment. The entrenched wisdom was that wind energy was expensive, and we couldn’t reliably integrate significant amounts of it onto the grid. Ergo, it wasn’t worth pursuing with vigor, even though we knew climate disruption was getting worse. That tide turned, however, thanks to innovation.
Technology, environmental activism, and policy were key ingredients in the innovation process that made wind power the energy of choice today. On the policy side, Minnesota passed the bipartisan Next Generation Energy Act in 2007. The law set a goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025. And, Minnesota met that goal almost a decade ahead of schedule. Over this same timeframe, wind industry leaders fought hard to improve the technology. In 2007, Vestas was installing one turbine every 4 hours somewhere in the world, and activism at college campuses compelled 284 institutions across the country to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment — with each campus making a commitment to carbon neutrality and a planning process. In 2007, environmental organizations and students were working together to shape a clean energy future and were protesting future expansion of coal-fired power plants. By 2016, the US Bureau of Labor of Statistics named wind service technician their fastest growing job of the decade.
These wind innovations, like all innovation, did not follow a linear path. But people with vision came together; they found funding to test their vision (as start-up companies, university scientists, and even countries); they engaged early adopters to share in their vision – and eventually convinced larger entities (companies and governments) to promote, make room for, and adopt their vision too. And in the case of wind, steadily, prices went down.
A key innovation we need now in Minnesota and around the world is cheap energy storage, because renewables are intermittent and batteries can store that clean energy. To achieve this, we will need to follow the same path of innovation we have walked before.
In truth, there is an opportunity cost when we don’t innovate and use our state and national dollars to incentivize that innovation. In Minnesota, for example, we could have built new coal plants 10 years ago, and some utilities wanted just that. If we had pursued an energy path with old technology, we would have nationally wasted billions of dollars using an aging technology on the verge of being replaced with something cheaper and cleaner. Just one of the coal-fired power plants proposed in Minnesota was over $1B.
Finally, the clean energy revolution is providing new opportunities for rural Minnesota The UMN Morris campus gets 70% of its electricity from renewables — the majority of that power comes from two 1.65MW wind turbines. The UMN West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) is researching new ways to make ammonia fertilizer from prairie winds and water, feeding our crops with fossil-free nutrients. Within one mile of Morris, you can see wind, solar, and biomass projects that are helping to build local energy solutions.
The community of Morris is also working together as a team to make this sustainability progress. This group of changemakers call themselves–and the work they are doing–the Morris Model and includes the city, county, public schools, hospital, UMN Morris, WCROC, and other partners. The team has created a Strategic Plan for the community to advance sustainability initiatives in energy, waste, transportation, and education. Together, the team is making progress. Electric cars and charging stations have been added to city and campus fleets. LED lighting has been installed across the city and campus. Solar projects have been installed at the school and WCROC. A new renewable natural gas (RNG) project is taking shape in the county. The city of Morris was also the first city to join IonE’s Climate Smart Municipalities program, which has paired Morris together with Saerbeck, Germany, a winner of the European Energy Award and one of the greenest cities in Europe. Saerbeck’s remarkable transformation began with a community vision.
In Morris, innovation is a team process and is a replicable model for other communities in Minnesota. All of these projects in Morris have taken vision and persistence, and each one has a fun story of how it came to fruition. As a team, we have brainstormed over 100 projects we want to tackle to advance our shared sustainability aspirations. What are 100 projects your community could get started on?
JUNE 2019: Transforming the university to serve sustainability
As director of the Institute on the Environment, I have three responsibilities. I’m one third professor, conducting original research and teaching. I’m one third manager, making sure that IonE is running well. (Check out our new strategic plan!) And I’m one third public intellectual: a public speaker, an op-ed writer, and an academic cheerleader. It’s part of my job to push for ideas about sustainability out in the broader world – and to help build an academy that fulfills its mission to serve the public on sustainability issues. This often is the most rewarding part of my work: It’s in this role that I get to advocate for ideas, champion others, and feel myself making change.
Over the last week I’ve been in that third mode, at two meetings where a small group of thought-leaders were invited to strategize together about how to affect change. Some insights from those meetings mirror or inform IonE; others mark the path forward for all of us striving within higher education to build a future where people and planet prosper together.
