Innovative Sustainability

Last Thursday, the U hosted a symposium called Innovative Sustainability. It was a day dedicated to infusing creativity and inspiration into living a sustainable lifestyle. Sustainability is all too often seen as something boring but necessary – make a change and then keep doing that one thing for a long time. There is a misconception that it is difficult to be sustainable, that it takes away from the excitement of everyday life.

Innovative Sustainability provided us with many chances to see the imagination, enthusiasm, and variety that can be a part of living harmoniously with the natural environment. We heard from faculty, staff, and several eager students about the state of sustainability at the U.


Janine Benyus encouraging students.

On Thursday morning I headed over to the Aline Skaggs Biology building for a breakfast celebrating women in science. Our keynote speaker, Janine Benyus, was there to give us all some inspiration and hope about getting jobs in fields we care about.  We grabbed our free bagels and gathered around to talk about making a change in arenas that don’t necessarily always welcome women. Benyus gave us a bit of a preview to her upcoming talk on her work in biomimicry. There was a small crowd of interested students from the sciences, many of whom had questions. Benyus mentioned that many people often have the wrong impression that within the natural world, everything is about competition and struggling against contenders. Recently, researchers have begun to notice an extensive world of cooperative relationships, where working together and sharing may be more important than pushing away the competitors. Benyus hopes we can learn something from our wilder counterparts.

In the Gould Auditorium, the day started off with the director of the Office of Sustainability, Myron Wilson, giving an update on the state of sustainability at the U.

Myron Wilson, director of the Office of Sustainability

President David Pershing then took the podium to discuss the university’s sustainable goals within the next five years. Wilson remarked on where we are now, what we’ve accomplished, and what the future will bring.

President Pershing


We also had a lively discussion with several students about ways they have already made and are working to make the U more sustainable. Ariel Herbert-Voss proposed eliminating the paper waste of Freshmen orientation by putting relevant handouts online, accessible through a QR code on a reusable water bottle. Jai Bashir discussed her Student and Nature Network and the need to provide students with more opportunities to be a part of natural world. Max Stiefel discussed his work in organizing this year’s Earth Week and bringing exciting speakers to campus.



There was a delicious catered lunch to be enjoyed in the discussion that followed. People provided suggestions and questions to the student presenters. There was an obvious interest in audience members as to ways in which they could be involved.


Later in the afternoon, Janine Benyus gave her keynote address. She talked about learning from the natural world, a huge system that has been working together for a very long time. She offered fascinating specific examples of her work in biomimicry. For example, Benyus is involved with a company in creating windows that birds will not fly into. Birds are often attracted to the light inside buildings and injure or kill themselves in high numbers because they can’t see the glass. So Benyus and the company learned something new by observing spiders. Obviously spiders do not want birds to fly into their webs, but they do want to attract insects. Spiders are able to spin strings of silk that reflect UV light from the sun. Birds can see UV light. They spot it reflecting off the web and know not to fly into it. Now we can build windows with a stripe of glass that also reflects UV light, and thanks to the ingenuity of spiders, save bird’s lives and people’s money. Benyus Imageand the Biomimicry Institute are, essentially, just asking us to open our eyes. There’s a lot we can learn from ancient ecological systems and relationships. Let’s take the time to educate ourselves.

Speaker Janine Benyus




Lastly, there was a discussion posing the question if you had enough money, what is something you’d really like to see change in the way the U handles sustainability? There was a strong focus on recycling, and many students hope to see recycling efforts improved on campus.

There is obviously a lot of creative energy out there in our community. You can have a healthy relationship with your environment while living sustainably – the excitement comes in constantly searching for new solutions and ideas.

So, if you had $10,000 and could implement one major change in sustainability on campus or where you live, what would you do?


Annie Gilliland is a graduate student in the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah. She is working on a fellowship with the Office of Sustainability.

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