Good Use

David Pacchioli
May 01, 1999

When Penn State ecologist Chris Uhl started working in Amazonia in the mid-1970s, the prognosis for the region was unrelievedly grim. At the time, Uhlís colleagues were stressing the terrible fragility of the rainforest ecosystem—its delicate balance of plants and animals, its thin, poor soils. Collision with humanity, they feared, would simply be the end of it.

A careful analysis of abandoned pastureland in the east-Brazilian state of Par· led Uhl to a discovery that surprised him: The forest could come back. Not quickly enough, certainly, to offset prevalent rates of destruction; and not without the loss of precious biodiversity. Still, the idea that denuded rainforest had the potential to regenerate stirred a crucial change in Uhlís outlook. Maybe there was a way for humans to use the vast resources of the forest without destroying it.

In the late 1980s, Uhl took a five-year leave of absence from Penn State and moved to Brazil. Aided by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Pew fellowships and grants from the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, he founded IMAZON, the Amazon Institute for Man and the Environment, near BelÈm, a teeming city at the mouth of the Amazon River. Staffed by an interdisciplinary group of young Brazilian scientists, IMAZONís avowed mission was to lay a groundwork of applied research in sustainable resource use. One of the first projects the institute completed was to demonstrate that environmentally sustainable logging in the eastern Amazon was economically feasible.

When Uhl returned to University Park full time in 1994, the idea of sustainability came with him. A good ecologist, after all, knows that boundaries are illusory, that everything connects.

"All the world looks to the U.S. as a model," he wrote to me in early 1997.

"The BelÈm movie houses are crowded on Saturday afternoons with bluejeaned folks watching the latest Hollywood movies. And what do they see? Generally, glitzy lifestyles and lots of consumption.

"We need to provide an alternative model—one based on sustainability and ecological awareness. We need to show that it is possible to live well even while consuming less." What better place to start, Uhl wondered, than at a university?

Before Brazil, he acknowledged, he had never thought much about Penn State as an institution. "[The University] was where I worked; I taught my courses, did my research, and drew my salary." But the experience of creating a small private center like IMAZON awakened him to the prospect of what a large, well-established public institution could do—what role a place like Penn State might play in shaping the future. "The university," he concluded, "should be the hothouse where new approaches to living take root."

He had read of a citizensí initiative in Seattle to evaluate the wellbeing of that city based on "indicators of sustainability," from per capita energy consumption to groundwater quality. Intrigued, Uhl wondered if it might be possible to do something similar at Penn State.

Such was the genesis of the Penn State Indicators Project. On pages 4 and 5, Uhl describes the report his team of 30 undergraduate and graduate students presented to the University last September, after two years of collecting data. The findings, he admits, are challenging; the report card mixed. Indeed, he hopes the projectís effort will stir debate: "Truly great institutions, I think, have a dynamic tension about them," he writes.

Above all, Uhl stresses, The Indicators Project "recognizes that we live in a world of limited resources and that our actions—whether we are in Central Pennsylvania or Central Amazonia—throughout the planet."

Last Updated May 01, 1999