UN names ASU sustainability dean a 'Champion of the Earth'

Sander van der Leeuw sitting outside in New Mexico.

Sander van der Leeuw, the dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, is among the six winners of the 2012 United Nations Champions of the Earth award. Professor van der Leeuw, an archaeologist and historian by training, was recognized in the science and innovation category for his research in human-environmental relations and the scientific study of innovation as a societal process. He is one of 51 champion laureates who have received the UN award since it was launched in 2005.

The Champion of the Earth honor is the UN flagship environment award that recognizes outstanding visionaries and leaders for their inspiration and action on the environment. The list of previous champion laureates includes former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Chinese actress and environmental advocate Zhou Xun, Biomimicry Institute President Janine Benyus and former Soviet leader and Noble Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev.

This year’s recipients include Mongolia’s President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Brazilian banker Fábio C. Barbosa, renewable energy entrepreneur Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, renowned Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard and Kenyan Maasai conservationist Samson Parashina.

“Each of these six winners has stood up to be counted – often in the face of opposition from those not championing change but championing the status quo,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “In doing so, these winners have and continue to display the political will, fresh thinking and creative solutions.”

Professor van der Leeuw, a citizen of the Netherlands, first directed a series of regional archaeological research projects in Syria, Holland and France aimed at understanding the long-term evolution of the relationship between societies and their environments.

Later, his work focused on bringing a long-term perspective to the problems of present-day desertification and land degradation, observing how changes in the natural environment are linked to technological, sociological and economic changes. This involved as many as 60 researchers from 11 European countries and focused on research areas in all the Northern Mediterranean rim states. His team was the first to bring the complex adaptive systems approach to bear on the problems of the environment.

Van der Leeuw first came to ASU as a visiting professor in 2000. At the same time, he also was a visiting professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. He then became an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, a position he still holds. He returned to ASU in 2004 to become the founding director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In 2010, he was appointed dean of the School of Sustainability in ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), a strategic research area in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

“Sander is internationally recognized for his intellectual leadership for understanding how Earth's complex systems adapt to stress and the process of innovation and how both of these factors have affected human evolution and social change,” said Rob Melnick, executive dean at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and its School of Sustainability. “Most importantly, Sander's teaching and research has significantly helped scores of students, faculty and researchers determine what can be done to ensure a successful, sustainable future."

“Sander is amongst the absolutely extraordinary few who possess the unique combination of a rare intelligence, superb people skills, determination and focus, and above all a sense of responsibility to advancing knowledge through research and teaching the next generation of leaders,” said Jim Buizer, who led the establishment of GIOS at ASU and is now director of the Center for Climate Adaptation and International Development at the University of Arizona.

“Sander has the wonderful ability to make simple the very complex, bring his knowledge of how societies worked in the distant past to inform our present, and bring diverse communities together to solve today's biggest challenges … all toward the betterment of societies worldwide,” Buizer said.

The Champions of the Earth awards were presented at a ceremony on June 4 in Rio de Janeiro as one of the official events leading up to the United Nations Conference of Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. The conference is being held 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where countries adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection. Thousands of world leaders and representatives from governments, the private sector and NGOs are expected to attend Rio+20, to held June 20-22, and focus their discussions on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

Professor van der Leeuw offered his thoughts on Rio+20, his research and what it means to be a Champion of the Earth.

Question: What inspires you about the role of science in solving modern environmental problems?

Answer: What inspires me most is moving between different sciences and cultures and philosophies to see the variety of things that we know and can know. In the early nineties, I had an opportunity that was funded by the European Union to try and bring a group together of scientists from all over Europe, in every discipline you can think of, to work on environmental problems in southern Europe. That project, which became known as ARCHAEOMEDES, was a fascinating voyage of discovery that allowed me to glimpse things we have rarely thought about, the weaknesses in our social-environmental system, for example. That brought me ultimately to where I am now, my work at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and as a co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative.

Q: What does history tell us of the danger of ignoring scientific findings?

A: About 10 years or so ago, the European Environment Agency published a wonderful book titled “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” that took a number of case studies, such as asbestos and climate change, nuclear radiation and many others and showed how if we had heeded the early danger signs we would be much better off. For me, what is very important is that science has a long and laborious process to validate or reject its conclusions. But waiting until the scientific community is united about something often means that remedies are sought too late. Instead, we need to adopt the precautionary principle – the idea that such early indications should warn us to be careful, to minimize disturbances of the very fragile equilibrium between society and its environment.

