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What is sustainability? A conversation with Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson

Sustainability efforts today are critical to meet the needs of people now and over the long term, and Stanford has a leadership role.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
April 7, 2017
Dean Pamela Matson
Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson defines sustainability as the ability to meet the needs of people and their communities and organizations now and in the future. (Image credit: Shaun Roberts)

Stanford has become an acknowledged leader in sustainability through its efforts to “walk the talk” in the way it operates the university as well as the way it educates and conducts research. The university received a Gold rating in the National Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) for the fourth time last year, earning the second highest score of the nearly 800 institutions that participate in STARS. In 2016, Stanford was ranked fifth on the Sierra Club’s Top 20 Cool Schools list and made the Princeton Review Green Honor Roll for the fourth consecutive year.

Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson recently discussed the university’s approach to sustainability both on campus and in educating future leaders. She said these efforts are critical as we try to meet the needs of today’s 7-plus billion people without damaging the life support systems – water, air, land, oceans and more – needed to sustain future generations, expected to reach 11 billion by the end of the century.

What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability is about the ability to meet the needs of people and their communities and organizations not just in the near term but over the long term. It’s about people and their needs, not just about technology, the environment or “being green.” With an environmental lens, sustainability is about managing and protecting Earth’s natural resources, ecosystems, climate and atmosphere so that current generations and future generations will have the things they need to live a decent life. In doing so, the millions of other species with whom we share the planet will also benefit.

What are the most critical sustainability challenges facing us in this century? 

I think we all know the litany of challenges: energy, food, clean water, health and security, to name a few. We are making great progress in many of these areas; in others, there is much yet to be learned and done. But even when we have potentially useful new technologies or approaches or policies in hand, we can’t simply toss them over the fence and assume they will be used. We need to find better ways to engage with stakeholders to work toward sustainability solutions in the context of the complicated social-environmental systems in which they live.

What are some of Stanford’s tangible achievements in creating a sustainable campus?

Stanford has made huge strides in reducing our energy, carbon and water footprints through targeted programs.

For example, Stanford is now able to meet its energy needs while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by about 68 percent. That happened with the launch of the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) program, an amazing campus-wide system that incorporates a cutting-edge heat recovery process together with the increased production and use of solar power. Thanks to the wisdom of the Board of Trustees, Stanford’s academic leaders and our Energy and Sustainability Office, SESI has moved us from natural gas-based cogeneration – a leading edge and highly efficient technology of the 20th century – to a much more efficient system for both energy and water that can make use of multiple and changing sources of energy in the coming decades.

The university has reduced its water consumption by 47 percent since 2000, thanks not only to savings gained from SESI, but also to conservation across campus water users. We’ve also cut our employee drive-alone rate to around 50 percent, compared to 72 percent in 2002, thanks to the Transportation Demand Management program that incentivizes using alternative transportation and carpooling.

Finally, the sustainability activities in our residential and dining services are astounding, sourcing sustainable foods, reducing waste, improving energy and water use efficiency, and so on.

What about students? How are we preparing tomorrow’s sustainability leaders?

In many cases, Stanford’s students have been the ones to encourage and demand action in all parts of the university, in particular through Students for a Sustainable Stanford, the Stanford Energy Club and the Green Living Council.

At Stanford Earth, where I am dean, we aim to ensure that all Stanford undergrads know something about this planet we share. We’re doing that by offering courses that are appropriate to students in any major and that are easy to fit into crowded academic schedules. These include Thinking Matters courses, Sophomore College, field trips, courses on sustainable food, energy, water and climate solutions, and a growing number of 1-unit options, all that encourage students to think systematically about environmental and sustainability challenges. Several of these integrate faculty expertise across disciplines, a special hallmark of Stanford.

Beyond coursework, students can engage directly at our new O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, which has become a hotbed for engagement in and learning about sustainable agriculture. Students also have a range of internship and service learning opportunities through the Haas Center for Public Service and other venues, and students living in Roble Hall are participating in a new living lab for sustainability at Stanford.

What do tomorrow’s sustainability leaders look like?

I think there are at least three important characteristics of the new type of leader who can lead change for sustainability goals. First, we need systems thinkers – leaders who understand the connections and interactions of social-environmental systems in which sustainability challenges play out. It’s fine for someone to focus on technology or policy designs and innovations, but one also needs to understand the impact of those innovations – their interconnectivities, trade-offs and potential unintended consequences – in complex social-technological-environmental systems. Second, we need leaders who understand human behavior and decision-making and who have empathy, open-mindedness, and engagement and partnership skills to lead change collaboratively. Finally, we need leaders who can design innovations that can scale to a level where they can make a difference.

A new coterminal master’s program approved in 2017, Sustainability Science and Practice, was designed purposefully to foster those three critical elements for future leaders in sustainability. Likewise, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) PhD and joint master’s program integrates social and natural sciences and technology to address sustainability challenges. And the Earth Systems undergraduate program and its new minor in Earth Systems Sustainability take that interdisciplinary approach in sustainability problem solving.

What sustainability success stories at Stanford do you personally connect with?

I’ve been lucky to be personally engaged in many sustainability efforts at Stanford, but I’ll mention two that stand out for me. First, planning for the Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment + Energy Building (Y2E2), Stanford’s first large-scale, high performance “green building” that opened in 2008. Y2E2 proved that every new building at Stanford can be a green building. Second, the development of our educational farm that gives students hands-on access to sustainable agriculture and a personal connection to Earth. A good number of students can see and learn, perhaps for the first time, how their food is produced; others can engage in the balancing act of sustainable food production, harmonizing economic, social and environmental concerns. Finally, members of our community can find peace and quiet and time for contemplation in a growing environment.

What still needs to be done?

First, through the thought leadership and research of our faculty, we need to make sure that scientific knowledge of all sorts is useful, available and accessible to decision-makers – whether they are in government, business or nonprofit organizations. We need to carry out cutting-edge research that contributes to scientific discovery and problem-solving, and we also need to help ensure that knowledge is actually useful and used in decision-making.

For our students, this means developing knowledge through both disciplinary and interdisciplinary coursework, but also linking it to action through experiential and service learning, internship and practicum opportunities.

Pamela Matson is the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. An environmental scientist and MacArthur Fellow, she was instrumental in building Stanford’s Initiative on Environment and Sustainability in the early 2000s and championed creation of the Woods Institute for the Environment, where she is a senior fellow, and the Precourt Institute for Energy.