The statements and opinions herein are
solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations or individuals associated with the author, past or present.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

First Annual Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award 2013

STARS 2.0 is 2013’s accomplishment that will have the most lasting and 
influential effect on campus sustainability, bar none.

By Dave Newport

One of the reasons editors like to give out awards is they help highlight major trends, accomplishments, or events and thus help benchmark where we are.

So it is with the First Annual Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award. Decided unanimously by a committee of one, this award is meant to remember 2013 not as a year of turmoil or incremental change in campus sustainability as some would hold, but as a year in which major progress occurred.

That major progress—and the Person of the Year for 2013—is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) version 2.0. Yes indeed, while there were plenty of significant wins and losses in 2013, this year’s rollout of a substantially upgraded STARS is the victory that will have the most lasting and influential effect on campus sustainability, bar none.

It takes a village

Obviously, Person of the Year is a bit of a misnomer, on purpose. Indeed, STARS is not a person—but a vast team.  One of STARS’ unique strengths is that it is very much a community effort.  

STARS’ collaborative and inclusive development and decision-making process is a model of effective leadership and governance.  About 100 of our colleagues sit on the STARS Steering or various Technical Advisory committees. More participated in the various rounds of public comment and input on the iterations of new approaches.  Add in some partner organizations and very competent AASHE staff and a star was, well, reborn.

Beyond modeling how inclusive, democratic and fully transparent governance and leadership can and should work in a sustainability organization—STARS is profoundly changing the landscape of campus sustainability and thus of higher education. 

Over 625 institutions are using STARS—that is creeping up on 15% of all US campuses.  In just over three years since its official birth, STARS has created huge momentum.  Yes, the usual suspect sustainability leaders are among the group of campuses using STARS.  But so are many campuses that, no offense, few have heard of.  All types of campus; big, small, community college, private, public, and HBCU.

Do you believe in miracles?

STARS has organized schools around sustainability without defining it; a miracle some might say. Yet in its own way STARS provides a de facto definition: the breadth of STARS’ credits span operations, academics, policy, social efforts, economic, community impacts and so forth. Taken together, these activities define sustainability: broad, inclusive approaches to the environmental, fiscal, and social equity issues facing us all.

The inclusiveness and breadth of STARS’ credits is helping unite campus silos behind sustainability, improves campus coordination, and literally charts a map for campuses to follow on their road to sustainability.

STARS 2.0 takes that approach one better; it has better identified material contributions towards sustainability. In short, the credits are much more relevant.  This evolution helped reduce the number and complexity of metrics from the very long and onerous list required in earlier versions.  Thus, STARS 2.0 does more with less. A hackneyed phrase that in this case is true. Another miracle.

Perfection awaits

That’s not to say STARS 2.0 is perfect. While many improvements to data quality and accountability were made—we have a ways to go. For instance, only Platinum submittals will get full up audits before being awarded. So far, there are no Platinum schools.  But that specter will help father an audit system that can gradually be applied across all heavy metals over time.  In the meantime, all submittals will receive increased scrutiny by STARS staff.

Likewise, STARS awards have yet to rise to the level of notoriety of a Nobel Prize—but we’re working on that too… Better integration and visibility of STARS data within rankings from Sierra, Princeton Review and others will start in 2014. STARS brand and role in those rankings will be more visible. And there is still talk of US News using STARS in some fashion. Time will tell.

It’s not about my ideas…

I have other brilliant ideas (just ask me) to upgrade STARS that will not come to pass. Having helped birth STARS back in the day and having been on the Steering Committee ever since, I am rolling off this month.  Some of my brilliant ideas didn’t make it through the crucible of the inclusive and democratic debates that empowers STARS governance. 

Frankly, that proves the integrity of the process and the genius of STARS.  Inclusion, democracy, and transparency differentiate sustainability leadership from the cloistered, opaque and autocratic organizations we are seeking to change. In its finest tradition, sustainability is not about my ideas—but about all stakeholders’ ideas transformed through transparent, inclusive and democratic debate into a consensus that recognizes the simple fact that more voices are better than one.

Thus STARS’ governance and leadership process and STARS very existence beg an emerging important question about sustainability: 

“How do we leverage our increasing proficiency in sustainability practices to transform our organizations’ leadership and governance into the open, democratic, integrated, and inclusive model true sustainability requires?”

In other words: we are getting pretty knowledgeable about recycling, local food, bikes and so forth; so how do we build on those successes sufficient to transform the autocratic and opaque governance and leadership systems under which we labor on campus and, dare I say it, in our professional organizations, etc.? 