I think those insights worth sharing, and I hope you agree. The following ideas are filtered through my biases and interests, of course, but perhaps you’ll find something here of interest – or something that sparks an insight of your own.
Building Sustainability 2.0
On May 24, an international science organization called FutureEarth convened about 30 academics, NGO scientists, and science funders to talk about the future of sustainability science. I should note: Most of us were natural scientists, but to truly make progress on sustainability, we need sustainability “science” to include humanities and the arts too.
Overall, the current state of sustainability science — despite important progress — is not good. The assembled group could identify a number of indicators showing that we have a long way to go as sustainability scholars working to affect societal change. For example, we still see reticence in the business and public sectors to take-up sustainability practices, even in the face of evidence that it’s urgent to do so. We worry about growing skepticism about science at a time when novel solutions to social-environmental problems are desperately needed. We recognize the pace of research at most universities is often slower than the pace of decision-making. And we see disciplinary silos throughout academia that are difficult to cross and integrate, in spite of the necessity of integration to do real-world problem-solving.
Still, the group could also point to pockets of hope, where effective and engaged sustainability science has appeared and is growing. The emergence of sustainability institutes and colleges — focused on interdisciplinarity and the translation of research and engagement outside the university — are a positive innovations, and they are gaining traction. New funding directorates, such as the Belmont Forum, that incentivize academics to widely collaborate and cross boundaries are gathering steam. And we see new products emerging in the financial markets that push businesses to deliver sustainability outcomes, such as green bonds and verifiable environmental-social-governance (ESG) metrics that are based on sound science.
Drawing on my own experience and dialogue at the meeting, I see two things as critical to building on these leading indicators and fulfilling a vision for “sustainability science 2.0.”
First, we need vastly more research that makes information about sustainability – problems and solutions – accessible to decision makers. The word of the meeting was “co-production,” the idea being that we can’t achieve a science that effectively drives sustainability without working collaboratively with implementers and change agents. For me, this requires that sustainability scientists know what they are working toward and who they are working with – a level of intentionality that’s still rare in the academy (but is a cornerstone of IonE’s Impact Goal initiative). This importance and transformative power of mission is forefront in my mind these days.
Second, sustainability science must be vastly more attentive to equity, be more inclusive, deliberately recognize different ways of knowing and learning, and work to decolonize science and cultivate cross-cultural trust. We cannot serve only particular interests if we strive to operationalize sustainability around the world, and sustainability 2.0 will enable all people.
Beyond the Academy
On May 29 and 30, Cambridge University hosted the first of three meetings under a grant (led by the University of Minnesota) aiming to bring sustainability science “beyond the academy.” This is critical work: a lot of innovation about sustainability happens at universities, but universities are not sufficiently effective at translating and collaborating to put this scholarship into service for society, as evidenced by the profound gap between the need for sustainability and its broad-scale implementation.
About 25 academic leaders who are working hard to put sustainability science into action took part in the meeting, from vice-provosts and deans to institute directors, independent scholars, postdocs, and grad students.
Most of the meeting participants are pushing for cross-disciplinarity and engagement with seed grants and programs that focus on the soft skills of collaboration that are often missing in traditional university training (gaps our Boreas and Associates programs work to fill). The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University also felt that boundary organizations within universities (such as IonE) have an important role to play and are making positive change.
Still, the group felt that engaged scholarship in sustainability is not happening enough — at the scale that it’s needed. We face profound sustainability challenges, with human and other life in the balance, and we don’t have all the insights and activated leaders we need to address those challenges. (Also, as I mentioned above, society still isn’t reacting fast enough to the alarm bells rung by sustainability science.) To accelerate the uptake of engaged scholarship in sustainability, we need to change the culture within universities. Jason Neff (University of Colorado at Boulder) argued that universities have (mostly) completed two cultural shifts: encouraging (i) more team science and (ii) greater collaboration among disciplines. But the transition to engagement isn’t there yet, and that’s where leadership is truly needed. I couldn’t agree more.
When academics talk about incentives, the conversation goes quickly to tenure — the coveted status of senior university scholars, designed to safeguard their academic freedom. Tenure criteria – the metrics that determine who receives it – have begun to recognize points (i) and (ii) above, but we don’t yet have good ways of incorporating engagement and measuring its impact. That change is desperately needed. But for me, the focus on tenure has two problems. First, large institutional changes, like changing the criteria for tenure, won’t happen fast enough relative to the urgent challenges we face. And, second, tenure applies to only a portion of the people within universities who are doing important sustainability work. At IonE, for example, we have a large group of senior scholars – full-time researchers and leaders outside of the tenure system – who work directly with decision-makers on a daily basis. Universities need to recognize and reward people outside the tenure system but within academia for their work, and encourage the tenured faculty to emulate them.
Finally, we talked about the incentives for units within universities, not just for individuals, as a pathway to change. This is what I love most about IonE — that we are incentivized, upon our founding, to act differently than other parts of the university and, through our innovation, we can bring about change in the way universities do business. And, we hope, when the leaders and institutions represented at this meeting act together, that institutional change can happen even faster.
While we can learn from each other, no two universities are exactly the same. The different strengths of different universities allow us to be stronger together — to span the full spectrum of interactions, economies, and geographies. The University of Minnesota has profound assets to bring to the “beyond the academy” movement. We obey a land grant mission. We sit at the confluence of biomes and economies undergoing profound change from a shifting climate. Our region includes some of the world’s largest and most globally integrated corporations. And we lie in the heart one of the world’s greatest bread baskets. Fortunately, these assets — as well as the innovations we have already deployed at IonE — give us a seat at the table of people driving change across all of higher education.
And one more thought…
These meetings do raise an issue that’s been on my mind lately. I generated about 1.3 metric tons of greenhouse gas (CO2 equivalents) to attend these gatherings. That’s about one-fifth of the emissions of the average American driver for an entire year. On the one hand, it’s critically important to collaborate with colleagues, particularly when the goal is to change the way a system — science and the academy — works. On the other hand, it’s downright fishy to justify degrading the planet by claiming to save it too. Lowering our carbon emissions from airplane travel and off-setting the negatives of that travel with concrete positives and carbon sequestration is something we are working on at IonE. Stay tuned.
In planetary prosperity,
MAY 2019: In solidarity with the Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative
Have you ever discovered a place, a group of people, or a way of thinking right under your nose that you didn’t know was there? Sometimes the smallest of discoveries reveals new ways of seeing a world that you thought you already knew. Before the discovery, you were missing a key piece of information or perspective, one that you only realize in hindsight.
Over the past several months, I’ve been having discovery experiences as part of a group that is exploring diverse ways we know, value, and preserve water. The latest manifestation of our group discovery was Saturday at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Bruce Vento Sanctuary lies in the shadow of high rise buildings, is nestled under a freeway and is doused with the clanging of a nearby railroad yard. It rests in the floodplain of a gorge cut by the Mississippi River when Lake Agassiz broke some 12,000 years ago, and in 2005, it became a public park. A neighborhood advocacy group, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, was the primary engine behind the park’s creation, convincing the city to convert an abandoned rail yard and trash dump to native prairie, seasonal wetland, and an area for recreation. Today, the Sanctuary represents what cities can bring back for their residents: a green asset worthy of a world-class metropolitan area.
[Signage and a prescribed burn with downtown St. Paul in the background; May 4, 2019.]
I was visiting the Sanctuary as a part of an experimental art and science collaborative. We call ourselves the Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative, and with support from the Institute for Advanced Study, the Weisman Art Museum, Water Bar, and the Institute on the Environment, we gather once a month to see what we can learn from one another, where we can take our relationship, and what we can create and do if we open our minds to shared learning. Collaborative members share an appreciation for water, a commitment to social and environmental change, and expertise in the arts, science, or community engagement. In previous months, we’ve tasted hand-harvested wild rice and brainstormed about experiences we could have together that would help us understand each other and the communities we represent.
This time we went to the Bruce Vento Sanctuary to learn about the history, spiritual meaning and water ecology of a place right under our noses.
[Members of the Collaborative and Maggie Lorenz (at right in checked shirt).]
Like the group itself, our afternoon was a mash-up of culture and science. Maggie Lorenz, the interim executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and director of Wakan Tipi Center, spoke about the organizing necessary to restore the park and the vision required to make sure its protection was connected to ecological and cultural values.
