Sustainability pioneer Judy Walton was honored as the AASHE 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner at the AASHE Conference & Expo in Spokane, Washington. Here, she answers questions posed by Sustainability: The Journal of Record (SJoR) editor Jamie Devereaux.
SJoR: Congratulations on your recognition as the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner! As a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), could you describe its formation?
JW: Thank you, Jamie! It was such a thrill and honor to receive that award. And humbling as well, when I think of how many others helped nurture AASHE in its start-up phase.
AASHE’s formation actually goes back to Tony Cortese, founder of Second Nature. He secured funding in 2001 to form a West Coast network for campus sustainability, which we called Education for Sustainability Western Network, or EFS West, with Second Nature as fiscal sponsor. He asked me to lead it in 2003, and worked around the clock to help me grow the fledgling network, which transitioned into AASHE, an independent nonprofit that fit neatly into the ecosystem of higher education professional associations. AASHE was formally launched in 2006. But AASHE’s formation was the work of many other people as well.
Julian Dautremont-Smith, for example, was indispensable to the early success of both AASHE and its predecessor, EFS West. For a few years it was just the two of us, working around the clock. Julian’s sacrifices and dedication are unparalleled, and it’s no surprise that he’s still as committed as ever, now serving as AASHE’s programs director.
Then there was Dave Newport at the University of Colorado Boulder, who was a founding AASHE board member and a huge champion of the organization and its staff. He was fiercely committed to the development of STARS [Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System] which became AASHE’s signature program. I still remember a series of impassioned debates between Dave, Julian, and me around my dinner table over the credits and structure of STARS.
Speaking of STARS, one of the reasons for its success was Meghan Fay Zahniser, who worked tirelessly to promote and support the nascent program. She’s now AASHE’s executive director, and thoroughly embodies the ethos of compassion, humility, and authenticity that characterized the organization at its start. I think she has done a tremendous job keeping AASHE on track, and I couldn’t be prouder of her.
Another big champion was Debra Rowe—a mover and shaker in the field of sustainability in higher education, and a consummate connector. She brought AASHE (and me) into all manner of collective efforts to achieve a greater impact, and helped make AASHE a go-to organization. You name the collaborative effort—the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability, Higher Education Associations for Sustainability—Debra was likely behind it. She was my “sister in sustainability,” and even organized an informal network of “SIS.”
Speaking of AASHE’s formation, let me tell you a fun little story about AASHE’s name. My husband and I were trying to come up with a relatively short name for the new organization. The best we could do was the Association for Sustainability in Higher Education, ASHE. But ASHE was also the American Society of Highway Engineers, and we just didn’t want to be confused with that group. So we added “for the Advancement of” to form AASHE—but so much for a short name! There was also the question of how to pronounce the acronym. Julian suggested a long a sound as in table, which we adopted, but we let people pronounce it however they wished, kind of like tomato vs. tomahto.
The STARS name has a similar back story. We liked the name Sustainability Assessment & Rating System but it had the unfortunate acronym SARS, and the 2003 SARS global outbreak was still a fresh memory. But after several iterations of the name, inspiration came to me in the shower one day (why is it always the shower?) to add the word Tracking, and voila! STARS was born.
Well, that was a long-winded answer to your question about AASHE’s formation, but it was fun to tell a few stories and acknowledge folks who helped shape the organization and to whom I’m forever grateful. To me, an organization is all about people and relationships. That’s everything. My Lifetime Achievement Award was the most awesome honor and experience, but I couldn’t have done it without such great colleagues and friends.
SJoR: Thank you for the insight and it would be great to hear from you about the journey of STARS. I saw that, as of December 2019, 978 institutions have registered to use the STARS Reporting Tool.1
JW: I’m thrilled that nearly 1,000 institutions have registered to use the Reporting Tool!
The development of STARS involved a great deal of thought about AASHE’s concept of sustainability. We ended up maintaining AASHE’s founding definition, which conceives of sustainability “in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” For this reason, we decided to include several social justice-related credits in STARS despite a bit of forceful pushback during the pilot phase. As this component of sustainability has become more widely understood, its visibility in STARS has grown.
In addition, some people thought STARS was too complex and time-consuming. We struggled to walk the tightrope between a meaningful and fairly comprehensive comparison tool and a shorter, sustainability-lite tool. There was also a lot of quibbling, as you might expect, about which indicators should be included, and how best to measure them. We tried to focus on outcomes wherever possible rather than the means of achieving them, such as having certain programs in place. But this wasn’t always easy or feasible.
