From the Front Row: Sustainability, equity, and climate change

Published on November 15, 2022


In the final episode of our series on climate change, Radha and Anya talk with Stratis Giannakorous, the director of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and the Environment. They chat about his path to environmental work, local sustainability efforts at the University of Iowa, the importance of equity, and the importance of both individual and collective efforts to address climate change.

For more information about sustainability work at the University of Iowa, visit

Radha Velamuri:

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to From the Front Row. Throughout our series on climate change, we’ve talked through what climate change is, how household emissions contribute to climate change, and how climate change impacts infrastructure and refugee populations. This week we’re going to conclude our series by talking about some local solutions and sustainability practices to reduce carbon emissions along with a bigger picture thought as we wrap up.

My name is Radha Velamuri and I’m hosting this episode with Anya Morozov. And if this is your first time with us, welcome. We’re a student-run podcast that talks about major issues in public health and how they’re relevant to anyone, both in and outside of the field of public health. Today, we’re talking to Stratis Giannakorous, the director of the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. Welcome to the show, Stratis.

Stratis Giannakorous:

Thanks for having me, Radha and Anya.

Radha Velamuri:

So as we get into today’s episode, why don’t you walk us through your background, how you got to the University of Iowa, why you’re passionate about the work you do, why sustainability?

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah, that’s a really great question. It’s not a direct route. So I started out when I was younger being really interested in environmental questions and environmental issues just in the sense that I love to be out hiking or be in nature or be out in the Mississippi River.

I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and had this sort of outdoor experience and then got to undergrad and felt like I should study something that was going to get me a good job and not something that maybe more questionable. So at the time, didn’t get into the environment in undergrad because I thought that I’d get a better job if I was an econ major.

And being an econ major was great, right? It’s a lot of tools and skills and things. But I found myself going to class and then outside of class doing nothing around that pursuit, a field that would get me a job in that space. So I kind of more lean towards, go to class and then go out and do things like rock climbing or canoeing or being out in the outdoors. And then graduated, I started out in finance for a year and I knew about a weekend that I would die if I just kept doing that. For some people it’s great, but you know when you know that it’s not good for you.

And so I made this decision. At the time, someone told me, “Don’t ever quit your first job without a year under your belt because then you’ll never be able to use that on a resume,” which doesn’t end up being the greatest advice, but I did. I stuck it out for a year. I remember, I think I started on November 11th and quit on November 11th. And in the meantime, saved my money and started calling around.

So about a week into my new job, called around frantically to try to figure out how to pivot. And I didn’t taken any courses in the environment, right? I had done all this stuff, but my resume didn’t reflect my interests and had a hard time getting into any entry level jobs in that side of things. And then started going up to chain asking, “Well, maybe I could work for the World Bank because they have an environment program and they also are kind of econ-ish, doing with finance, big bank.”

And these bigger institutions, they all shut me down. They said, “You don’t have a master’s degree, so we don’t have to do it with you. And it’s great that you’re excited, but you have to have a master’s degree. We’re not going to talk to you.” So I just kept at it, kept asking. And finally, I came across a person at Duke University. Her name was Karen Eckert, she was fantastic. And she just decided to talk to me and she asked me what I wanted to do and what I was trying to angle for. And I explained my situation and she said, “Well, I am a marine biologist and I happen to know a person who worked with…” It was a United Nations Environment Programme, sub-NGO in Greece working on sea turtle conservation.

And she was a marine biologist herself, she had that connection. She asked, she’s like, “Do you speak Greek? Your name is Greek?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m a heritage language learner. I’ve been there quite a bit.” And she said, “There’s a woman named Lily Venizelos, so you should go work for her and that can be a way to get in. She’s not going to be able to pay you, but that’s the thing you need to do is you need to go in and cut your teeth in this space.”

I had saved money, and so I did. I went to Greece and I worked for a year doing work with that NGO. We’d got to see sea turtle nest. We tried to bring popular attention to what was going on nesting beaches. We even brought in a BBC film crew to film a documentary so that British tourists would understand better their impacts on the beaches. We took a case of the European ombudsperson about misuse of marine park funds by Greece at the time. And I got to see all these different aspects of this conservation NGO working on things.

