Emerging From the Stone Age

One week ago today, I awoke to a sun-splashed view of the Flatirons from a travel inn just off of Broadway Avenue in Boulder, CO. These sandstone shelves — named in the days of Abe Lincoln by intrepid pioneer women who said they looked like the flat, metal irons used to iron their clothes — emerged some 290-296 million years ago as the earth’s crust lifted and tilted. These mini-mountains provide an Edenic backdrop for Stephen King’s The Stand, and last week, served as the setting for higher education’s non-fictional sustainability Stand at the Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit.

While “set in stone” by human standards, the Flatirons represent a true testament to the incredible power of nature, when given time, to change dramatically. These peaks, not there a short 300 million years ago — 1/15th of our Earth’s 4.6 billion year history — now dominate our modern landscape. But as Arizona State University President Michael Crow noted in the summit’s first plenary session, we humans are more impatient.

Crow calls the current University period the “Stone Age” — more often than not representing the worst in humanity. He pointed out that these rigid, complex social constructs are usually slow to change — filled with many argumentative, self-focused, egotistical, and hubristic leaders whose actions are more motivated by what they think they are to themselves than what they might be to someone else. Crow closed by admitting his own shortcomings in this area and demanding that the humans running today’s institutions of higher education, the thousands of professional employed by them, and the 17 million students attending them, change, and change fast, moving from the "Stone Age" into the "Sustainability Age."

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A full day’s drive to the west, graduate students at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UC-Santa Barbara, working under famed social scientist Oran Young, are looking into this social impasse to analyze why institutions are so slow to move into the Sustainability Age, despite the short- and long-term benefits.

This graduate student research project, Campus Climate Neutral 2, follows on the heels of Campus Climate Neutral 1, a student effort developed by the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) to work with the University to develop a long-term climate-neutral plan. Among CCN 1’s more exciting findings: achieving Kyoto targetes, California’s GHG reduction goals, and even climate neutrality would save the school millions by 2020. CCN 2 is trying to figure out why UCSB — and other similar instituions across the country — are not moving more quickly to capture these savings and the other benefits that come with conserving energy, increasing energy efficiency, creating new energy sources, and dramatically reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions.

These Roots Run Deep

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In many ways it is not surprising that universities — founded with the profits from East India Tea Company Directors like Elihu Yale and tobacco magnates like George Washington Duke on the East Coast; funded by steel and oil barrons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller (University of Chicago), and Andrew Carnegie in the Midwest; and built by railroad and gold moguls like Leland Stanford in the West — support the current industrial order. In fact, universities, the non-profit foundations that support them (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller), and the cities and states that house them are simply new incarnations of recycled industry profits — one of the rarely noted positive byproducts of the last two modern industrial revolutions.

But as the summit demonstrated, we are confronting a problem where the old industrial order — and all its byproducts, both good and bad — must undergo revolutionary social and industrial change in a relatively fast period. Planned for about 200 attendees, the Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit brought more than 600 people together to try to tap into our collective capacities to change. And as recently hired UC-Boulder Environmental Center Director Dave Newport put it, “we are apparently very bad event planners.”

After driving efforts at the University of Florida, Dave has hit the ground running at CU, connecting to his new staff and tirelessly organizing this visionary two-day summit, co-sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). According to Dave, "Be it planning or serendipity, this Summit (and AASHE’s October conference at ASU) are where years of work by students, faculty, and campus advocates nationwide came together and we witnessed higher education’s first few steps towards the Sustainability Age, a new campus business model, and the societal leadership we must exert. Hope was born anew."

Stone Soup & A Rocky Mountain High

By his own admission, ASU President Crows’ views have made him unpopular in some Ivory Towers and with the "Stone" Gods who run them, but he really doesn’t seem to care. One man who has heard Crow’s call is UC — Boulder’s Chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson, who came to Boulder a short seven months ago and has not been afraid of change. Over the past half year, he has tried hard to catch up with the city of Boulder in burning an aggressive path towards sustainability. According to President Peterson, it is the next generation that hold the potential energy to change the world.

