Photo by Sofia Drobinskaya.
In January 2018, Naropa welcomed Michael Bauer as the Director of Sustainability within the Office for Inclusive Community. Bauer brings his broad experience in sustainability program design and impact evaluation, stakeholder engagement, and program development. Bauer sat down with Naropa student Jennifer ‘Fern’ Dieninger (BA Contemplative Art Therapy, ‘19) for his first interview as director.
Jennifer ‘Fern’ Deininger: Could you talk about your background and foundation prior to Naropa?
Michael Bauer: I do find it interesting that there is five-billion-year-old carbon in my bones—when I learned that, it blew my mind. I guess that’s reflective of how I have always been—very much interested in learning. And that’s been really important to me throughout my life.
I moved to Boulder in ‘96 to study biology at University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and made money on the side as a jazz musician. Before I moved here, I studied jazz, was in a big band and some jazz combos, and then realized I didn’t want to spend my time indoors smoking cigarettes. I wanted to be outside, to learn more about the natural world.
I worked for Boulder County Open Space for ten years, and then—in the early 2000s—I started to get more concerned about climate change and how it would affect what I love the most: predator-prey dynamics. Wolves and elk, cougar and deer—these systems that have been flowing energy up and down food webs for millions of years. I was fascinated with them because of their need for large wilderness areas. That’s the key—pulling from Rachel Carson, David Brower, and John Muir—the importance of protecting large wilderness areas. I began anxiously and seriously looking at what I could do to create change around this climate crisis.
CU’s Civil Systems Engineering program—something I had never heard of—had just launched, covering engineering at the intersection between civil engineering, environmental engineering, and urban planning. I got my master’s degree in civil engineering in 2013, and taught engineering at Metropolitan State University of Denver. They invited me to help develop their Sustainable Systems Engineering program, just while I was trying to find work around making a difference in the climate crisis. I was making a positive difference with students and Metro State—injecting some humanities and service-oriented philosophies into their program. But, I really wanted to get into the ground level of sustainability decision-making on a larger scale.
This open position at Naropa—a unique combination of teaching and curriculum development at the university level and sustainability reporting—was exciting.
I’m wondering about the current state of greenhouse gas emissions at Naropa, what truly renewable energy forms we have on campus, and where transparency and the public comes into this?
A lot of work around climate neutrality was done from 2007–2009, when students got really active developing a plan for making Naropa carbon neutral. The Climate Action Plan was finished in 2011 through the energy of these activated students. It was updated in 2013 and became a road map for getting us to carbon neutral and balanced energy emissions on all of our campuses. There are three phases, and we’re in an implementation phase. We’ve got a seven kilowatt solar array on the Pamela Krasney Pavilion, and another two-and-a-half kilowatt array on the Harry Smith Print Shop. Together, those produce about nine-thousand kilowatt-hours of energy per year, which keeps about three tons of coal per year in the ground. But, that’s still not enough.
We also try to help students, faculty, and staff reduce their ‘Scope 3’ emissions coming from commuting to and from campus and between campuses. We partner with the BCycle© bike sharing program—free to all students, faculty, and staff—which provides unlimited one-hour trips. We also offer the EcoPass© to the community from RTD®, which allows one to take any RTD bus anywhere—not just to work and/or back home.
We’ve also publicly committed to what is now called the Climate Commitment. From there, we hope to join the Carbon Commitment and the Resilience Commitment as well. We’re now exploring the best matches for our scope and finances to set targeting objectives. By committing publicly to these things and being transparent, we’re accountable and have a framework for getting where we need to be.
In my first six months here, I’ve focused on community partnerships with local sustainability directors—City of Boulder, Boulder County, CU—and with different nonprofits around energy transportation, food security, agriculture, etc. We recently partnered with the Colorado Carbon Fund to offset all of our building energy emissions. We physically offset those emissions by “balancing our carbon sheets,” if you will, through their Larimer County Landfill Gas Capture projects. This keeps the dollars in Colorado, and it helps develop the carbon draw-down economy, while increasing our community involvement.
We’re also moving into regenerative farming—which falls under the broader permaculture envelope. Regenerative farming, also called ‘carbon farming,’ is an array of techniques that help reduce the amount of carbon you are using to farm with tractors, trucks, and things like that. It also involves physically sequestering carbon into the soil through different practices like no till, agroforestry, rotational grazing, and more.
The more I study this, the more I realize that sustainability and climate change intersect with social identities and form an inextricable web. Can you speak about how the Department of Sustainability interacts with the Office for Inclusivity here at Naropa, and what that web may look like on campus?
The idea of sustainability is traditionally related to solar panels, or electric cars, or recycling, or riding bikes, or rain barrels, or organic farming, and the like. Those are really important, but they’re just not enough. Sustainability starts with each person. Personal or purpose sustainability is the most important and most powerful domain of sustainability. If you’re not completely nihilistic, and you’re not completely burnt out, then your personal sustainability is such that you can expand your self-love and self-compassion to other people around you—beyond your immediate family. Even into larger life support systems; maybe even to the whole planet. It aligns really well with Naropa’s mission of ‘Transform Yourself, Transform the World.’