And then I also, from there, met someone who was working in maritime law. So I started kind of volunteering with the maritime law firm. They were doing law of the sea and pollution, maritime disasters. It was right around the time the Prestige had crashed into the coast of Spain after no one wanted to take this listing ship and these questions of who owns what and the environmental law of the sea. And I thought it was fascinating, but found out I didn’t really want to be a lawyer.

And then my money kind of ran out right after doing all this stuff. And along the way, I had this epiphany. There was this time when I was on the beach and had been confronted by Greeks who are there, who kind of saw me as a traitor. They’re like, “You’re Greek American and why would you be helping out these Brits and other Greeks who want to destroy our livelihoods as we’re trying to develop and do things? I have kids and you have this privilege to come down here. Obviously, you’re coming from the United States where your dad went to from here and now you’re coming back and telling me that what I have to develop for my kids and the olive trees, whatever it is is out of bounds. You conservationists are evil and especially you should know better.”

And then I took that to heart, it really upset me because I thought about it. Their attitude was like, “You’re kind of helicopter flying in. You’re tinkering with this stuff, but you don’t have any skin in the game because you’re going to leave and go and do whatever you want. You have opportunity and ability to leave, right?”

It changed how I thought about conservation. It changed how I thought about the environment. It changed how I think I thought about what I was doing, right? And so that’s the first point at which I really started to think about people being at the center of these questions around environment and development. Maybe it should have occurred to me earlier, but it didn’t. And having that wake-up call, so at the same time I was leaving anyway and I went back with that sort of bitter pill in mind, that, “What am I doing here? What is conservation trying to do?”

And I saw limited success and I saw challenges and I wasn’t sure what to do, what the way forward was. So in the meantime, I came back and I had to have a job. So I started working with this group that was doing clean tech innovation for high schoolers and they would do it at big universities in Nicosia. Students would come in and we’d try to teach them how to start businesses or engage in entrepreneurship with this green focus. And I really enjoyed that work, but it was kind of a stepping stone into what’s the next phase for me.

And at that time, there was a lot more discussion around climate change. It was 2007, 2008. So right before the great recession and there was this drive and this push to say, “What about our climate emissions and cities under the Clean Air?” The protocol, we’re starting to measure the greenhouse gas emissions. It’s big cities.

So I was from Dubuque and my brother and I were both involved in thinking about this. And we had met some people, the mayor of Dubuque, Roy Buol at the time, had actually gone to some of these conferences and said, “Dubuque needs to get on board with this, be more sustainable.” And he brought it to our attention, he was a great mayor in that regard. And Dubuque started to get engaged with this. My brother and I got involved, but we didn’t really have a seat at the table. We were younger and didn’t have credentials. Again, the challenge of how do you get engaged?

And so what we did was we had another friend who said, “Well, you should form a 501(c)(3). And it’s a non-profit, and then you can go to events or you can be at the table for this stuff because now you’re an organization.” We called ourselves And it was a really great move because suddenly, we had this instant credibility. We walked in as Green Dubuque and not just interested younger people from town and got seat at the table.

And I think that we had another friend, he was brilliant, and we were along for the ride. And the three of us together started to get into this and started to get some traction and we’d do things we didn’t know better. So we kind of walk into the City Manager’s Office and ask for these things and didn’t know we needed to set up a meeting. And it kind of was to our benefit. We didn’t know the rules of the game. We were just out there trying to make change happen. And eventually, people realized that we had passion, we did have some insight, we did do our homework and understood emissions profiles and Scope 1, 2, and 3.

And we recommended to the city that they pursue a greenhouse gas-reduction plan. One of the first smaller cities in the country to do so, and we told them we’d write it for them. And a lot of it was written by my brother and his friend who were really in the weeds on this stuff. And I was there along for the ride and kind of engaged too and doing more of the politicking for some of these things at different meetings.

And what happened was that the city said yes and the city didn’t resist it and they adopted it. And it was the 20 x 30 plan, it was 30% reduction in our baseline emissions by the year 2020. And it was adopted and went forward. We thought, “This is such a great success and a victory.” We did more things along those lines.