Ecological reconstruction lies at the heart of the park’s purpose. The vision is to bring Phalen Creek, a stream that once flowed from a nearby lake to the Mississippi River, out of its forced stormwater pipe and back to the surface. This restoration is called “daylighting” and can be a powerful way to re-create recreational amenities and account for increasing stormwater flow from urbanization and climate change. Daylighting prevents stormwater from overwhelming undersized and aging underground infrastructure, provided water can flow through a natural flood plain. Parts of Phalen Creek have been daylighted elsewhere, but Bruce Vento remains a future project. Collaborative member Beth Fisher brought water quality detection equipment on our excursion and deployed that equipment where stormwater does flow on the site, explaining that data from the sensors can be uploaded directly — by scientists or by citizens — to an open-source EnviroDIY data community aimed at promoting environmental science and monitoring by citizens.
But cultural preservation and restoration is just as important as ecological restoration at Bruce Vento. Like many sites along the shores of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, this is Dakota land where settlements, fishing, and spiritual life took place, and cultural meaning exists for Dakota people today. Water flowing through sandstone sediments carved out the Wakan Tipi cave, now in the Sanctuary, the site of an important origin story for the Dakota – a story recorded in drawings on the cave ceiling more than 2,000 years ago.
I knew about daylighting. I know how to measure the conductivity and other chemical properties of water. But I didn’t know about this place. I didn’t know about Wakan Tipi. I didn’t know that there’s a democratic movement of water monitoring that empowers concerned citizens.
These things I didn’t know are humbling because I’m often the expert in the room, the person with the advanced degree and the professional experience to tell others what they need to know about the environment, how it is changing, and what to do about it. But in this group I’m not always the expert — or not the only expert. My fellow Collaborative members know things that I do not, things like Dakota language and culture, performance art, and organizing in marginalized communities.
I like being part of shared discovery. As part of my job and my own, personal ambition, I want to understand other ways of knowing and other methods people use to make change. The best way — the only way — to learn more is to broaden who you know. For me, that’s getting outside the university and outside the sciences. This week was discovering the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. I’m looking forward to what we will discover next and, ultimately, what this group might create together.
In planetary prosperity,
The Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative includes: Jewell Arcoren, Bill Arnold, Vicente Diaz, Aaron Dysart, Beth Fisher, Amoke Kubat, Amanda Lovelee, Ethan Neerdaels, Richa Nagar, Mankwe Ndosi, Patrick Nunnally, Boris Oicherman, Daniela Sandler, Keegan Xavi, and me—in cowboy hat at left
APRIL 2019: Living the good life at the end of the world
Modern American life is sending us some dangerous signals. Advertisers, retailers, and even trusted news outlets tell us everyday that stuff – and buying more and more of it – is the road to a convenient, more pleasurable life and happiness itself. On the go? Buy this pre-made lunch box. Need caffeine? Here’s coffee in a to-go cup. The American dream is 2,500 square feet in the suburbs (now the median size of a new house in the US) and an SUV in the driveway.
That we consume so much – and so many unsustainable products – is why the average American has such an enormous effect on the global environment. Each American emits 2.3 times the amount of greenhouse gas of the average Chinese citizen or 32 times the average Nigerian. The footprint of US beef consumption, the largest source of carbon emissions in the food sector, is higher than any other country in the world.
Add this consumption up and you get runaway climate change, water supplies contaminated by nutrients, and biodiversity loss hundreds of times higher than the background rate of extinction.
This means that we must substantially reduce consumption of harmful goods, design solutions for abating the harmful effects of that consumption, and transition our consumption to more sustainable alternatives (think: electric vehicles and the Impossible Whopper).
Last fall, IonE Fellow and CLA Professor Dan Phillipon and I built a course to unpack what this imperative means – not just practically, but also culturally. Offering it through the U’s Grand Challenges Curriculum, we called it Living the Good Life at the End of the World. And as we prepare to offer the course again this fall, this topic has been on my mind. The relationship between happiness and sustainability is something we all should be talking about.
For a long time the environmental movement has argued for reductions in consumption through the lens of sacrifice. My personal favorite is the annual Earth Hour that asks participants to sit in the dark for 60 minutes in recognition of the environmental impact of energy consumption. Sacrifice has been the primary argument for taking individual actions such as riding your bike to work.
