Sustainability Conference 2015: ‘Strange Connections,’ from garden to globe

| April 6, 2015
Sustainablity Conference keynote

“Sustainability needs to be the organizing logic of our national strategy.” U.S. Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby (ret.) of Case Western Reserve delivered the keynote address for the 2015 Webster University Sustainability Conference.

It began with discussion of sustainability on a local level — topics like zero net energy home construction and urban gardens — and finished with a vision for how the planet can thrive in a century where a consumptive global middle class is set to balloon: Webster University’s 2015 Sustainability Conference was indeed all about “Strange Connections.”

Sustainability Conference Poster Session

The annual conference includes features speakers, interdisciplinary panels and research presentations, and poster sessions.

That conference theme attracted a lineup of presenters and attendees from diverse demographics, interests and industries. Presentations on the first day offered perspectives from every level of education:

  • Students from The College School braved the adult audience to discuss the school’s nine-day ecology field study.
  • Webster Groves High School students showed how their art course turned them on to constructing useable Gehry-inspired chairs from recycled cardboard.
  • A group of students and faculty from Saint Louis University provided an update on how their tracking of urban gardens reveals a remarkable diversity of bee species within the city limits, while Catalina Freixas of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University discussed the importance of a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable design.

Webster University faculty presenters during the two-day conference included:

  • Elizabeth Risik on her study of sellers at a burgeoning organic farmer’s market in Costa Rica (research funded by a Webster Faculty Research Grant)
  • Don Corrigan on the attitudes of millennials toward contemporary sustainability issues
  • Herman Krueger on the history of artificial lighting and how its efficiency has increased over time from fire, to incandescent bulbs, to the low-energy LED lighting that has become widespread

From lead conference sponsor Monsanto to keynote speaker and retired Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, attendees ultimately sought to understand and execute the best way for more of the world’s population to live well without exhausting planetary resources and leaving future generations with a bill. As Jake Barnett, chief financial officer of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, explained, that entails working with financial advisers to invest only in sustainability-related funds and businesses that reflect the order’s global mission.

The diversity and interdisciplinary nature of the “Strange Connections” presenters underlined the belief that local strategies combine for global impact, and vice versa.

In a panel presentation, scientists from Monsanto discussed the company's approach to sustainable agriculture, which includes developing technologies tailored to local food production in Africa, South America and indeed every continent.

In a panel presentation, scientists from Monsanto discussed the company’s approach to sustainable agriculture, which includes developing technologies tailored to local food production in Africa, South America and indeed every continent.

Lead Sponsor: Monsanto Talks Sustainability in Agriculture

For their featured panel, Monsanto sent three representatives originally from the United States, India and Russia to discuss the company’s approach to sustainable agriculture, which includes developing technologies tailored to local food production in Africa, South America and indeed every continent.

“For Monsanto, sustainability means helping farmers produce more while using less resources,” said Elena Rice, Monsanto’s discovery platform (new products) lead.

Citing trends in multiple industries, Monsanto crop physiology lead Frank Dohleman said agriculture is only major sector projected to decrease its carbon footprint over the coming century. “If we’re to deliver on that potential, it can only happen with continued innovation,” he said.

For Monsanto, that innovation includes a range of technological advances that make agriculture more efficient, including optimizing farming and breeding practices: variable-rate fertility, precision seeding, nutrient and disease management, and of course increased yield.

Tesla at Sustainability Conference

Outside the East Academic Building, conference attendees and passersby dined at local food trucks and checked out an electric Tesla model S on display.

‘Strange Connections’ and the Importance of Transdisciplinary Collaboration

As a multinational corporation, Monsanto’s range of global partnerships demonstrates the “Strange Connections” that work together on sustainability. Their avenues on multiple continents include research partnerships with universities, farmers, and organizations in watershed management, conservation and industry.

A backdrop for conference attendees and passersby was the all-electric Tesla Motors car on display and available for inspection under the hood outside the East Academic Building. Meanwhile, representatives from SWT Design and OneSTL shared, in separate presentations, examples of extensive cross-collaboration on major sustainability projects that affect the entire St. Louis region.

With so many topics around the sustainability theme, a presenter from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis discussed basic efforts in the workplace and how sustainability needs “an identity” in order to get more people on board.

Strange Connections

OneSTL: Regional sustainable development projects in St. Louis involve a mix of collaborating organizations, from nonprofits to corporations to governmental agencies.

Keynote: ‘We Can Do This’

Webster’s chief financial officer Greg Gunderson introduced the keynote speaker, Mykleby. who shared his vision of what that identity should be. As a special strategic assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mykleby co-authored A National Strategic Narrative and believes the United States — and indeed the planet — needs a new grand vision for the century ahead.

“Sustainability needs to be the organizing logic of our national strategy,” he said. “We must prioritize remaining diverse and productive over time.”

To that end, he cited four challenges to global sustainability…

  1. economic inclusion
  2. ecosystem depletion
  3. we are living in a contained economic depression
  4. resilience deficit

…and three opportunities to counteract them:

  1. Building a world of walkable communities (“60 percent of buyers want them, yet only two percent of new developments are around them,” he said.)
  2. Regenerative agriculture
  3. Productivity revolution

Watch Mykleby’s keynote here.

Mykleby is now co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, where they are putting these concepts to work in several communities around the United States, part of an effort to align the nation’s economic engine, governing institutions, and foreign policy to meet the great global challenge of the era.

“Sustainability is not a green thing. We need to talk in pragmatic, economic terms,” he said. “The opportunity and market forces are there. We can do this.”

After the keynote, attendees wrapped up the two-day event with a closing reception sponsored by Monsanto and  local brewer Urban Chestnut in the Community Music School.

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