Teddy Roosevelt in Grand CanyonIn 1903, a 45-year old Theodore Roosevelt stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona. He looked out over one of this country’s great wonders and advised the nation to “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

A little over a century later, I am sweating about 175 miles south in the 95 degree heat of Tempe, Arizona.

And although the Grand Canyon is still intact, we have not listened to the advice of this great Republican leader on a global scale. We have, in fact, marred this globe, and marred it badly. And we need to fix it. And to do that we need to build a new world. “Leaving it as it is," complete with its 6 billion greenhouse-gas-spewing citizens, is no longer an option.

I am in town for a conference set up by Arizona State University (ASU) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to confront this very inconvenient truth.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Role of Higher Education in Creating a Sustainable World has brought together 650 participants from 200 universities and colleges in 46 states, four Canadian provinces and five nations. These sustainability leaders, from 18 to 80, will spend the week trying to figure out how to harness the resources and energy of higher education to ensure that we will to our kids at least as many global resources as we inherited.

The largest campus sustainability gathering to date is serving as both the launching pad for Arizona State University’s revolutionary new School of Sustainability and as a visioning session for a new AASHE initiative to get every university president in the country to commit their institution to long-term climate neutrality.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

ASU’s School of Sustainability runs undergraduate and graduate programs to prepare students to address the complex, interdisciplinary challenges of building a sustainable future. The school and its research equivalent form the core of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. According to conference co-chair and ASU sustainability guru James Buizer, “This is our way to make sustainability a basic tenet of everything ASU does. It has been a transformational exercise.”

The other conference co-host, AASHE, is an association dedicated to advancing sustainability at all levels of higher education. AASHE was launched in 2005 as the fusion of EFS West and the Consortium for Environmental Education in Medicine (CEEM), and is off to a fast start.

AASHE’s bold new Climate Neutral campaign asks universities to continuously and aggressively improve their efficiency and reduce their carbon output until they eventually eliminate and counteract their overall contribution to global warming. While the concept of climate neutrality may sound radical to some, and a commitment of this magnitude could seem risky to administrators, conference co-chair Tony Cortese, a senior AASHE advisor, accurately notes that “at this point not acting is an even bigger risk."

And there is such vast untapped potential in higher education! As AASHE Board Chair Sherri Tonn puts it, “Universities are like small cities entirely filled with people dedicated to learning. Campus communities can stop adding to climate change and begin to take care of our planet.”

Moreover, the great campuses of this country, acting together, in an open source analysis of sustainability, can do even more. Near the end of the conference, Mr. Buizer noted that the staff at ASU had “learned a great deal from our guests," were “extremely pleased to have served as host” and “had a wonderful time seeing old friends and meeting new ones.” Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful, long-term, sustainable friendship to me.

Renewable student energy

Best of all, throughout the week, a stream of renewable, youth, and student human power flowed through the conference — power that will drive the increasingly efficient engine of higher education and generate the leaders, ideas, and technologies needed to create a sustainable world.

The National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) presented its work on its flagship project Campus Climate Neutral — a graduate student project at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, to develop a climate neutral plan (PDF) for the UC-Santa Barbara campus. Standing on the shoulders of giants, the students worked from revolutionary climate neutral models and plans at Middlebury and Oberlin (Word doc).

Several representatives from Energy Action, a coalition of youth and student groups running the Campus Climate Challenge, also wandered the ASU halls, soaking up knowledge, teaching, and planning. The group, whose leaders’ names you will surely know 10 years from now, include:

These young leaders are all touring the country, launching and implementing innovative campus solutions while engaging in an unprecedented, self-cloning process, trying to enable, train, and mobilize thousands more just like them.

They hope to leave the next generation of students with exponentially more American human resources than they were given. It is truly inspirational to watch and gives me hope.

By the time we get to Arizona

In many ways, the location of this gathering of visionaries seems appropriate as our generation looks to the future. While many of us Ivy Leaguers and Northerners flew in from frost warnings, and are preparing to hunker down for an extended fall and winter, Arizona is warm and drenched in sun. Everywhere I look around campus I see ASU’s mascot — Sparky the Sun Devil — reminding me of this state’s unmatched, year-round solar potential and the jobs and prosperity a new renewable energy industry would bring to the area.

And in this century, we are seeing another bold Republican, John McCain, from Arizona himself, perhaps inspired by the words of the great Theodore Rex, breaking with powerful interests in his party, and pushing for the first national legislation limiting global warming emissions.

If he is succesful, my great-grandchildren, if they return to Arizona a century from now, may walk through the streets of their generation’s Texas — only their’s will be a sustainable energy capital. We can only hope.

Teddy Roosevelt closed his Grand Canyon speech with a flourish: “We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery. Whatever it is, handle it so that your children’s children will get the benefit of it.”

Let’s hope and make sure that AASHE, ASU, NAELS, Energy Action, and U.S. higher education in general — with its 15 million students, 4,000-plus universities, research labs, brilliant professors, and powerful administrators — finally heed Teddy’s advice and take the lead.

If we won’t, who will?