During a lunch-time presidents meeting that brought together several university deans, chancellors, vice chancellors, and other visionaries, President Petereson urged us to tap into the collective, renewable energy of today’s students. According to Peterson, today’s institutions must force today’s youth to stop being passive consumers in the classroom and to start participating in their own education. In doing so he believes that these future leaders will transform themselves from objects of history to subjects in history and find the spiritual food that’s missing from their lives.

Peterson compared UC-Boulder ‘s contributions to national and international sustainability in terms of the famous children’s book Stone Soup. In the story, one person begins to make a soup with nothing but stones, a pot of water, and a hot fire. Others add their own ingredients until the soup and the community that created it becomes a complex, energized mélange of flavors. In the case of UC-Boulder, Peterson hopes each school will bring their own ingredients to an open source fire that will help cook up a 10 billion person, sustainable global soup by 2050.

But if you talk to Bud, Dave, and an active UCB community, they refuse to take credit for this work. According to them, they have simply harnessed the energy and momentum that already existed — created primarily by students. And if you listen to them scheme and look into their eyes you can tell they are just getting started. This past week UCB joined nearly 100 other schools in committing to the ambitious goal of long-term climate neutrality.

Leading a Revolution Without Hitting First Gear

The climate neutral concept to which Presidents Crow, Peterson, and others are committing first hit campuses in 2000 when visionary David Orr commissioned a Climate Neutral report for Oberlin College from Rocky Mountain Institute. Since then, the concept has spread to Middlebury College, which developed a climate neutral plan in 2002, the Climate Neutral Network, and several Climate Neutral events including the 2004 Winter Olympics — somewhat shockingly headed by U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney — in Salt Lake City, Utah. It essentially means that a campus, event, or individual reduces as much of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their actions as possible, then fund cheaper emissions reductions projects elsewhere to offset the rest — creating a net zero impact on the earth’s climate system.

While many often compare this bold commitment to the Apollo Project — the U.S.’s commitment to put a man on the moon — it is actually much more difficult. Achieving global sustainability will require building a whole new world, not achieving a single engineering marvel.

While this may seem like a difficult or utopian goal, it is real and feasible for the 17 million ambitious, energetic, young minds on today’s campuses. The Edisonian group of graduate students at UCSB showed this — proposing, developing, funding, and marketing a climate neutral plan for UCSB that will serve as a model for campuses around the country. Even more encouraging, since completing their report these students have split across the country to continue their revolutionary sustainability and energy work at the private, governmental, public, and academic level. We need 100,000 more like them!

This point was summed up in two eloquent examples by Tony Cortese — a father of the sustainability movement, President of Second Nature, and a member of AASHE’s Senior Council. According to Tony, a recent survey of Fortune 500 CEOs found that around 90% of respondents felt that sustainability was important to the success of their businesses. However, in a gross market failure, only about 30% thought they had the knowledge or skills in current staff to do anything about it. Time to train the other 70%.

From Fear of Commitment to Meeting Commitments

The recently launched American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which includes a pledge to go climate neutral, is spreading like a Colorado brushfire among chancellors and presidents — by the time this post hits the net, it will probably have over 100 signatories. AASHE, Second Nature, and ecoAmerica are supporting the presidents in their collective effort.

A somewhat similar but more general commitment to sustainability by campus presidents — the Talloires Declaration — was signed by some 250 schools in 1992 and planted the seeds for today’s exponential growth in campus sustainability. “It feels like we have a tiger by the tail,” said Judy Walton of AASHE, commenting on the movement’s rapid growth and AASHE’s quintupled membership in its first year of existence.

But committing to climate neutrality and actually getting there are very different things. In the process of undertaking this monumental challenge, the next generation will be thrown into the deep end over their heads — and forced to swim. And every step of the way — as they succeed, fail, and graduate — they will be learning how to transform this country. This climate neutral university movement is as much about reforming higher education and creating a generation that can build a new United State of America and global economy as it is about transforming physical campuses.

Lee Bodman of ecoAmerica noted that out of the 16.8 million students at today’s U.S. universities, only 2.5% undergrads and 0.5% of grad students participate in "environmental" opportunities. In some ways, I think this reflects a failure of the university system. In another way, I believe it represents a failure of the environmental movement to frame this issue. Conceived as a broad Modern Industrial Revolution to produce 500% efficiency and revolutionize all of our major industries in 50 years, there are far more students involved — racing solar cars; exploring new, renewable and low carbon energy solutions; and designing energy efficient light bulbs, computers, houses, neighborhoods, cities, states, and nations.