We have begun to research these questions and I will dig into them more as it relates to specific organizations in coming blogs and, soon, in my annual update to the Death of Campus Sustainability.

In the meantime, this is where STARS is quietly providing leadership by modeling a sustainable governance process that produced a hell of a lot of good work this year. 

This is the real genius of STARS: sustainable governance works better.

So, for that genius and for many other good decisions by all involved, and by the powers and authority invested in me by no one, I hereby bestow the First Annual 2013 Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award on STARS 2.0. There's no big trophy or even framed whatever to hang on the wall. I do offer my sincere thanks and admiration to all of you that participated in the process, past, present and future. All of us in this business owe you our best wishes.

May ye change the world.

Happy holidays all.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Sustainability’s new rules, 50 yrs old

Sustainability's caste system can go to hell.

By Dave Newport

You couldn’t walk past a TV during November 2013 without being reminded that President John F Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago this month. Countless documentaries and reviews were aired.

I was nine years old when JFK fell. I remember where I was when the news broke. Two days later we watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. There were many dark days and months after that. The nation was despondent.

I had a few flashbacks this November.

But being reminded of JFK and all the news of 1963 has helped me better understand where we are today—and what we must do to move forward.

Indeed, it took all the upheaval of 1963 to advance the civil rights movement to new rules: Congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act that guaranteed, at least in law, full equality for all our nation’s citizens.

Fifty years later, the sustainability movement is in similar upheaval; one that is no less pivotal. People are dying from unsustainable practices, business integration of sustainability is waning, enviros are losing steam, some say sustainability itself risks becoming extinct.

So, just as the civil rights movement won breakthrough legal equality through its struggle, the time has come for sustainability to craft new rules to hopefully father breakthrough accomplishment. Given the likelihood of Congress or the UN passing new sustainability legislation is nil, we will have to write new rules ourselves.

Keep reading at your own risk.

Parallels and contrasts with 1963 that inform sustainability’s new rules

“If people feel respected, they will assume the responsibility to help others.”
-Curitiba, Brazil Mayor Jaime Lerner

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other African American leaders were on the march in every way. James Farmer led “Freedom Rides” in busses—resulting in violence that Attorney General Robert Kennedy stopped by calling in US Marshals. Then the riots in Birmingham, Alabama landed King in jail where he penned the most poignant meditation for equality he would write: the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” A few months later, the March on Washington was led by key civil rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and Whitney Young.  King’s “I have a dream speech” blasted tremors in our souls felt to this day.

Reluctant in his early years, President Kennedy finally stepped up on civil rights like no president before him—or since. Calling out the National Guard to force the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama to admit black students, JFK pushed aside those state’s governors and a century of segregation. He then addressed a nation tired of watching blacks die in riots on live TV. In his remarks, Kennedy defined the civil rights crisis as a moral, constitutional and legal crisis that undermined our nation’s legitimacy. He pledged to submit major civil rights legislation to Congress that would guarantee equal access to public facilities, end segregation in education, and provide federal protection of the right to vote. Kennedy would not live to see his legislation passed—but his vice president Lyndon Johnson, a veteran Texas legislator, succeeded JFK and won approval of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The point of all that history is to strike some parallels and contrasts with 2013.

For instance, these days we have demonstrations and violence related to climate change, environmental injustice, and sustainability going on all over the planet. The difference is that while the demonstrations like Power Shift and others are largely peaceful, the violence is seen in climate change-boosted typhoons in the Philippines, climate-induced drought in Africa that is killing millions, sea level rise-enhanced flooding in Bangladesh that may erase that nation and its people, and in neighborhoods next to pollution facilities across this nation where under-resourced people of color are daily sickened by the toxins of our times.

A central point of 1963 is to note that it took leaders from both the white majority community, Kennedy et al, and leaders from the African American community, King et al, to get it done. They effectively worked together as allies fighting the same enemy, discrimination, because it became morally abhorrent. Ultimately, they both gave their lives up to that mission because it was that important.

However, in 2013 we have not yet forged that alliance, that partnership, between majority and minority sustainability leaders to the level needed to combat the most overarching issue we all now all face, survival.

Think for another minute in big historical terms: recall that the 18th century’s chief moral challenge was religious freedom. Likewise, the 19th century’s major moral challenge was the abolition of slavery. The 20th century’s moral dilemma was equality. Now, looking at the figure at left (from Limits to Growth, a 30-Year Update, by Donella Meadows et al, 2004) it is clear that the 21st century’s major challenge is survival, period. 

We’re in tough shape and our prospects are difficult, at best. We know these things.

So, like in 1963, building partnerships based on the mutual self interest of survival should be as compelling as, say, loading critters on Noah’s Arc. Right?

