Thursday, February 18, 2010

UI sustainability initiative update and invitation to "Advancing the Illinois Sustainability Vision" conference

UI sustainability initiative update

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What is a sustainable society? According to the simple, most widely circulated definition, it’s one that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. How do societies achieve sustainability? That’s more complicated. But the sustainability initiative at the University of Illinois is intended to position our campus as a local partner and global leader in helping societies meet such a standard.

Two structures were put in place in 2008 to bring focus and leadership to this initiative. The Sustainability Council, now chaired by Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter, was formed to provide strategic direction and oversight for sustainability efforts on campus. The Office of Sustainability was established to provide leadership for campus sustainability efforts and enhance communication and coordination across the entire campus.

Since 2008, Richard Warner, who is Director of the Office of Sustainability, and Barbara Minsker, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Provost Fellow, have collaborated with students, faculty, campus leaders, and members of the community to generate a vision of how Illinois can become a world leader in sustainability. Included in this vision are all aspects of the University’s work: education, research, engagement and operations.

Of the visioning process Warner noted, “Students, faculty, staff and members of our communities brought to the table an enormous amount of expertise, creativity and enthusiasm. We can’t say enough about how much we appreciate their active participation.”

The document articulating a vision for sustainability at Illinois was completed in November 2009. It addresses the issue of sustainability as a response to two “grand challenges,” which are “1) to maintain or restore natural ecosystem function while providing essential human services; and 2) to sustainably raise the quality of life for the world’s poor to acceptable levels.”

(If the reason for the U of I’s interest in the quality of human life around the world isn’t immediately clear to you, contemplate a future in which ever greater numbers of the poor, who account for most of the world’s population, achieve a higher standard of living without significant changes in transportation systems, power generation, manufacturing, and the like.)

The vision for sustainability at Illinois focuses on the fact that our campus possesses a unique combination of strengths in food, water, and energy systems, as well as the cutting edge information technology to measure, predict, and manage the complex interconnections among the various aspects of sustainability.

In more concrete terms, that means the U of I is a great place for people to work out answers to questions such as, “How can critical ecosystem functions be provided while maintaining or improving agricultural productivity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions?” And, “What cultural, cognitive, and institutional factors have prevented individuals and organizations from making sustainable decisions in the past?” In addressing these questions, Barbara Minsker points out, “our primary contribution to sustainability will ultimately be our students, since they are the future leaders who will need to address these grand challenges.”

You can learn more about the sustainability initiative at the U of I, including how you might participate, by attending all or part of a one-day conference on campus tomorrow, Friday, February 19.. “Advancing the Illinois Sustainability Vision” will take place in the Illini Union, beginning at 8:30 a.m. More information about the conference is available through the University of Illinois Office of Sustainability Web site: