Earth in the balance: Inaugural panelists discuss sustainability

Cynthia Abramson Nikitin ’81 held up the package that had contained the Philadelphia Cream Cheese she’d spread on her bagel that morning. The label, she noted, said the cream cheese had been made with “renewable energy.” The observation drew a chuckle from the audience gathered in Razzo Hall on Wednesday, but through the laughter the message was clear: if the more than 6 billion people of Earth have any hope of preserving their planet, they must address the issues surrounding sustainability, from big-picture initiatives to the smallest quality-of-life details.

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  That message was driven home time and again in the first Inaugural Symposium, “Sustainability in the 21st Century,” moderated by Jennie Stephens, Clark University Professor, International Development, Community and Environment. [Watch an interview with Prof. Stephens.] Nikitin, Vice President for Public Buildings and Director of Civic Centers Program, Project for Public Places, was joined onstage by fellow panelists Beth Pacella ’85, Senior Attorney, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Angela Mwandia, M.A. ’05, Coordinator, Environmental Hazards Programme, World Wildlife Fund, and David A. Jordan, M.P.A. ’02, President and CEO of Seven Hills Foundation.

In her opening remarks, Stephens stressed that the planet has already suffered an “irreversible disruption” to its ecosystems through climate change, the use of nitrogen fertilizers, and other factors. While sounding a serious warning, she cautioned against becoming “overwhelmed with the challenges” and instead urged everyone to confront the issues by integrating behavioral and social change with technological innovation. The key, she said, is to work “explicitly to connect knowledge to action.” Pacella said it’s important to provide sources of energy that have a minimal impact on the environment, are long lasting, and are competitively priced with current energy sources. Improvements must be made to the energy-transmission system to make it more efficient, she said. Changing people’s behavior to promote energy conservation at home is valuable, but never easy, Pacella said. “Apathy is the most difficult thing to overcome.”

“I live in Nairobi, and every two months I meet someone from Clark. I’m still having the Clark experience.” ~ Angela Mwandia, M.A. '05  

“Sustainability is a process, not a fixed outcome,” Nikitin maintained, adding that the process requires flexibility and looking at multiple solutions to a host of problems. Architecture and landscape design, better urban planning, and the changing of people’s perceptions about “smart growth,” which offers more compact living and working arrangements balanced by more open public spaces, are essential. Nikitin noted the importance of “place-making,” which “taps local knowledge and wisdom … to create a vital and sustainable public realm.” She suggested local wisdom can come into play when Clark plans and creates a pedestrian plaza from the section of Downing Street that is expected to be shut down next year. Changing people’s behavior is a major task, she said. Since 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions are from automobiles, encouraging patterns of development that don’t force people to drive great distances makes sense. Nikitin said parking places should be treated like any other utility such as water, heat and electricity because of the financial and environmental costs they incur. Nikitin noted the ripple effect of connecting knowledge with resources. She used the simple example of an underused bus stop, which might see an uptick in use if it met certain basic requirements – that its placement is convenient, that it’s heated and sheltered. Jordan insisted that the very word “sustainability” must extend beyond environmental concerns to also include social and economic sustainability.

“More than 4 billion of the world’s 6.2 billion people live on less than $1.50 a day. That’s unsustainable,” he said. “In 30 or 40 years we’ll have 9 billion people on the planet, and today we’re [already] facing a food crisis in parts of the world.” Clark’s role in confronting issues of sustainability is to “create change makers,” Jordan said. “Let [the students] from this institution become the sustainability champions of the world, because that’s where the future lies,” he said. Jordan, who teaches a graduate course in social entrepreneurship, cited work his students have done in Sierra Leone, initiating the construction of a women’s health clinic and a school for 150 children. [Watch a video of Clark students in Sierra Leone.] “We have the capacity at Clark to lead the nation,” he said.

Mwandia talked of her work to minimize the effect of chemicals and other pollutants in Africa. Those efforts take her from the highest reaches of international policy-making, to individual African villages where regulations are enforced. The goal is to work with communities “to get them to understand what role they can play to make themselves less vulnerable and be part of the solution.” The discussion concluded with a question about Clark’s influence on the panelists’ lives. “I love this place,” Pacella said. “It made me a better, fuller, more open person.” Nikitin said she marvels at Clark capacity to create connections “between seemingly unrelated fields.” It’s this level of intellectual engagement, which she described as “combine, compare, synthesize, analyze,” that brought her back to Clark three months after she’d left to attend another university. “I loved it more when I came back,” she said. Jordan related a story about trying to conduct a topographical survey for a women’s health clinic in Sierra Leone. The difficult terrain offered a host of challenges, so from the field in Africa he called Dean of the College Walter Wright to ask if someone from the Geography Department could do the survey via satellite. Shortly after, “I was giving the geography professor GPS coordinates, and in five hours I had [the survey]. That’s integrated education.” Mwandia offered a perspective on Clark’s global reach, and the University’s continuing presence in her own life. “I live in Nairobi, and every two months I meet someone from Clark,” she said. “I’m still having the Clark experience.”  

-   By Jim Keogh, Director of News & Editorial Services An archive of News & Media Relations posts can be found at