Black Lives Matter

Sustainability is grounded in principles of justice for present and future generations. It is about being careful and respectful stewards of the planet while improving well-being, and neither is possible without social justice.  As a core principle of sustainability, social justice is something we must continuously strive and struggle for, with vigilance and dedication. A long history of racism and discrimination in the United States continues to have deadly consequences. We must do all in our power to stand up to racism and stop discrimination. Recent protests in cities across the country, including here in Phoenix, show that people are willing to take great risks to fight for and demand social justice. We should draw inspiration from their courage and bravery.

I stand in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and the ASU Black African Coalition to redress the endemic racism and discrimination that undermines the ability of marginalized people to achieve their full potential. In the School of Sustainability and the new College of Global Futures, I will convene students, staff, faculty, and partners to formulate ideas and action plans for how we can use the power of ASU to work toward a more socially just tomorrow.  I hope you can join us.

Anticipating Possible Futures

Comprehending the present is incredibly challenging. Predicting the future is nearly impossible. Yet the current pandemic crisis means people are looking for answers, not just about what is happening today, but why we didn’t properly predict the magnitude of the virus, and how we could do a better job of predicting future pandemics.

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, one of the five core competencies you have learned is futures-thinking.  All of you know that futures-thinking is not about predicting the future, but anticipating possible and plausible futures, creating scenarios for a brighter future, and then developing strategies to achieve those futures.

In a hyper-connected world, people can travel to just about anywhere in a single day, potentially transmitting disease far and wide. On an urban planet, high-density living permits quick spread of illness (witness New York). Increasing global temperatures may give rise to new viruses and bacteria harmful to human health. Destruction of wildlife habitat will bring species into greater contact with people and increase the potential for lethal diseases that jump species. Enduring poverty will put the most vulnerable at great risk of disease, threatening communities everywhere.

In other words, the pandemic crisis is a sustainability crisis. Anticipating future crises and being ready for them will require a systems approach that integrates the social-ecological-technical factors and dynamics that you learned about in SOS.

The infrastructure that connects us can be a force for readiness and resilience. We cannot turn back the clock on globalization, on urbanization, or on the telecommunications revolution. These are powerful forces that can do harm, but they can also be harnessed to do great good. How to align these and other forces to achieve the future we want will require a great deal of care, imagination, creativity, and energy. My hope is that we have equipped you with the skills, knowledge, competencies, and—most  importantly—the mindset to anticipate not only possible futures, but desired futures that minimize suffering, maximize well-being, and take care of the environment on which we all depend.

Now more than ever, the world needs this kind of thinking and these kind of thinkers. It needs you. Congratulations Class of 2020!

The Gift of Responsibility

The Gift of Responsibility for the Future

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, each of you is equipped with the ability to envision a better future and to develop the tools and strategies to make it happen. All of you can probably recite word-for-word the Brundtland Commission’s definition, which in many ways launched the modern sustainability movement—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a very powerful message because it speaks to the obligations we have for future generations, which we must keep in mind when thinking about our present-day actions. In essence, sustainability asks us to be responsible stewards of and for the future.

The idea of caring for future generations is, of course, not entirely new. In 1916, then President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist alarmed by the rampant destruction of nature he saw happening around him, wrote that:

“Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.”

He went on to say that this should be a core purpose of our democracy:

“The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

Thinking in the long-term is by no means easy. Some of you may have foggy memories of great grandparents while great-great grandparents are at best black-and white photographs on a wall or the occasional story passed down.  Thinking about needs of great-great grandchildren, who most of us will never meet, is equally difficult. The challenge is to try.

Oren Lyons, a Faithkeeper for the Onandaga Nation in upstate New York, compels us to think seven generations ahead:

“The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.”

If we can think about the well-being of generations to follow, that should change the way we behave. Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, has been urging decision makers to think about fairness for people from her generation (and generations that follow). In a speech she gave a couple of years ago, she thought about what she might say to her own children far into the future:

“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

We tend to think of responsibility as a burden. I urge you to think of it as a gift. As graduates from this excellent university and even more excellent School of Sustainability, you will be in positions of authority where you can make a difference.  Use that authority to make decisions that will have meaningful, positive impact on your generation and the generations that follow. I guarantee that thinking and acting in this way will bring you happiness and joy—a true gift indeed.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019!