The problem is that sacrifice doesn’t work that well, particularly in the United States. Guilt doesn’t either. Instead, people are motivated to make durable change through a sense of striving and legacy, hope of a better future, and substituting harmful behaviors for alternatives that don’t feel much like a sacrifice at all. (For example: The perception that a Tesla is cooler than a gas-guzzling car anyway.) Research also shows the importance of ideology in driving individual opinions about climate change.
Most people are looking for a life that’s happy and morally justified: the good life. And if we want sustainability – things like greenhouse gas emission reduction and habitat protection – we are going to have to find ways to align sustainability with the good life. And the good life is not just for Americans. All humans deserve the right to pursue a full life in pursuit of the things that meet their needs and bring them happiness and fulfillment.
This points to the biggest, most important challenge of sustainability: aligning pursuit of the good life with sustainable life habits, particularly in rich countries where people consume the most. Until we overcome this challenge, sustainable technologies will not be taken up, environmental policies will not be enacted, and real environmental problems will be ignored until it’s simply too late to do something about them.
To achieve sustainability, society needs to change, and before that, we each need to go on a personal journey. We need to evaluate our consumption, scrutinize the theories and evidence of what the good life truly is, look inside ourselves to question our personal values and behaviors, and seek alternatives and life changes that bring our sustainability and other values into alignment.
In Living the Good Life at the End of the World, Dan and I asked students to do two particularly important things. First, they had to write four essays that took them through an analysis of their values, a critique of their environmental footprint, and a strategy for and commitment to aligning their behavior to their core values and sustainability. Second, to help them explore those values, we asked them to do something uncomfortable, to push themselves to explore a sustainability idea. Some of them slept overnight without shelter or technology; others carried their waste on their person for a week or more. Through all of this, we asked them to quantify and translate their values and actions into environmental quantities and harms.
Overwhelmingly, the students discovered that their values did, or could, align with sustainability. It was possible to live a good life – to be with loved ones, to find personal meaning, to explore – with a substantially lower environmental footprint. The problem was that modern society didn’t make it easy, and sometimes the effort required took more time and emotion that the students thought they could consistently bear.
Many students were surprised to learn how much they valued comfort and convenience and how much their environmental footprint was being driven not by something important to them but by the easy choice. The disposable cup even though they could plan to bring a reusable one, the tolerance for waste in the name of convenience, the autopilot of never even stopping to consider if there’s a sustainable option that could as–or more–pleasant and rewarding (e.g., hopping on the light rail instead of driving). They also found core values with a big environmental footprint that is hard to avoid, such as flying to visit a grandparent. They also discovered that they had a lot of agency over their behaviors and environmental footprint, and they may have even more agency in the future (e.g., opportunities to live close to family or work).
A wonderful part about the course was observing that as students developed their solutions, there was no need for comparison, no judgement. There’s power in knowing your values and taking steps to align those values with sustainable practices. It’s morally defensible, and not everyone has to choose the same – not everyone has the same values, circumstances or opportunities.
(An important caveat about the generality of observations from our class: students at the University of Minnesota are more economically diverse than at many other universities, but college students have more privileges and economic choices than many Americans, and certainly more than nearly everyone else around the world.)
So did we find all the answers in this course? No. Nor did we expect to. Neither Dan nor I have all the answers about how to live a sustainable good life. I’m not immune to modern American society. I’m tied to consumption too, and I’m constrained by the economic systems around me. Personally, I’m quite compelled by the power of technology and new products to increase sustainability, and I’ve invested in several of them.
But I also changed my views a bit in teaching this class. I’m more skeptical of technical solutions than I was before, and I now see that a lot of the good life is low tech and can be entirely carbon free. It’s about how you spend your time, away from Amazon.com and the shopping mall. From this shared journey with students, I gained some introspection. I continue on my own journey toward finding – and living – the good life.
At the Institute on the Environment, we help people discover a sustainable good life. Are you on that journey of discovery too? We invite you to join us! I’d love to hear about it; please tweet me what you have learned. In the end, sustainability is from the collection of all our individual choices and actions.