Then one of my friends, the smartest of us went on to grad school at the Nelson Institute, UW-Wisconsin. My brother went out and got into the solar industry, started his own solar company eventually. And then I went on to grad school, also Colorado State University. And I studied environmental politics and policy and then got involved there with the school sustainability. And that’s what I really increasingly thought about this, people at the center of these issues, part of this, the equity and the social piece of seeing we’re not saving the environment, its own right. We’re doing it with this anthropocentric lens where we’re trying to solve these problems in a certain way.

And that’s what catalyzed my career in sustainability. I saw it from a hired angle. I got involved with the School of Sustainability there. I got my first job at Colorado State as their first sustainability coordinator. My dad was sick at the time and things were up in the air. Actually, I ended up leaving my dream job, came back to Iowa to teach at Luther College and help run the Center for Sustainable Communities, taught environmental studies, moral science, and then worked there at the center in Northeast Iowa for about two and a half, three years.

And then from there a friend of mine said, “Hey, there’s this really cool thing going on in the desert, at ASU, Arizona State University, and they’re looking for people to run this consultancy that they’ve built.” It was basically a money from the Walton Family Foundation and some money from Julian Wrigley in the tune of $60 million and I think another $28 million. And the goal was to translate university research into applied solutions and sustainability.

I was like, “This is amazing. I got to go.” So I applied, got a job in that outfit and went down there for three years. And we worked on a range of projects, the team of people that were there, the great team. We did things where we were working on development grants from USAID, AID, and State Department or local city grants or different private corporations like Dell, trying to apply university expertise from faculty and researchers to problems in real-time.

And it was this really cool side of the university where we felt like this SWAT team of research, I don’t know, armed that was applying work that doesn’t often get applied easily, really enjoyable. But at the same time, I’m kind of a Midwestern kid and an Iowa kid. And so my predecessor, Liz Christensen, at this role, as the director of sustainability here, was retiring and the word was out. And she had told me she was retiring and I wanted the chance to come back to Iowa and to do this work here in the Midwest.

So I applied for this job, obviously got the job. And so then I started working here at University of Iowa. So that’s kind of the simple story there. But the evolution from being a very environmentally-focused sort of John Muir and put a fence around it, preserve it, protect people from it to realizing the difference between environment and sustainability, right? That sustainability is asking this question of how do all these things work within society? And it’s a much more interesting, much more thoughtful and I think effective way to go about doing that work. So that’s the trajectory, I guess.

Anya Morozov:

Yeah. There’s so many themes that I could pull out of that story. It definitely is a winding path like you said. And it’s cool to see how you started out in Dubuque, Iowa, where I’ve been there and it’s right… The Mississippi River is in your backyard.

Stratis Giannakorous:

By Mississippi, yeah.

Anya Morozov:

Yeah. So I can imagine how that might have sparked your interest and then taking the path into finance and then figuring out that wasn’t for you. And kind of learning the nuances of working around sustainability, which I think are similar to the challenges we face in public health, where it’s human-centered and there’s a lot of stakeholders and a lot of seeds at the table that you have to kind of balance with the work.

But anyway, just kind of moving on to our next question, you touched on that a little bit, but how would you define sustainability?

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah, it’s interesting. So the Brundtland Commission under Gro Brundtland in 1987 wrote the preamble to Our Common Future, when they first put definition for sustainability of the public. And it was paraphrasing something to the effect of sustainability is the ability of current generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

That’s sort of the heuristic you can use to think about it. But you quickly in operationalizing that, realize that that definition is inadequate to describe the gamut of what sustainability is. So then you go into it and you say, “Well, whose needs, right? And what future, for whom?” And that’s because we’re not a monolith, right? There’s these huge disparities in income and wealth and geography and the distribution of harms and benefits of resource consumption. And so when you operationalize, you’ve got to get into the details of what are we trying to accomplish.

So I think sustainability, the definition is more a question of how do we want to live as a species on the planet and what does that entail? And I think then you can get into questions of intra and intergenerational equity, but equity is the key thing there. It’s not just seeing how do we live well and future generations live well because it doesn’t describe enough of what that entails. And so I can get into that more in detail, it’s like when I burn coal from a mountain top in West Virginia, who benefits from that? Who’s impacted by that? Therein lies the challenge and the conundrum. And if I live in the US, my ability to consume resources is vast and it affects other parts of the world that may providing resources and then maybe recipients of harm as a result.

