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Harold Glasser

What is your official title?

Executive Director for Campus Sustainability and Professor at Western Michigan University.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Oh, you don’t want to know! Lots and lots of meetings, 200 emails, a bunch of phone calls, interaction and collaboration with students, staff, administrators, and community members (the best part), and maybe a bit of writing. That’s pretty much what it’s like.


Tell us about Campus Sustainability at Western.

Our program is really unique nationally. Just last year we won two of the biggest national sustainability awards — the Planet Forward Sustainability Innovators Award and Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Award. WMU has really gotten a tremendous amount of recognition over a short period of time. What we’ve done is to look at sustainability in a very different way from most Higher Ed. Institutions. We are focused on trying create what we call second-order change (as opposed to just first-order change). We see sustainability as improving quality of life for all. We have a different mission…

“The mission of the Office for Sustainability is to guide and assist the Western Michigan University community in fulfilling and growing its sustainability commitments. Through building a diverse and flourishing learning community around sustainability, we will continually explore and develop new opportunities to create a culture of sustainability and improve quality of life for all”

It’s not only about recycling and addressing energy efficiency; it’s about much more than that. People typically talk about first order change — stuff like recycling, greener buildings, greener landscape, adding sustainability into a few courses. These are all important but collectively they don’t actually change how people think — and act — or how an institution runs. These changes are absolutely important and necessary, but we liken them to being “less unsustainable” (first-order change). It doesn’t get you really energized, does it?

We are trying to create the foundation for a sustainable future for all. We are trying to build a community that can create transformative change and address our sustainability challenges as a system. That doesn’t mean that a lot of the stuff that we do isn’t first-order change; it is first order change, but it’s pretty strategically done to foster and support major system structure change. We need this second-order change to put our species on the path toward a truly sustainable future for all.

One of the things that supports what we do is the student sustainability fee. The sustainability fee was initiated by students and it wasn’t easy for them to get it through. They had a meeting with the President early in 2010 where they said, we’re interested in creating a sustainability fee to support and leverage our University’s sustainability efforts. The President asked the students if they wanted to put this question before the student body as a referendum?

I think he was thinking that if the students didn’t support the referendum, then it was going to be a really big challenge for them to get a new fee through. He was suggesting that he could put forward a request to the Board for a sustainability fee himself and he was cautioning them, but they said “no” — we want to put this before the students and have it be something that the students could demonstrate their leadership on. More students voted for or against the sustainability fee than voted in the student elections.

It passed with about 60% of students. Initially there were some concerns and challenges, but now you see a tremendous amount of support. Annually we do a student sustainability survey — what do students think about what’s happening on campus in terms of sustainability and how the funds are being used. We also have a Town Hall, which is a time for students to discuss the results of the survey and identify opportunities for improvement.

One of the things that was really interesting last year was that several students came out and said “we are really happy and proud of what’s happening and we want to see a higher fee put together.” This was kind of surprising. I’m not sure if any students will say that this year or not, but that was an interesting show of support that made many of us smile.


Do you see a difference in how different generations think about sustainability?

I definitely see huge difference across generations in terms of sustainability vision. There is something called the Southwest Michigan Regional Sustainability Covenant, that was put together largely by Mayor Hopewell, Mayor Strazdas, and a bunch of other community and business leaders. We helped with that by putting together a couple of meetings to support the effort and there was a luncheon where people were asked what they really care about in terms of sustainability.

Two things that came out of that discussion — regional planning for sustainability and the idea of community sustainability indicators or how do we measure our baseline and if we are headed in the right direction? As a result of that we brought a community sustainability indicator expert, Maureen Hart, to the region and we had a couple of days of community events with her. Following up on that, we put together another meeting which was based on a survey where we asked community leaders about their vision for a sustainable and desirable Kalamazoo in 2050? The people we interviewed were mostly in senior leadership positions and a lot of their perspectives resonated with ideas about the environment from the 1970s, like clean land, air, and water, open space, and recycling, not things like education, the building of community, and transparent collaboration.

With younger people there is a focus on transparent, open, collaboration; open source sharing; and notion of quality of life that tends to be more oriented around community and DIY kind of work. I think that there is also a much broader notion of learning. When I talk and work internationally on projects such as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, I emphasize the distinction between meaning, understanding, and wisdom and data, information, and knowledge, which has been the focus of education for the last 300 – 400 years. On some level, I think that younger people are intuitively embracing this distinction and acting on it in their everyday lives.

