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ASU director encourages community to get involved with sustainability efforts

Diane Pataki, director of the School of Sustainability, discusses the power of individual action

Portrait of Diane Pataki, Director of ASU's School of Sustainability.

Diane Pataki, director of ASU's School of Sustainability. Photo by Andy DeLisle

August 15, 2022

You’ve switched to metal straws and reusable water bottles. You bike to work and use reusable grocery bags. No matter what you do, it still feels like you aren’t making any headway against climate change and environmental degradation.

An issue like climate change can feel insurmountable when it seems like large corporations are to blame for the majority of global emissions, not just your 20-minute drive to work.

Diane Pataki, director of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, instead suggests challenging the systems in place. The key to sustainable transformation, the process by which organizations can implement mindful changes in order to foster sustainable futures, lies in individual action, not just individual choice. 

Pataki says that individual action involves more than just daily lifestyle habits. Instead, its impact comes from getting involved in your community’s sustainability efforts and advocating for change in local government. 

“That's where the change happens. We seem to have lost the message that participation in local government — good old-fashioned civics — works. There’s a lot of leverage there,” Pataki says. 

Pataki is an urban ecologist who previously served as an associate vice president for research at the University of Utah. In October 2021, she joined ASU to lead the School of Sustainability, a unit of the College of Global Futures, which is housed within the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

In this Q&A, Pataki discusses her path to ASU, how the school is advancing a sustainability transformation, and how we can all play a role in creating a future in which humans and nature thrive.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What inspired you to come to ASU? 

Answer: I really resonated with President Crow’s vision, both for ASU and for sustainability, and for the priorities of the university with respect to sustainability. I think there are very few universities that have placed such an emphasis on actually achieving sustainability through social embeddedness in communities. It's unusual that a university of this size would prioritize those kinds of outcomes. The School of Sustainability itself, of course, is unique, as the first school of sustainability in the U.S., which is very visionary. So it was a real opportunity to be able to contribute to what ASU is doing. 

Q: What does sustainability mean to you?

A: For me, I feel that the ultimate question in sustainability is how we should live on this planet in a way that will allow both humans and nature to thrive. That's the ultimate question: How should we live? There are a lot of answers to that question, but in the end, we want to do more than just survive climate change. We really believe that there are ways that human society and nature will thrive together in the future. 

Q: How did you find yourself in a career in sustainability? And then as a leader in the field?

A: I started out as an ecologist. I was trained in the ecology of natural systems. I went to a school that was originally a forestry school and became a school of the environment, but I learned a lot about both planted and natural forests and how humans can manage forests. And the more I studied ecology, the more I felt that the real challenge for us as a society was understanding those human-nature interactions, the role of humans in nature and how humans are influenced by nature. So I started out studying plants, but over time I've been studying interactions between people and plants, or between people and nature more and more. And you move on from wanting to understand why things are to wanting to get answers to the question of how things should be.

Q: What does your own research focus on? 

A: I study the role of nature in cities. I'm trying to answer questions about how we should incorporate nature into urban design and urban planning, and about nature-based solutions to problems like climate change. How much of it is about bringing more nature to people, incorporating nature into urban design, and the role of nature, landscapes, trees, gardens in urban sustainability.

Q: Do you have any current projects that you are excited about?

A: A lot of what we're working on now is about the water consumption of landscapes in dry cities. Here in the Phoenix area, we are facing a huge drought and yet we still want nature and landscapes within our cities. So how are we going to do that? People are always arguing about whether we should have trees and lawns and so forth in these desert cities. But we do need nature, and trees are going to be an important part of the solution to cooling. We need shade, and yet those trees need to be watered. We're trying to figure out how to optimize the water consumption of landscapes in cities so that we can maximize our cooling effects while using less water.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about sustainability transformation? 

A: Sustainability transformation is a real strength of this particular school. Our faculty all focus on some aspect of fostering actual transformations, which is working not just in academia and not just with theories of sustainability or transformation, but the practice of collaborating with many different outside partners — communities, the government, NGOs — to actually find ways of achieving change outside of the university. They come at this from all different perspectives because we have faculty from social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, humanities, business and even journalism. But they're all focused on that goal: How do we achieve sustainable transformations in the real world? 

Q: What are some of the specific challenges that are currently facing sustainability transformation, and how is the School of Sustainability and the College of Global Futures addressing them? 

A: Global Futures was launched to help guide communities and governments and society to achieve the kind of futures that they actually want. One of the major challenges right now is that many people don't believe that the changes that are happening are putting us on the path where we want to be as a society. It's a huge issue. People are pessimistic about the future, and persuading them that sustainability and better futures are truly possible is a challenge. If they don't believe that change towards a positive outcome is possible, we just won't have enough people joining this effort. We have enough information to be able to show people that these transformations are really within our grasp. We need to talk to the public, we need to talk to students, we need to talk to practitioners. We need them to come on board because that's how we're going to make transformations happen. It's all about the people that join in this effort. I think the world can be much better and that we need to think a lot bigger. 

Q: What brings an idea for sustainability from just an idea to a part of our daily lives? 

A: There's a big debate in the media about the role of the individual and how much can one person do to contribute to sustainability. There’s some pessimism of “well, I'm just one person and only corporations can solve sustainability, or only the federal government can solve sustainability,” and that's definitely not the case. Some of it is about individual choice, but some of it's also about getting involved at a very local level in things like government and decision-making.

I study urban sustainability, that's my field. So cities constitute a lot of the interface between people and the environment. A lot of the resource use that causes climate change and pollution takes place in cities because a lot of the population is urban. Figuring out what should happen in cities is going to determine the future of sustainability, and a lot of that decision-making is hyperlocal. It matters what the city government does, what the city council does. It matters what local zoning is like, decisions about transportation, about building codes, about EV chargers — that's all local decision-making. People have a lot of influence over that, and they have more influence than I think they realize. 

Q: What kind of careers are available to sustainability graduates?

A: We’re seeing a sea change in the job market right now for sustainability graduates. The demand for sustainability and “green” skills is skyrocketing in virtually all sectors. Sustainability degrees were always very versatile, but now we’re seeing private companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations specifically looking for graduates with degrees and credentials in sustainability. Many of the fastest growing job titles are for sustainability specialists, managers and analysts. Sustainability graduates are in high demand to help organizations live up to their values and transition to more sustainable practices, investments and supply chains. We’re also seeing unprecedented interest from employers in corporate responsibility, community and public engagement, and ESG, which is environmental, social and governance practices. There’s currently a shortage of job applicants with skills in these areas, and sustainability degrees provide these skills.

Q: What do you want sustainability students to take away from their time at ASU?

A: There is no one definition of sustainability, and we don't have an official school definition of sustainability. We have different ways of thinking, like systems thinking, values thinking, collaboration, future thinking. These are all competencies that the students can walk away with, and it will allow them to come up with innovative solutions to complex sustainability problems. We also give them a lot of hands-on experience. Our students do internships, they do hands-on workshops, they get a lot of training and career skills. We want the students to be able to walk away with tools, with knowledge and with experiences that will let them enter organizations, businesses, government, NGOs. Our students are going to enter all of these different types of organizations, and they're the ones that will make transformations happen.

Explore ASU sustainability degree programs. Learn more about sustainability career options.

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