In planetary prosperity,
FEBRUARY 2019: Let’s engage with the Green New Deal
What’s one of the most exciting ideas being talked about in Washington right now? You have to dig deep – past the day’s newest Democratic presidential candidate and the soap opera of Michael Cohen – but it’s the Green New Deal (GND). I’m excited about the GND because I’ve dedicated my professional life to understanding the effects of environmental change and working across boundaries and divides to find ways of overcoming environmental problems. The GND is the biggest idea out there right now for making nationwide progress on sustainability. And it’s high time that those of us working on environmental issues get up to speed on the GND — and get engaged.
What is the Green New Deal?
Details of the GND are still emerging, but, at its core, it would invest money from taxes and other federal revenue into civic projects for the common good. It’s the combination of two key ingredients.
First, the GND invites us to remember the New Deal of the 1930s and 40s, a period of government investment sparked by the Great Depression, when workers were the immediate beneficiaries of public infrastructure projects. Those public goods are with us still today, in the form of bridges, national parks, universities (including several buildings at the University of Minnesota), police precincts and airports. The New Deal put millions of people to work, supplying a pressing economic need at the household level.
Second, the GND would push our economy from a reliance on dirty fossil fuels — which cause climate change — toward a clean and reliable energy system. The GND would stimulate growth in the green economy by investing in assets that have medium- to long-term value, such as community-scale solar energy and grid modernization.
Combine incentives for work through public infrastructure projects and a focus on clean tech, and you get the basic idea of the GND.
Why the GND is important
Short of a carbon tax (which hasn’t found favor) and the Clean Power Plan (which addressed only electricity production and the Trump Administration overturned), the GND is one of the first policy ideas to recognize the need for greater sustainability at a national, systemic scale – and it ties directly to economic concerns in a positive way.
Several trends suggest that our economy is primed for a transition, if there were a spark to ignite it on a large scale. Renewable energy is now cost effective in many cases, and investing in a smart grid makes sense for its efficiency, reliability, and ability to accommodate new technology, even without thinking about climate. The GND acknowledges that the energy transition must be coordinated and facilitated: it’s a social and economy-wide project that cannot emerge from individual or private actions alone. The GND also seeks to lower the up-front costs of renewable energy and other green assets so that a wide set of society can enjoy its stream of benefits.
Advocates for the GND are smart to combine sustainability and employment. It overcomes the false claim that protecting the environment comes at the cost of employment and economic productivity. Under the GND, a roll-out of green infrastructure produces jobs. You see evidence of this possibility in the rapid growth of jobs in the renewable energy sector (e.g., the fastest area of job growth in Minnesota). It also makes economic sense because the impacts of change are large and growing, and avoiding massive future damages and the substantial costs of climate change adaptation are in our national interest.
The benefits of the GND can and should flow through private institutions and organizations — capitalism at its best. (And not socialism, by the way, which is government ownership of the means of production and key assets.) The GND also has to be restricted in scope because public resources are limited, but public investment can attract private investment if it’s crafted well. Fortunately, economic research explores how to incentivize private investment and shows that public spending can yield both public and private returns.
Time to engage
I do not dispute that a GND could be implemented badly, or that it could be too costly or unrealistic in what it can achieve. There is risk that it could mean different things to different people (and therefore fail to gain political traction), and there’s a legitimate worry about how to pay for it (especially if it is all things for all people). Data suggest that most people have not heard of the GND; yet it appears to have some bipartisan support among those who do. Further, the parallels between the Depression and our the crisis of environmental stress that confronts us today are imperfect.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. A policy strategy that uses public investment to drive public and private good, in a way that is responsive to a profound environmental threat and helps individual citizens, simply cannot be all bad. During the Depression and today, the government can play a role in stimulating economic productivity for its citizenry.
Environmental scholars–and our students!–should engage with the GND because we need great ideas to make and enact good policy. Great ideas is what we peddle, and we can support constructive dialogue around the GND. Let’s shed our anxiety about engaging with policy ideas and get to work helping identify good projects and effective incentives for the GND. There’s plenty of opportunity to craft what the GND can and should be, thereby helping to build a future where people and planet prosper together.
In planetary prosperity,
JANUARY 2019: Eye on the prize
Well, it’s official! After months of organizational redesign and an extensive job search, we just announced two new associate directors. I’m extremely excited to begin working with Melissa Kenney (Associate Director for Knowledge Initiatives) and Cathy Jordan (Associate Director for Leadership and Education). They’ll join our third AD, Todd Reubold, who is leading our newly-formed J-Lab (“j” is for “journalism”). I’m thrilled with the outcome of these searches and humbled by the expertise and experience these women bring to our organization.