There is a tension here because they recognize that getting a formal education, accumulating wealth, and buying a big house isn’t necessarily what creates a rich and meaningful high quality life. I don’t think they can necessarily tap into a clear explanation of this tension, but they feel it! People are struggling with what a high quality of life means for them. Young people today recognize that the life of their parents and grandparents is no longer possible and that we have created some unprecedented challenges for them. They are also aware that they can create something out of their life that is unique, positive, and more focused on the common good.


Can you tell us about your background?

My formal educational background is in theoretical physics, engineering and philosophy; I worked really closely with a Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, for about 20 years. My interest in sustainability issues came when I was about 10 years old, reading the New York Times magazine. There was an article about an organization called The New Alchemy Institute. The group grew out of an early recognition of the interconnected problems with an increasing global population that is increasing its demands for energy, food, crop land, and material goods, while simultaneously generating more pollution and social justice and equity issues. The New Alchemy Institute folks were troubled by these challenges and they were trying to use appropriate technology to generate more meaningful solutions.

A couple of years after the first Earth Day, in 1972, a really significant report, “The Limits to Growth” was issued. It was a systems dynamics model for the world that explored how population growth and natural resource consumption interacted to impose limits on industrial growth and quality of life. Most of the model runs showed collapse, but it’s important to note that it didn’t really look at the potential of technological innovation—the types of tremendously creative ideas that people may come up with to solve some of these challenges. It focused on how if we continue to have significant economic growth with pollution per unit of consumption levels like we have today, and consumption per capita and global population both continue to grow, then we will likely run into one or more serious, non-negotiable limits. With more people, more industrial growth, more consumption per capita, more inequity, and more pollution we are eventually going to reach a point where some systems — ecological, social, climate, etc. simply can’t continue to take what we are imposing on them.

The New Alchemy Institute scientists were trying to anticipate significant systems-structure challenges that were before humanity and find creative, innovative strategies that would address them proactively. They used knowledge about the state of the planet and existing trends to ask, “what can we do to help create high-leverage solutions that will foster a more sustainable and desirable world?” That’s a second-order change approach in action! They started experimenting with food production — super insulated pillow domes to grow food in the winter with fig trees inside, biodynamic farming and permaculture, integrated pest management, biological waste water treatment, and aquaponics. They were looking at really creative ways to foster innovative, systems-structure change (second-order change) that was grounded in learning from and modeling how nature works (what we now call “biomimicry). That’s also how we are approaching things at WMU’s Office for Sustainability. Much of our work, however, recognizes the importance and complexity of large-scale social change, so we in addition to focusing on real-world problem-solving we also focus on building a culture of sustainability on campus and beyond.

When I first read about this work I was unknowingly hooked. It resonated with my childhood experiences. I grew up near New York City and I went back and forth between the rich culture of NYC and lots of time in nature and gardening. My dad was an early proponent of organic gardening, and I also spent a lot of time hiking, discussing social issues, and being involved in civil rights and anti-war activities. The New Alchemist’s work gave me something really exciting, positive, and creative to get into that integrated my mind, heart, and body.

I pursued an education that was very structured and formal in physics, and later engineering and philosophy. Nature and the environment were combined with the hustle and bustle of the city throughout my life — it begs the question, how do we deal with those tensions and conflicting issues and craft a way forward that improves quality of life for all, human and non-human.


What is the driver for second order change vs. first order change?

First-order change is when the solutions you are proposing come from within the existing system’s structure. That’s why recycling is a great example of first-order change, or some energy efficiency improvement going from incandescent to fluorescent or LED light bulbs — those are first order changes.

Second-order change is when you completely restructure a system as a whole; it’s the difference between education reform and re-imagining what and how education happens — it goes to the core and asks “what is education for” and “what are the best pedagogies for realizing these goals.” It’s akin to the distinction between creating a sustainable desirable world that has equity built into the system structure vs. doing little things here and there that make the world less unsustainable, but don’t get at the root of our species’ unsustainable practices, policies, and proclivities.

A lot of what we do at the office is first-order change. The difference is that we focus on strategic first-order changes — strategic incrementalism to foster second-order change. You know, we’re probably not going to get to transformative change through a revolution, but we might be able to get there through a much richer understanding of how human beings work. When there is a problem people usually talk about information. New forms of information and ways of thinking are necessary, but they are not sufficient conditions for meaningful change. We have lots and lots of wise information available that we simply don’t follow. Why not? We are awash with information about smoking, safe sex, drinking and driving, climate change — but we still have these problems. We need to move beyond an information only approach to social change to incorporate a much richer, more robust, and higher-leverage set of strategies that build on our contemporary understanding of human behavior, neurobiology, behavioral, ecological, and institutional economics, primate anthropology, human ecology, policy, decision theory, cooperation, the common good, and social learning.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

