leadership urban

grand challenge of LA as a global model of urban sustainability

Cassie Rauser



I said, “No, that’s not ambitious. That’s not acceptable.” I want it to be better. I want urban ecology to be incredible.


Dr Cassie Rauser is Director of UCLA’s Sustainable LA grand challenge.

Sam: Welcome to “Sustainable Lens, Resilience on Radio,” a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m in Los Angeles at UCLA. Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Dr. Cassie Rauser. She is the director of UCLA’s sustainable LA grand challenge. We’ll find out what that means. Thank you for joining me.


Cassie: Thank for being here and thank you for having me.


Sam: We’ll come back to this but let’s start with an introduction to what the sustainable LA grand challenge is.


Cassie: Sure. Sustainable LA grand challenge is a campus-wide research initiative. It was introduced by the Chancellor in 2013. It’s a little bit different than business as usual, as far as a research initiative goes for a campus because we are organizing the research and the faculty around a major ambitious goal in sustainability. That goal is, or those goals are, to transition Los Angeles the county to 100% renewable energy, 100% locally-sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health and human health and well-being by 2050.


Instead of everyone continuing to work in their silos on their sustainable and environmental issues, we’re really bringing the faculty together from across disciplines to tackle this major problem and to rally them around these ambitious goals.


Sam: I read that part of the goal is to have a thriving in a hotter LA and be a global model for urban sustainability.


Cassie: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.


Sam: That’s quite a big call for LA.


Cassie: Well, sustainability for LA is a pretty big call, quite honestly. When I heard about the initiative, I wasn’t here at UCLA and I got a phone call and they said, “We think you might be great working on this project. We want to make Los Angeles sustainable.” I kind of laughed and I said, “Yeah, good luck with that.” LA doesn’t have a reputation outside of the LA area as a place that is sustainable. I think that it conjures ideas of smog and urban sprawl and actually a lot of very negative environmental ideas when in fact, LA is really quite fantastic.


The folks who had come up with the idea of the grand challenge, they were very inspiring, although very ambitious. I kind of started to feel like, “Gosh, if we can do it in Los Angeles, well then you can do it anywhere.” That’s really the idea is like, “Yes, it’s a big challenge here.” We do have a long history of success overcoming environmental challenges. If you were here in the ’70s or ’80s, you couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t go outside I don’t know how many days per year. Obviously, you’re here today, although a little bit cloudy for Los Angeles, it’s pretty lovely and much clearer and the smog has significantly reduced.


We know that we can pull off things like that so in that spirit, I guess, if we can do it here in Los Angeles, if we can get to 100% renewables, if we can start using the water that we do have here, instead of importing up to 60% of our water from over 200 miles away, as a county, if we can do that kind of stuff here, you can do that anywhere in the world. There are so many major mega cities around the world that can use the technologies, the policies, the management strategies etc., that we will develop and implement here in their own backyard. This wouldn’t just be a success for Los Angeles of course; this will be a success for everyone.


Sam: Anywhere in the world. Let’s talk about your anywhere in the world. Where did you grow up?


Cassie: North Dakota.


Sam: I’ve driven through North Dakota.


Cassie: Well that’s incredible. I don’t know many people who’ve been to North Dakota. I usually get the response of, “Oh, you’re the first person I’ve ever met from North Dakota.” Well, in fact, there’s less than half a million people there still so that’s not strange. I grew up in a town of about 40 people, not 40,000, but 40 people and my parents still live in the same house that I grew up in, and everyone around us, they were farmers or worked somehow within the farm industry. We’ve had a sugar beet factory in our town where I went to school.


In a lot of ways in relation to sustainability I guess, I unknowingly was very much raised in a family that was operating in a sustainable fashion, but maybe for very different motivational reasons or philosophical reasons than kind of how I operate today. You know, not much money, always conserving, always turning the lights off, turning the water off, collecting cans for recycling and making money, but also growing our own food, freezing the food for the winter, bartering … My father was a mechanic and he would fix someone’s tractor and we would get half a pig so I didn’t grow up around fast food.


I just didn’t have the distractions and some of the negative aspects, I think, that come along with a major city. It’s a very interesting upbringing, but I knew the whole time that I also didn’t want to live in a small town and I felt like there was something bigger and better for me to do. I moved away, I think, literally the day after I graduated high school.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?


Cassie: I actually always wanted to be a lawyer, and I always wanted to be an activist of some sort. I wanted to be like a social justice lawyer. I went to college in Minnesota, Minneapolis, St. Paul, at a little liberal arts school and that was just such a fantastic, amazing experience for me having come from such a small town. Everyone was really smart and there were so many options as far as careers went that I had no idea about. I quickly realized that I was very much attracted to environmental justice rather than social justice issues, and almost immediately, I became very involved in the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the PIRGs, and became active and a leader in that organization. I took a bunch of environmental courses, both on the social and political side, but also started taking them in the science side and realized that, oh gosh, science is really quite easy for me and fun so maybe I should do that. That’s kind of how that all evolved and I always continue to be active in the community movements.


I can’t tell you how many Earth Days I’ve co-organized or organized wherever I was. They started there in Minnesota. I found my way actually to Arizona State. I transferred there eventually and finished, but similarly, I think I was the first environmental … I can’t even remember what they called me but for their student counselor, their student union group, they had no environmental representation. I went to them and I said, “Well, gosh. You need recycling here, and you need to have an Earth Day event, and you need this and that,” and they were like, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Sure,” and so they gave me a little bit of money and I think I did their first Earth Day and I helped them start recycling. I keep doing that because then I did that in Costa Rica, too. Like it’s so crazy. Keeps following me around.


Then from there, I went to graduate school. I figured, well, I had done some research and I enjoyed the research, and I thought, “Well, maybe I can contribute the most through getting my graduate degree. I don’t know what I’ll do with that. Maybe I’ll be a professor,” and wasn’t so sure, but enjoyed the learning and always enjoyed the schooling. I went to graduate school in ecology and evolutionary biology and was very, very fascinated by evolution and evolutionary theory, population genetics, how genes are flowing through systems, how it really in the context of sustainability … I mean anyone who knows anything about conservation … how important it is for those genes to continue to be able to flow so that when we’re … When we’re building cities and we’re building walls and we’re building freeways, we’re cutting off this gene flow and that is really affecting plant/animal populations among other organisms. I don’t know, it’s all kind of always been related and always been there.


Sam: You started out with explicitly, if not law, but the social sides of the … Is that thread continuing or did that thread continue through that research or did it become more and more technical?


Cassie: Oh, the research was much more … It’s much more technical and in fact, my dissertation wasn’t related to sustainability at all. It was very much evolutionary theory and experimental biology, but underlying knowledge that is extremely beneficial and applicable in everything I do because sometimes getting your PhD is much more about the other skills you learn than the tiny bit of knowledge they you know more than anyone else in the world. Yeah, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that and how to apply it, and I had left many options open. I think I really missed the application maybe, or the activism that was always me and what I had always been doing because those five years of getting a PhD, they were about being in the lab and doing the work, and the other parts kind of dropped off.


I did have a fellowship to go to the National Institutes of Health to do a postdoc, and I went to Costa Rica for what was supposed to be three months to take a little break before what, to me, started more and more to feel like my jail time at my postdoc position. I went to Costa Rica to surf and to do some yoga and to just kind of relax, and realized I cannot go back in that lab. I don’t belong in a lab. I need to be out here. I need to be doing something else. I need to be making a big difference in the community. I felt suffocated and I called them and I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t come.” I stayed in Costa Rica and surfed and did yoga for a while because I didn’t have a job. Things came together. You think, “Gosh, I’m in Costa Rica. This is like the biodiversity mecca of the world. There must be so many amazing things you can do, but I’m an American in Costa Rica. I can’t legally work in Costa Rica. It’s a very different infrastructure for how science and conservation work, etc.


I explored things I could do in the community, anywhere from essentially volunteering at a preschool and doing what I could with education, art and science. I looked into other teaching opportunities, both high school and there was like some kind of adult community college-ish things going on, but nothing really formal. I explored a lot of different things and in the end, quite honestly, what happened is that that preschool volunteer experience is the thing that paid off because one of the child’s mother’s dad had a development that he was operating in the small beach town where we lived and he heard about me through her. You heard, “There is a woman who lives in this town who has a PhD in biology and I want her to work for my development,” and I said, “No, I am not working for somebody who builds things.” That is the last thing that my conscience would allow me to do. I was convinced by number of folks to meet with him and I did, and I was actually inspired by his vision.


