Champion of the Earth

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The dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability, Sander van der Leeuw, has been selected as a winner of the 2012 United Nations Champions of the Earth award. Professor van der Leeuw talks about his work that earned him the honor.

Ted Simons: The dean of ASU's school of sustainability has been recognized by the United Nations with a champion of the earth award, the U.N.'s top environmental honor. Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw was recognized in the science and innovation category. He joins us now to talk about the award and his work. Good to see you here.

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: Thank you for inviting me.

Ted Simons: What's the champion of earth? What's this all about?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: I think what the united nations and particularly the environmental program wants to do is, it wants to designate people that aren't usually in the television and other sort of media for their work, promoting basically on a daily basis various aspects of sustainability. So they choose people, some of them famous, but a lot of them not at all well known, and as they say themselves, for the courage of having persisted with the work as you were meeting initially, of course, a lot of criticism and things like that.

Ted Simons: We should mention, Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev are popular names, people who have been doing things like you. Your research is in human environmental relations. What does that mean?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: I began as an archaeologist and got fascinated by how people, over the language term, relate to their environment. And what the consequences for them. In many cases you see things that are not so dissimilar with the present, that is, societies that transform their environment in such a way that ultimately, they don't know how to solve their own problems anymore. So I did studies like that. Initially for, as an archaeologist in the near east and in Europe, and then I was asked in the middle of the sort of early '90s to start doing this for the modern world by the European union which funded me to look at agricultural problems, essentially, in southern Europe.

Ted Simons: And it sounds like, from a distance, it sounds like what you are concentrating on is innovation and how innovation affects societal process, growth, because it's an interesting way to look at things. We are building a better mouse trap but how is that better mouse trap affecting --

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: This is exactly the point. My getting into the innovation part is a little bit later. It's after 2000. And it came from the dilemma we all talk about trying to innovative our way out of sustainability and for getting that for two centuries we innovated our way into sustainability during the industrial revolution. So a lot of it has to do with how can we better use and better focus innovation in a way that it actually better contributes to sustainability?

Ted Simons: Basically, how do we innovative innovation?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: Yeah. Very good way to put it.

Ted Simons: Thanks. How do we do that?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: Let me put it this way. When I started this work, I was quite struck by the fact that most people have actually looked at the conditions under which innovation happens, and the end result of innovation, and particularly from the economic side. And because our science is so reductionist, people had not really looked at creativity. And so what I have been trying to do with a team of people in Europe and also here in the united states is to basically see if creativity is indeed something in a black box or whether you can actually begin to say something about how it will happen and what might not happen?

Ted Simons: How do you -- you have creative minds out there.

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: Yeah.

Ted Simons: Building that better mouse trap. How do you say, careful with that or maybe we need look -- I mean, we're humans.

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: I know, I know, this is, of course, clearly one of the big problems with it. But on the one hand what you can do, nobody invents ideas completely out of the blue. And by relating the mental models that people have, all the technologies they have, for example, to the materials that are available, to the functions that need to be filled in society, you can exclude a number of innovations that are not really likely to happen. At the same time, from the sustainability perspective, every innovation has a number of intended or unintended consequences. And so one of the really important aspects that has led to what people call the precautionary principle is to begin to think about all the unintended consequences of your innovations. And thereby plan much better, be selective about them, and be in that sense aware of a number of the constraints we are living with right now.

Ted Simons: How do you avoid being too cautious with the precautionary principle?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: That's a question of how you implement it. These are always the risks in society, to be too much or too little. It is basically a question, to use common sense and -- but before you use simply common sense to make the decision, at least be much more informed about the possibilities of what might go right and what might go wrong. My personal conviction is, this is something we are trying to do in the school of sustainability also, to educate our students much more in thinking about alternatives rather than telling them, well, this is the story, this is cause and effect, to let them themselves experience, by giving them problems to solve, that there are always alternatives and many alternatives. And then having them very explicitly work on how to choose which of those alternatives is actually the least damaging.

Ted Simons: Real quickly you talk about confusing the role of fear and hope. That's that mind set thing again, isn't it?

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: That's that mind set thing again. For me sustainability is changing mindsets and I think one of the fundamental mistakes that were made in the '90s particular about climate change is that it was projected as a huge calamity. I think you can project it as quite realistically as a huge opportunity and more and more businesses are beginning to see that. More and more countries are beginning to see that. And that is, I think what I meant by saying, hope is something that can mobilize for the longer term. Fear is very often something that only mobilizes for the very short-term.

Ted Simons: You certainly caught the attention of the U.N. congratulations on that award and thank you so much for joining us.

Professor Sander Van Der Leeuw: Thank you very much.

Sander van der Leeuw:Professor, Dean, ASU School of Sustainability;

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