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A Sustainability Hall Pass

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hawken.jpgSustainability starts with framing our thoughts differently, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken told a crowd of several hundred at the Solutions Summit on May 22. The event brought together people from the private sector, government and academia to explore strategies that advance sustainability. To those who attended, Hawken's address gave a platform off which to think. No matter what organization was represented, the ideas generated by the summit and his address can be applied anywhere.

Hawken mentioned that "sustainability" is now part of our vocabulary while it has never been defined. But sustainability is not a single solution where we meet a goal that marks us as sustainable or unsustainable. It is action toward a state in which a system is connected to much of itself. For example, imagine a supply chain that models an ecosystem, where all its "waste" is used in another process. A human system trying to mimic this is one that is moving toward sustainability. With so many perceptions and new technologies, there is consistent room for improvement or change. 

In our attempts to connect things to themselves, we have the opportunity to change our thinking in a way that might unlock greater solutions. Hawken noted that if environmental issues happen for us instead of to us, the opportunities we have to solve them become a gift. Great innovations can emerge when we think of ourselves as a system.  We've gotten a "fantastic hall pass from the Creator saying 'go change.'" The fact that many of our vital environmental systems have not shut down after years of human-induced stress seems to confirm that we have an opportunity, instead of the mess, facing us. 

The best part is that Hawken's message speaks to each audience member's situation. The Solutions Summit's goal was to "bring sustainability practitioners and researchers from business, industry, the nonprofit sector and academia together to identify and advance strategies for collaboratively solving sustainability challenges." Everyone can bring a new perspective of thinking back to their workplace or their personal lives to improve sustainability in specific ways that work for their place in the system. As examples, Hawken cited his own entrepreneurial work with a company called OneSun and HBO's look at the sustainability of our food system in "The Weight of the Nation."

Hawken emphasized the importance of approaching sustainability with systematic thinking. He said we're "truly alive" when we act for those that we don't know and will never meet, because they're part of life, too. "There is no failure, there is only action" should become an unchanging motto if we would like sustainability to move forward.  

Unusual Species Spotted at IonE

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On Friday, May 4,  IonE was happy to host a species seldom seen in an environmental center,p_matteucci 2.jpg a venture capitalist!

Paul Matteucci, General Partner at U.S. Venture Partners in Silicon Valley, stopped by to talk to the IonE community about venture capital, and specifically, Paul's interest in the global food market.

Venture capitalists are important players in the whole innovation ecosystem. Most people probably think of them as investing in some young geeks in Silicon Valley, but they operate in many markets and industries and supply an important source of capital for new businesses. Paul, a self-described foodie, has interest rethinking the global industrial food system. He says, "The demographic models point to a peaking of the world's population below 10 billion by 2050. Getting from here to there without massive starvation and environmental damage is a major challenge for governments and businesses. But it is also an enormous opportunity for entrepreneurs, with creative ideas, to build valuable companies that address this issue."

You can understand why he was at IonE. In addition to his common interest in the global food system, he wanted to talk to faculty and graduate students about the kinds of opportunities VCs look to for new investments. It's not a path many in this part of the University always think about as an outlet for their research, so Paul wanted to plant the seed in people's mind of these kinds of investments as a way to scale some of their ideas. He talked about the types of ideas venture capitalists like - for example businesses that have the opportunity to scale. Facebook has 900 million users globally. That's interesting to an investor. A social media network scalable to just your neighborhood, not so much.

Paul also said venture capital investments are all about failure. The well known metric is that only one in 10 investments makes money. Even if that one in 10 makes a LOT of money, a couple more may do OK, and the rest don't return their original investment. And that's just the ones they invest in. There are hundreds of other plans considered and rejected for every investment made. And if you do get funding and fail, that's OK. Entrepreneurs learn from their failures (although you can't fail ALL the time). All investments have some risk. That's why the federal government is a terrible VC (see the fuss about Solyndra). Failure doesn't look good in a political setting.

Stay tuned to hear more about some other activities Paul is working on, collecting innovative ideas from across the globe around the topic of feeding 10 billion people. If you would like to read more about presenting to venture capitalists, these lecture notes from a recent talk by a VC at Stanford are interesting (a little sarcastic but interesting).

Photo courtesy of U.S. Venture Partners

A Tale of Two Institutes

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peter_reich_web.jpgIt's not unusual for university faculty to have multiple affiliations. Less common is to have them 9,000 miles away from each other.