Appointing these ADs is a real milestone in IonE’s strategic planning process. We have worked over the past year to sharpen the institute’s focus on its three core capacities and focus those strengths on working toward shared goals.
I dedicated several blog posts last year to repositioning and strengthening IonE. As we turn the corner to 2019, however, I’m going to turn my blogging attention back to sustainability science and to ideas arising from my research and experiences as a sustainability leader. As we say in IonE’s new strategic plan, we must fill critical knowledge gaps to make progress on building a future where people and planet prosper together.
So back to the research bench I go, sharing this month two findings, published already this year, that reveal how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow adaptation around the world and in the Midwest.
1) It is incorrect to assume that countries need to grow emissions in order to make gains in climate change adaptation. Martina Grecequet, Eri Saikawa and I recently conducted some analyses that compared trends in greenhouse gas emissions with trends in the ability to adapt to climate change, for hundreds of countries around the world. It’s a common assumption in international development that countries have to grow their economy (with greenhouse gas emissions) to build up assets and capacities that defend against the impacts of climate change. Some have even argued that it is unethical to deprive developing countries of economic development from fossil fuels, because they need that economic growth to face climate threats and climate-related disasters.
Our analysis, however, that draws on global emissions data and a global adaptation index, shows 42 (23%) countries around the world are bucking that assumption–these are countries that are decreasing their emissions while also increasing their adaptation to climate change. As a group, they are responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This group includes countries that are increasing the use of renewable energy (e.g., countries in the EU such as Belgium and France) and also less developed countries including Gabon and Nigeria.
We can learn from the countries that are finding their way to greater climate protection while reducing their contribution to the climate change problem. As a group, they saw the greatest adaptation gains in the sectors of ecosystem services and human habitats. Adaptation in these sectors isn’t always expensive; protecting natural areas, for example, can be a lower-cost solution to climate protection.
If we are going to hold global emissions below 2 degrees C of warming (as the Paris Agreement aims to do), we will need to find new paths of economic development, and our paper suggests new ways are beginning to emerge. This is a hopeful pattern that needs to be rapidly spread around the world.
2) Just five financial mechanisms could reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to closing 12 coal-fired power plants. Agronomists and other agricultural scientists have known for some time that certain farm practices such as cover and perennial crops, no-till and crop rotation can decrease fertilizer run-off, increase soil health and store carbon. But these practices have failed to spread at a large scale, often because farmers lack incentives to use them.
In a recent paper, a group of agricultural experts convened at IonE identified a set of five financial mechanisms that could make a difference in the use of beneficial farm practices. Those mechanisms include: changes to crop insurance subsidies, changing the way that companies provide agricultural consulting services, expanding and targeting funding under the Farm Bill, developing new state funds, and directing disaster relief to floodplain restoration.
If all five of the mechanisms were applied in the U.S. Midwest – and beneficial farm practices adopted as a result – we estimated that fertilizer run-off to the Mississippi River would be reduced by 25 percent. And it would fight climate change on par with closing a bunch of coal plants, a well-understood source of greenhouse gas emissions. Adopting these mechanisms is feasible, though not easy to do politically. Knowing how much of a difference it would make is a step toward building political will.
In both of these new studies, we examine not how to do sustainability—specifying sustainability technologies or techniques—but how much those strategies are needed and what difference they can make. Working toward sustainability can be daunting, but this research is critical to strive toward a future where people and planet prosper and measuring our progress in getting there.
In planetary prosperity,
Up next: In a future post, I’ll talk about a new venture that I’m part of called Geofinancial Analytics that is taking the methane emission world by storm. Stay tuned!
DECEMBER 2018: Out from behind the curtain
Now that 2018 has come to close, it’s possible to look back on the extraordinary achievements of IonE and our community members over the past year. Only one thing to say: wow!
There’s a lot about directing an institute that’s visible to the outside world, and the public parts of my job are fun and exciting. But there’s a lot that I do that isn’t public at all, work that goes on behind the scenes. This work is just a important as the loud and visible part: It’s about building relationships and recruiting partners to our institute’s mission, sometimes one partner at a time.
