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How can universities pursue sustainability? Q&A with Stanford Earth’s Pam Matson

Pamela Matson | Johanna Nurmis

Q | Chris Field: If I look at what you've tried to accomplish, it seems like the real core has been moving universities from entities that say things about problems to institutions that really try to solve them. How can universities solve problems?

A | Pam Matson:  Well, I think that we're all working on it together, right, and we have been here for a long time making pretty good progress. It's interesting because if you think back to the early 1990s at Stanford – I mean, I came here because this was a happening place. There was so much great work going on here and we had wonderful expertise in ecology and environment here at Stanford.

We were learning all about what was driving global environmental change and learning how ecosystems were responding to that and at the same time we had a whole bunch of people working on natural resources issues, energy, water resources, food even, including the work of  Wally Falcon's Center for Environmental Science and Policy. But they were very separate and I think that the big change at Stanford was bringing those things together.  That’s what the Woods Institute and all of the work that we've been doing over the last 15 years has actually done.

It's saying we've got an environment over here, we have human needs over here and we're going to create structures that help those things come together. And then when that happens the automatic next question is, okay, so now we care about both people and the environment, how are we going to solve the problems?

Q | CF: To what extent did you find the Stanford community was really ready for shifting to this problem-solving orientation and to what extent did you find that it was really a question of making the case?

A | PM: That’s one of the pieces of advice I got from my predecessor, Dean Lynn Orr. How do you herd cats? You move the food. In a sense, getting faculty to move from not just understanding the problem but to looking for solutions to the problem has happened partly because of moving the food, the resources.

Stanford’s Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability started in 2003 and generated a lot of resources, including the Woods Institute, the Precourt Institute and new School of Earth Sciences programs. Those incentives attracted people who are driven by the opportunity to try to help solve problems.

Stanford had a really strong group of people who were ready for that and some who were already doing that – and we've been hiring. Then our graduate and undergraduate programs attracted students who were pushing in this direction and I think all those pieces have come together to make us pretty strong.  It doesn't mean we know how to do it perfectly but we have a desire to, and I think that's the thing.

Q | CF: The faculty that created Stanford’s  Initiative for the Environment and have utilized it since are relatively unafraid of traversing disciplinary boundaries. I've never been too clear on whether that was just a feature of the Stanford DNA, whether it was particular people who happened to be bold or whether there was encouragement from a few people to go out there and push.

A | PM:  It's been a topic of a lot of discussion. Because these interdisciplinary initiatives at Stanford really have worked or at least some of them have worked very well. You see lots of reasons cited for that. One, we're all seven schools on one campus. We're living side-by-side, we get to know each other and we care about each other as people as well, as researchers and teammates.

Another is that there are very low barriers to interactions across the schools because of the way we manage our own resources so we don't fight with each other. I don't fight with anybody in H&S about a joint proposal because neither of us get the indirect cost. They go to the provost. So why not work together, right? Same with teaching. We don't have any bean counting when it comes to teaching so why do our interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs work so well?

It's because there's no barriers to faculty from all over the university being involved in one or another of those programs, and also stems back to early forays into cross disciplinary conversation. And that's the thing, people always say and it's really true, it takes a long time to understand other disciplines. I remember sitting in the Environmental Forum that was started in 1990 and realizing that ecologists and economists use the word ‘productivity’ very differently. It was like a lightbulb went on.

Q | CF:  How can we at the university most constructively be a part of that broader sustainability dialogue at the national and international scale?

A | PM: Well, I think sustainability as a term has been a hard thing for people to get their hands around, even the university people use it for different things. And when some people say sustainability they're thinking environmental sustainability. That's a green kind of issue and other people are thinking economic or business sustainability and so there's a lot of potential for confusion, but I think that there's a growing recognition that sustainability really is about intergenerational wellbeing.

It's an anthropocentric issue completely, worrying about people today and over the long run here and all around the world. And then recognizing the environmental piece of that and the resource piece of that is crucial to that long-term wellbeing.

From that perspective we've done a tremendously good job I think. I actually think the Woods Institute for the Environment should be called the Woods Institute for Sustainability because all along it has been focused on meeting the needs of people and protecting the environment at the same time for intergenerational wellbeing. But I think what Stanford could do now is expand into the broader range of issues having to do with sustainability. Human wellbeing, not just including material needs, food, energy, water and mineral resources or whatever, but health and education levels and security issues and all of those broader things that people all over the university are engaged in.

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