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Sustainability Solutions Festival calls on community to find solutions

community members line up outside food trucks in downtown Tempe
February 27, 2014

What do you envision when you hear the word “sustainability”? Some immediately think of recycling, while others may think of using alternate methods of transportation, taking shorter showers or changing to CFL light bulbs. While these are all easy steps to be more sustainable, a truly sustainable planet goes much deeper than that.

Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability defines sustainability based on three pillars: economic development, environmental protection and social justice. If one of the pillars goes awry, the others are affected.

Many ecosystems provide services for people, like bumblebees that naturally pollinate a farmer’s crops. The farmer tends to his soil so as not to harm the bees and crops. The bees and healthy soil supply robust crops, and the farmer sells them at maximum price, contributing to his local economy. In this simple example, the environment, economy and society survive in a sustainable cycle of co-dependency and awareness.

But what if the farmer switched to a chemically rich pesticide that turned his soil foul? The bees stop coming because there are no more crops. And with no crops, the farmer can’t make a living. In this case, harming the environment hurts the economy and the society.

Long story short: Sustainability is not just about recycling, mass transit, showers and light bulbs. While that’s part of it, everyone must work in unison to create an economy that facilitates a balanced society that can nurture the environment.

The Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, a unit within ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, takes sustainability challenges, such as environmental decay, saturated waste streams, drought, urban resiliency, global supply chain challenges and poor health, and turns them into solutions-based opportunities. One such initiative, the Sustainability Solutions Festival, convened for the first time Feb. 17-22 in Phoenix to recognize how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to ensure a healthy, livable planet for 9 billion people.

The Sustainability Solutions Festival may have targeted the choir – sustainability professionals and the like attended the annual GreenBiz Forum and The Sustainability Consortium meetings, two partners in the festival. But the weeklong festival also wanted to build on the current understanding of sustainability, and invite those who may not know what sustainability is: children, parents, students, school teachers, movie gurus and foodies.

It’s time to be imaginative

During the festival, 2,900 kids and wonderers of all ages explored the human body, experienced desert climates, separated waste and played with imagination at the Sustainability Solutions Family Day at the Arizona Science Center.

Later in the evening, the center was packed for the screening of Carbon Nation, a solutions-based take on the current climate change issue. Peter Byck, director and ASU School of Sustainability professor, discussed his filmmaking process and the trailblazers who appeared in his film, including a one-armed former rancher who “prayed for rain and cussed the wind” but has now created one of the world’s largest wind farms located in Texas; a former army colonel who’s finding ways to implement energy-efficient combat technology, like solar, at the Department of Defense; and a fridge technician, whose father invented the Styrofoam ice chest, and who is now reversing the waste by safely recycling out-of-date refrigerators. “Carbon Nation” shows that sustainability applies to everyone, regardless of political affiliation or philosophical background.

It’s time to listen

ASU is a big university that houses thousands of future idea-seekers and climate heroes. During the festival’s “Ignite@ASU: Sustainability” event, co-sponsored by Changemaker Central@ASU, 15 passionate students shared solutions and calls-to-action for some pretty tough questions: How did we lose our love for the planet? Why do some innocent prisoners take the blame for guilty criminals at large? How can we magnify our compassion toward others and the non-human? Why does the digital world dominate our attention?

It’s time to join forces

Throughout the GreenBiz Forum and The Sustainability Consortium meetings, one thing was certain: collaboration is key.

For instance, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, has long been targeted by Greenpeace for its deforestation in sensitive regions like Indonesia and China. With Greenpeace’s suggestions in mind, and the help from The Forest Trust, APP established its first Sustainability Roadmap Vision 2020 and Forest Conservation Policy. The company aims to eliminate all natural forest-derived products in its supply chain by 2020.

Here, people found a way to listen, collaborate and create solutions that conduct business in tune with the environment and the people.

The GreenBiz Forum, which attracted 575 professionals in its first year in Phoenix, also came to ASU in a simulcast version dubbed GreenBiz University. ASU students, faculty, staff and community members watched the GreenBiz Forum take place live in Scottsdale while on the Tempe campus, and then engaged in-person with special speakers like Greenpeace’s Phil Radford and SEED Spot co-founder Courtney Klein, who each addressed their future successors in motivational Q&A sessions.

It’s time to inspire

Those who participated in the GreenBiz Forum and The Sustainability Consortium meetings were invited to a special night at the Heard Museum, an iconic American Indian history, arts and culture center in central Phoenix, for a Sustainability Solutions Celebration of future innovators of our sustainable world. Over the past year, the festival has awarded several elementary and high school students for their ingenious models of future cities and ground-breaking research, as well as socially-driven entrepreneurs for their startup enterprises. Rob and Melani Walton joined ASU President Michael Crow and Walton Initiatives director Patricia Reiter to recognize these solutions creators in a special evening-capping ceremony.

Also recognized were the winning artist and writer of the festival’s Creative Nonfiction contest, “The Human Face of Sustainability.” Mary Heather Noble’s winning essay, “Acts of Courage,” chronicles her life from childhood to adulthood in a contaminated world. Artist Marcy Miranda Janes depicted the human face of sustainability in several intricate paper cuttings forming an interconnected world.

The Heard Museum’s backdrop of native hoop dancers, local food and historical Arizonan exhibits upheld everyone’s passion for sustainability and understanding that our obligation to our descendants is for a better world that lasts far beyond this current generation.

It’s time to have fun

In celebration of those who work tirelessly for a better tomorrow, the festival concluded its week with a Picnic in the Park in the heart of downtown Tempe. On a Saturday, 350 community members came to enjoy local bands, food trucks and beautiful 80-degree weather. Kids enjoyed stories about their planet, adults enjoyed DIY lessons from local permaculture experts and the whole community came together in recognition of farm-to-fork food sourcing.

It’s time to find a better way

Now that the festival is over, the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives hopes to remind people of the festival's mission: It’s time to find a better way. A better way to ensure indigenous peoples don’t lose their homes to climate change, for homeless to find shelter in the sweltering heat, for conducting business that improves the environment as well as the bottom line, for powering our future.

After attending the Picnic in the Park, mother-of-six Kate Hursh bought her family their first compost tumbler. She said, “Thanks for the reminder that it’s time to do more.”

View the Sustainability Solutions Festival’s Storify to see what happened last week.