So sustainability is fundamentally a question of equity. But at its core, I think it’s a question of how do we want to live? And then what does it take to achieve those goals? It’s not a definition that I think about being static where you would say, “How do we preserve and freeze in time the actions we’re taking today?”, because a lot of what we’re doing is not very equitable. Even if it could be sustainable, it’s not very equitable. So that’s the long-winded definition, it gets complex when you move beyond the broad definition.

Radha Velamuri:

Yeah, that made me think about your time in Greece, how you interacted with local people and you brought those conservation measures. And when you were talking with them and how they felt you were a traitor, I guess, was the word you used? And how they were like, “You’re going to make change here, but how does it really affect us?”

And that kind of made me think about that because sustainability is not just how do we make sure our progeny have what they need to survive, it’s more how do we make sure everyone and the people that we are helping or targeting, just how everyone can help each other and also reap the benefits of sustainability measures in an equitable fashion.

It doesn’t mean equal, it doesn’t mean everyone gets the same resources, but it’s equitable. Meaning some people might need more, some people might need less. We talk about this a lot in public health equity so that just really made me reflect on that a little bit.

Stratis Giannakorous:

I just think that you can say needs, but just the word needs and defining what that means is a really complex, loaded word to put in that definition. I think that’s where operationalizing it creates a whole bunch of definitions.

Radha Velamuri:

In practice is very different from the definitions we come up with.

Stratis Giannakorous:


Radha Velamuri:

Exactly, yeah. So I’m going to spit some facts now.

Iowa is ranked second in green power usage on the EPA’s top three colleges and universities list. In fact, the university uses green power to meet 84% of its electricity needs. That’s a pretty big number. So how does the university manage to use so much green power and what fuel sources were powering the university before? Give us a brief history lesson, if you will.

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah. I could do a whole podcast on this because it’s fascinating. But there’s a couple factors at play as to why, surprisingly, University of Iowa ranks so highly on EPA’s green power list. So the first thing is that if you break down carbon emissions in a greenhouse gas inventory, you have Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions.

Scope 1 emissions are emissions that are combustion onsite. So think about us having our power plant here that burns thermal biomass or natural gas or coal onsite. We account for those emissions and they are Scope 1. If we have vehicles that we drive on campus and they combust gasoline, those are Scope 1 emissions. But some of the energy we consume that produces carbon and in the consumption process, it’s combusted elsewhere. And that is primarily our utility feed of electricity. So we have MidAmerican, our utility provider, and they combust coal or natural gas or sometimes wind and solar, renewable energy is created and that feeds electricity to the campus. We are responsible for those emissions because we’re using the energy produced by it, right? And so that’s our scope between emissions.

And then Scope 3 is much, and everyone defines it a little differently, but it could be things like people commuting into campus where there’s not this clear ownership structure for who should own them, but we account for them because there’s no else to account for them. Flights that faculty might take to a conference, things like that, that don’t really have a home, but that they’re going into the atmosphere and we want to account for them.

So we draw interesting boundaries around Scope 3. Different universities have their unique ways of doing that, but Scope 1 and 2 is universally a certain thing and it’s the preponderance of our emissions, are in those two categories. That’s all to say that our Scope 2 emissions around electricity from MidAmerican are largely being zeroed out because MidAmerican has agreed to the Iowa Utilities Board to retire renewable energy credits on behalf of the customer.

And it just so happens that a lot of their power structure that feeds the university is fed from wind farms out in Western Iowa. So the electrons we’re getting that flow into our campus, we’re getting credit for all of the wind turbines out west that are in MidAmerican’s portfolio so that almost zeros out our Scope 2 emissions.

Then with our primary Scope 1, we’ve our coal usage, which used to be the biggest thing we used to burn on campus from our utility, are down something like 86% and falling fast. So we think we’re going to be off coal at least by 2025, but probably a lot sooner, as soon as this spring. We’ll have zeroed out our coal usage and so we’ll have a little bit of natural gas left, but instead of coal, we’re burning things like oat hulls that we get from Cedar Rapids, Miscanthus Grass that’s compressed into these green pallets. They are produced in Green Bay and shipped here.

And those two things have replaced coal in our coal boilers and they’re allowing us to reduce our CO2 emissions dramatically. And by the way, in the process, cleaning up the air quality we had too. When you burn coal, you only have CO2 emissions, you have things like heavy metals and 2.5 PM fine particulates that don’t exist in the profile of biomass and Miscanthus and green pellets that were burning.

