Skip to main content

Going 'green': ASU gives sustainablity mass roots

November 02, 2007

One convert at a time is a noble goal for any altruistic endeavor, especially sustainability, which has long laid low in the grass roots of society. Partly because of this, and because of the consumer-driven society in which we live, converting people to sustainability has been slow.

Arizona State University’s efforts in sustainability are garnering support on a level of hundreds at a time. Call it a “mass roots” effort that starts at the top with President Michael Crow pushing ASU forward in the field by making sustainability a universitywide priority. Crow also has played a visible role in advancing sustainability nationally. For example, he was intimately involved in formulating the recent American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

“More than ever, universities must take leadership roles to address the grand challenges of the 21st century, and climate change is paramount amongst these,” Crow has said about the President’s Climate Commitment.

Sustainable tradition

ASU has a long tradition in sustainability, which has been the focal point of many environmental research projects and classes. Part of the interest in sustainability relates to ASU’s location in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest.

In recent years, research themes in sustainability were boosted by the opening of several centers and facilities devoted to the field. The Decision Theater, which fosters collaboration through visualization of real-world problems, is an example, as is the Decision Center for a Desert City and its accent on wise water management.

Sustainability education also has moved front and center at ASU, which is home to the first (and so far, only) freestanding, degree-granting School of Sustainability in the United States. The school opened its doors last January with an initial class of six graduate students, which grew to 28 with the admission of a new crop of highly accomplished graduate students in August. The school plans to rapidly expand into undergraduate education in fall 2008.

Sustainability is being practiced on campus as ASU implements sustainable business practices as a way of “walking the walk, as well as talking the talk,” says Jonathan Fink, the Julie Ann Wrigley director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and ASU’s university sustainability officer.

It’s clear that the university located in the brown Sonoran Desert is going green in many different ways.

Fink says sustainability is not like the environmental movements of the past.

“Sustainability basically has to do with trying to reconcile environmental values with economic values and social values. We are not trying to set up polarity among these groups. We don’t want this to be big business versus tree huggers.”

Getting people to take on sustainability is best done “by example, education and financial incentives,” Fink says.

“Sustainability to me, and to the next generation of students, means how can I make the world a better place,” explains Charles Redman, director of ASU’s School of Sustainability and a key player in the university’s overall sustainability efforts.

“We need to tackle our problems (heat, limited water resources, economic prosperity) comprehensively,” he says. “It is not enough just to solve the water problem. After all, we could just desalinate the Pacific Ocean. But there are energy issues involved with that.”

“We must innovate, work together and successfully implement new ideas if we are to successfully live in the desert. Sustainability is not just an attitude about how we are going to do something,” Redman adds. “It is going to require a real comprehensive evaluation on how we go about doing our business.”

Changing how we operate as a university is one of the goals of ASU’s sustainability efforts. There is a wide range of campus projects underway to make this transition. They include:

•  Free bus passes to all faculty, staff and students resulting in a ridership increase from 400,000 one-way trips in its first year to more than 1.5 million bus riders last year.

•  A Flexcar program where cars, located on campus, can be rented by the hour as a way of encouraging alternative methods of commuting.

•  A green purchasing program that encourages buying “green,” purchasing recycled products, and an EnergyStar purchasing mandate in place since 1997.

•  A commitment to solar energy. The first system on campus was a 30 kWhr demonstration system on the roof of a parking garage, providing shade for cars and power for the garage. A second system is being installed on Biodesign B that will serve as a prototype for a 4 MW system on the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses.

• A food utilization program that uses food grown on campus – fruits (including 20 citrus varieties), dates, nuts and herbs currently make up the collection – in ASU dining facilities. Additional varieties will be introduced as areas of the campus are re-landscaped turning the urban landscapes of ASU into a microfarm.

•  A program that diverts landscaping waste to a local farmer partner for composting. In its first month, 11 tons of waste were composted rather than sent to a landfill.

“Over the last several years, the ASU community has demonstrated a growing interest in sustainability issues,” says Bonny Bentzin, manager of university sustainability business practices. “As ASU has begun shifting its policies and operations, more people have shown a willingness to adapt their behavior adopting the new programs. We have only just begun – it will take the entire community working together with the administration to make the significant changes and behavioral shifts required to achieve our sustainability goals.”

Education first

The School of Sustainability admitted its first class of six graduate students in January, supplemented by the much larger group in August. Redman says the initial class comes equally from Arizona, the rest of the United States and overseas. Foreign students include four from China, two from India and one each from South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico.

Next fall the school will begin offering undergraduate courses in sustainability, where Redman says he thinks as many as 100 new students will be the first to begin work towards a major in sustainability. The advantage of the ASU school, compared to other universities’ sustainability efforts, is its broad base.

“Our approach is that to build a sustainable world, we need people who are comfortable working from the widest range of perspectives possible,” Redman says. “So we encompass architecture, business, engineering, social, life and physical sciences and aspects of the humanities.”

“We are committed to being problem-based rather than discipline-oriented and hence to having hands-on courses that tackle real-world problems as part of both undergraduate and graduate curricula.”

In addition to teaching students about sustainability, ASU is well equipped for performing research in the field. Fink said there is a diverse portfolio of sustainability research throughout ASU.

These projects include large programs in rapid urbanization, like the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project, the Decision Center for a Desert City, and other activities like the ecological restoration of the Mongolian grasslands in China, the development of new architectural approaches to solar energy, the integration of geospatial analysis into the assessment of urban crime data and a study of the social factors influencing the effectiveness of biodiversity preservation.

Fink says overall the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) has generated $35 million in private investment and has an international board of trustees co-chaired by businesswoman Julie Ann Wrigley, Rob Walton (chairman of Wal Mart) and President Crow.

“The world is rapidly recognizing that conducting business as usual poses potentially great dangers for future generations,” he explains. “ASU, with its ability to quickly muster large teams with different disciplinary backgrounds is well positioned to address some of the toughest technical and consumer product questions of sustainability.”

In fact, the multidisciplinary culture at ASU has helped its overall sustainability efforts, Fink says.

“We work with government agencies to make sure the problems we are working on are the ones that actually will have an impact,” he says. “This is something that will grow in importance because as the problems grow more complicated we will need insight from economists, historians, artists, as well as scientists and engineers. So what stands out at ASU is a culture in which working as a team is part of our distinctive competitive edge.”

For students, it could mean being positioned properly for the future.

“Students want this done at all levels,” Redman says.

“We believe there is an enormous market for people trained in sustainability,” he adds. “Beyond business where we believe the majority of students will end up, there will be positions in government, especially at local and state levels, in NGOs and in academia.”

“The payback is we are going to generate human capital, trained personnel in sustainability,” Redman says. “The key to this is an educated work force, but it is a work force educated for this century and not the 19th century.”