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DU hosts Rocky Mountain sustainability summit

University of Denver Chancellor Robert Coombe opened the Feb. 17–18 Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit with a call to rise up as a community and become active in the pursuit for a more sustainable future.

Hosting the summit for the first time, the campus drew some 250 attendees and speakers from as far away as California and Massachusetts, representing 59 schools, government agencies and businesses. Speakers included scholars, activists and business leaders such as Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., and Hillary Mizia, former sustainability coordinator for New Belgium Brewery.

“Where does the power to create change come from? It comes from the community as a whole and a culture of activism,” Coombe said. “That culture of activism really has taken root here.”

Mizia, who helped New Belgium become virtually synonymous with sustainable business, said going beyond talking a good game — often called “greenwashing” — means understanding what sustainability is. Developing a corporate culture that takes into account how corporate decisions impact the world today and in the future is key, she said. That process should go beyond government regulations and consider human equity, global ecology and the future.

Schendler said it’s natural that people should want to reverse climate change and do something to make the world a better place. It’s in our DNA.

“The thing humans fear more than anything else is the inability to care for our children,” Schendler said. “If you solve climate change, you both solve a basic human fear — helping people take care of their children — and you treat people the way you want to be treated … It touches a deeper human yearning for meaning in our lives.”

Schendler said individuals and corporations have the power to effect change. But that change must be meaningful. A large retailer such as Wal-Mart might look “green” by putting solar panels on store roofs, but the company made a bigger impact when it decided to push for consumer use of more efficient light bulbs. That may not look like sustainability, he said, but in reality it changed the world.

Schendler challenged everyone to “look for your biggest lever,” that is to think of what each person can do to make the biggest change. Changing out a light bulb or recycling is one thing, but influencing a power company to change its practices is an even bigger goal.

“If you solve climate change,” he said, “you begin to solve all of humanity’s problems: hunger, poverty, clean water.”

DU astronomy Professor Robert Stencel also encouraged attendees to look at mundane daily — or nightly — things through the sustainability prism.

While streetlights and porch lights might not seem like an issue, he said the amount of light pouring into the night sky not only robs millions of a view of the stars but also wastes money and creates demand for more fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Stencel said aiming light where it’s needed instead of wasting it could save millions. Scientists calculated the amount of light pollution, called “sky glow,” in the Denver metro area is estimated at 100 megawatts a year, which is worth $36 million. Even the DU campus is not immune to bad lighting practices, he said as he produced a slide showing the nighttime glow over the campus.

“We’re burning coal to produce electricity, and how do we use that electricity? We light up the tops of trees and aim it into the sky,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t need night lighting, it’s that we can do it better.”

Summit co-coordinator Jon Bortles, a second-year MBA student, said more than 75 students volunteered along with staffers and faculty to make the event happen.

Until this year, the event has been held solely at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and, according to Christy Cerrone, DU’s assistant director of housing and residential education, CU’s help in moving the event to DU was vital and reflected real teamwork.

“Hosting the event for the first time, we were very pleased with both the attendance and the quality and diversity of the presentations,” Cerrone said. “So many of our faculty, staff and students volunteered their time, and that hard work really showed.”

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