Under present sustainability rules: not.

Today’s sustainability caste system is vacated under new rules

“We must live together as brothers -- or perish together as fools.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his keynote at this year’s AASHE Student Summit Markese Bryant implored the students to forge new partnerships with under-represented communities or risk the continued viability of the sustainability movement. Bryant made the case that 2013 is to sustainability what 1963 was to the civil rights movement. Make or break time. He’s right. Thank you Markese for pointing out this symmetry.

And just as 1963 was ultimately won because leaders from both spheres put it all on the line, the sustainability movement must learn to sincerely and respectfully partner with the many established and emerging leaders of color, because we’re all putting it on the line now.

Indeed, the white majority mainstream environmental groups have had their chance to go it alone, and here we are. We haven’t gotten it done. We are prisoners of our own white privilege. Consider:

       The 26 mainstream US environmental groups’ staff averages 95% white. (Washington Post)
       Campus sustainability staff is 92% white. (AASHE)
       US EPA staff is 69 percent non-Hispanic white. (NYT)
       Number of major US environmental groups whose leader is a person of color: One. Jerome Ringo (NWF, Apollo Alliance)
       Number of leaders of color of US environmental regulatory agencies: One. Lisa Jackson (EPA)

On the other hand, people of color lead the 45 major US environmental justice groups almost exclusively. Yet even when they are able to partner with mainstream environmental groups, they are kept in the shadows, tokens in a policy of appeasement.

This is outrageous.

“As the first and only female Hispanic appointed by a [California] Governor to serve on the South Coast AQMD Governing Board, I observed this far too often,” noted Cynthia Verdugo-Peralta, who is also President and CEO of SEETA, (Strategic Energy, Environmental and Transportation Alternatives, Inc), an NGO in Los Angeles. “When the large established enviro group "partners" with a minority enviro group, they have them in the background, not out front where they need to be.”

Not surprisingly, the EJ groups are out of the money too. The Washington Post reported that the environmental justice movement gets only 5 percent of the conservation funding from foundations, while mainstream environmental groups receive the rest.

So we have developed a sustainability caste system. That’s what Dr. King was trying to tear down.

Well, sustainability’s caste system can go to hell.

Time’s up.

Sustainability’s new rules

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then maybe we can work together." 
Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, Australia, ca. 1970
from Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist and educator.

If sustainability has a shot at becoming an effective tool for creating change-- if sustainability is even to survive as a tenable doctrine—we’ve got to do things differently going forward.

So by the powers invested in me by absolutely no one, I decree these four new rules developed from my work or others:

  1. New Rule Number One
       Part A) The sustainability movement will fail under white-only leadership.
       White majority staff and membership of sustainability groups is not sustainable. Without diversity we will be ineffective and become irrelevant.
       However, white sustainability leaders don’t need to step down. On the contrary, we need our leaders to keep bringing it shoulder to shoulder with under-resourced communities and leaders of color as brothers in a fight for our lives.

       Part B) The best way to advance the sustainability movement is through respectful partnerships with under-resourced people and their leaders.
       Relevant new leadership and new creativity can only come from those most at risk, who understand the problems personally because they are being visited upon them and so are the most motivated to address them. We can’t make white privilege go away, but we can add diversity to our collective knowledge base and thus become smarter and more effective through full partnerships with folks on the front lines of the unsustainable world.
       [I’m calling Rule One the Markese Bryant rule. I have been flirting with these conclusions for several blogs, but Markese said it straight out.]

  1. New Rule Number Two
       Part AThe traditional definitions of sustainability are wrong—and are hereby repealed.
       We wrote earlier this year of Professor Al Bartlett’s legitimate criticism of the Brundtland definition.  We hereby accept that criticism:
      “Unfortunately, the Brundtland definition contains a flaw. It focuses first on the needs of the present, which have nothing to do with sustainability, and secondarily it mentions the needs of future generations that are vital for sustainability. This sets the stage for intergenerational conflict in which the present generation wins and future generations lose.”
       Likewise, the notion of the Triple Bottom Line and its oft-cited three-legged stool is ineffective and thus flawed. While both schemes include “social ___” (fill in the blank with equity, progress, concerns, etc) as part of their trinity, in reality we design our work primarily around environmental or fiscal factors and then may try to backfill social-whatever later. Besides engendering incessant intellectual arguments about how to characterize/visualize the three legs, these models don’t add any value to the work, do anything, or really define anything. They are hereby repealed.