Earlier this month the public and private collided, because I got to share with our community, our partners, and friends, along with the rest of the world, something I’ve been working on for a long time — a new partnership with Ecolab. The Ecolab Foundation granted $5 million to the University of Minnesota, and all of it to sustainability. This gift brings new resources and opportunity to Institute on the Environment’s mission and work – and it is the single-largest gift the Ecolab Foundation has ever made to the University.
Over the next six years, the Ecolab gift will make environmental education and immersive learning experiences more accessible and affordable for diverse and talented undergraduates from across the University. It will support dozens of these Ecolab Scholars who will pursue degrees in sustainability fields and have unique experiences learning about sustainability first hand, in study abroad, real-world projects and internships.
The gift will also launch a biennial conference, convening global leaders from business and academia and inviting collaboration. (As Ecolab CEO Doug Baker reminded us in his announcement remarks, collaboration is where good ideas come from.)
And the gift endows the first chair of the Institute on the Environment. An endowment provides resources to IonE every year in perpetuity, providing new funds that we can direct to strategic initiatives (such as our new Impact Goals!), growing our impact and staying on the cutting edge of engaged, interdisciplinary scholarship. The chair will be valuable in recruiting future leaders of IonE too. I’m the leader today, but I won’t always be. We must plan for a healthy institute in the long-term, and I’m grateful that Ecolab is helping us do that.
That IonE could play an essential role in bringing this gift to the University — and is a primary beneficiary — is a testament to the work we do at IonE and how we do it. Through this gift, Ecolab endorsed the profound need for new ideas and new leaders to address sustainability challenges, and it recognized that the best ideas come from people working across fields and ways of knowing, building a future that is better than the one we have today.
This gift also signals the Ecolab Foundation’s recognition that the University of Minnesota is *the* place to make substantial, impactful strides in sustainability. Not only does Minnesota have unique assets including IonE (one of the first university-wide environmental institutes in the country), but also our university serves a state where innovation and independent-thinking dominate — a place that has inspired others and transformed the globe before. Ecolab knows that we are the people who can make sustainability happen — and are already.
Earlier this month, we spent a morning celebrating this gift and the partnership it implies. It was inspiring to see our building’s atrium filled with people who share a drive to change the world. Even Goldy Gopher joined us.
Of course, Ecolab is not the only behind-the-scenes thing that’s happened this year. We made a bunch of organizational adjustments at IonE this year, to leverage our role within the University and the state, serve our growing community, and increase our real-world reach and impact. Our new organizational design focuses on and incentivizes the pursuit of cutting-edge research that brings diverse people together to move the needle on sustainability; the creation of human capital with the knowledge and leadership skills needed to put sustainability into practice; and the production of storytelling that informs and inspires the public while experimenting with storytelling itself. And we are in the process of hiring two new associate directors, who will bring new life and capability to IonE in 2019.
While I feel pride that IonE is headed in a good direction (as an advisor and friend of mine recently said: “I like where we are, but I love where are going”), I know that the world around us is filled with environmental injustices and conflict over basic scientific facts. It’s hard to read the paper some days. I believe 2018 will go down in history as a particularly tumultuous one, when we went backward (nationally at least) on environmental issues that affect lives and livelihoods.
But these realities make it all the more important to have been part of something positive this year. The hardest work is ahead of us; the timeline for achieving it has never been clearer. The coming year is likely to be tumultuous too, but I know that in the corner of the world where I toil — and the people of goodwill that I toil with — there will be much to be grateful in 2019 too. Our call is to scale that great work from our institute, our university, and our state to elsewhere around the globe: “in Minnesota for the world.”
In planetary prosperity,
P.S. Let’s start 2019 off right by adopting five financial incentives to revive the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and Mississippi basin soils, a new paper emerging from our Wicked Econ program — lock scientists and economists in a room with a problem and see what they come up. The program is collaborative with the Nature Conservancy and our paper was just published in the Journal of Environmental Management.
NOVEMBER 2018: Reframing the environment
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.
In planetary prosperity,
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:
- Knowledge initiatives, a home for work that fills those essential knowledge gaps needed to build a future where people and planet prosper together.
- 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.
- 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 combination 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.
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,
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,
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 Regulations.gov – 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 google.com
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,
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.
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.