The vision really was to build. People were building there anyway, quite honestly, and very irresponsibly. His vision was to build a community and it was a pretty upper-scale type community, but around a nature preserve rather than around a golf course. I thought, “Well, that’s pretty cool.” He had showed me his vision and all of that and what his goals were for it, and he really gave me freedom. I’m not even sure I ever met with him more than two or three times in the couple years I worked there. He just let me do what I wanted and it was really such an amazing experience. The idea was to form a public-private partnership, so a partnership with the equivalent of their national park system, to take some of his land, form this public-private partnership so that we had the expertise and really the legal guidance of their national park system in running a park or preserve, but then he had me obviously representing the private side.


I had a lot of both organizational experience and research experience, but in the United States. It’s very different having to translate that into the customs and the laws and the regulations of what are going on in a different country. I worked really, really closely and side-by-side with this fantastic woman from their national park group to do this and we developed community programs, education programs, recycling programs … Recycling keeps coming back.


Sam: What was in the preserve part of it?


Cassie: It was mostly mangrove wetlands. It was a piece of land that was actually in between two estuaries so we were along the beach. There were two estuaries. Actually, a national park on the other side of one of these estuaries was Las Baulas, Parque Nacionalas Baulus, and that’s the large Las Baulas leatherback sea turtle. That’s a very famous national park and you know, of course, the numbers of turtles coming to lay eggs there had been dwindling and it’s really tough. This was a piece of land that was actually adjacent in a roundabout way to that national parks land so it was an addition in a way to existing parkland. It’s mostly, I would say … Well, it’s seasonal dry forest but other than that, I mean that’s it. It’s really mangrove and seasonal dry forest.


Sam: There was development of housing?


Cassie: It was housing development and the developments prior to me being there had already made a choice that was legal, but perhaps not wise. They built too close to the mangrove and it really had the community fired up, for good reason, and that was a huge struggle. A lot of the struggle that both myself and the woman I worked with from the park service was community engagement in such a way that … We wanted to do good in the community and that maybe sometimes meant making up for building too close to that mangrove on the first try. Nothing else was along the mangrove. That was just the one very first building they built and that is a thorn in their side until the end, quite honestly. I mean I think the wonderful things that came out of it were a lot of great community engagement and community programmes.


This was a very international town. The town on the beach was international with a lot of expatriates and folks from Europe and Argentina, and United States, Canada, the whole thing, but the surrounding communities were all Costa Rican communities and I would’ve never, on my own, been able to go into the Costa Rican communities and have the experiences and the effect that I had without working with this woman, of course, who is Costa Rican. I actually married a Costa Rican and had a Costa Rican daughter. That helped a little bit, but they were very suspicious of course of the developers, and rightfully so, for the most part.


I think we had a really lasting impact in bringing good resources and community programs to them. The recycling program which was not started by this group, it was actually started by now my very good friends, Gina and Tony, who live back in Minnesota. They brought me on really early on and we started this recycling program that, to this day, is still happening and I can’t tell you how excited I am. That from once a month, everyone bring us your trash to the beach and we’re going to sort it, and have this guy come in his truck and pick it up and haul it all the way to the capital city like four or five hours away. He sells it. He gets his money, whatever, but we were recycling.


Then I helped expand that into the Costa Rican communities and they actually very much had a tradition of recycling because they were used to recycling glass bottles. Many of the older generation folks, they were like, “Why these plastic bottles? What can we do with them? They’re just trash and lying around and we can’t burn them.” It’s too bad, you know. That was a lot of obviously American influence that changed the way that they are bottling and receiving their … things are packaged and receiving their food and drink. These programs have continued and the recycling program evolved into something the municipality actually has undertaken, and by the time I had launched Costa Rica, we had begun talks with the municipality to get them on board to pick up recycling the same way that they would pick up trash. I’m actually very impressed that it ever happens. I think there were some great successes and the project actually ran out of money and that’s why I ended up coming back to the United States, but I think some good things did come out of it.


Sam: I was about to ask, but I’ll ask anyway if sustainability is the bit at the intersection of the Venn diagram that I don’t like, but let’s stick with it for the moment. Then it is where the environment and society and economics interact. This seems like a good example of something that’s actually operating in that intersection. I was about to say, “Is it working?” Then you said it’s run out of money.


Cassie: Well, 2008 happened. I mean the economic crisis happened. They were trying to sell high-end homes. That’s a second home to people who are buying those homes so they weren’t selling, obviously, at the range that they had thought that they would be selling. Well, the environmental girl was the first person to go. To some extent, I was probably sort of a piece of jewelry for them, right?


Sam: Mm-hmm (affirmative)


Cassie: They let me do what I wanted to do, but I mean the integration with what they were doing was very minimal.


Sam: That’s a shame because what I wanted to know is if it is working at that small community level. Is that the model for what has to happen of the whole … over a huge city such as LA?


Cassie: Some of the most valuable things I learned there were from the practices of their national park system and the way that they do approach that. They very much approach it like the Venn diagram, although I’ve never seen any of them use the Venn diagram. They really put effort into educating the communities where they have their parks. With the turtle experience … I’m sure many people know this story. One reason there was decline with the turtles, other than a lot of extra homes and lights and things like that and extra infrastructure, was because people would steal and sell and eat the turtle eggs. These people were making a living on doing that and so for the park system to come in and say, “No, these are a protected species. This is protected land. You can no longer come and take these eggs in the middle of the night,” that was really huge for the community.


The way the park system approaches that is that they retrained these individuals to be like where the park. Sometimes I can’t remember the words in English, you know, like the park rangers. They did workforce development and workforce training, and they gave these individuals other career options where they could make money. That was something they consistently did and was there. They were very conscious of that and it was really such a great execution of the Venn diagram of the sustainability model where they weren’t displacing people.


Sam: Then you came back. Did you go straight back to Irvine?


Cassie: I did. I came back to Irvine. I felt Irvine was a familiar place after four years of living in a let’s-have-coffee-in-a-hammock-in-the-afternoon kind of lifestyle. I mean it was culture shock to come back to the United States. One I did at Irvine actually was a bit different. I kind of left Costa Rica thinking, “Gosh, if I’m going to go back into academia, I don’t think I want to a researcher. What am I going to do? I feel like I don’t have any skills.” You know, I know how to sex a fly. I know how to sequence DNA. It’s like what are my skills? I felt a little bit lost so I thought maybe nonprofit, I am not sure. Anyway, I found my way back to Irvine and it was in a position that’s called research development. What that means is truly the development of research ideas, the research teams of proposals to fund those ideas and those research teams, so it’s the whole gamut of the research enterprise and I don’t just focus anymore on sustainability issues or even biological issues.


I was in an office that served all of the sciences, medicine in the stem fields, and the reality is that that type of job utilized all of my organizational skills, all of my community skills, all of my diplomacy skills, all of these skills that being this environmental activist my whole life had given me and I just didn’t realize, gosh, they’re truly applicable in so many ways. It was fantastic to be a part of, in some way, all sorts of kind of science going on. It was never boring. It was always the cutting edge work that was going, and really the focus was to provide support for the faculty and researchers working on interdisciplinary projects which, as you know, it’s not usually within their comfort zone or naturally what occurs in a university.


I think the trend in funding has really shifted the trend of what’s going on the university. I also think the fresh, younger professors and researchers are also a lot more keen on interdisciplinary work. I think there’s just a big shift happening in that way and it’s pretty exciting because if you take that back to sustainability, no one discipline could ever solve the problem of sustainability, ever. You know, no one technology is the silver bullet. You need to develop that technology. You need to have the policies in place for that technology to be applicable. Applied, legal, you know there are many technologies that we have that can solve so many of our problems and we can’t use them.


From Irvine, I think as I mentioned before, I got the call from UCLA when they were dreaming up this sustainability project. It was a matter of somebody had met me, knew that I did research and proposal development, also knew I spent time in Costa Rica doing environmental work and activism and this and that, and they thought, “My gosh, we need to combine all of that to have somebody come and lead this program,” and quite honestly, that was a great vision that they had because I think this really is just like the perfect job for me. It’s so amazing. It’s so fun to be a part of. I sometimes miss doing the research, but even in this, I’ve been involved as much as I want to be on that side as well.


