The Coming Revolution?

by David Templeton

The notion of sustainability is being embraced not only by environmentalists but by the worlds of business, commercial production, land development, building design and construction.

Andres Edwards is amused.

I have arrived at the author and educator’s cozily crammed office in Fairfax this morning, well prepared for our rainy day interview. I remembered to pack my various pads of paper, pens and pencils. My copy of Edwards’s book, The Sustainability Revolution, is right here in my backpack. I even brought a total of three cassette tapes, just in case the conversation turns epic, which it certainly could, given the nature of Edwards’s expertise: He writes and lectures about the current state of the sustainability movement in the United States and the world. That’s a big subject. Long conversations could obviously ensue; thus the extra cassettes. Prepared as I am, however, I have just discovered, as I unpack all of my interviewing supplies and unwrap the cassettes, that I have failed to bring my little portable tape recorder, the same Sony Clear Voice that I have been purchasing at Radio Shack for years. It’s not here. I now distinctly remember leaving it on my desk beside my Apple iBook laptop, along with my other two spare recording devices. (I own three).

My options seem limited: I can attempt to take dictation as Edwards answers my questions, I can run home and back (a 60-mile round trip) or I can run out to find a Radio Shack and purchase another tape recorder. The first choice is awkward and uses up lots of paper, the second wastes gas, and the third wastes whatever potentially toxic, landfill-poisoning materials my Sony Clear Voice is made of, because I certainly don’t need four of the damn things.

“Here. Use my digital recorder,” Edwards offers, flashing a shiny little gizmo the size of a stick of gum. It’s an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder (model WS-300M). It’s adorable. Says Edwards, “Record our conversation. Then I’ll upload it and send the file to you online. Or I could burn it onto a CD if you are really attached to having some tangible thing you can carry with you.”

There is not a hint of condescension or technological holier-than-thouism in Edwards’s voice. Clearly, he recognizes my need to adopt a fresh and modern world-view regarding the equipment with which I do my work, and he is happy to assist in pushing me, gently, across the digital line. This is major. Suddenly, I am faced with a climactic transitional moment, a kind of personal, technological evolution. After 15 years as a journalist, 15 years of using tapes and notebooks and paper and pencils and the like, 15 years of resisting the various high-tech gadgets and contraptions I see lining the shelves of electronics stores, I am actually about to “go digital.”

For one interview, anyway.

“Just see how this goes,” laughs Edwards. “This could just be the first of many digital experiences for you. I think you’re going to like it.”

• • • •

ANDRES EDWARDS IS an educator, media designer and environmental systems consultant with 15 years of expertise on numerous sustainability topics. He is the founder and president of EduTracks, a firm specializing in educational programs focusing on sustainability. His first book, Tibet: Enduring Spirit, Exploited Land, released in 1998 in a full-color hardcover edition with photos by Galen Rowell, has recently been reissued in paperback form. That book was born of an 800-mile bicycle trip across Tibet that Edwards took with two friends in 1987. It was a trip that greatly affected his understanding of the world-wide ecological situation, since the bike odyssey brought him face to face with Tibetan farmers and nomads struggling to live in areas that were blighted by years of environmental neglect. With his friends, Edwards formed Tibet Environmental Watch ( to inform the world of the worsening environmental situation in the former home of the Dalai Lama, who gave his blessing to the project and contributed to the book.

Recently, Edwards has been working on a ground-floor exhibit area for the new research center of PRBO Conservation Science (formerly known as the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory), set to open up in early May, overlooking the popular Shollenberger Park bird sanctuary and wetlands in Petaluma. In recent months, he has been co-designing numerous educational “kiosks” touting Leadership and Energy in Environmental Design, an industrial standard for environmentally friendly buildings developed by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. As Edwards explains it, the LEED standards are a “green materials” ratings system used by builders to maximize the level of sustainability in new and retrofitted buildings. These standards take into account the materials used in creating the building, the way the building is designed to use energy and how much energy it ends up using, the use of water within the building, and the general “healthiness” of the place for those who live or work there.

“This whole thing has been taking the building industry by storm,” says Edwards. “Finally, there’s a standard to go by, and it’s creating a way in which architects and builders and owners can shoot for a certain standard that can make environmentally friendly buildings. It’s transforming the whole industry.”