So we’re cleaning up substantially the air quality at the stack, oat hulls are cleaner than natural gas the way they burn. So natural gas is almost is an almost entirely clean fuel at the stack, but oat hulls are even cleaner than that. So our air quality is cleaning up and we’re reducing our emissions substantially. That’s where EPA green power stuff comes from. Some of it’s because of us and some of us because of who our utility provider is compared to another state or university.

Radha Velamuri:

I have a quick question. Can you tell us a little bit more about those green sources that you just mentioned and how the university started using them to replace coal? Just out of curiosity?

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yes. So we looked into Miscanthus Grass, there’s research out there and thought it could work really well, but it’s very low density. And the way these coal boilers need to operate, and I’m not a utility engineer, but to get the right MMBtu, which is British Thermal Units for energy, to work in a certain way, we had to get something that acted kind of like coal in the boiler. It’s designed to burn coal.

So firing Miscanthus Grass in and of itself just as a shredded biomass into the boilers would not work as well. And so we had to figure out how to do it in a way that it would work like coal. Part of that was to compress that Miscanthus into a pellet that’s really compressed. You densify it and then you feed it in and it acts in a certain way, but even that doesn’t really act the same way, do the same things that coal did.

So we put some percentage. That’s 80% Miscanthus or so, and then there’s 20% that ends up being this post-industrial, pre-consumer waste. And that could be things like paper scraps that is going to get recycled and processed, but are going to get landfilled, think like chewing gum, wax wrappers, think about other paper. And some of that content is actually plastic. And people go, “Man, well you guys are burning plastic in the utility. Why is that better than coal, right?”

Well, the reason is because it’s a defined stream. It’s not just garbage that we don’t understand the composition of. So we know what type of plastic is in there, we know what the percentage is and we know how it’s going to burn in the utility. And so when it’s compressed with the Miscanthus, it makes the MMBtu, the energy quality of what goes in act like coal.

And so when we tested the stack, we can tell what the emissions profile of this stuff is. And on every measure for your emissions that you would say, “Okay, what’s happening downstream from the stack?”, those emissions profiles are really clean. We have some PAH, which is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that come out of the stack. That’s one of the byproducts of this. But they’re in such a number that they’re well below EPA regulation in the thresholds.

So PAH is something that when you toast a piece of bread or you roast coffee, those polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are created. So we do it all the time, it’s around us. The question is how much is in the air, how bad is it? And where’s it at? And we see that at the stack, from all the emissions we’re doing in testing, the emissions profile is really good for this. And so that’s what those green pellets look like.

And some people have said, “Why don’t you shut it all down and do wind and solar?” And that gets into the question of how are our utility infrastructure set up? We have to push steam on this campus. We have to sterilize things in the hospital. We have boilers in our buildings that heat them to rip up all that infrastructure or just shut it down or shut our steam tunnels down and replace it. We’d have to electrify all our buildings, which would cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. And when we’re all done doing that, it would double our cost of electricity most likely.

So there is a future where we want to electrify everything. It’s the way to really zero out emissions and have it feed from renewable sources. But in the interim pathway there, it’s going to be a few decades until we can switch over time and we are switching over to electrification where we can, but the technology’s not there and the cost is too high.

We can’t pass that along in the form of tuition and hospital rates. There’s trade-offs in terms of wanting to make that transition to net zero with doing it in a way that’s equitable. There’s an equity question here and that’s feasible. We couldn’t even borrow or steal that kind of money to make that switch over and then still find the money to pay double the rates.

So we’re moving over, but right now we got to burn stuff. That sounds terrible, but our choices are, are you going to burn coal? Are you going to burn natural gas or are you going to burn this biomass or green pellets? And by far and away, in our opinion, biomass and green pellets ends up being the much better solution.

Anya Morozov:

Yeah. That is true in a lot of areas, electrical grid included, there’s these big systems in place and in order to change them, you can’t just do it overnight.

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah, absolutely. We’re designed to do things in a certain way with fossil fuels and shifting that over, people don’t understand how complicated that is.