Right when I got here, the first project was truly, “Okay, we need to coordinate and develop a research plan. You know we have these goals, we have this vision but, my gosh, how are we possibly going to get there?” I coordinated and brought together 28 faculty from across campus, so very multidisciplinary, organized them into our three major groups of energy, water, ecosystem health. In that energy room, we had lawyers with engineers with policymakers with urban planners and me, a biologist, and some of those conversations were really hard and when you get people with such different perspectives or different ideas of how the problem should be solved, it can be difficult but when you can get over that hump, it can be incredible and just so rewarding. The ideas that come out of that don’t even compare to what you would get being in the room with just a single type of researcher.


Sam: The three goals, renewable energy, locally-sourced water and ecosystem health, which is the hardest one? Which is going to be the hardest one? This is a long-term plan. You said 2050?


Cassie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)


Sam: You’re going to be here for a while.


Cassie: Well, you know. I feel like even if we got 50% of the way there, I feel like it’s still a huge success, right? The hardest … I’ll tell you what. I feel like in energy and water, I think we, even with existing technologies, we can do it. We know it can be done, now can it be done sustainably? Can it be done economically? Can it be done while not imposing hardship on lower-income communities? Can it be done efficiently? Those are all research questions that we need to address in the next five years. With ecosystem health, and that also includes human health and well-being, that one we found was a lot more difficult to, one, define what that meant. You’ll notice it’s the only one that doesn’t have a quantitative goal. It’s not a quantitative goal, I guess, enhanced ecosystem health.


The one thing I want to point out that was very important to me to do is that the language for that started out as something along the lines of “without harming biodiversity to achieve these other two goals,” and then just kind of, “let’s not mess it up any more than we’ve already messed it up.” I said, “No, that’s not ambitious. That’s not acceptable.” I want it to be better. I want urban ecology to be incredible. I want people to think about it, to notice it, for it to be a part of their lives, you now? We realized through the process that we don’t know much about urban ecology, that we don’t know much about the species that exist here. LA is really fantastic and I think most people don’t know unless you’ve spent some time here that there is a lot of protected land. We have a lot of protected land in LA County and so we do know a lot about what happens in the Santa Monica Mountains, for example, because it’s natural, protected land and people do research there. People don’t do research in the concrete jungle.


People think there’s nothing going on, but I think there really is. It’s not ideal what’s going on and there are a lot of invasive species that have now … not invasive, sorry … non-native species that have found their home here so we have a lot to think about on what do we do with those? How do we integrate them? Is it okay? Can a hard-core ecologist get over the idea that sometimes the non-native is okay? There are a lot of questions. Then we’re also so incredibly culturally diverse in LA County. I think we are the most diverse area in the world and so, culturally, what does biodiversity mean to all of these different groups? What does a lawn mean to different groups? Is it a status of an economic status? What does the rosebush mean? It takes up a lot of water, but I mean these things mean different things to different cultures and I think we need to be really sensitive about those feelings and how we integrate all of this and still make it better. I think that one’s the most challenging, quite honestly.


Sam: The lawn was a good example because as you get closer to UCLA and the houses get bigger, the lawns get bigger and the lawns get greener.


Cassie: Oh, they do. It’s no secret. Well, it’s kind of a secret because you can’t, of course, see individual water use but there is, of course, a lot of talk that has been going on with regard to lawns and the use of water and the responsible use of water, and how do we price water so that that type of behavior is deterred in some way? Yeah, definitely the poorest communities already use the least amount of water compared to the wealthier communities. There’s a lot of shaming going on. There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen here, but a lot of great, just personal conservation has already happened. Los Angeles, the state has water-mandated goals right now because of the drought and Los Angeles, I believe, has already met the goals or is only about 1% away from meeting their conservation goals with water. People have stepped up and people are conserving, and it’s going in the right direction. It’s definitely motivated by the drought, which is kind of the only good thing about the drought. Hopefully these are types of behaviors that aren’t so much of an imposition that people will continue.


Sam: Tim Flannery, who we talked to a few months ago, said that the current El Niño is a good thing because it’s given people a bit of a view into the future. The drought is perhaps doing the same thing.


Cassie: Absolutely. Absolutely.


Sam: When it starts raining again, will people forget?


Cassie: I think so.


Sam: Let’s party in the swimming pool again.


Cassie: Yeah, everyone was expecting the El Niño to bring us a bunch of water to LA and it didn’t. Prior to El Niño, the Godzilla El Niño, as it was referred to, everyone was just like, “We’re going to be fine. We’re not going to have to conserve water anymore,” and it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen and so that’s an eye-opener, too, that some of these changes need to be permanent. California is just really incredible as far as being a leader on environmental policies so I think it’ll stick. If the policies stick, then I think we have some hope here.


Sam: California might be a leader on environmental policies, but it’s also, as you say, a concrete jungle with cars everywhere.


Cassie: There are.


Sam: Can a city be sustainable just on those grounds? It doesn’t seem to me that that would be a sustainable model for that. Even if it was all electric powered, it still has to come from somewhere.


Cassie: Right, but what if all cars were electrified and all of our electricity came from renewable sources? That’s pretty sustainable. We’re going to have self-driving cars and the car culture is changing in a sense like never before and at a very rapid rate. We have shared transportation. We don’t just have public transportation anymore. We have Uber and Lyft and what not, and that has really transformed the way LA operates in a huge way. I am personally getting rid of my car. I live in LA. People would’ve thought you were a nut, like, “You can’t do that.” I take public transportation all the time. I have two children and a husband, and we currently have two cars but our lease is up and I’m done. I’m done so we’ll have one car because my husband drives for his job.


It’s not necessary anymore and I think the younger generations, all the studies show the millennials aren’t getting their driver’s license. The millennials are using shared transportation networks and that works better, too, for low-income neighborhoods, you know, the last mile to get to and from public transportation if that’s the hardship. The Los Angeles Metro did just open the train that goes all the way to the Santa Monica Pier now, so that’s the first time since … I can’t remember, the ’60s or something like that. Now, the train, you can go from Downtown Los Angeles all the way to the beach and prior to that, there was essentially no rail transportation on the west side. The greener the lawn, the less public transportation.


Sam: When you’re talking about those energy and water, you said they could be done with existing technologies, but can it be done sustainably? That’s a nice model. I like that. Can it work economically? Can it work in terms of social justice? Is that connection widely felt? Yes, we could solve this technical problem, but that’s not necessarily solving the sustainable approach to it.


Cassie: In general, I think so, and I think that’s partially because we have such great leadership in the Los Angeles mayor’s office. They developed and released their first sustainable city plan in 2015, and that plan is truly a sustainability plan. It’s not an environmental plan so I think when people hear the word “sustainability” in general, because very often, the word “sustainability” has been used to mean environmental but it has a negative connotation and that anyone who is against the environmental movement, because it’s not thinking about business, it’s not thinking about these other things, can be turned off by that. Sustainability is gaining traction globally as a concept and idea that truly encompasses the economic and societal parts of that. Like you just said, something isn’t sustainable if you can’t economically do it. I’ve had that conversation, I can’t tell you how many times, where I’ve had to remind somebody like, “No, we’re not just going to make you use that or make that technology be the way to go. It has to work economically.”


Sam: What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?


Cassie: Oh, that’s a good question. I do often refer to, I guess, what you would see in the Venn diagram, but sustainability in general, of course, is something for us to use today that will not harm future generations or will not leave future generations without resources.


Sam: A Brundtland definition…


Cassie: Yeah, it really is, but that’s what sustainable means, whether you’re talking about the environment or not.


Sam: What do we think that those future generations will be thinking about what people are doing in LA now?


Cassie: Well, hopefully they’ll look back on sustainable LA and they’ll think it’s just amazing because we will have been successful. Gosh, that’s a good question. I think I feel like we’re in a really great era right now. I feel very positive and I’ve been working in environmental movements long enough now to now have always felt like I was gaining traction or that I was being heard, but now you have major leaders who truly believe in this and are progressive enough and visionary enough to see that, “Gosh, if we continue what we’re doing, there are no future generations. There’s nothing for them.” Even today, this is about making quality of life better today and I think we can do both. I feel really good about it right now and maybe it’s because I live in the bubble of California, but again, hopefully we can continue to serve as a model.


Sam: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the last couple of years?


Cassie: The coolest thing?


Sam: Yeah, a thing you’ve seen that you thought, “That’s awesome,” or either you’ve done or you’ve seen one of your colleagues do and you thought, “That’s something we need to bottle. Let’s do that more.”