Whether they know it or not, there are currently 302,000,000 Americans engaged in environmental activities. It is the tie that binds us. And as Bodman noted, the potential for aggressive change is tremendous, particularly if the goal can be framed in hopeful terms — as an incredible opportunity like the historic Marshall Plan.

Given enough training, support, and encouragement, today’s students will learn team-buidling, social organizing, project management, and sustainability principles — like the Santa Barbara students — at today’s more than 4,000 universities. They will then go on to modify the 107 million residences and millions of commercial buildings in this country and build another 75 million new high-performance structures to climate neutral standards. They will learn about sustainable transportation, transforming Amtrak into a new, shining, beacon for the world and dreaming up hypercar and maglev transportation systems as unimaginable today as the automobile was in the days of horses and canals. They will learn to mass produce sustainable products in sustainable ways, en route to providing goods and services to 420 million Americans — not to mention 9.5 billion global citizens — by 2050, while reducing carbon emissions a full 80%,

Today’s average 22 year old will retire at 65 in 2050 and will have to have done all of the above to give us a shot. It’s time to get busy.

A Wind-Wind Situation

And just as the solar potential of Arizona hit me last October, producing visions of a new Southwestern energy capital, the wind energy business is beginning to boom in Boulder, and it is breathtaking.

Driven by visionary thinkers like Boulder’s mayor Mark Ruzzin, one city of 100,000 diverse individuals is starting to make an impact. While “taxes” have lost political races and started revolutions, Boulder’s carbon tax — developed in collaboration with the local business community — has been a big hit. This market mechanism has allowed wind a toehold in an energy industry dominated by heavily subsidized and established fossil fuel companies.

According to Mayor Ruzzin …

… in Boulder, we emphasized the economic development potential that will come with moving towards climate neutrality. We have a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and a healthy energy industry cluster here, and being aggressive in regards to climate change became attractive to these business leaders because both those creating new businesses and those running established ones — solar installation firms, energy consultants, green building companies — see real market development potential for their products and services. And by cutting their teeth, so to speak, in Boulder, they will be prepared to take their offerings to all the cities, institutions, and industries that ultimately follow our lead.

Boulder’s fertile young alternative wind energy business still awaits its Edison. But that is not stopping companies like Renewable Energy Choice and 28 year old Director of Community Relations Nick Algee from expanding this market. Over the past year, Nick has been travelling the country on a tour of Whole Foods stores, which have introduced the first at-the-counter, retail wind energy purchases. Soon you may be hearing, "will be that be paper or plastic and would you like some wind power today?" as you buy your food.

Boulder — led by Mayor Ruzzin and ex-Commisioner Will Toor — was one of the original nine cities to commit to meeting Kyoto through the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Initiative. The initiative now includes hundreds of mayors representing 60,000,000 people — nearly 20% of U.S. citizens. The mayor also showed his support for binding, legal, voluntary measures, by working with the city to join the Chicago Climate Exchange.

And on campuses and in cities across the country, these initiatives are being powered by the next generation, who are transforming their world. According to Ruzzin …

… we have already begun to tap into the enthusiasm of CU students to help with our climate change efforts. For example, our Energy Brigade program uses student volunteers to walk door-to-door in student and low-income neighborhoods, giving away our Cool Kit, a tool box of no- and low-cost energy conservation measures such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, weather stripping, faucet aerators, and energy conservation education materials. The kits instantly save homeowners and renters money on their energy bills, and are a fantastic opportunity for engaging with CU students and their desire to make Boulder a better place.

Now as I have been reminded, often quite bluntly, by Gristmill, Huffington Post, and ItsGettingHotInHere commenters, wind is still a marginal national energy source, the Modern Industrial Revolution is just beginning, and neither is guaranteed success. The resource shifts of the past — from wood to coal to oil to natural gas to nuclear — were driven by supply, demand, and cost. Overuse of wood stripped the land, making wood more expensive to import from Europe or the western U.S. and opening the door for coal. The need for mobile sources of power, the invention of the automobile, and the World Wars opened the door for mass mining of Rockefeller’s oil and the natural gas that came with it. Edison and Westinghouse’s revolutionary electrical systems gave coal a second wind. The oil embargo of the 1970s jump-started nuclear power. Just as there will be fortunes made in new industries, there will be fortunes lost and lives ruined. Despite the brilliant innovators that led and will lead these shifts, none have happened without making financial sense.

