Seeking a sustainable balance

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By Steve Jones

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences researchers and scholars are seeking to balance societal, economic and environmental sustainability 

Bill Gutowski is a frequent visitor to Ames’ scenic Ada Hayden Heritage Park. An Iowa State University climate researcher, Gutowski has seen Ada Hayden’s connected lakes spill over in a recent flood then radically shrink during 2012’s drought.

"Naturally available water will fluctuate in volume," he said. "But with climate change, we are seeing more feast and famine."

Gutowski’s research predicts increased climate variability due to global warming. As a result, he is leading several ISU faculty in a novel research and outreach project to help local governments produce sustainable water management plans that serve citizens while being cost effective and environmentally friendly.

He is one of scores of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty who do research and scholarly work under one of the college’s new Signature Research Themes: "Economic, Environmental and Societal Sustainability." Building on strengths across the entire college, the theme is based on the premise that the environment cannot be truly sustainable until there is societal and economic sustainability in addition to environmental sustainability.

"Humans are impacting the planet in unprecedented ways," said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, "whether it’s the use of fossil fuels, large-scale agriculture, or increasing urbanization. For us in the college, this theme has to bring together economic, societal and environmental aspects."

Solving major challenges

Schmittmann explained that Iowa State, as a land-grant university and a university of science and technology, can contribute to solving some of the major challenges facing the world now. "Sustainability is key as we address many vital issues including population growth, climate change, energy security, food safety, and the preservation of natural resources," she said, adding that Liberal Arts and Sciences is a leader in the university’s goal of making our world more sustainable.

"We have the expertise in our college’s academic departments that we believe can be bundled and brought to bear on these issues in a truly innovative fashion."

Arne Hallam, an economist and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, teaches the course Globalization and Sustainability. He uses a Venn diagram to explain that a true sustainable system only comes at the intersection of the economic, societal and environmental circles (sometimes called the "triple bottom line").

"If societal sustainability and economic sustainability are present, it might be equitable and good," Hallam explained. "But if it doesn’t include the environment, it’s not sustainable because you eventually run out of materials." Likewise, if we have societal and environmental components, "it’s bearable for people but it’s not viable because people can’t make a profit and they won’t do it."

The environmental component is best exhibited by "green" or earth-friendly practices and technologies. The economic aspect means the practices and technologies must be profitable and affordable to be adopted. And the societal aspect entails that citizens have to participate in the political process to arrive at broadly acceptable, ethical decisions.

"None of this works unless people are able to make a profit doing it," Hallam said. "You want to be efficient. At the same time you want people flourishing in a just and equitable society."

Gutowski’s project was recently awarded "seed" funding by LAS. It was one of five research proposals selected that align with the college’s Signature Research Themes. The basis of the project is to ensure the infrastructure for storing and providing water is adequate in a time of climate uncertainty without overbuilding and creating an unneeded tax burden.

Optimizing water resources

"We know climate change is causing increased rainfall events and also increased periods of little rain," said Gutowski, a professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences. "We will be exploring how climate change is affecting us to optimize water resource use across, for example, consumer, industrial, municipal and agricultural sectors."

Gutowski formed a diverse team of researchers with expertise in hydrology, communications, engineering and energy economics. The goal is to develop a prototype water-resources model for Ames’ Squaw Creek watershed that can be applied elsewhere. The project is different from most because it will engage local officials (such as water resource managers and city engineers) and other stakeholders throughout the process.

"We will work with people who are responsible for providing a reliable source of water in order to produce sustainable water-management planning," Gutowski said. "We will learn from each other."

Gutowski – one of three ISU researchers who contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the collaboration that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize – said the research is about improving lives.

"We will be employing fundamental research for the express goal of improving the understanding and treatment of the most basic human need, water," he said.

LAS boasts a long list of faculty engaging in economic, environmental and societal research and scholarly work. For example:

• Hydrologist Kristi Franz examines water flow through streams and rivers, shedding light on flood predictions, and hydrogeologist Bill Simpkins studies groundwater (see the story on page 14).

• Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology researchers were part of a team that unlocked secrets of the genome of a common turtle, the findings of which may have human biomedical applications.

• Improving lives globally, anthropologist Max Viatori is studying Peruvian fishers amidst recent attempts to regulate small-scale fishing, and sociologist Robert Mazur looks at sustainable rural livelihoods in Africa.

• Economist Harvey Lapan has analyzed the effects of trade liberalization on environmental policies.

• And in Iowa, Distinguished Professor of English and Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander brings attention to agrarian and rural issues through her poems, stories and plays.

Faculty from more than 10 LAS academic departments are affiliated with Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute, which advances the use of biorenewable resources to produce chemicals, fuels, materials and energy. One of those researchers, Martin Spalding, a professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology and an LAS associate dean, is leading a team that discovered a genetic method that can increase biomass in algae by 50 to 80 percent. He said the discovery opens up possibilities for more and better biofuel development, said Spalding.

A stellar research identity

Sustainability has also found its way into science labs where many Iowa State faculty and students are involved in "green chemistry." Student Stephen Todey is on a 10-week internship this summer at a national lab in France researching green synthesis related to biorenewable fuels. "Green synthesis is essentially environmentally friendly chemistry," said Todey, who is majoring in chemistry and global resource systems.

Other students have also embraced sustainability with passion. The new ISU minor in sustainability has been a great fit for Dylan Gaudineer, a technical communication and environmental studies major. He said the minor has made him more globally aware. "Every day I leave class with a different mindset." Sponsored by Liberal Arts and Sciences and three other colleges, the minor looks at the factors required to improve human life while also supporting ecosystems.

As time goes on, Dean Schmittmann said the five LAS Signature Research Themes will become more focused. Workshops will explore common research interests within the themes, which will also help reshape LAS educational programs.

"As a large and diverse college, we have an amazing opportunity here," she said. "LAS is home to all these outstanding researchers and scholars who pursue different facets of these broad themes within their own disciplines. Our vision is to bring them together and create interdisciplinary research teams, which will build a stellar research identity for the college."

Read more:

Environmental Sustainability – Kristen Hofmockel believes the way to help our atmosphere above is to look underground

Societal Sustainability – Addressing the critical need to increase the willingness to access mental health services among military personnel

Economic Sustainability – Working to understand what motivates fisherman to take independent measures to avoid and protect endangered species.