Cassie: Wow. Well, I had a child in the last three years so I’m going to say that’s the coolest thing I’ve done. I have to say that.


Sam: Let’s not bottle a child.


Cassie: Let’s not bottle the child, but if we could bottle their energy and their spirit, that would be amazing. Gosh, there are so many things. There are a lot of really cool technologies and I feel like everyone has seen this, but I remember that ah-ha amazing moment when I saw the transparent solar, flexible solar panels. I wouldn’t even call them panels, right? You know, the ability to put solar on windows, the ability to put solar in car paint, the ability to put solar on the streets, this is amazing. This is so incredible. We can constantly be getting energy from the sun that comes up every day. That was pretty incredible.


Sam: Do you think we can get there with such technologies, the cool stuff, or are we going to have to consume less?


Cassie: Both. It’s absolutely a combination of the two and that’s funny. I think people have a very different perspective in that, in that a lot of individuals believe that we can continue to consume and do what we want because technology is always going to come around at some point and fix this, which is a strange way to not really take responsibility for your own actions or to be a part of the solutions. I always believe in being a part of the solution and that means you recycle the inside part of the toilet paper roll at my house. Every little thing counts.


I definitely think it’s a combination and in the research plan we developed, that’s really what we came up with, that in order for us to get to local water … We do have quite a bit of rain here in LA, sometimes 12 to 15 inches a year … and that the combination of reduction in consumption and technology combined because with the water, we’re seeing we can already get a huge reduction with just really small behavior changes and so combine that with the technology and yes, that’s how we can get there. Definitely, reduction in consumption needs to happen and we know it can happen and we know we have a lot of room to reduce consumption because if you compare consumption across the world, I mean we have a long way to go. There’s a lot of wiggle room there.


Similarly with energy, most of the energy accomplishments that we’ve seen to date are because of efficiency measures, so not only just consumer behavior, but retrofitting light bulbs. These were consumer changes in consumer behaviors in many ways. The first time you started using the different light bulbs, you were like, “That light’s kind of funny. I don’t really like it,” but I think people are really used to it now. They’re saving a lot of money, saving a lot of energy, so those little things make a really big difference and they’re not imposing too much upon the individual.


Sam: Will those little things add up? Are they enough?


Cassie: Oh, they definitely add up. Those little things, water conservation, we’re a perfect example. That has added up in California. We’re reaching the mandates and we’re doing that simply through our actions. Nobody put in a recycling plant since the mandates came down. This is really all human behavior in reduction and consumption.


Sam: Is anybody complaining about that? Are people having a lesser life because of it? Part of the opposition to the sustainability movement is, “You’re wanting me to go back into the caves.”


Cassie: Right, it’s about the imposition, so it’s about what the individual feels is an imposition. I think with the combination of technology and slight modifications in behavior, that’s where we come to that equilibrium because if you think of the car and you think of even 10 years ago, who would be driving an electric car, someone who like a Charger or a Mustang probably wasn’t going to be driving an electric car, but now there’s the Tesla and it’s sexy and it’s cool and it’s fast. Now you have a different demographic that would drive an electric car that wouldn’t only 5 or 10 years ago. I think together that these things will bring different populations to a point of not feeling like this is such an imposition on them.


Sam: We’re writing a book of these conversations, which is going to be called “Tomorrow’s Heroes.” How would you like your sustainable super power to be seen?


Cassie: I think I’m an organizer. I think I’m a matchmaker and I am a very empathetic. I think I have this super-power ability, truly, to understand the different languages that the folks in the different disciplines are speaking, and translating it enough so that they start to understand what the others are doing and what the contributions are realize that they have so much more in common than not. I do often say, because I am always bringing together different groups of researchers and I’m always saying like, “Gosh, I always feel like I’m a translator. It’s so funny and in so many meetings, I will say exactly this, “I think what he’s trying to say is this,” “I think what she’s trying to say is actually this,” and “that you guys are saying the same thing, just from a different perspective.” These folks have gone on to work together, to write grants together, to do projects together, and it would’ve never happened without my super power.


Sam: I think you’ve already said that you’ve bridged the qualitative and quantitative, but have you managed to bridge the reductionist and systems thinking people?


Cassie: Yeah, a little bit. I definitely am working with those two types of groups. I have had them work together. I brought them in a room together. I do a lot of counseling before and after, truly, but we have some really great visionary system thinkers and they know that they don’t know the tiny details about how the solar is captured and how that’s delivered and how much … They know they don’t know that, but they really are the big system thinkers that we need to kind of help pull this all together. I’ve gotten that group to meet with engineers in water and energy, and it’s tough but they’re working together now because they’re giving them the numbers they need to do the big system calculations. This is one of our first projects that we really hope to have done and released, and I think it will be really provocative and incredible because it’ a “What does LA 2050 look like?” Project. It is a big system thinking project, but it really needed all of the reductionist-type research contributions to make it successful.


Sam: Are you funding spaces for the creative people to contribute to those?


Cassie: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That group is actually led by a world-famous architect who is very creative and their visuals are really what drew us to them because they have just amazing ability to create visuals of a city and to the urban fabric and all of that. Additionally, we have other creatives. We are UCLA. We’re in Los Angeles. We have a fantastic film theater television department. We have a great humanities department with an environmental humanities component, and I just met another professor last week who was super interested in being involved and she’s in the arts. They’ve become integrated in different ways. We had a woman in humanities who was fascinated with the idea of trash and has done projects with students on trash and waste, and what does that mean, again, across cultures? Yeah, so this really is interdisciplinary and this can’t be successful without the contribution from all of them.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Cassie: I think the release of our research work plan. That was really a year in the making and what I think makes it so successful was the ability to bring together the interdisciplinary groups and really develop a solid comprehensive research plan. This is the research we think, across disciplines, needs to be done in the next five years to answer the questions that we’re still not so sure about so that by 2020, we can develop a blueprint or an implementation plan for how the transition would actually happened by 2050. We’re a research university and so we do research well and will stick to doing the research, and we understand that we can’t do this alone and this is so much dependent on partnerships; partnerships with the city, partnerships with the utilities, with other institutions, with civil society, with NGOs, nonprofits. I mean you name it. We have to partner and we’re building those various relationships as we’re doing the research and together. We really want to develop an implementation plan that has input from all of these stakeholders.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Cassie: Absolutely, every day, all day long.


Sam: At work?


Cassie: At work, at home, yeah, absolutely.


Sam: What motivates you?


Cassie: I think what motivates me most is contributing to positive change in the world. I’m a sucker for humanity.


Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Cassie: The challenges of figuring out how you get this fantastic research translated into something that is applicable and implementable, if that’s a word, because that is the struggle. There are so many amazing ideas bouncing around this campus, on any campus, and the percentage of those ideas that actually get translated and applied are very small. We realize that that is probably the biggest challenge for us.


Sam: Speaking in UC Irvine terms, because I don’t know the people here, do you have somebody like Irvine’s Peter Bowler that is going to go out and say, “I’m going to take this neglected area and regenerate it and actually do this work?”


Cassie: Oh, definitely. There are very different degrees of folks in all of the disciplines who are doing very applied work. It’s by far not the majority, but there are definitely your Peter Bowlers here and there are your Peter Bowlers in engineering, too, and there are your Peter Bowlers in law and policy. I have a much better understanding of law and policy, researchers and faculty than ever before. I always was working in the sciences, in the hard natural sciences, physical sciences, and quite honestly, what they’re doing is applied work every single day. That’s the applied work. Now, you can do policy research and then you can write your report and it never makes it into the hands of policymakers, but that’s easy to change. It’s easy to give a report to someone. It’s much more difficult to go out and change the swamp into productive land for a native species like Peter does.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would you like to have happen?


Cassie: Oh, wow. I think what I would like to have happen the most is equity. I would like to see equity and somebody had brought up the other day in a conference I was at, equality is not the same thing as equity, and that is very much true. With regard to energy, with regard to water, with regard to our health and with regard to our ability to enjoy our ecosystem and receive all of the benefits that this has to offer, I really, at the heart of this, I want to see equity. I want everybody to have that same experience and those same options.


Sam: What’s the smallest thing that we could that would have the biggest impact in getting us there?