This issue, in many ways, goes to the heart of what Edwards is saying in The Sustainability Revolution. According to Edwards and dozens of experts interviewed for the book, after years of being consigned to the so-called fringes of environmental activism, the notion of sustainability is suddenly being talked about and put into practice, in colleges and universities all over the globe, and where some might least expect it—in the worlds of business, commercial production, land development, and building design and construction. This goes way beyond the “greenwashing” being practiced by some companies, adopting a few surface gestures toward environmentalism while assaulting nature behind their customers’ backs. According to Edwards, a growing number of businesspeople are finally discovering that, in many cases, treating the environment right is good for the bottom line because, when properly done, green business activities actually save companies money.

“For example,” explains Edwards, “we work better when we can see daylight, when we can feel the sunlight, right? Productivity goes up when you are working in natural daylight. And if the productivity increases, people tend to like their jobs, they like their building and they tend to stay on the job for much longer. So the turnover rate for employees ends up not being so fast, and even though it may cost, in some cases, a bit more up-front [to create a building with lots of natural light], you more than make up for the cost down the road in terms of savings in operations.”

Edwards develops the educational displays that are frequently put in place in a major LEED building, displays that explain what it is about the building that makes it green. One of these Edwards-designed educational displays can be seen at the entrance to the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, complete with details on what the materials are, why they are good for the environment and where folks can find them locally.

As a businessman and pro-sustainability advocate, Edwards has been thinking a lot about the line between the environmentalist world and the commercial world. The future, he now believes, depends on finding ways to blend the two together in a kind of economic-ecological holistic fusion. It isn’t an obvious blend, and though much movement has already taken place, it won’t be easy. Compromise will be a large part of the process.

• • • •

A GOOD EXAMPLE of that is the kind of digital technology that Edwards is currently doing such a good job of convincing me to embrace.

“It gets very complicated when you start thinking about technology and all the waste associated with computers," he says, checking the recording level on the digital device now gleaming on the book-covered table between us. Says Edwards, "There is so much that has to be dealt with in regards to toxins and all the chemicals used in building a computer. But I think that what’s good with this kind of technology, just in terms of the materials, is that you are recycling electrons here. By recycling electrons, we are just reusing the digital medium, and in that way, digital technology is very efficient and consistent with ideas about building a sustainable world. It’s the way the whole world is going. We are becoming a digital world, with digital cameras and digital audio. Everybody is digitizing. As the bandwidth expands, and the Web and other things expand, it’s going to become easier and easier for movies and audio and television. I definitely see it as the wave. We’ve gone from the linear to the digital.”

Fine. But is that enough to declare that we are witnessing a “sustainability revolution”? If that were the only sign, Edwards admits it wouldn’t be enough. But the revolution has many shapes, styles and places of birth.

“The way I see it, there is a global conversation taking place, a transformation happening on a global scale.”

• • • •

“IF WE GO back to the roots of environmentalism, back to the 1960s, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac,” Edwards says. "If you take a look back at all of the efforts that took place during the ’60s regarding raising awareness about environmental damage, air pollution, water pollution, and all of the legislation that took place as a result of that, it’s obvious that it was somewhat one-sided. All of that was looking at environmental issues, but didn’t really treat the issue holistically. It never looked at environmentalism through the light of economics and the social aspects of environmentalism.

“When I think of sustainability,” he says, “I’m looking at it in terms of taking a holistic, integrated perspective, incorporating the environmental, the economic and the social issues, and then I add a fourth E: education, which I think is critical. Education is the catalyst for action. Most of my professional career has been about education, raising awareness.”

Edwards is calling for something beyond mere environmentalism, which is why he prefers the term “sustainability.” Environmentalism has been focused mainly on the environment, while sustainability has come to mean something wider, something that includes environmentalism but also enfolds the issues of economics and business, the social structures in which we live, and the educational systems that teach our values. According to Edwards, achievement of true sustainability will only come when the relationship between all those factors is strong and united. “It’s happening not just at the local issue,” Edwards says. “It is happening at the community, state, national and even international level. In a lot of developing nations, a lot of communities are leapfrogging past putting in telephone wiring and going straight to cell phones. That’s good news. Sustainability is not a special interest issue. It’s the context for all other issues. Our economy and our well-being are dependent on the life support systems of the earth.”