I’ve had the privilege and luxury to travel to many places around the world. I grew up in New York, but I spent most of my life on the West coast. I’ve lived in Europe and have spent time in Japan, Taiwan, and India. Kalamazoo is a really special and unique place. It has a particularly vibrant and rich community that is dedicated to this place. to improving quality of life for all — starting right here! People have a beautiful interest in food, music, nature, art, and social justice; we have an awesome public library; we have a proactive community foundation that is dedicated to transformative change and collective impact; we have a long history of innovation in tool-making and product design; we have three, diverse higher education institutions that can do so much when we collaborate and cooperate; we have a City planning group that is wise and energetic and increasingly seeing — and catalyzing — rich opportunities for collaboration and sustainable development. There is also profound desire to share, give back, and make peoples’ lives better. There is also a relatively low cost of living, which affords people some opportunity in terms of free time. These are only a few of the aspects that make Kalamazoo so special.

There are a lot of unsung heroines and heroes in Kalamazoo that create that rich fabric and quality of life that many of us enjoy. People don’t always see the great — often behind-the-scenes work that these folks do to make life better for all of us. It’s often not their job, they don’t have to do it, they just do it because they care about making our community better. We should celebrate them more and do things to thank them and support their efforts!


What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?

We talked about what is really cool and amazing and unique about Kalamazoo, but how do we tap into that to foster transformative change and collective impact that improves quality of life for all? We are missing a way to help tap into and catalyze that vision—but this is certainly on the minds of a lot of community members. One strategy is have a broad, diverse discussion on what a sustainable and desirable Kalamazoo might be in 2050. What do we want to keep the same and what do we want to see change? These questions are nice because on this time frame they get us out of our focus on tomorrow or next year to think about the quality of life for our kids and grandkids. Then we could develop meaningful indicators, assess the baseline of where we are now, and develop goals, targets, and strategies to realize this collective vision. We need to know both where we are and where we want to go to create a sensible and efficient path forward that we can track and use to make mid-course corrections.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Strong. And with Soy milk. At the Black Owl when I go out. Black Owl is a wonderful example example of a business that is doing well by doing good!


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

The Black Owl, naturally.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

All kinds of “good,” music, country music, excepted. These days, I listen a lot to Rodrigo y Gabriela, The Decemberists, Nik Bärtsch, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, Feist. I even try to listen to my kid’s rap music with a smile — I’m really interested in where rap music is going, although I can’t say I’m in love with it at this point. Luckily, my son occasionally indulges my efforts to introduce him to some of my favorite rap root artists — Michael Franti, Spearhead, and Gil Scott Heron.


What is next up on your reading list?

I read pretty voraciously across a big spectrum and I’d say a lot of my learning is catalyzed by reading literature. I read everything from poetry to novels and technical work on neurobiology, primate anthropology, behavioral economics, decision theory and decision making. Right now I’m reading Keri Hulme’s Stonefish, Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever, Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter. But the novels help us to tap into integrating the rational and the intuitive, they help to bring the life of the mind down to earth.


When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I’ve always had a concern with that kind of question because we don’t ask kids — What are you now? What’s going on with you now? And that’s part of the challenge I’m talking about. Having a more mindful point of view and living in the here and now. Let’s start asking kids, What are you doing right now, What gets you really excited?

Education theory psychologist, Jerome Brunner from Harvard said that you can take almost any concept and find a way to communicate it effectively to someone at any age. So my focus, when I hear this question, is to ask — What are you right now?


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

It’s the same advice I give students now who are trying to figure out what they should do next. Figure out what you really care about. Understand your cares and their relation to the cares of others—and those of the planet. Channel compassion and then do what makes you feel right.


What are your goals for Sustainability in the future?

It’s embedded in our mission statement — the idea of growing and leveraging our sustainability commitments, and especially building a culture of sustainability on WMU’s campus and beyond.

There are a tremendous number of people that contribute to sustainability on campus — administrators, janitors, people working in dining services, students, faculty, and all other staff. There are unsung heroes and heroines here that are making a difference in our community. The challenge we face and where we would like to do much more is finding strategies to help leverage these exemplary individual efforts into collaborations and projects that generate powerful collective impacts, where we can make 1+1 = 4 and 2+2 = 10. We want to help foster actions where these common, deep cares that so many of us share in common are leveraged in a way that our community creates transformative, second-order change that improves quality of life for all.


Who would play you in a movie?

Charlie Chaplan might do a really good job. He was the silent movie star. He would probably do a better job than someone who talks and it would certainly be more fun!


Harold, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Harold and WMU Sustainability on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.