Cassie: That’s a tough one. I think little things make a difference. I think that, quite honestly, if everyone could think of 5 little things they could do in their life, in their daily routine that didn’t, I don’t think, impose on you too much. It’s very slight modifications. If everybody did those 5 little things, that would have a huge impact. We have 10 million people in LA County. If you had 10 million people taking 1 gallon bucket of water from their shower they ran, that’s a lot of water, right. That’s just one little thing so I think it’s the little things. I think everybody engaged in doing some of the little things, that that’s going to make the biggest cumulative impact.


Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?


Cassie: Advice? Well, if you love sustainability or you love breathing clean air or living in a world that has equity, equality and economic prosperity, then I think everyone can be an activist in a little way. Don’t be discouraged, and that sustainability, as an area, is so broad and so diverse that I think everyone can play an important and interesting role, regardless of what your passion is so take your passion and then you can use your passion for improving life on Earth as we know it.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Cassie: Thank you so much. This was fun.


Sam: You’ve been listening to “Sustainable Lens, Resilience on Radio,” a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. We’re broadcast on Otago Access Radio, OAR.ORG.NZ and podcast on On, we’re building up a searchable archive of conversations of people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations, we try to find out what motivates them, what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight, the sustainable lens was that of Dr Cassie Rauser, who is director of UCLA’s Sustainable LA grand challenge, and a grand challenge it is. You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook, and you can listen to us via iTunes and other places for free. That was “Sustainable Lens,” I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.




computing development

Technology amplifies underlying human forces

Kentaro Toyama

Technology amplifies underlying human forces.

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

Talking points

I realised that with physics you are trying to understand the universe that is not going to change – it exists and the point is discovery – there’s lots of creativity associated with how you discover those things, but it’s convergent, you are ultimately trying to find one solution to a problem. Whereas with computing and engineering, the interesting thing is that it’s diversifying. You are trying to innovate and create things that have never existed, that people have never imagined and may not come into being unless its creators create it.

I became a bit tired of working on problems that were only going to help people who are already quite wealthy and can afford a lot of gadgets. So in 2004 I moved to India to help start a new research lab there, and changed research direction to look at how technologies can be used to address global poverty.

Initially I thought that we could do projects where some kind of new digital technology would make a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty, to increasing healthcare, to improving education, especially in India’s poorest communities – rural villages and urban slums. But as I did more and more of that work I began to see that it usually wasn’t the technology that made a difference, but who we worked with – our partners…that made a difference whether our outcomes were positive or not.

Curiosity driven research with desire to have social impact

Technology amplifies underlying human forces. Ironically what that means is that often in the very places we want the technology to have a positive impact it fails to gain a foothold because there is either a missing human intention or a missing capacity.

The “cult of technology” is the idea that increasingly we are living in a world where we believe that there are technological solutions to just about everything…classically “there’s an app for that”…meaning that there’s a mobile application for just about any problem that you might have in your life. Technology is certainly powerful, and amplification means that for people who have solid education, who have good social ties, who know how to use technology – they can make incredible use of it. But technology’s positive power isn’t embedded in the technology itself, it actually comes from the use that people make of it – which means that ultimately it’s the people who decide whether a technology is going to have a positive impact, a negative impact or no impact at all.

In the context of international development, what this means is that exactly in those places where human institutions are not functioning, technology is not likely to help either.

Efforts (eg in democracy) are not doomed, work to the extent that they amplifying existing forces towards democracy.

Democracy is inherently a political thing, it requires human beings to push for it, argue for it, …those things can be mediated through technology, but it’s never the technology that causes them.

Very difficult to find good ways to use technology in areas of abject poverty, not because it can’t be done, but because people are missing other things that they need in order to fully utilise the technology…good solid basic education, politically marginalised without strong social ties to people in power…those constraints make it difficult to use the technology to dramatically change their situation.

(On the promise of wikipedia etc)..content is the bare minimum…role of education is motivation

I’m not saying we should give up on technology…better technology better engine, still need a driver.

It is extremely tempting to look for technology solutions for sustainability, certainly there will be technologies that we will have to use to attain a more sustainable civilisation. But ultimately the decisions are very human in nature, and at large scale are political. We have to win those human political fights before the technology will actually have impact.

At some level we all know what we have to do to achieve sustainability – we have to consume less, we need to be more respectful of the environment, we need to make sure that the resources we use are being replenished – and while better technologies can help us do those things better, we’re not even taking the most elementary steps as a society to do the sustainability things we could be doing. Which suggests that even if we had great technology, we still might not use them towards a sustainable ends.

Again, technology amplifies underlying human forces – as soon as we as a global civilisation decide that sustainability is sufficiently important, I have no doubt that we will use the technology that we have, and invent new technologies that will help us achieve it, but until we make up our minds to chase that, it won’t make a difference if we have the best technologies in the world, we’ll still not use them for the right purposes.

I think of social change being primarily driven by a process of human maturation – in the sense of people becoming wiser and better and kinder human beings, we can debate exactly what that means, but most of us have a sense…that there’s a continuum…criminal drug lords…saintly, and there’s a sense of a spectrum of humanity, I think that as people our greatest challenge is trying to move up that escalator, being better versions of ourselves. I think the social change we want to seek is a world where all of us are better versions of ourselves. If we can achieve that, even by increments, then the technology will follow, we will use the technology in better and wiser ways.

(Success) Small internal incremental changes – spending more time on work that has social impact, being less concerned with achievements that have public recognition.

(Challenges) Trying to make the world a more equitable place. The two biggest challenges of our civilisation are inequality and sustainability. They’re both incredibly challenging problems that I’ll be happy if I can make even a small contribution.

Research – find forces that technology could amplify that we have overlooked…for example channelling powerful religious motivations

(Activist) Generally not, but because my impact is through other people, my students or partner organisations.

(Motivation) I think that all of life is basically a succession of moments of consciousness…and each one of those moments has the capacity to be either painful or happy, or somewhere in between. I think that our purpose from moment to moment is to try to make as many of the future moments of consciousness as happy as possible. Those might be my own, but also other people or other forms of life, or other animals to some extent. So to the extent that I can, I would like to ensure more happy moments of consciousness.

The questions of sustainability are whether future generations will have the same potential moments of happiness. Are we right now taking massive withdrawals from the potential for human civilisation to continue having happy moments of consciousness at the level those wealthy of us now are enjoying?

Technology will help as soon as we commit to sustainability as an issue that is important to us. Until then, it’s not a technological question.

(Challenges) I’m very conscious that most of my challenges are internal…I’m aware of a need for comfort, while not doing everything that I can for the goals that I have. I can expect anyone else to change if I can’t change myself in those ways.

(Miracle) Everyone to have increase in some percent wisdom.

Each one of us to pursue whatever we aspire to in a single minded way

(Advice) Follow your heart.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

energy engineering oil politics

Fracking good science

Richard Davies

Fracking…hydraulic fracturing… but the term now encompasses the whole debate about the use of fossil fuels in the modern world.

Professor Richard Davies on how fracking has been such a game changer for the petroleum industry, what are its costs and benefits, and why it has become such a flashpoint for sustainability.

Professor Davies took up the post of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Engagement & Internationalisation) at Newcastle University. He is a petroleum geologist, with a particular focus on hydraulic fracturing used to exploit shale gas and oil. Richard is an advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas. He tells us that he is agnostic about the issue of shale gas and oil exploitation but very outspoken about his commitment to expanding the evidence base in the European fracking debate. He is Project Lead of ReFINE.

We ask Prof Davies if fracking is inherently damaging – either in its own right or for its implications for climate change, and why it has become a poster child for unsustainability. But first, we ask him about his own voyage of discovery, and what led him to train as a petroleum geologist.

Talking points

My job in the petroleum industry was where to put the next well…but I found I was more interested in fundamental questions about geoscience

Fracking is an example of how technology has improved and allowed us to access oil and gas that no one thought we could get

The reason we stop getting oil and gas will because it is so damaging or because it becomes so expensive to get hold of it that no one would pay for it.

It may be that oil becomes a precious substance – no one would dream of burning it – that would be crazy…it would just be used for a select group of products or processes for which there is no alternative.

Technology may unlock more oil reserves in the future, but the key question is do we really need to burn it? Perhaps we shouldn’t be burning it and using it for something else.

Peak oil was turned upside down by fracking

Oil and gas companies are answerable to shareholders, and their shareholders are you and I.