At present, non-hydro renewable energy makes up less than 1% of the U.S. energy mix and is projected by the Energy Information Administration to grow, but remain less than 10%, by 2030. With fossil fuel subsidies taken into account, current renewables sources are often still prohibitively expensive. Until that changes — whether through natural market trends or market mechanisms like taxes, incentives, and subsidies — the EIA will be right, and we will be in trouble.

Still, over the past year, thanks to the visionary work of folks like Crow and Buizer at ASU, Peterson and Newport at UC-Boulder, Billy Parish and the folks running the Campus Climate Challenge at Energy Action, graduate students working on Campus Climate Neutral, and Tony, Judy, Julian, and the folks at AASHE, more than 100,000 undergraduates, 25,000 graduates, and 1,000 visionary higher education leaders have been shown a glimpse of the future. And it is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

The Hart & Soul of a Nation

Ending at the beginning, the summit featured a speech by Gary Hart. Hart, elected to his first term in 1974 — the same year I was born — has seen many things over the past 32 years and has decided that energy independence is the single most important security issue facing America . He spoke of the duty of his generation — a duty that has gone unfulfilled — to ensure the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness not just for current generations, but for future generations as well. Up at Oberlin College , David Orr — who helped start the climate neutral wave — is framing this as a Constitutional violation.

In his closing, Hart also spoke of his positive vision of the U.S., noting that every time any of us give the Pledge of Allegiance, we commit not only to allegiance to the American flag, but to "the Republic for which it stands." According to Hart, America guarantees rights to its citizens with the tacit assumption that we fulfill our civic duty as citizens to that Republic — duties that then earn us these inalienable rights. For many Americans — and millions around the globe — these basic duties have gone unfulfilled and the basic rights of future generations are at serious risk.

Back in the late 1700s, our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) used less than 1 quadrillion BTUs of energy and couldn’t have possibly anticipated the 100+ quadrillion BTU crisis we have gotten ourselves into. But if they had they surely wouldn’t have let it go unchecked. Hopefully, we can use their revolutionary framework to get ourselves out of our current predicament and create a nation and a world that can deliver on its guarantee of rights for many generations to come.

Join the Revolution

So I invite you all to spend some time checking out the various links in this blog and to join this Modern Industrial Revolution that will be fully funded, totally televised, and may be our last shot.

As Natural Capitalism (whose motto is "Creating the Next Industrial Revolution") guru Hunter Lovins noted at this year’s conference, there is increasingly no financial reason not to get involved with aggressive measures to reduce emissions. Hunter noted that many campus and city projects with a 2-5 year payback represent am amazing rate of return if organizations are willing to invest the upfront capital, particularly when compared to our own, individual investments, where we are all generally ecstatic with low, double-digit, annual returns.

Time to Rock It

Sadly, doing some follow-up research for this blog, I found that the whole premise is flawed. In fact, the Flatirons have been altered over the past fifty years at the hands of man.

No, global warming does not directly threaten these formations in the next several decades. And no, to my knowledge, the minerals used to de-ice Denver’s roads — pulled from the range — are not threatening their long-term existence. In Boulder it was the next generation, full of testosterone, energy, and confidence, who transformed these faces — painting giant "CU"s on the Third Flatiron during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And today’s youth — educated, trained, supported, and inspired by higher education — need to be equally bold in leaving their deep imprint on the next ten to forty years of human civilization if we are to meet our 2050 goals.

According to Lovins, we have somewhere from 10-50 years to correct the current climate crisis, probably more like 10. And while 20 and 50 year goals are great, we need to handle this climate crisis now or we may be literally dooming future generations to life on an uninhabitable planet.

And within the next several centuries, the Flatirons will watch traces of humanity — one of nature’s most incredible and powerful creations — and our stone, bronze, copper, gold, and sustainability ages slowly disappear as the earth spins on without us.