On the other end of the spectrum, many campus sustainability professionals were champions of STARS early on. They saw its potential as an excellent vehicle to guide their work. It helped prioritize their efforts and offered their campuses a road map for institutional sustainability. Campus strategic and sustainability plans began aligning with the STARS categories and credits. And most professionals saw it as a more transparent and fair system than other efforts at that time, such as the College Sustainability Report Card.
So despite the challenges, there was great support for seeing it through. People volunteered countless hours to test, improve, and provide feedback on STARS. This deepened bonds between AASHE staff and our members and built a marvelous community of practice. Again, it was all about relationships.
SJoR: Do you have any advice for current users of STARS?
JW: I think the best advice is something Julian recently reminded me about: The fact that STARS was intended from the start as a tool to advance sustainability at an institution, not simply a data collection and reporting exercise. So I’d encourage sustainability professionals to design the very processes of collecting STARS data and communicating STARS outcomes in ways that broaden the involvement of people across campus, from every sector. The credits themselves are intended to be educational, so sharing them as widely as possible across campus allows a range of stakeholders to better understand how their work relates to sustainability … and this enables them to start thinking about how to make improvements.
Building campus-wide support for sustainability also increases the value of sustainability to the institution. The same can be said of benchmarking STARS results with peer institutions; the results can be used to leverage support for additional investments in sustainability.
A final reminder: STARS is constantly evolving and becoming more accessible to all campuses. Version 3.0, the second major revision, is underway and aims to better align STARS reporting with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to strengthen the equity, access, and social justice indicators. And there are many other goals for 3.0. So I hope anyone reading this with an interest in STARS can assist with two things: STARS 3.0’s development, and growing the network of institutions using STARS in the United States and beyond. The more the better for everyone.
SJoR: City-level partnerships for sustainability2 are gaining traction the world over.3 Could you give us an example of city-level efforts that are currently furthering sustainability goals from your work at Portland State University, or other?
JW: Yes, it’s exciting to see so many city-level partnerships sprouting up across the globe in recent years. By most accounts, it was sometime in the 2000s that cities became the place where the majority of people live. And that percentage keeps growing. So any solution to the climate crisis must include a vision of sustainable cities.
I think ICLEI is a great example of an older international initiative of cities working together. It was founded in 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, but is now called Local Governments for Sustainability. Its member cities are committed to sustainable development. ICLEI helped launch the STAR rating system for sustainable communities (no relation to AASHE’s STARS, although STAR did emulate a number of features). STAR is currently managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which is working to transform it into a global program.
In terms of more recent global partnerships, I’d say an excellent example is C40. It’s a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. The inhabitants of C40 cities make up about a twelfth of the world’s population, and their economic power represents about a quarter of the global economy.4
At their World Mayor’s Summit in Copenhagen in 2019, C40 mayors backed a global Green New Deal that aims to keep global warming below the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. The effort was led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who also co-founded the U.S. Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda.
On that topic, while the United States is not part of the Kyoto Protocol, more than a thousand mayors have agreed to sign their own version—the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.
And I have to say these climate initiatives are not just environmental efforts, as some might think, but they embody the very essence of sustainability—balancing social justice, economic integrity, and environmental health. They directly address the fact that the world’s poor will be affected the hardest by climate change, and that new and more resilient economic systems will be necessary to manage the societal crises ahead.
You mentioned my work at Portland State University. The program I administered at PSU is called the Urban Sustainability Accelerator, or USA. It helped cities across the country to implement their sustainability plans via a year-long cohort of participants working on similar themes. So, I’ve had a first-hand look at city-level collaboration and peer-to-peer learning in action. USA’s last cohort (Washington, DC, Seattle, and Charlottesville) focused on increasing the number of accessory dwelling units in each city—also known as granny flats or in-law apartments—as an affordable, equitable, and sustainable housing option. PSU has a great motto: “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” and that’s exactly what the USA program does.
A key point I’d like to make is that cities are a great scale at which to work to further sustainability goals, and city-level partnerships are absolutely vital, whether regional, national, or global. Support your mayor’s involvement in these partnerships!
SJoR: Great; thank you. Could you speak to how your background in geography informs your sustainability work and vision?
JW: It’s funny how different chapters of one’s life inform the others, even if they appear somewhat unrelated at first. When I was getting my Ph.D. in geography, I never imagined I’d be working in the field of campus sustainability. But my academic background has definitely influenced my sustainability work, for the better.
I remember going into grad school determined to be an environmental geographer, working on conservation issues, when my master’s advisor, Larry Ford, an urban geographer I greatly admired, pointed out that the best way to “save nature” is by building better cities. I immediately saw the connection and emerged a few years later as an urban and cultural geographer.
