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Sustainability as Opportunity: Spring 2019 Convocation Address

I am happy and grateful that sustainability is finally widely regarded as an opportunity rather than a burden or obligation. When the School of Sustainability began nearly 13 years ago, the majority of people I met thought sustainability was a long list of what not to do–don’t use up resources, don’t pollute rivers and streams or the air, don’t fly in airplanes, don’t eat meat, don’t, don’t, don’t. In other cases, people saw sustainability as a begrudging obligation to behave in certain ways dictated or regulated by others. In the business world, sustainability was often found in offices of corporate social responsibility, motivated to adopt sustainability as proper behavior, which sometimes devolved into nothing more than ‘greenwashing.’  

For sustainability to succeed, we need to find ways to motivate, excite, and inspire people to build a future where we don’t just survive, but thrive. This begs the question: what motivates? Sometimes the answer is bad things, such as fear, hate, sadness, greed or attaining power only for power’s sake. These can certainly drive people’s decisions and actions, but they also have a tendency to corrupt, destroy, gnaw at the core of our being, ultimately undermining the ability of people and communities to thrive, or even survive.   

People can also be motivated by love, compassion, seeking happiness and joy. Our commencement speaker David Brooks reminded us that Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another.” Joy comes from selfless acts of love and kindness that fill the hearts and minds of those who give.   

We can also be motivated by doing what’s right–the satisfaction from living life with integrity, a deep sense of fairness, treating others with respect and dignity. David Brooks wrote several years ago that we should lead our lives thinking not about what we want on our resume (usually a long list of professional accomplishments), but what we want our friends and loved ones to say about us in a eulogy or obituary.

These are all profound and important virtues that should help us navigate our lives so they have meaning and fulfillment. But we also need to earn a living, pay the bills, provide for our families. Your decisions will also hinge on the motivation of profit, which is not just about money, but by getting more out of something than what you put in–positive, not diminishing, returns on efforts and investment.

At the heart of sustainability as opportunity is the notion that working towards a more sustainable future should be smart, just, fair, innovative, and joyous, but that it can also be profitable. Take the Sustainable Development Goals, for example. These 17 ambitious goals are truly transformative in scope – eradicating poverty, achieving gender equity, eliminating hunger, ensuring clean water and sanitation for everyone.

The United Nations also estimates that achieving the SDGs is a $12 trillion dollar opportunity–not measured as a cost but as an addition to the global economy. Imagine what is possible if all girls in the world are educated to the level same as boys. That would unleash huge amounts of human potential that would open up new economic opportunities while systematically addressing the goals of the SDGs.

These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. School of Sustainability alumni are already ‘doing well to do good.’

Ryan Delaney (class of 2011), started his own biochar company in Haiti, taking what was otherwise waste from sugar cane farms and turning it into charcoal briquettes, reducing stress on Haiti’s forests, providing jobs, creating income opportunities for women and children as resellers, and all for less or equal to the price of regular charcoal with similar or better performance. He became so successful that he recently sold the company to a rum manufacturer in Haiti.

Natalie Fleming (class of 2012) worked for several start-up companies focused on sustainable food systems, including Just. Inc., which sells plant-based foods all around the world. She is now Head of Operations at a sustainable venture company called Susa that matches resources to innovative, sustainable companies.

Sean McGraw (class of 2011), after taking classes on sustainable energy and doing a capstone project with GlobalResolve in Ghana, built an energy auditing and home improvement company called FOR energy. It is one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, with offices in Arizona and Nevada and a planned opening in the Midwest.

These are just a few examples of where students have taken the ingenuity of sustainability thinking and applied it to build profitable ventures. And we are only scratching the surface of possibilities.  

So, to the graduates here today, I look forward to seeing the sustainability opportunities you design, create, and implement. And if you do that while abiding by the convictions and principles of sustainability, I am confident you will do so in ways that will also bring you joy in the service of others, the planet we depend on, and the well-being and care of future generations. Congratulations Class of 2019!