A User’s Guide to Earth

Over the past century, human activity has changed the environment more than any natural process in Earth’s recent history. As a result, many of our planet’s climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological systems could tip into unknown territory. In the article “Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” published Sept. 24 in the journal Nature, 28 of the world’s top scientists attempt to quantify safe biophysical boundaries, outside which Earth can no longer function in a stable state. The University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE), and Peter Snyder, an IonE associate fellow, are among the contributors. While the boundaries aren’t 100 percent definitive, they do serve as a preliminary road map. The authors hope the next generation of scientists will refine and expand on their ideas.

Nonstop Energy

How do we provide sustainable fuel, food, fiber and freshwater to a global population of 9 billion people in our lifetime? That’s one of nearly 20 urgent questions we’ll explore during E3 2009: The Midwest’s Premier Energy, Economic and Environmental Conference, taking place Nov. 17 at the Saint Paul RiverCentre. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Larry Kazmerski, a photovoltaics pioneer, will offer the keynote presentation this year. Other highlights include a super panel discussion with national experts, track sessions focused on the big questions of the 21st century, and a series of Green on the Ground workshops. Hosted annually by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), an IonE signature program, the conference brings together scientists, movers and shakers, and policymakers from across the Midwest and beyond to share the latest buzz in renewable energy.

Sunny Side Up

For three weeks this month, University of Minnesota students made a home in Washington, D.C.—right in the heart of the National Mall. Of course, the historic hub didn't open its turf to any old house. This was the home of the future: An 800-square-foot masterpiece powered entirely by the sun. The U of M students represent one of just 20 university teams from around the world to gain a spot in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Solar Decathlon. For the past two years, young scholars from wide-ranging disciplines have been designing, planning and building what they’ve dubbed the ICON House. The name comes from the home’s modified gable roof, which keeps the iconic house form while maximizing exposure to the sun. The students competed for points in 10 separate categories, ranging from architecture and engineering to appliances and net metering. The IonE provided $50,000 for this project; IREE provided $100,000.

Science is in Our Nature

Groundbreaking research can’t break much ground if it stays in the confines of the lab. That’s where highly cited journals like Science, Nature and PNAS come in. Just a fraction of the articles submitted to the journals are accepted for publication, each one subject to intensive peer review. For the few scientists who make the cut, global attention is in the cards. Despite such fierce competition, members of the IonE community have published some 30 papers in these journals in the past three years. Not to toot our own horn (well, maybe a little), but this track record shows the University of Minnesota isn’t joking around when it comes to environmental research. Just a few influential studies recently co-authored by our staff and fellows include:

A Major Minor

Housed within the IonE, the Sustainability Studies Minor is an up-and-coming undergraduate opportunity at the University of Minnesota. Since its beginning in 2006, the program has attracted more than 300 students and faculty from seven U of M colleges. The minor is open to students of all majors and explores issues from perspectives across the natural, social and applied sciences. The curriculum includes a core course titled “Sustainable People, Sustainable Planet,” interdepartmental electives, and a project-based capstone course in which students address a community’s environmental, social and economic sustainability from a systems perspective.

Star Quality

Now more than ever, decision makers around the world are embracing sustainable business models. So it’s an opportune time for the IonE to embrace the innovation of private enterprise and other thought leaders. The IonE’s new NorthStar Consortium is leveraging the resources and expertise of corporate, nonprofit, university and government participants to address land use, water, energy and climate, and production-consumption issues. In the coming year, these partners will identify shared challenges and opportunities across organizations, along with the technologies and strategies needed to make sustainable change.

Part of a broader NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, this consortium isn’t just another committee on corporate responsibility. Instead, it will focus on whole systems, facilitate dialogue with a parallel research agenda, and generate new and actionable knowledge. As the consortium recognizes the key barriers to sustainable progress, a team of NorthStar fellows will translate these priorities into appropriate research. The goal is to develop frameworks, pathways or action plans within one year of each project’s initiation. With significant resources from the University of Minnesota invested in this grand experiment, the stars are in our favor.

Artist Statements

Photo: Laura Corcoran Mahnke

What’s your Mississippi River story? This is a question artist Anna Metcalfe, a collaborator on the IonE’s Telling River Stories program, posed to teenagers from disadvantaged communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The University of Minnesota MFA graduate invited the youth to share their stories on paper outlines of boat shapes, which Metcalfe fired into a series of three-dimensional, ceramic story boats.

After spending their summer near the Mississippi River Gorge, assisting local organizations with ecological restoration projects, the teens jumped at the chance to express their connection to the river in an artistic way. Metcalfe held workshops for the young storytellers, gathered their drawings and writings, and created nearly 60 clay boats in all.

The collection is so exquisite; it’s earned a showcase in the 2010 conference of the National Council for Education on the Ceramic Arts, taking place this spring in Philadelphia.