       Part BNew sustainability definitions must prioritize people first.
       Thus we offer Bartlett’s substitution in place of Brundtland:
1.     “Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
       Likewise, per Rule 1B above, we offer a definition of sustainability that embraces the three spheres of impact, yet clearly identifies where to start, and a focus from which sustainability will necessarily back out:
1.     “Sustainability results from full partnerships with culturally and racially diverse groups and people that first advance social justice and also deliver fiscally and environmentally beneficial outcomes.”
2.     It follows then that we hereby also outlaw all existing visual representations of sustainability’s traditional three-legged stool and offer in their place a visual consistent with the above definition:

  1. New Rule Number Three
       Sustainability programs’ goals and central message must focus on justice first.
       Consistent with the definition in New Rule Two B1 above and the admonitions of Tufts professor Julian Agyeman, sustainability groups and programs must clearly mission and label their activities as primarily justice-focused if they are to properly design them to attract partnerships from under-resourced communities and leaders of color.
       Therefore we offer some framing questions we might ask of our programs and projects that will help focus on social justice outcomes. These include:
1.     Does the group or program clearly identify a social justice mission in its name or positioning statement? (e.g. an “energy conservation” program morphs into an “energy justice” program)
2.     Are social justice outcomes planned for and designed in to the program from the beginning? (e.g. what is the purpose of a recycling program? To protect trees and/or protect people? Which come first?)
3.     Are new partners and/or social justice constituencies involved in program/project design, planning and execution?
4.     Does the program/project’s rationale include a social return on investment? How is that framed, tracked?
5.     Does the project develop any “assets” as a result of conservation efforts that can be channeled into social benefits for under-served people or communities? (e.g. saved dollars from energy conservation invested in social justice activities)

  1. New Rule Number Four
       Sustainable happiness flows from people partnerships that improve the human condition.
       Challenges to our survival notwithstanding, we are no good to anybody dead, depressed or dependent.   As I blogged previously, the benefits of work-life balance are happier and more productive sustainability professionals—and a greater ability to focus on meaningful partnerships with under-resourced groups and leaders. That gives us a shot—and a smile. The survival challenge can be daunting; however, a side effect of the new rules is that partnerships with under-resourced people yield a happiness return on investment. Consider:
       “If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand [or refuse to believe] the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse.”
Author Paul Hawken in “Blessed Unrest”

The above New Rules offer a paradigm switch from eco-centric to people-centric. Nothing wrong with eco-anything, but it’s time to try something else. Maybe these will work, or not. I reserve the right to be wrong. But these new rules will vacate the sustainability caste system we have in place now. They have to.

That was then and this is now
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking
we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

Sustainabilistas use the above hackneyed quote frequently in presentations and arguments for more sustainable organizations, communities, policies, economies and societies. Perhaps we need to take that slide from our own PowerPoints and focus those projectors on our own work. Are we doing the same thing day after day and expecting different results? Might be time for a check in on that.

Indeed, we hear daily how our definitions are muddy and meaningless. We are starkly aware of the lack of diversity in our own ranks—yet we aspire to advance social justice. We are frustrated by the lack of influence we have on our own campuses. There’s a reason. We watch as other doctrines like resilience and permaculture carve out some of sustainability’s space.  And we watch the dashboard needles of most major social, environmental, and economic systems trend poorly.

As a young boy of nine years, I remember the tumultuous time of 1963. I wasn’t in riots but I watched with millions of my countrymen as people died on live TV. Living in a diverse neighborhood I felt the vibe on the streets, in school, and in everyone’s talk that was unsettling, at best. I remember thinking I’ll never see 30 years old. It’s all going bad.

Fifty years later I acknowledge that the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 have certainly not cured the nation of discrimination, but they modeled a path to victory we must now seek. Dr. King departed from his usually eloquent speech to make that very pithy point, worth repeating:

“We must live together as brothers -- or perish together as fools.”



Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fear and happiness in Music City

The price of excellence can be very high—if you let it...
By Dave Newport

If you are too stressed out and/or overbooked to read this, that’s a sign.

Of course, if you are sick of my six-cent sendups of otherwise significant subjects, I get it.

And yes, class, this week’s lesson was derived from hours of, er, “research” in Nashville’s finest honky-tonks rocking with the best musicians in the world. Sure, AASHE 2013 helped.

So what can juke joint musicians teach a convention full of sustainablistas?

Answer: the price of excellence can be very high—if you let it.

Indeed, sustainabilistas and the best musicians in the business have one thing in common: passion for the work. And that passion can add harmony or dissonance to your life; it’s your choice.

A fear of happiness?

For me, Music City laid down a groove of happiness so catchy I got tired of grinning, whistling, singing, humming and hooting.