A cup of oil contains a huge amount of energy, and it is difficult to replicate that and produce the same amount of profit from renewable energy…so unfortunately it’s an unequal battle

(Comparison of coal to renewable energy) I don’t believe a Russian man…in Russia mining some coal, putting it on a train to a boat, the boat coming to the UK, putting the coal on another train, to a power station, and thus burning it and then capturing the C02 at that point – because we haven’t captured all the C02 along the way

In a cradle to grave carbon footprint, that coal has come a long way…

Energy storage is so important for renewables

If we put the R&D spend in the oil and gas industry into other things such as energy storage…wow.

Fracking…hydraulic fracturing… but the term now encompasses the whole debate about the use of fossil fuels in the modern world.

The whole fracking process has a lot more intensity to it than drilling a normal well because of the need for fracking fluid, and the chemicals required, and the disposal of that

We come from an agnostic, neutral perspective – we’re not for or against fracking – and therefore we’re unpopular with both sides of the debate…we’ve positioned ourselves just right, we’re neutral, we’re academics.

The long term impact will be in looking after the bore holes…in 50 years time.

Every extractive industry has downsides…this isn’t rocket science, we need to understand the risks and manage them

This is a fossil fuel, that won’t do climate change any good. You can reduce it…but we haven’t got a replacement right now

Some of the reasons people don’t like fracking is because it is an extractive industry, it won’t help climate change and there is a level of risk

There’s a huge debate about renewables versus fossil fuels and fracking is right in the centre of that debate.

There’s the technical stuff and the social stuff, the two are very linked and it ain’t all about the science

We have a handle on the science…but not enough…lots of good questions we don’t have the answers to

In a way, industry has made this all happen, but the questions haven’t been solved at the same rate the industry has been deployed.

The questions have reached a bit of a crescendo, coming from all quarters, we have a handle on it, but we don’t know everything.

I’ve learned a lot in the last four years…firstly admitting we don’t have all the answers, listening to people, I’ve never thought “that’s not a good question”. Of course its a good question, I’ve huge respect for people who get involved and ask questions. That’s forced us scientists to look at things, it’s forced industry to look as well, and I don’t think industry knew the answers to some of the questions members of the public were asking.

Companies have got better at taking the public questions seriously, to research them and to provide good answers.

We’re often training someone to be highly specialised, but we also need more cross disciplinary people who can see energy from across the spectrum

We need a new breed of technical people who can see the world in a slightly different way.

We need people to be open and frank and aware of more than their own little postage stamp piece of the puzzle.

(Superpower) Think of the long term, not just the next five years.

(Success) changing the law in the UK so companies not allowed to frack with 1km or the surface, therefore protecting people’s water supplies.

(Activist) No. For me that is a personal question, personally about me living on my farm with solar panels, my two kids and my wife. I’m a scientist I come in to do this as neutral person. I don’t want to mix my personal views – my personal setting, my personal history, my background, with the science that I do – I thinks that’s an incorrect mixture

(Motivation) Discovery

(Challenge) Make the project more international, we’ve been a bit Europe-centric…continue the job we’ve done successfully but on an international stage

(Miracle) Long term independent funding, we’ve fought hard to be independent,

(Advice) Keep asking good questions.

Keeping the light shone on the fossil fuel industry will make for a better world.

This was conversation was recorded at Newcastle University in September 2015. The Framing Fracking paper mentioned is here.

electricity generation energy engineering

Civic science – what are you good for?

Phil Taylor

We sell electricity in units, rather than as a service – so the electricity companies want us to buy more. So the market is diametrically opposed to energy efficiency. Every time we use less energy they make less profit.

Prof Phil Taylor is Director of the Sustainability Institute at Newcastle University. We talk about his increasingly transdisciplinary career and the changes required for a transition to a decarbonised energy system.

Talking points

I was always searching for application domains, reasons for doing it.

My career has become more and more interdisciplinary….really stimulating and challenging.

The big question for me is about seeking sustainability, sustainable solutions. It’s about trying to understand complex systems.

I’m a systems thinker, I like to think of things as complex interacting, interdependent systems. I tend not to be a component person, or a siloized thinker, I always look for understanding the complexity and the interdependencies in a system – and therefore I try to solve sustainability problems but I’m always looking at the earth, or an engineered or a natural environmental system and that leads me to need to develop relationships, working partnerships with people in different disciplines.

Influences…Centre for Alternative Technology….Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

There was a gap in my career, my undergraduate training as an engineer – sustainability was never mentioned, early industry…before I came back to sustainability.

It wasn’t about new energy, at best it was efficient use of old energy.

The automotive industry…just felt like toys for burning petrol.

As soon as a saw a career opportunity in sustainability I jumped on it.

That’s how I got to interdisciplinarity, I realised that it didn’t matter how clever the piece of hardware or software was, unless the commercial and regulatory framework changed, and people’s energy practices changed, we wouldn’t get to the decarbonisation that we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The transitions required in each field are related but different.

The challenge in energy is to cut across the silos and stakeholders. You can’t make a case for energy storage if you are only looking at the wires, or only looking at the retailers, or only looking at the generators. If all these things are separate, you can’t make a compelling business case for something that is hugely transformative in just one of those silos – it takes an integrated approach.

We sell electricity in units, rather than as a service – so the electricity companies want us to buy more. So the market is diametrically opposed to energy efficiency. Every time we use less energy they make less profit.

Consumers need to be empowered to take part in the smart energy system. People and organisations – their choices about the energy they use and when they use it,are crucially important.

More diversity in when people use energy enables a more sustainable system.

We might chose not to drive across town in rush hour because we can see the congestion…but we don’t have the same visibility of energy congestion. We just flip the switch and the power comes through

It needs a mix of information provision, awareness and incentives.

You have to start with demand. If we continue to use energy in the way we are now, it doesn’t matter what we do with renewable energy, we’re chasing a moving target and we’re doomed.

We have to get demand down while we work on the technological breakthrough. But even if we get the breakthrough, it’s not going to make much of difference unless we get the regulatory, commercial and social changes to go with it.

Population change, and the thirst for growth in businesses will outstrip most, if not all, technological developments we’re going to make over the next 20-30 years.

Civics…means asking yourself what are you good for? as much as asking yourself what are you good at? So a goal of the Institute is to drive social impact.

One of the measures of interdisciplinarity is how early in the research process did that start? Did you actually frame the research questions in an interdisciplinary way. Not just the researchers, are the end users, the communities involved in this early framing process?

The research metric framework doesn’t favour interdisciplinary research.

Sustainability is now hard-wired into engineering courses.

Science Central…will become an exemplar of urban sustainability.

We want to make planning of cities more inclusive…in a “decision theatre”.

(Superpower) Bring about change – overcome social, cultural and organisational inertia.

(Success) Securing funding then running, the biggest smart grid project in the UK – Customer-led Network Revolution, done with industry it took a socio-technical approach to smartgrids. It took interdisciplinarity seriously.
People are flexible in time of energy use, and are willing and able to do that.

Tipping point is decarbonising the grid.

(Activist) If I’m in a romantic view about myself I would like to think that, but if I’m really honest I’d say no. I’m too part of mainstream academia and industry to call myself an activist. I’d have to be a bit braver.

I’m drawn to that quote – is it better to be on the inside, part of the establishment, be challenging person in that establishment – I think I am – is it better to be outside as an activist trying to get change that way. I suppose I’ve chosen the former as a better way to get things done, but it does mean you have to compromise to some extent.

(Motivation) Seeing real impact, working on genuine problems, working with people, enthusiastic about what they are doing

(Challenge) Realising the vision on Science Central.

(Miracle) Low cost, long life-time, environmentally benign energy storage. (how far away is that?) Not tomorrow, ten years at the very least.

(Advice) Be careful about listening to anybody. Be prepared to change your mind – revel in being proved wrong, see that as a positive thing.

policy science

Challenging deep assumptions

Hans Bruyninckx

Over the long term a pillars model is intellectual nonsense, you cannot have a little bit of sustainability on a finite planet.

Professor Hans Bruyninckx is Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. He says we need to move from a focus on efficiency, to one of transition.

Talking points

It is a time we need to challenge things.

We need to challenge ourselves through better analysis what is driving fundamental unsustainability – how we produce things, how we consume things – and at the same time how we overcome that, and how we organise a transition to a more fundamental sustainability on this planet.

I wanted to do research that had relevance and I strongly believe in the responsibility that comes with knowledge – the privileged position which you have as a researcher in society.

I feel incredibly privileged (to be leading EEA), this is a fantastic organisation.

