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'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

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Behind the university's efforts is its president, Michael Crow, who arrived at ASU in 2002 after 11 years at Columbia University, where he played a lead role in founding the Earth Institute.

Like many environmentalists, he counts reading Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" as a landmark in his life. However, he says it wasn't until he matured that he realized "all of these 70,000 chemicals and synthetics that we have put in the atmosphere and water were all derived mostly by universities with no thought given to what the other impacts may be to what they are doing."

At ASU, Dr. Crow reorganized the life-science departments, and began hiring experts in sustainability. A central goal, he says, "is that we work in concert with the natural systems as opposed to in conflict with the natural systems."

And Crow goes a step further: He believes that nature, through 4 billion years of genetic change, provides "the pathway to everything we need. Nature has adapted to all kinds of problems: hot climate, cold climate, high carbon dioxide, low carbon dioxide."

In May 2004, Crow organized a three-day retreat in the Yucatan, with leading experts from around the world, to brainstorm what an institute of sustainability would have to do to succeed. "We asked them, 'If you could design an entire university to attack sustainability issues, what would you do?' " recalls Crow. "What they said is that 'You can do this, and we need you to,' and they urged us to move forward."

At the meeting was Ms. Wrigley, who later wrote the university a check for $15 million as a planning grant.

Crow subsequently allocated the university's resources. He committed to dozens of new faculty positions, four distinguished chairs, and a new building that would meet exacting environmental standards. Included in the mix: a $6 million "Decision Theater" that allows community leaders to see the complexities of their decisions on the environment – not just now, but also in a virtual future.

Phoenix: laboratory for sustainability
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