Local experts hope to spark sustainability discussions


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"How can we meet our needs today without harming our ability to meet our needs tomorrow?"

It was a colossal question scrawled in small handwriting in front of a circle of 16 community members attending a sustainability forum held Monday by the Kettering Foundation in conjunction with Craig Just, a University of Iowa assistant professor of engineering and the director of the Sustainable Citizen Program.

The forum and resulting guide is funded by a grant Just received from the U.S. Department of Education for his initiative to improve campus education on sustainable lifestyles, especially for first-year students.

"Campus discussions are our primary audience," he said. "Especially for first-year students, who are maybe naïve to the world, or not, to address how you structure a dialogue."

That's where the Kettering Foundation comes in — facilitating constructive conversation instead of argument.

"We live a fantastic life in the United States, we have a wide range of choices, advanced technologies and a wondrous conveniences," said Brad Rourke, the discussion's facilitator and a senior associate at the Kettering Foundation. "But some people ask how long can we keep this up. We're using natural resources faster than our planet can replace them. … Even if you don't believe [in global climate change,] there are a range of other problems. Take your pick."

The discussion will be used to strengthen an outline that was presented to participants at the forum, which will then be transformed into a 12-page guidebook geared toward starting a conversation about a shift toward a more sustainable nation.

The booklet, published as part of a multi-issue series through the National Issues Forum, will be available on Just's new Sustainable Citizen Program website and shared with not only UI students, but a national network of local organizations that participate in similar forums.

The booklet presents three options: take urgent action to repair and protect crucial resources, unleash the power of markets and technological innovation, or transform our culture.

"My hope for the result is that people come together in communities to address this question together," Rourke said. "It's not to spark any action but to provide a starting point for people to spark action themselves."

The group considered each option evenly, appreciating the urgency of the first option's top-down approach, and largely rejecting the feasibility of the second option's freedom — but coalesced most enthusiastically around the third option's cultural shift.

"This really isn't an environmental crisis, it's a cultural crisis. We believe that we're not part of nature," said Fred Meyer, the director of Backyard Abundance. "We need to start telling different stories: stories of community, stories of relationships, stories of trading tomatoes across the fence, stories of sharing. That's what will start changing our belief system."

UI senior Bailee McClellan, the president of EcoHawks, said she observed this very culture while spending six weeks this summer studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, a country that's ranked among the happiest places on Earth by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

"It's possible; it's just going to be a big shift. It would take a lot for us to accept what we need to do in order to get there," she said. "Happiness is just as important as the environment or the economy. It's important to stress that sustainability can lead to a tighter community or a better lifestyle instead of just giving stuff up."

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