We take a systemic view, we look at four systems in society we think will need to become fundamentally more sustainable: energy; food and agriculture; transport and mobility; and urban and built environment systems.

All of the elements are connected, pieces in the knowledge puzzle, and our value is in connecting the dots.

Sustainability for me is living well within the limits of the planet.

That means taking those limits very seriously as a boundary condition, it’s not “living well and also thinking about the environment”, it’s living well with the limits of the planet, it’s a very different thing.

We need to move away from this idea that that we somehow have to pay attention in the socio-economic also to the environment and when we do we call it sustainability. In the long run, on a finite planet with limited resources with more people rightly demanding a decent lifestyle.

Sustainability is not about adding a little bit of environment to social and economic development – it’s about fundamentally organising our society while embracing the boundary conditions, and these are about environment and climate and natural resources, that’s the real meaning for me about sustainability.

We need a higher integrated approach (than a pillars approach), the issue is not adding a green pillar to the economy and then a bottle of champagne when the green economy grows 50% (from 6% to 8%) – the real success is greening the economy, which is a very different way of dealing with natural resources. (Sustainability is)… going from a linear model where you dig stiff up, you produce something that you use a limited number of times, then you throw it away. We need a circular economy, it’s about decarbonisation of our core systems, rethinking our energy systems, it’s about fundamentally understanding our ecosystems and the value of natural capital.

The so-called conflict between agriculture and nature – which you see in many countries – I don’t think the fundamental question is how we can solve the conflict between nature and people and farmers, I think the fundamental question is how we have come to a system of food production and consumption that is a key stress factor on the environment, when the basis should be the environment. That points to a much more integrated view of long term sustainability.

Over the long term a pillars model is intellectual nonsense, you cannot have a little bit of sustainability on a finite planet.

We will have to make our core systems of production and consumption essentially sustainable.

We have decoupled our economic production to a large extent from forms of pollution, but in essence, we need to move to a deeper, more systemic long term thinking.

Moving from the Venn diagram to an egg model: where we organise our socio-technical system with the environment, not just taking environment into account – that’s a pretty fundamental paradigm shift.

We need to understand the dynamics of locking in the characteristics of our current unsustainability, and then we need to understand how we can nurture more niche innovation and give that the space to become more mainstream and to upscale. We have to accept failure (in those innovations). The change we need is so fundamental it will require experimentation and it will require thinking and acting out of the box – and we can’t expect everything we invest in to work.

Encouraging niche creativity and innovation, and at the same time understanding what locks us into unsustainability is key.

(can we get transition incrementally?) The jury is out there. Yes, in some way we can go in incremental steps – if you think of urban mobility… Copenhagen’s mobility has been incremental but challenging deep assumptions – it is now operating at the speed of the bicycles – that’s quite a paradigm shift.

I think it will be a mix of more abrupt change and incremental change. We need to understand where the tipping points are – when can we say we are really entering a new paradigm. Last year was the first year that we added mode renewable energy capacity than traditional capacity – is that a tipping point?

It’s easy to shout from the sidelines that we need a revolution, but when you’re trying to push from within the system you realise that you shouldn’t under estimate the forces that are embedded within the current system.

I believe in the capacity of the system to point in the direction. The 7th Environment Action Programme is a very progressive and rather fundamental document. It was formulated after the Global Financial Crisis and people said “it’s all going to be about the economy and jobs now”, but this proves them wrong.

I believe in the adaptive capacity and forward thinking of institutions, but of course you need pressure from society, academic and other knowledge work to point in the right direction, critical forces outside and inside the system.

What we do (EEA) should be aligned to the policy agenda, how we do it comes from our independence – we are a critical voice.

We (EEA) don’t consider communication as a tail-end add-on to what we do, it is an integral part of the approach we have to policy making.

If we understand that the challenges of changing our system are rather complex and there are degrees of uncertainty in that, then we should find a language, find images to communicate that – because it would be almost intellectually dishonest to present them as single cause issues, or simple issues. We see that on social media “if only we would do this simple thing we could solve it” but it probably would not – most issues in society are rather complex, if it only took a five minute decision in one direction, then we probably would have done it. We have a duty to explain complexity, but we do it in terms that speak to those who have to make the decisions, and that’s not easy.

We need to move from an efficiency to a transition paradigm.

The air we breathe, that enters my body is the result of polices that have been implemented or not, so in a way that is political, what I eat is political, my body is political.

The structured agency debate – we all have responsibility, but we do it within systems that surround us.

(EEA’s) communication framework, five narratives, storylines that frame things. One of our core storylines is that environmental issues are not at the outskirts of the debate – this is about production and consumption, hence who we are as a modern society. So it’s at the centre of the debate, the centre of distribution and hence the centre of societal issues.

For a lot of people, environment is sort of on the outside: “if we solve the social and economic issues, then we’ll have time to talk about the environment, you’re not in the room”. Well, yes, we are in the room.

Living well within the planet’s limits is a necessity, not a luxury.

We (EEA) are not doomsday thinkers or communicators. Yes, we have serious information, and yes we need to face reality – whether it is implementation gaps or trend lines that are not positive…but I think we have found a language to say “the problems are serious, but we see a lot of pathways, or at least potential pathways to move out of this and go into a better life that is future oriented”. That, I think has opened a lot of doors for our message.

Areas of the world clearly need qualitative growth, but that doesn’t mean we need to organise those urban infrastructures around individual car use, that doesn’t mean we need to organise food systems based upon unsustainable consumption of meat and sugar – but the need for qualitative growth we cannot ignore, it would be unethical.

We need to reflect on what growth means in a global perspective and also draw the consequences of growth for those not in need of quantitative growth – the contrary, and need to reflect on the footprint of our current lifestyle.

(Success) The agency produced a State and Outlook of the Environment Report that made clear the need for transitions in a way that engages others to discuss and think of a positive future, and not in a way that closes the debate or marginalise the environment.

(Activist?) I consider myself very much convinced of the responsibility that comes with knowledge and the specific knowledge in my role, so yes. I think I have the responsibility to use the agency (small a) I have as an actor, so in that sense I could be considered an activist.

As an academic I was active in environmental organisations. I don’t see a conflict, I had a very clear line.

(Motivation) I love what I am doing – it’s science based, knowledge based policy work. I don’t just manage, it’s knowledge and value based in a highly relevant context, I find that fantastic that I’m allowed to do this.

(Challenge) Translate our fundamental analysis in a way that keeps the momentum going in Europe, going in the direction of transition.

(Miracle) The discourse that environmental and climate policies are against economic interests would disappear from our planet. (On a daily basis – other places learn from Copenhagen’s mobility pattern – what a difference).

(Advice) Pessimism has never really solved anything, we have to be realistic optimists – that motivates us too, to be active participants in change – in other words, if you want to change things, try to be the change you want to see.

computing design energy

Participating co-developers

Maria Angela Ferarrio

The task becomes to bring values into technology you develop.

Dr Maria Angela Ferrario is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster Management School working on Catalyst, an EPRSC funded community-led research project aimed at developing next generation digital technologies for social innovation. Her research interests lie in innovation studies, interdisciplinary research methods and the impact of digital innovation on society. We talk about the On Supply initiative on the Isle of Tiree and using participatory development to overcome tensions between innovation and sustainability.

Talking points

There is a thread – understanding of human relationships and human dynamics, how we interact and how this is communicated.

Digital innovation for social innovation, and what sustainability means in that.
The sustainability of life on the planet as a frame has been a the forefront of my mind since I was a teenager.

I had a problem, innovation, especially digital innovation seems to be contrasting with sustainability. So I questioned that a lot.

(Italian philosopher) Innovation is going to happen, you decide whether it happens with or without values you believe in.

The task becomes to bring values into technology you develop.

Being open to change, and values of democracy and participation at the core of technology.

Respect for people we work with – the people we work with are equal partners in research.

How technology could first investigate and then facilitate the synchronisation of energy consumption to the time varying availability of renewable energy supply.

We used to have energy on demand, now that is not the case, what does that mean to our daily behaviour?

Energy as a community resource

Core characteristic is the time varying ability of energy supply

(Children exploring with energy treasure hunt) thinking about energy as positive force you can harness, but also something you need to respect.

A Real butterfly affect…you do not know the reach or the ripples of your actions…that a child found a previously thought extinct butterfly on a school trip exploring energy makes me hopeful there are many different entry points to complex societal problems – they can be tackled in many different ways.