In fact, a growing body of literature focuses on sustainable cities as the key to a sustainable future—basically, how cities can save the planet. When I was teaching at Humboldt State University and Portland State University in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was largely developing sustainable cities courses from scratch. Happily, since then the field has burgeoned.
But while cities are doing so much on their own they desperately need help from state and national governments, which control countless policies and purse strings. I like to imagine how much better we could address the climate emergency if cities were independent states.
My urban geography background also informed my sustainability planning volunteer efforts in Arcata (CA) and Seattle, and campus sustainability work at Humboldt State. After all, campuses are microcosms of cities. When the opportunity came along to assist multiple campuses with their sustainability efforts by growing the nascent EFS West organization, I jumped at the opportunity. And that led directly to AASHE—one of the best chapters of my life.
SJoR: Where do you see sustainability heading, for example, what could a future state of sustainability in higher education look like?
JW: That’s a good question. It’s hard to speculate about where sustainability is heading these days—there’s so much uncertainty. A few years ago, I would have thought any crisis as huge as planetary warming, which is about as existential a challenge as it gets, would have caused a paradigm shift in our relationship with the Earth’s life support systems. But for the most part, we are still conducting business as usual. And there’s such fierce resistance in some quarters to the idea that anything is even wrong. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but it’s human nature to respond to crises only after the situation has become really bad and much damage has been done…and by then it’s often too late.
That said, maybe the growing number of sustainability initiatives around the globe will facilitate a shift to a new paradigm—as Paul Hawken argues in Blessed Unrest.5 And I suppose a major pandemic or disastrous war over resources, or massive migration on a scale never seen could trigger a change in thinking, but then again it might not be in the direction we want.
I like to see higher education as a reason to be hopeful—and I love the vision of college campuses leading the way to a sustainable society, one in which all the SDGs have been largely achieved. After all, campuses are places of inquiry and problem solving, critical thinking, and public engagement. And they’re fueled by the energy, activism, and ideals of youth. They could readily model sustainability for the rest of society: Imagine STARS platinum campuses everywhere, working with their surrounding communities to implement sustainable solutions.
But, as you and your readers know, there are serious obstacles to this vision. The erosion of funding for higher education is an enormous threat. Colleges are a prime target today as so many countries swing toward authoritarianism. It breaks my heart, for example, to see the Soros-backed Central European University, whose mission is to promote open societies, being forced out of Hungary. And to witness state suppression of free speech on Hong Kong campuses. And here in the United States, to see sustained state and federal budget cuts to higher education while tuitions soar out of control and colleges struggle to stay afloat. Academia has become increasingly dependent on corporate funding and business models, which are not ideal for promoting and managing a public good.
These considerable challenges make any sustainability progress in higher education all the more amazing, and I’m heartened to see so many students, staff, and faculty joining efforts such as the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement—working to shift the biggest levers of power. We’ll need nothing less than a sweeping transformation of the global economy and a halt to the juggernaut of our culture of consumption to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. I still have hope that it’s possible—that higher education will be a leader in this societal turn down a better path, and hopefully, before too much more damage is done.
SJoR: Great; thanks for that. And do you have any advice for sustainability students and faculty shaping the field of sustainability science?
JW: I’m not usually one to give advice, and I’ve probably given more than enough in this interview; but I’ll just say a few words here. For one, I’m thrilled to see the emergence of this new and much-needed academic discipline. In many ways, it’s similar to geography and other integrative disciplines that examine the relationships between social and environmental systems. But unlike the other fields, I like that it’s defined by the problems it addresses, not adherence to a particular disciplinary framework. And it has a mission as well: to help solve the complex challenges that threaten the life support systems of the planet. So it’s not just about studying problems, but actively trying to advance a transition toward sustainability.
The environment is often the default lens for those in sustainability, but increasingly we’re seeing inspiring approaches that look at the same problems through a social or economic justice lens. The SDGs and the Green Agenda are good examples. So, if I could give any advice to those helping to shape this new field, it would be to try approaching problems from a lens other than environmental. It’s possible, for example, that a social justice solution will do more to help solve a particular problem than an environmental solution. An analogy from the field of transportation planning is the way transportation experts address traffic congestion by widening roads and adding more lanes. This sounds intuitive, but another approach is to look at the problem through a land-use lens and build communities in ways that reduce driving. This is a much more sustainable solution—and is only arrived at by looking at the problem through a different lens.
I thank Jamie Devereaux for inviting me to do this interview. It was such a pleasure to discuss these topics, and even wander down memory lane a bit. I appreciate the good work you are doing to advance sustainability through this journal.
This article was originally posted in Sustainability: The Journal of Record.