Institute on the Environment resident fellow Peter Reich, a Regents professor and Distinguished McKnight University professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Forest Resources, recently added a joint affiliation as founding director of the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE) of the University of Western Sydney (yes, as in Sydney, Australia) to his list of titles. For Reich, the distance involved is worth every inch for the opportunity it offers to connect scientists around the globe in the search for knowledge of what we must do to help our planet survive and thrive in the face of human-induced change.

The Hawkesbury institute, which opened last month, is one of the world's most advanced research sites for studying how terrestrial ecosystems respond to environmental change. Reich is helping guide, with two full-time onsite co-directors, the new institute as it grows and develops. His primary role is to "stir the pot" science-wise and cultivate a culture of collaborative team science. He will also use his international connections to draw researchers to HIE for short-term collaboration, permanent employment and everything in between. Research taking place at HIE builds on, complements, and will link with work at University of Minnesota field stations such as Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and Cloquet Forest Center focused on exploring how ecosystems respond to variations in the composition of the atmosphere.

The logistics of having two offices half a world away from each other may be a bit complicated, but Reich says Skype calls at all hours of night and day help bridge the distance. Moreover, benefits abound in the synergies and insights to be gained as the two institutes work together to understand and mitigate the impacts of global change.

"This is an ambitious, challenging goal," Reich said, "but a crucial one at a time in history when the largest challenges facing society involve learning how to adapt to a warming planet, while at the same time figuring out how to turn down the heat."

To learn more about HIE's research, check out this just-published BBC story and watch the short video here:

Fun With Frontiers

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frontiers_wordmark.jpgThe lilacs are blooming, dandelions are turning to fluff ... many Minnesotans are even stowing their snow shovels. Can summer be far behind?

If you're among those who like a little brain food along with the sun and fun, may I suggest Frontiers video archives? Over the past nine months, the Institute on the Environment hosted a bucketload of ~30-minute talks on a wide range of environmental topics, from Air Pollution to Zeolite. All were videotaped, which means you can watch them at your leisure.

Videos of all 22 presentations from our 2011-12 season are available at the links below. Enjoy! And be sure to check back in September for our fall lineup.

Frontiers on GM Crops

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Genetically modified crops are attracting a lot of attention these days. They are a lightning rod for controversy, with people debating their possible health, economic and environmental repercussions. They are also touted as a panacea for global food insecurity. How does the average consumer parse the conflicting information and trade-offs to form an educated opinion? Enter the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit, nongovernment consumer advocacy and education organization focused on food and nutrition. Gregory Jaffe, the director of the CSPI's Biotechnology Project, discussed these issues at the final Frontiers in the Environment lecture of the semester April 25.

The CSPI holds the position that GM crops currently grown and sold in the U.S. are safe to eat. But the organization is also quick to caution that each new product must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Jaffe discussed the advantages and risks of GM crops, acknowledging that while GM crops can increase yields, reduce pesticide use and increase grower income, they can also cause allergies, harm nontarget species, and have negative impacts on biodiversity.

So are GM crops sustainable? Jaffe was frank during his discussion of the major issue surrounding GM crops: the development of insect and weed resistance. If trends continue as they have during the past several years, we could see massive amounts of insect and weed resistance emerge in GM crops. This could lead to declining crop yields, or even crop failures.

New technology is needed to stay ahead of the game. One innovation is "stacking" - introducing multiple herbicide tolerance or multiple pest resistance. This may be a good solution for herbicide resistant crops, but pests can still develop resistance using this method. According to Jaffe, a better solution for pest management is "refuge in a bag" seed.

Regulations require farmers to plant a certain amount of non-GM seed as "refuges" - habitat where pests are free of selection pressure to develop resistance. Refuge-in-a-bag seed has some non-GM seed mixed in, allowing for natural refuges to grow throughout GM fields. This takes the complicated issue of farmer compliance out of the equation and gives better hope for maintaining pest control ability in the long term.

With over 395 million acres of GM crops grown globally each year - 170 million of those in the U.S. - Jaffe made a strong case for a robust regulatory system, better government oversight, and continued watchdogging by the CSPI in order to protect GM technologies for future farmers.  He also stressed the need for innovation in GM crop technology in order to make their use sustainable and environmentally sound.

Interested in learning more? Watch the video of Jaffe's talk here

Photo courtesy of John Bollwitt via Flickr

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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This page is an archive of entries from May 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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