Friday, February 10, 2012

I am delighted and honored to join you for the second Net Impact Sustainability Summit. I want to thank and congratulate you on such a successful event last year and for starting this tremendous sustainability tradition here at Iowa This second meeting, I am sure, is advancing the conversation in even more exciting ways.

As I’ve said many times—and as you know—sustainability is not just an interdisciplinary endeavor. It’s a responsibility that belongs to all disciplines, all sectors of our economy and society at large, and all people. I very much appreciate the enthusiasm, imagination, and hard work that has gone into this summit focused on the business aspects of sustainability. And I thank all the individuals, groups, and sponsors who have made it possible.

There are many approaches to sustainability. Simple practicality is always a great foundation for any sustainability effort. So I very much like the pragmatic idea of your conference theme: “Sustainability: It just makes business sense.”

Environmental issues continue to be political footballs, and much of the political rhetoric centers on how the cost of “greening” American business is a drag on economic growth, especially in difficult times as we are experiencing today. But I think more and more, people and businesses are realizing the truth of your theme: “It just makes business sense.” “Green” can be a win-win for both the planet and the bank account.

In her recent book True Wealth, economist and sociologist Juliet Schor—who has visited our campus a couple of times in recent years—cited a 2006 report by Nicholas Stern, chief economist for the UK Treasury, in which he argued that “not stopping global warming would be more costly than vigorous action today.” Stern posited that without addressing climate change, at least five and possibly more than twenty percent of world GDP could eventually be lost to climate change. Stern’s most current estimate is that the cost of keeping warming to an acceptable level is about 2% of world GDP. It doesn’t take much of an economist to see the wisdom in those numbers. As Schor says, “Action to prevent climate change—rather than being a drag on growth—is the growth strategy.” And according to at least the most optimistic reports, the costs of necessary environmental interventions keep going down, not up. Once those interventions are in place, operating costs obviously go down. We all know that from implementing energy-efficient devices and measures in our own homes and businesses.

Sustainability just makes business sense on the macro scale, as Nicholas Stern has suggested. This is not a new idea. That great Iowa editorial cartoonist and conservationist J. N. “Ding” Darling titled one of his most famous cartoons "How Rich Will We Be When We Have Converted All Our Forests, All Our Soil, All Our Water Resources and Our Minerals Into Cash?” That was in 1938. And as Juliet Schor continues to say today, “When we finally and fully tally up the costs of fishery collapse, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, loss of tropical forests, toxic releases, and a mass extinction of species, the price tag will loom large in comparison to the costs of preserving the planet. . . . It will be clear that regeneration will be cheaper than suffering the consequences of collapse.”

Well, I’ve moved from pragmatism to catastrophe. We do need to keep those catastrophic scenarios in mind, but I want to emphasize the positives, as Stern and Schor have also done, and as you are doing in this conference. But I also want to pivot from positive pragmatism to another positive—that of imagination and inspiration.

Since we met last year, the university has made excellent progress in its sustainability commitments. We are in the process of starting up the biomass boiler at the Oakdale Renewable Energy plant. We have just gotten approval for a west side power plant that will allow us to use biomass there along with natural gas. We have introduced more single-stream recycling throughout campus. We have opened new LEED buildings, including Stuit Hall, our first LEED renovation project, and the new College of Public Health building, for which we hope to gain LEED Platinum certification.

Just a few days ago, we hosted an overflow crowd at Art Building West where we revealed our current design plans for the renewed UI arts campus. As you probably know, all construction and renovation projects at the university will now conform to LEED standards. And that will certainly be the case for our new music building, our new art building, and the new Hancher Auditorium. But what I found interesting about our presentation is that we actually didn’t talk a whole lot about LEED and sustainability. It wasn’t because we don’t think that’s important or that people aren’t interested. I think it’s because sustainability is already becoming an assumed value and principle in all that we do. Sustainability is more and more becoming part of our everyday lives. Sustainability is becoming not only business that just makes sense, but also business as usual—and that’s great!

Another interesting—and I think important—thing I observed about our arts campus conversation the other day was how inspiration and imagination are playing such an important role in our new arts facilities. Of course, that’s not surprising for our arts campus. The arts are all about inspiration and imagination, so we do want our buildings to play a role in our pursuit of creativity. That’s one reason why we’ve hired such remarkable architects for these iconic buildings—Pelli Clarke Pelli, Steven Holl, and LMN Architects of Seattle. But with sustainable principles assumed for all of our new facilities, environmental design will be built right into the aesthetics of these buildings that will define creativity in the university for the 21st century. And people responded to that idea, even if not consciously. For example, we heard enthusiasm for the emphasis on light in the design of the Voxman Music Building. The use of glass will not only provide aesthetic pleasure and artistic inspiration, but also because, from an environmental perspective, “it just makes sense.” Natural light, when allowed into a building in the proper way, pays tremendous dividends in lessening our need to power lights and heating.

Many of our greatest environmentalists were so successful in changing our actions because they reached into their minds and souls to tap into wonder and the power of creativity. Rachel Carson is a great example. She of course is most well known as the marine biologist who raised our consciousness about the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides, leading to their ban. But Rachel Carson also had a tremendous appreciation for the imagination. We all remember her for Silent Spring, but in a lesser-known book called The Sense of Wonder, published posthumously, she said: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against . . . the alienation from our sources of strength.”

As I think back upon my own school days and my own college studies, I was drawn to biology. But I was drawn to biology not because of the calculus of any specific career ambitions. I was drawn to it because it gave me a glimpse into a wondrous universe, a world so remarkable that it sparked my passion for discovery.

Which brings me back around to the idea of sustainability. I fully agree with and am enthusiastic about your message that sustainability just makes business sense. But I’m pretty sure that we’re all motivated by even more than that. We all have a sense of wonder and a passion for discovery that we tap into to do our work in the world, whether it’s in fighting for environmental protections, being an entrepreneur, or making music. But no matter what our professional pursuits are, I think we are all tied together by another “source of strength,” as Rachel Carson said. That source of strength is the health, well-being, and inspiration we draw from the natural world—a world we need to protect for ourselves and for our future generations.

Thank you again for inviting me to share this time with you at this year’s Net Impact Sustainability Summit, and thank you for all the tremendous work you do on behalf of a sustainable world. I offer you my best wishes for continued success in your sustainability endeavors, both individually and collectively, and I look forward to another great summit next year.