The most important thing is a mind set that is open to change and also open to let things go, and also open to transcendence.

Our participants were most definitely co-developers.

Establishing an empathetic relationship with the element (wind) makes the value of the number deeper and more connected to action and change.

(from participant) “…we are in a privileged position to learn to synchronise our lives to natural rhythm.

If I can adapt my life to the production of natural renewable energy that won’t be to the detriment of the planet, I don’t see why I’m not going to use my time to do that.

The key motivation for people was to learn how to synchronise their consumption behaviour to the availability of clean energy for a time when renewable clean energy has a bigger share in the basket

We are aware that at the moment we have energy whenever we want, but we are also aware that we are having a detrimental impact on the environment

So it’s a good thing for me to prepare to change my patterns of consumption for a time when renewable energy is going to be more available and at the same time learn practices that are less aggressive on the prospect of sustainability of life for the planet of the future.

Even I, totally committed to the sustainability agenda, found myself going to the shop to buy a coffee (after experimenting with a self imposed rule of not brewing a coffee when the campus wind turbine wasn’t spinning).

This mentality of “I need it, I need it now”, is so ingrained in us. We need to accept that, or weakness, but it’s good to be aware of that. It’s good to play with technologies that unearth that.

We learned we live in an industrial age still. The 9-5 pattern, going to work regardless of the light…we started thinking, what if our life practices were more in tune with seasonal patterns.

I’m very conscious that energy is a metaphor for climate change, sustainability.

The way we approach sustainability should be grounded

(Motivation?) The life on the planet. I’m not religous but I quite treasure the fact that I had the opportunity to be alive on the planet, and like me, the billions of different people and creatures.

For me, sustainability is giving the opportunity to this life to be self sustaining.

(Activist?) Active but not activist

(Challenge?) Sustaining myself because when you start getting your head around the complexity of the word sustainability, you can see how you may try to work on a path of values that are quite contrasting from the mainstream, so it’s a bit of a compromise between the two.

(Miracle?) For me the miracle is that everybody at the same time will wake up with a magic wand – the most interesting experience of seeing how people decide to have the world look like.

(Advice?) Use less the word “wrong” and ask more the question “why?” whenever we hear words and sentences from people we do not agree with.

education maori

Living and learning as the environment

David McKay

Sustainability is a way of thinking and a way of being. It’s a way of embodiment, it has nothing to do with study, it has nothing to do with opinion, it has to be with way that you be, that you are.

David McKay is a researcher at University of Otago’s CSAFE. His recently completed PhD thesis considers the relationships between Māori cultural perspectives and environmental education policy or practice.

Talking points

As a science and technology based society we tend to assume that technology can solve everything and tend to overlook that we are a biological species and part of the environment rather than separate to it

We tend to overlook the gap between cause and effect in nature that tends to be from twenty and fifty years. So If I do something I won’t know the consequences for about 50 years, in management we tend to manage for about five years…

Fifty year management plans start to acknowledge the ecological gap

(David Orr) teachers need to be specialised generalists

Our problems started when we began to think we were bigger than nature, we got too big for our boots.

The environment doesn’t have a crisis, humans have a crisis.

It’s a bit like a learner surfer – a grommet – out in the big surf and not noticed that all the experienced surfers have gone in before the waves start dumping , in our society we’ve got an invisible wave building, we don’t know how big it is going to be, we don’t know when it is going to crash,but there’s nothing surer than it’s going to crash – there’s going to be consequences for the history that we have, its just a matter of whether we survive or not. That’s why I’m interested in resilience.

We used to have worms on the footpaths after rains, that doesn’t happen any more, but no one is literate enough of the environment to stop and wonder why. That’s an indicator, worms are in soils that are healthy, if there are no worms than our soils aren’t healthy – we manicure everything, nuke our gardens lawns and parks to control what we call pests…the trouble is they’re not discriminate, they kill the pests they kill the worms… and if the chemicals we put in the garden are doing in the worms in the garden it’s doing in you as well.

No one wants to hear what really needs to be said and done because it’s telling that naughty kid that they can’t play with the stick anymore. Same consequences, just more serious than breaking windows – we’re talking about survival and continuance here. We break this environment, evolution is going to carry on with or without us, what we’re playing with is whether we are going to be a part of that or not.

When the consequences are there, it’s too late. 20-50 years of damage and symptoms building up, it’s going to take at least that to undo it.

Environmental Education, Education for Sustainability, it doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s common sense

What does make sense is learning for survival and continuance with integrity

Understandings of environmental education amongst practitioners

There’s nothing in the (environmental education) literature that anything like matches up with the “old ways”.

People interpret the curriculum in a western point of view rather than a holistic view

Could we come up with a multi-cultural paradigm?

For many people the environment is something magical, out there, away from where we are. This totally overlooks that not only are we – you and me – in the environment right now, we are the environment.

Engagement and connection is what’s missing.

We haven’t lost the connection…we’ve forgotten it. We just forgotten that we are part of all that is. we haven’t lost anything, we’re not disconnected, we’ve forgotten what we are.

We are inextricably interconnected, interrelated and interdependent on all that is.

We lose sight of this simplicity – and that’s what we need to rediscover.

Elders tend to speak less, but more cryptically. When they do speak it’s a good idea to listen.

It is part of multi-culture that it is cryptic, there are levels of understanding of the same message. Education is about readiness, if you are up to getting the message then so be it, if you’re not then nothing is wasted.

A taonga said to me “you pakeha fellas, You measure the readiness of our young people by them giving the right answer – what the system wants – we measure readiness by our young people by them asking the right questions, and that is a different thing entirely”.

A very important to learning in traditional Māori ways is critical thinking and individual identity, and having the mana and self confidence to be yourself, and stand to your rights and ask those questions and if it doesn’t match up, to disagree.

Living and learning as the environment or as part of, rather than in the environment, about the environment or even for the environment.

People coming from cooperative societies (the marae)… walking with feet very firmly in both worlds, and that’s something awesome.

In many cultural worlds time has no meaning…but timing is everything.

(David interviewees were) aghast at the thought that anyone could think the other way – how could you not understand that you are related to everything – we are all stardust.

Learning is about actualising the potential of being the best of the best of who you can be, and because it is about being the best of who you can be, and we can never be the same, we can never be taught the same things. In a crisis we all know something a bit different, we all know each others’ strengths and we can all work together very strongly…makes a very strong and resilient community.


  • Whakapapa, more than genealogy – it’s about learning about relationships/li>
  • Self identity
  • Survival skills
  • Community cohesion
  • Transferal and continuance
  • Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner. Learning is a life journey

    I don’t agree that you have to go to pristine areas – ‘the hills are alive with sound of music’ – no, it’s about understanding that we are biological beings and part of ecology. Pure and simple, if you don’t get that then there is no such thing as sustainability.

    We’re learning for well being, and if you’re well then you can be resilient, a little bit of flexibility and adaptability, and then you can survive, and then you can continue.

    It’s like the car accident mentality – it can’t possibly happen to me”, well it is happening, except it’s not an accident, we are causing the disaster.

    Activist? Not really. Educator. I have a reputation for saying what needs to be said, and not necessarily politely. But frankly we haven’t got time to be polite.

    Challenges: Help shift the paradigm.

    Advice: Get out on streets rather than facebook.


    David Orr
    Educating as if the earth matters

    Soil erosion rate is about 10 times faster than the rest of the world (PCE report)

    Matauranga taio:
    Guidelines for Environmental Education in NZ

    computing planning visualisation

    Dr Olaf Schroth

    Olaf Schroth

    Dr Olaf Schroth works for the Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  CALP focuses on accessible solutions that bridge research and practice by bringing rigorous science and modeling, visualizations, innovative environmental design and participatory processes to community and landscape planning.

    In this extended interview Olaf talks with Samuel Mann about participatory collaborative planning through visualisation.

    environmental entrepreneur management

    Dr Sara Walton

    Dr Sara Walton from University of Otago (link).  Sara’s  research includes analysing triple bottom line (TBL) company reports and constructions of sustainability, examining ecopreneurial businesses in New Zealand, and business responses to climate change and natural resource based conflicts.

    Shane’s number of the week: 319 to 1. On average, a CEO earns 319 times more than the average worker in their company.

    Sam’s jointed-up thinking: The Virtues of Ignorance–what would cultures and human interactions in the world look like, if we commenced every endeavor  and conversation with the humbling assumption that human understanding is limited by an ignorance that no amount of additional information can solve?