Sustainability and Innovation

For the 5th year in a row, ASU was ranked as #1 in Innovation by US News & World Report. ASU has created a culture and environment that allows the innovative School of Sustainability to flourish. I offer my thanks and gratitude to all the students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends, and partners who have made the ASU School of Sustainability such an exciting and fulfilling endeavor in higher education.

Welcome to new and returning students

It is my pleasure to welcome new and returning students to the School of Sustainability. We continue to increase the number of students (up 17% from last year) and number of faculty in the school to meet the growing the demand for sustainability education at ASU. It is my great honor to be the dean of the world’s leading program in sustainability. Ultimately, though, the success of the school depends on the success of our students. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities, beyond your courses, available in the School of Sustainability and at ASU.


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!    

Thank you for making Sun Devil Giving Day a Success

A heartfelt THANK YOU to all the staff, faculty, students, parents, and friends of the School of Sustainability for making this year’s Sun Devil Giving Day a resounding success! We blew past our goal and raised $6,200 from 62 gifts. Kristen Wolfe and Kelly Crow teamed up with the ASU Foundation to highlight the School of Sustainability with interactive events outside Wrigley Hall. President Crow stopped by to vote for Sustainability at the ‘what matters to you’ wall. All in all, it was a positive, upbeat day that showcased the generosity of people who believe in the mission and goals of SOS.

Transitions: Fall 2018 Convocation Address

Sean McElroy, graduating with a degree in sustainability, stands during graduation to be recognized by University Provost Mark Searle for his exemplary scholarly performance at ASU.
Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

The graduates sitting in front of me know that we are living in exciting and challenging times. Even though understanding the present, let alone the future, is exceedingly difficult, in SOS we share the belief that the world is on the cusp of significant change. And we need to drive that change so that it is equitable, enduring, secure, and sustainable.

History shows that positive transformation is possible. When the Millennium Development Goals challenged the global community to cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering from hunger by 2015, many thought the goals were too ambitious and impossible to achieve—that disappointment would lead to disillusionment. Instead, the world met or exceeded those goals, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty from 50 percent to 14 percent and the number of undernourished people from 24 to 13 percent.

Success from the Millennium Development Goals inspired people to aim even higher in creating the Sustainable Development Goals. Most of you probably know all 17 by heart. Maybe you have them on your mortarboards or as an app on your phone.

Any one of them I hope will inspire you to think about how to accelerate the transition to a desirable, sustainable future—one that celebrates clean and affordable energy (#7), sustainable cities and communities for an urbanizing planet (#11), protection and restoration of earth’s ecosystems (#15), inclusive and sustainable growth (#8), availability and sustainable management of water for all (#6).

My challenge to members of this graduating class is that you will together speed up the transition to a sustainable world, one that allows people and planet to thrive, not just survive.

I also recognize that each of you today is going through a personal transition, from student to graduate. Transitions can be incredibly exciting and joyful, but also laden with uncertainty, trepidation, and even fear. It is perfectly normal to feel both. But I ask you to draw on your inner optimist and change-agent selves, and embrace transition as an extraordinary, thrilling, and fulfilling set of opportunities. I know this focus on opportunity for positive change, rather than doom and gloom, is what inspired many of you to come to SOS in the first place. Don’t lose that fire and spirit.

Finally, remember that as you start your next chapter, you will not be alone. You are now and forever will be part of the SOS family. More than anything, we want to help you succeed. Visit us often and keep in touch.

Lean on each other. Take care of one another. Successful transitions to a better future will take teamwork, a shared vision, perseverance, and the passion each of you has inside to change the world for the better. Congratulations Class of 2018!

ASU School of Sustainability home to international students

As I noted in an earlier post, students in the School of Sustainability are coming from far and wide to study with us. This year, we have students from 24 countries in our undergraduate and graduate programs. The diverse origins of our students reflects the strong international reputation of ASU’s School of Sustainability. Having students from all corners of the globe is also an extraordinary gift.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, a large and impactful part of my education was learning alongside students from other parts of the world.  I was fortunate to be in a graduate program where more than half of the students were from countries other than Canada. I have not forgotten how valuable that experience was.  I am committed to making sure that our own students benefit from global experiences, whether learning with students from other parts of the world or learning in other parts of the world.

This year, Dr. Rob Melnick has taken on the responsibility of coordinating and enhancing all of our international efforts. The purpose is to make sure that students recognize the range of global experiences available to them–lots of exciting things to come!