This fits sustainability in terms of what used to be called the ‘triple bottom line.’ Now it’s the ‘quadruple bottom line,’ which is a series of concentric circles starting with personal sustainability at the core, and then social sustainability outside of that, followed by economic sustainability, and then finally ecological sustainability. These circles aren’t separable in any way, and the social sustainability circle is where diversity and inclusivity come in. Who does climate change hit hardest and most severely? Communities that are marginalized economically and socially. The Office for Inclusive Community includes diversity and inclusivity, and then contemplative practice—encompassing personal sustainability—and then finally environmental sustainability—the ecological sustainability circle.
It’s not just like sustainability plus inclusivity, plus contemplative practice equals four. There’s a compounding, exponential effect where we each grow off of each other, and the more each of us grows, the more that rate of growth increases.
When students who are focused on sustainability start talking about diversity, or students interested in diversity and inclusivity see us talking about sustainability and contemplative practice, it starts to dissolve walls in their minds—walls that don’t exist and never did. We can talk about these concepts separately, and there are certainly distinctions, but the overlap is significant, helping us work in a more powerfully integrated way.
There were reportedly student forces that demanded a Department of Sustainability at Naropa, and this was what lead to your position. Could you talk about that process?
In 2014 and 2015, a group of activated students became particularly concerned about certain practices and behaviors by some Naropa faculty and administration that were identified as systemic racism, and they protested strongly. They camped out on the green for weeks! They called their action ‘Decolonize the Commons,’ in reference to western European global colonization. They demanded recognition and change for students of color. And rightly so. That insight and activism led to a number of wonderful changes around institutional and individual implicit bias, systems of oppression, diversity, and inclusivity that are still ongoing.
So, noticing the success of these students’ beautiful efforts, another group of students then felt equally inspired to point out shortcomings in the institution around its commitments to sustainability. With the help of Regina Smith and the Office for Inclusive Community, these folks successfully organized demands for a commitment to the practice of sustainability, a sustainability core seminar, and a full-time Director of Sustainability.
And now you’re here.
Thanks to the skillful, sustained efforts of these students, I’m fortunate to be here. One of the key things that the students wanted was for the Director of Sustainability not to report to anyone except the university president. Regina suggested having the Director of Sustainability housed in the Office for Inclusive Community, which took care of that administrative structure, based in the truth that the philosophy and practice of sustainability are not separable from social justice.
I think we are regularly interconnected in that way.
I wish I had realized that sooner in my career. I have my own background in social justice work as well but didn’t always connect the dots. Social justice is ecological justice, and ecological justice is social justice. It’s a much more powerful way to think about how you can align these values and dissolve the walls between them.
Many students talk about the gloom of working with the climate in this day and age. What does maintaining active hope as someone invested in cultivating sustainability look like to you?
It does seem like the bad news just keeps on coming—around climate, the refugee crisis, opioid crisis, political instability, economic shocks, homelessness, and on and on. I am not convinced that a lot of that isn’t just our news cycle. I don’t think things are as bleak as they often seem, or as bleak as we’re told over and over. We actually live in a time of immense wonder and excitement around a number of things, and I’d just like to give you a few examples that show that life is improving in many domains:
I think we’re in the process of waking up, collectively and as a species. We’re learning at Naropa how to engage our suffering where it is. Whether we feel murderous rage or collapsing sadness—we’re learning how to engage that, instead of just discharging it into our societies and children like we have done for millions of years.
How can students on campus get involved with the Sustainability Council?
Sustainability Council meets every two weeks during the semester, and that’s where we plan as a group how to get more involved. There is shared governance, so we keep each other accountable. I’m also interested in community partnerships where we can get students working out in the community, working with faculty and staff to get into our bodies. We spend so much time in the classroom, and as a species we’re just so cerebral. We need time to get embodied and get down into the dirt—into our bodies. One of the most successful and exciting sustainability initiatives is the Bike Shack on the Arapahoe Campus, where students can learn how to work on bikes, get bikes fixed, or build their own bike—for free.
If your time here had a season or a weather pattern that described it, what would it be, and has it transformed?
Well, I started in January, so it was cold and snowy, and I had longer hair and a beard—I was in my winter mode. It started out as a cold winter day that’s bright and sunny and clear, with cold air and warm sun.
Truly a Boulder winter.
Yeah, exactly! And then the wind really started to pick up, and clouds came in, and it got a little stormy—wind blowing and snowing and then raining—and then warming up and calming, the clouds parting, and the sun coming out. So, I would say it grew as with the seasons.
Right now, I’d say it’s a clear summer day here with lots and lots of activity—wildlife and some weather, there’s a lot going on.