As already alluded to, one of the places where the sustainability revolution seems to be flourishing is on campuses of schools, colleges and universities. At the College of Marin and Indian Valley College—enabled by a $250-million dollar bond approved last year—a literal and philosophical renovation is taking place, as the Kentfield and Novato campuses undergo a strategic transformation into fully "green" institutions. At COM, Edwards has been working with renowned ecological architect Sim Van der Ryn (author of The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water, Ecological Design and Design for Life: The Architecture of Sim Van der Ryn) to establish the new Center for Regenerative Design, created to assist the campus in its greening process, from the so-called "built environment"—buildings, classrooms and other structures—to the way the school buys and sells the food, to the water, the energy, and the all-around health and well-being of the students and faculty. There is a major educational factor as well.

“It’s the perfect time, right now as the college is going through its greening process,” Edwards says, “for the students to be participating in that. Our vision is that the college will be a gateway to the community. We’ve already had meetings with nonprofit groups, green business and other businesses which are interested in finding ways to collaborate with the college in its greening efforts.”

As Edwards describes it, interest in the center has been phenomenal throughout the academic world, with requests for information and offers of help being extended every day. Locally, curiosity is even higher. To facilitate the transition within the community, and to educate the wider populace on issues of sustainability, the Center for Regenerative Design has been hosting a series of public, round table discussions on the College of Marin campus. These discussions have already covered such topics as transportation, green economies and eco-literacy. On May 3, there will be a discussion of “natural capital” (air, water, energy), and the final discussion of the series, on May 17, will look at ways of building sustainable communities.

“We hope to use the center to work with the people who are right here in Marin, to develop awareness of these possibilities, and to make it a world-class model, make the College of Marin a world-class model of a sustainable community college, with the Center for Regenerative Design acting as the gateway to the future, one that can be replicated at hundreds of other community colleges around the world. It’s already happening.

“There really is a revolution going on,” he continues, “on campuses all over the country. It’s amazing the work that is taking place in schools right now: everything from developing solar energy, food programs, solar programs, transportation programs, new curriculum that supports sustainability. There’s a new program at the University of South Carolina incorporating ideas about sustainability into English literature. Sonoma State University has a one-year Green Building certificate program. Many colleges are offering courses on developing wind and solar energy systems, and several campuses now feature paid sustainability directors to facilitate the administration of ecologically friendly principles.”

That said, Edwards is a realist. He knows that there is a great deal more education to be done, or the revolution might be short-lived.

“I suppose the biggest misperception people have when they think about sustainability,” he muses, “is that adopting a sustainable approach means they are losing something, that it will somehow hinder their well-being, their quality of life or their financial growth. Businesspeople think that a pursuit of sustainability will lead to a loss of profit. Working people think that becoming sustainable means giving something up in exchange. Yes, there is a risk, but there is also huge opportunity. If we begin to adopt a different view of how to run our businesses, how to run our towns, how to develop transportation systems at work, we can end up experiencing incredible, social, economic and environmental improvements. It’s a different world-view, and that’s hard to adapt to at first.”

I’ll say. I’m having a hard enough time finding the off-button on Edwards’s digital recording contraption. Before I do, and I bring the conversation to a close, Edwards adds one last thought.

“When everyone finally accepts that sustainability is economically viable, and they will, because they will have to, then the revolution will have reached its next level,” he says. “You can be sustainable and make money, and in many cases—this is the realization that is sparking much of the revolution already—adopting a sustainable approach will save you money: it will save money in energy costs, in productivity, in all kinds of things. Sustainability makes good business sense—and big business is now beginning to discover that.”

For further information about the COMmunity Round Table events sponsored by the Center for Regenerative Design, check the Web site at or call 415/457-8811, ext. 7727. All round tables take place at Olney Hall on the College of Marin Campus, from 7-9pm.

Originally Published in the Pacific Sun, April 21, 2006

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For information on Andrés Edwards's new book, The Heart Of Sustainability: Restoring Ecological Balance From The Inside Out including: book reviews, table of contents, foreword, annotated bibliography and up-coming events go to