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Through the Lens of Sustainability

Posted: 11:31AM December 17th, 2012 | Comments

Kristen Joiner shares her vision through the lens of sustainability in her opening remarks at Badger Bioneers Conference 2012, transcribed here:

Yesterday morning, my eight-year-old son got up and came running to tell me that it had snowed. 

“It snowed, mommy, it snowed!  We’re going to have a white Christmas!” Then my slightly more savvy ten year old looked up the weather online and said, “Nope, it’s going to be 47 degrees next Wednesday.” They both looked disappointed, until the older one said, “But maybe it will snow A LOT and it won’t all melt!” They cheered up.

My boys want a white Christmas; I do, too. But the truth is that our planet is warming, and we know that we’re in a different place right now than scientists predicted. Global warming is happening faster than we thought it would.  One fact that I found astounding, from Bill McKibben’s essay in Rolling Stone Magazine this summer - in June, we broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States.  That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average. The odds of that occurring by simple chance are 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Essentially, this is what we’re facing: If we continue to do exactly what we’re doing now, the planet could become uninhabitable in less than 20 years.

The bottom line is that we’ve advanced to a point on our planet in which we must do what we can to mitigate climate change, and we must think about possible scenarios for how we might be affected by the change that’s already happening and is going to keep happening.  

I spend a lot of time thinking about this and thinking about the role that Wisconsin – and Madison, in particular - has to play in all this.  We’re a tiny little city in the overall scheme of things. Geoffrey West, a brilliant theoretical physicist, came through town recently to speak at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, and he shared something amazing:  One million people a week are moving to cities. Cities will be the innovation zones for sustainability.

Madison’s population is only about 250,000. What can little Madison do? Yes, we can bike, bus, or carpool to Bioneers. We can use our own bags at the Co-op. We can consume less and cut down our emissions, but it’s really the “biggies” that need to change.  Governments, the fossil fuel industry, to name a few.

So what can Madison do? I think it comes down to three things:

1.      We need to be strategic.

2.      We need to see our challenges through a lens of sustainability.

3.      We need to work in new ways.

Here’s my vision:

One thing Madison has is some national cache in a country that influences the rest of the world. We’ve been named a “Best Place to Live.” The University of Wisconsin-Madison is respected as a top research institution. How do we take our reputational currency and use it to drive a new dialogue about sustainability?

As the Executive Director of the region’s only broad-based sustainability organization, I see the opportunity to use this place of influence.  As a region, we can experiment, develop ideas, tell our story, share our research, and impact the national dialogue. We can be a living laboratory for sustainability and resilience for the nation.

Many people are already doing this.  Our own Badger Bioneers are doing this.  Stephanie Rearick has created the largest TimeBank in the country. Kiera Mulvey and FairShare CSA have developed a national model for working with insurance companies. At Virent Energy Systems, Randy Cortright makes jet fuel out of plants. They are mission-driven innovators and entrepreneurs. And they’re not the only ones. 

We can be strategic about using our region’s reputation as a great place, an innovative place.

Second, we need to see our challenges in new ways. I believe thatsustainability is a way of thinking that encourages innovation. It is a synergistic and strategic way of thinking about all the challenges facing us.

Sustainability is more than an answer to environmental problems.  It’s a way of thinking about how we design our cities and our neighborhoods. It’s a holistic way of thinking about how we approach what we do every day, from teaching children to providing health care to growing food.  Failure to think in this way has unwittingly created a culture that makes us unhealthy on many levels. Sustainability is a way of thinking about how to change how we do things every day.  It’s a cultural shift.

For example, our country, and our state in particular, is facing an obesity epidemic, which is contributing to the development of chronic diseases like diabetes in younger and younger people.  Enormous amounts of money are spent every year on taking care of these patients. And, it’s predicted that our children will be the first generation to have a shorter life span than their parents. Researchers who study patients with chronic diabetes describe our culture as obesogenic. We make people obese by what they do every day to live.

Sustainability gives us a lens to think about this issue differently.

We know that we’re an obese state, which affects people’s lives and costs us millions of dollars every year in health care. We know that we need to start to teach people the skills they might need to get through a disruption in our food or energy systems. We also have one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. Now, look at these challenges through the lens of sustainability, and you start to see a new vision form -

If we look at school and community gardens for everything they offer us in a synergistic way, we see that when we support the establishment and integration of community gardens into the school curriculum, we not only grow food, we teach students (and often their families) the skills they need to grow food, and we teach them the difference between whole foods and processed food, which often has an impact on their own healthy choices. We encourage them to cook. We also teach students about the natural systems that affect the production of food in their area. And, the data tells us that hands-on, outdoor learning engages the hardest-to-reach and lowest performing students in a way that not only drives their motivation to learn, it increases test scores.

Sustainability is a lens for thinking about the very real issues that face our region.

It’s the same thing with businesses. Sustain Dane started MPower Business ChaMpion Program, one of our country’s first entry programs for businesses wanting to become more sustainable. In the past three years, over 50 businesses have come through our program. The businesses that join MPower start out by doing things to save money on energy costs. They change to fluorescent lights, or install low flow toilets. Soon, they realize that most of their projects offer a meaning beyond their original intent. Projects like promoting bike commuting and sweater Fridays engage people in a common goal and makes them healthier and ultimately more engaged in their work.

But here’s the trick - and this is the third part of my vision - sustainability only works when it’s executed by multiple stakeholders.

All too often, our non-profit sector and municipal sector act separately from each other and from the University of Wisconsin.  There are many different agendas for change, many different areas of focus. 

When we all put down our agendas and look at our shared challenges, we see the important role and deep value that our non-profits, our municipal governments, our businesses get when they work in partnership with our top university researchers. Together, we can mobilize national resources to support our ideas and projects, which we can incubate here and then replicate in other places.

Imagine if Madison, Wisconsin became the place for research and innovation in using sustainability to drive community progress. That’s my vision.

I believe if we all work together, use sustainability as a lens for innovation, and create a common agenda for change, we can make big things happen.  The Badger Bioneers here today are leaders whose examples we can learn from and follow. 

Please use the next two days to meet new people, make partnerships, and figure out what’s going to work to move our region forward. 

As the Executive Director of Sustain Dane, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to Badger Bioneers Conference 2012 and work side by side with you, our tribe of change-makers, to celebrate sustainability’s transformative possibilities.

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