Sustainability Interview: W. Cecil Steward


W. Cecil Steward – founder, president and CEO of the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities (ecospheres.com)

What role do you and your organization play in sustainability?

I founded the nonprofit in 1996 when I was still dean of architecture at UNL and I founded it out of a perception that unless there was a steady group of people, organizations and resources, we were always going to be behind the curve; those of us who felt that environmental issues were not simply about the environment, that we needed an organizational structure for education and demonstration. I wanted to bring my life devotion to architecture, planning and community assistance together with the concept of daily life and plans and activities for sustainable outcomes. I just felt there was a lack of educational material, there was a lack of confidence in the general public and decisions leaders about whether this is just another group of tree-huggers—their words–—or whether it had deeper meaning and purpose. It was with that intent that I founded organization. Four years before I retired from the four years before I retired from the university and devoted my waking and some of my sleeping hours to furthering that goal and mission for education and demonstration.

What elements of negative human impact concern you most, generally and in your area of expertise?

As time has gone on from the late ‘90s to the present and we get more and more scientific evidence of climate change and the human impact on the planet, what concerns me most is there are not yet enough of us who are active consumers with a conscience about small decisions that we make in our consuming lives. I feel strongly that every economic decision that is made either privately or publicly should have, if not a carefully thought-out assessment of impact, at least an initial tug of conscience about “Am I fostering quality of life and sustainability about this action or am I having a negative influence?” That goes from paper or plastic at the grocery store to buying food that you know something about, where it has come from and how produced, what its content is to how you handle the waste from that purchase at the end of its useful purpose. I think our largest challenge yet after 15 years of effort is individual information and individual responsibility on the part of the consuming public.

What good news is out there regarding sustainability?

For instance, in the last seven or eight years, Lincoln by examples has accrued more than a dozen poles of progress and success, not all or maybe not any under the title sustainability, but they’re evidence of increasing qualities of life, accomplishment. Just this week there was an article that students at UNL have agreed to tax themselves in their tuition payments for student-led sustainability projects. That’s huge because it shows that the upcoming generation is much more aware and much more concerned than my generation and the in-between demography. I take that as a very positive sign. 

When we first started the Joslyn Institute, it was hard to engage anyone in public office for more than five minutes on the topic, and today there are people being elected for their principals…it’s easier for us to conduct educational programs and get a decent conversational audience than it was five or six years ago.

What needs to be done first and by whom locally?

We now know that thinking in terms of just the environment is not the right approach to sustainable development. Some people in the United Nations in the ‘80s started the conversation about the need to look forward and create interdependencies between environmental issues, social issues and economic issues. Through our work by 2005, we determined that those three domains were not enough to insure sustainable outcomes; two major domains were missing in the conversation. One was technology, because we will continue to make things as long we have any resources left and are those technologies advancing or depleting opportunities for sustainable outcomes? And the other is public policy. If we don’t have laws and regulations that recognize the interdependencies between those five domains, then we’re also at risk. We need to be doing things comprehensively, interactively and simultaneously. Education from grade school through the end of life. We need to elect more enlightened leaders in our public policy realms. And we need to revise our public policies. One of my largest dreams in that domain is that Nebraska could organize a constitutional revision to its state constitution that specifically draws out mission and the need for conservation of natural resources. You should read the constitution today; you cannot find the word “conservation” anywhere in the language. We need to have the correct conscience about from where stand in terms of our future in order to build different and new visions of the future. Also publish the public agreements and public policy. 

What are the most important actions individuals here can take to make a difference?

Just daily awareness from where you live and how you spend your available resources to what actions you take to promote sustainability in your actions in any one of those five domains. I don’t want to be self-aggrandizing, but by example, in 1993 I purchased a commercial building in downtown Lincoln and converted into my residence and two rent-controlled, low income apartments, on the notion that I wanted to live a more conservation-oriented lifestyle and I wanted to teach by example. I drive a Prius. I try to do what I described about assessing how I purchase and consume products for long-life and for material recycling opportunities. It has brought a new quality-of-life dimension to my family’s lifestyle. I know more people by living downtown than by just having to interact in a higher populated environment on a day-to-day basis; I probably have more human interaction accidentally in a week than I had in the suburbs in a year. That’s enrichment and it’s fun, and it’s a community attitude in spirit, but we have not designed our communities and suburbs for those kind of results. I think in ’93, there probably were less than 100 people who lived downtown, and I imagine now the census would say there are more than 5,000 residents downtown today. 

Not that the power of demonstration, for example, had an awful lot to do with that, but it’s a piece of what could I do with the resources I had available. That’s, to me, the most important challenge: is what as an individual member of the community can you do now, today, and the next time you earned a few dollars, to make it more sustainable rather than less.

I wrote the book Sustainometrics: Measuring Sustainability: Design, Planning, and Public Administration for Sustainable Living, on the assessment of the five domains and how to measure if we’re moving toward sustainability or away from it. 

What do you wish more people here knew regarding sustainability?

All of us have come through educational systems both at the grade and high school levels as well as university structures that are organized around specialties and what I call silo strategies and principles. We train the engineers and we have parameters surrounding that silo that govern our thinking and our lives even after our formal education. We need to try to retrain ourselves to think comprehensively and interdependently rather than from silo perspective. We need to learn to listen better than we speak, and that would cause us to respect and engage other people from other people from other disciplines in more frequent interaction and activities. It’s complex, it’s lifelong rethinking of our intellectual process, but unless we can have greater interaction, respect the interdependencies of our life and economic domains, we’re still in the negative territory. So I guess the answer is more education, more awareness, and more interaction. What resources can help people here learn and understand more about the issue?

We’re blessed to live in the era of the Internet and the web, and serious internet searches of community sustainability leads in many different directions. I would encourage people to pay more attention to big ideas and big projects that demonstrate these interdependencies and interactions. We have a couple of projects in Lincoln that cause people throughout the state to look at their own communities and ask, “Is this something we should be doing?” For instance, we’re attempting to encourage city administration to redesign the waste management system for municipal solid waste. It’s not just garbage and there is no place to throw it; even though we have landfills, it doesn’t go away, you can’t throw much of what we consume away. We’re suggesting that there is value in that waste stream that can be extracted and create jobs and create more environmentally safe and desirable conditions out of how we handle what we do want to discard. Recycling just is the lowest common denominator, but we could also turn it back into energy, we can reuse it, we can make better decisions in purchasing and not even have it in our waste stream to begin with. When these kinds of projects come up, the best possible pro and con discussion should be organized on a community basis for good understanding whether it’s appropriate action or whether it’s something we can’t afford in the long-term, but we would go through an analysis process if we had the right attitude about governing and running city administrations. And we would elect leaders that understood those interdependent principles and help us as we undertake to get from here to there. 


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