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Smithsonian Secretary on Sustainability: ‘Take the Long View’

Wayne Clough presented Civil and Environmental Engineering Distinguished Annual Lecture May 3

Adopting sustainable practices is vital to our success as a nation and planet, but with constant election cycles and shortsighted business plans, politicians and corporations are not always the most successful at enacting long-term change.

Cultural and educational institutions, on the other hand, have the opportunity to take a long view, maximizing sustainability in areas such as aesthetics, education, buildings, transportation, water use, and land management.

This was the message brought by Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in his May 3 presentation, “Sustainability: Taking the Long View,” at the McCormick School of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Distinguished Annual Lecture.

The Smithsonian has a long history of environmentally-minded leaders dating back to its first secretary, Joseph Henry, a scientist who established a national network of weather watchers and served as science adviser to Lincoln.

Wayne Clough speaks to McCormick students during his presentation on May 3.As its 12th secretary, Clough is continuing the trend. Enacting sustainable practices at the world’s largest museum and research complex isn’t always easy; for example, it is impossible to drastically cut much of the Smithsonian’s energy consumption, as its 137-million-object collection requires around-the-clock temperature, humidity, and lighting control.

But the Smithsonian’s reach goes much farther than museums; its operations cover some 43,000 acres in 100 countries, many of them dedicated to understanding and preserving life on the planet. Located on an island in the Panama Canal, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is dedicated to understanding biological diversity through long-term ecological studies. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland has provided insight into coastal ecosystems and has facilitated the world’s longest continually running carbon experiment.

“The Smithsonian is very good at sticking with something for a long period of time,” Clough said.

Education is also key to the Smithsonian’s sustainability work; its Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, a partnership with George Mason University, offers unique conservation biology programs to advance the field. 

And throughout the institution’s numerous locations, Clough and his team work to integrate sustainability and energy efficiency into construction projects, change the way land is managed, add new perspectives to educational outreach, conduct waste audits, and transition to an all-electric-vehicle fleet. 

Thinking in the long term is beneficial for the environment, Clough said, and it’s also beneficial for the institution. He pointed to “green” buildings as an example; while the up-front building costs may be larger, the savings can be astronomical if the structure stands for a century or more.

While that sort of long-term worldview is increasingly uncommon today, Clough pointed to Northwestern as an example of a campus where many of the buildings date back more than 100 years. The key is to extend that thinking to other sectors, Clough said.

“Where will we be in 100 million years, or 50 million years, or even 10,000 years from now?” he said. “If we can educate future generations, it will make all the difference in the world.”

Taking the long view is necessary, Clough noted: our population is growing fast, and many live in precarious conditions. Twenty percent of the world’s population lacks clean water, Clough noted; 20 percent lacks adequate housing, 40 percent lacks adequate sanitation, and half live within 50 miles of a coastline, putting them at an increased risk for the environmental changes brought about by climate change.

In the face of all this, our population is skyrocketing. Just over 7 billion people inhabit the earth today, Clough noted; by 2050, the population will be 9.1 billion.

“The consequence of our growth is severe,” Clough said, noting that our growth as a species sparks the growth — and decline — of numerous other species that share our ecosystem. “Can we absorb 2 billion more?”