I had to ask myself how is that possible? How could my happiness muscles be so out of shape?

Worse, I seem to have a lot of company.

At the sustainability professionals’ workshop that preceded the AASHE conference, 60-70 of us shared our biggest professional development challenges.

Work-life balance was the loudest tune we all sang. We’re stressed out.

We are also frustrated at the low influence over sustainability we have on our campuses. Many feel professionally unfulfilled because our sphere of influence is insufficient to fully create what we know must happen. Yet we are so passionate about that mission we will work countless hours, not make time to have a life, and find ourselves in frustrated, unhappy places.

You know who I am talking about. You. Me. Indeed, my frustration has made me do/not-do some things that didn’t need to/needed to happen. Lousy sentence. Long story.

Short story: being effective at sustainability can be a trap.

Listening to these gifted musicians playing just for tips in Nashville’s many honky-tonks really brought it home for me. These guys are so passionate about their music that many of their personal lives are way off key.  

This is a lesson about the music of life.

The best guitar picker of the many soul-searing players we heard has two kids, no wife, two jobs, rode a crappy Honda 360 motorcycle with his Telecaster and amp on the back (what a sight), and took home ~$150 in tips from four hours of A-list virtuosity in a Broadway juke joint.  He alternately channeled and matched the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Tony Rice, and Chet Atkins before the night was over. A sickly talented guy—in every sense of the word—and a wreck looking for a place to have one.

Singing a different tune

It doesn’t have to be that way, says musician John Lennon:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

The Dali Lama put it a little more directly:

“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.”

So this may be a hard tune for sustainabilistas to sing, but unless we want to argue with the Dali Lama and John Lennon we have to consider that saving the planet might need to take a back seat to being happy. And pragmatically we have to consider that if we burn out we’re useless on the whole planet-saving thing. On the other hand, if we go for happiness maybe we’re more effective at averting Armageddon.

Just saying.

So Music City provided sustainabilistas with a bridge linking together the melody and the chorus of our lives. We just need to play it.

For instance, a couple of great sessions at the conference focused on happiness programs that are increasingly—or should be—a part of sustainability’s focus.

A bright-light grad student from the University of Michigan illuminated their happiness program to a packed room. The goal of the Happiness Initiative at UM is to spark conversations on what makes life worth living and what makes you happy.

Hard to fault that.

Bottom line: your happiness comes 25% from what life does to you and 75% from how you think about it.

So, lots of room for happiness initiatives to crank up because we must not be thinking about it very well. 

For instance, the average US “Gross National Happiness” index is at 67%--a D.  We need a GNH to monitor our happiness because, as Robert F. Kennedy once noted:

“[GDP] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And of the GNH’s ten domains that break down peoples’ happiness drivers, work-life balance scores the lowest at 50%--a F. And it’s worse for students.

Likewise, sustainability professionals may be more challenged than most to get their GNH up—given that we’re all faklempt about the end of the world and other such nonsense.

We’re buzzkills at parties for sure. And I don't want to forget all my inner angst; it helps drive me.

However, in Nashville for a few days--and at great personal sacrifice-- we managed to have extraordinarily good times partying with our peeps. Maybe when we know everyone around us is down with the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh thing we can let it flow.

Or maybe we just started thinking about it right.

Taking it home

In the final stanza of AASHE’s best conference ever—been to them all (props to AASHE staff!)—Interface’s George Bandy scored a sonata for the future.

First he sang a positive, hopeful tune as charted by the late Ray Anderson, who keynoted previous AASHE conferences, and should be the first inductee into the yet to be established Sustainability Hall of Fame.

Bandy’s key notes came from the 75/25 happiness song in full throat. Highlighting the improvisation of an impoverished community built on top of a landfill, he played a video that resolved the dissonance and tension of unsettling minor chords literally into a beautiful symphony. Sorry for mashing a metaphor—but watch the “LandFillHarmonic” video and it all becomes clear. And fear not: this video will make you happy.

Walking through the Country Music Hall of Fame, I was struck by how unhappy some stars’ lives had been. They were super on stage—but lived otherwise sad, unhappy days. George Jones’ life of drugs is well chronicled. Gram Parsons’ drug abuse terminated his totally talented body at age 26. And then there’s the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis. The list goes on.

Sustainability professionals are no good to the world dead, depressed, or dependent.  We have too much life to affirm, too many lives to help. Life is good. Let's get some.

My take-home is to play my git-box more, turn down some of the bad habits, turn up the volume on compassion, remember I can’t fix everything—and kick serious ass on the problems I can. Tune in and turn up the music of life.

Best quote in the above video: “my life would be worthless without music.”

Coda: me too.