Q: What drives innovation in society?

A: Innovation requires a combination of needs and opportunities, or said another way, supply and demand. If you look at innovation over the long term, as I have as an archeologist, up until the 1800s most innovation was driven by demand. That is, innovative ideas would not be implemented unless there was a pressing demand for them, because implementing them would require considerable energy. Good examples include many of Leonardo’s ideas, such as airplanes. What happened around 1800 with the introduction of fossil energy is that the energy constraint on innovation fell away. And in the last two centuries innovation has gone faster and faster. Nowadays, when an invention looks attractive, society is force-fed it by corporate marketing. As a result, our national economies have become dependent on innovation – to keep increasing GDP. And that dependency is one of the major causes of our environmental challenges.

Q: What is the thrust of your research?

A: I am working on the relationship between sustainability and innovation. Most people see us emerging from the current challenges through more innovation, but forget that two centuries of unbridled innovation have got us into the current situation in the first place. That dilemma got me interested in the scientific study of innovation as a societal process. To be successful, we need to be able to improve the focus of our innovations. Unfortunately, however, we do not have an accepted idea of how creativity actually works, and what it takes to transform an invention into a socially accepted innovation.

Q: What is the biggest challenge that you see in your field?

A: That depends a bit on how you define my field. As an environmental change and sustainability scholar, I think the foremost challenge is not so much in the science, though there are many areas where we don’t know enough and more work needs to be done, but in communicating the inevitability of having to change our mindsets and attitudes to make sustainability the core of our everyday behavior – individual and political decision-making. We have, as a scientific community, been amateurs in most of our communications on this topic, confusing the role of fear and hope, putting people off rather than engaging them. That is why we are working to create a sustainability communication track in our Sustainable Solutions master’s degree program.

Q: What do you expect to see come out of the Rio+20 conference?

A: Realistically, in view of the large number of nations concerned and the structural differences between their economies, one must acknowledge the difficulty of coming to any substantive worldwide agreement. My personal expectations are a bit different, however. I think the conference in Durban (the UN Climate Change Conference in 2011) has showed us that in a very chaotic situation some huge steps forward were made on the management of forests. I would be hoping that at this conference in Rio, we have a large step forward in the management of oceans. I think that is realistic. I think we are not there but that steps can be taken because in part, oceans, to some extent, are not bound to any particular country.

Q: What does winning the United Nations Champion of the Earth award in science and innovation mean to you and your work?

A: It honors the ARCHAEOMEDES and ISCOM teams and the EU funders that made this fascinating intellectual voyage possible, and it encourages me to continue in this direction at Arizona State University and at the Global Institute of Sustainability. There is still lots and lots to be done. But I think the most important thing such recognition by the United Nations Environment Programme does is acknowledge the urgency of this type of work, encouraging others, and notably our students, to keep moving ahead. In particular, there is still a great shortage of research by social scientists on global environmental change, both research to improve our understanding of the role of societies in such change, and research aimed at removing the barriers to collective action towards sustainability. I dedicate this prize to the next generation, the one that is beginning to so profoundly transform our world that I already have difficulty recognizing it. A generation that truly sees sustainability as the societal challenge it is, rather than solely as an environmental one – a challenge of equity, education, development and, above all, commitment to doing things differently, collectively, to design a more sustainable world.


Tidbits from Sander van der Leeuw’s bio

First time in Arizona
“In the Netherlands in the second grade and then in high school one year, I had teachers who were very inspired by archaeology. I had a dream early at the age of 12 or 13 to become an archaeologist of the Americas. In Europe, you couldn’t study that because there was nobody teaching it at that time. So after I finished high school I applied for a Fulbright grant and was allowed to study at the University of Arizona in Tucson for a year from 1963 to 1964. There, that whole idea really blossomed.”

Languages spoken

1976 Doctorate, University of Amsterdam (Thesis: “Studies in the Technology of Ancient Pottery”)
1972 Master’s degree in medieval history and prehistory, University of Amsterdam
1968 Bachelor’s degree in history, University of Amsterdam

2012 United Nations Champion of the Earth
2003 Chair of Archaeology, Institut Universitaire de France
2000 External Professor, Santa Fe Institute
1995 Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, corresponding member

Academic Appointments
University of Amsterdam
University of Leiden
Cambridge University
Université de Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Carol Hughes, carol.hughes@asu.edu