But I do think that we’re on target, we’re IPCC-aligned to meet our reduction goals. We’re going to have decarbonized our utility, 50% less CO2 emissions from our 2010 baseline by 2030, and then the next step is to be zero by 2050. That keeps us below one and a half degrees Celsius.

So yes, we’re burning stuff. Yes, we want to do less of that, that’s our pathway to zero. But for people to say, “Shut it down today,” yes, I wish we could just turn off all the emissions on the planet today. But again, it’s this question of how do you do that in a way that makes sense?

For a lot of universities, it’s a different pathway. We have this massive hospital system attached to us and that complicates all of our strategies and pathways. We have to have reliable energy, we have to have a certain kind of energy production to make sure that that hospital stays up. It’s a social good and it makes the University of Iowa’s pathway to zero unique compared to a university that doesn’t have per se, UHC hospitals and clinics attached to it that we service through our utility.

So anyways, it’s going there, but it’s a little complicated and that’s the reason for us trying to still burn stuff when people would say, “There’s wind and solar out there.” And that’s not necessarily an available technology to translate for our content.

Anya Morozov:

Hopefully, someday we will get there, but-

Stratis Giannakorous:

I think we will.

Anya Morozov:

Picking steps in the meantime. So I’m going to shift gears a little bit. You talked about Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions, and I think Scope 3 emissions were focused on things like professors taking planes and how people commute to campus and stuff. So more of these individual choice type of things.

So I’m just curious, what are ways that you try to advocate for sustainable practices at the University of Iowa and do you think these can be adapted to other places?

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah. I mean, the role of my job is really, I think largely when I talk about sustainability, some of it is just climate change, right? Saying how do we reduce our overall emissions, which then trickles down into sustained practices.

All sustainability is not climate change, but it feels like that at times just because of how devastating the consequences are of overshoot there. But we also do things like encouraging biodiversity on campus, so we rebuilt in different areas of campus, prairie areas. So right now we’re working on the Ashton Prairie. The total area out there is 80 acres, but we’re phasing it in and learning how to do this. We’ve so far covered, I think, about 15 acres where we’re seeding back into native prairie and then doing a lot of the education around why prairies, right?

Our prairies were the crown ecological system in the state of Iowa before intensive agriculture came in. We’ve removed about 99.9% of them. And so a lot of people have never seen what that looks like or don’t understand ecological loss or that a lot of the species in the state were adapted to this. And so putting it back, although even 80 acres of prairie doesn’t make it a drop in the bucket, it is not a huge change. It’s the education around understanding that these systems were here, ecological systems that we need to restore them. So we do a lot of work there to talk about what does it mean from that perspective, what does sustainability look like?

And then we talk about water, right? The Iowa River runs through our campus and it’s a degraded body of water. It’s in trouble. Upstream agriculture and industrial inputs and all kinds of things have really degraded that water supply. You drink that water if you’re on campus and you turn on a faucet, we take that surface water that’s degraded, we clean it up and we use it.

And so we often ignore the water coming through our campus as it’s not beautiful, right? We’re trying to change how people think about this resource and the unsustainability of how we’re treating it. To a certain extent, you could argue that, “Yeah, we could just put in an RO system.” We do it for half our water now and absolutely clean it up. But it’s a problem downstream, it’s a problem upstream. It’s definitely a problem for communities that draw on well water or communities that can’t afford to treat the water the way that we do it, the level we do in Iowa City.

So I think that pointing out and bringing attention to our water in the context of climate change and in the context of quantity and quality is an important part of what we do on the campus. Without trying to point too much at agriculture, it’s outside the bounds. It’s about our actions and what we do. We think about food and what we consume in the cafeteria and how to make that more local and how to bring more awareness to students about the choices they make.

But I think if you’re talking about individual behaviors and where you want to draw and contrast and talk about what you can do, I go say, “What can I do?” Well, obviously you could say, “We’ll recycle more or eat a low-carbon diet or consume less.” But I think that the big thing is to think about having a qualitative existence, right? Existence that where you’re living well, but not consuming a lot, decoupling those two things.

We know that having a lifestyle of massive consumption, where you’re driving a big car a lot and you have a house that’s huge and you’re buying a lot off of Amazon from Jeff Bezos, doesn’t necessarily make you happier, doesn’t necessarily help you to reach the goals that you have in life. And so it’s thinking about measuring what you do against, does this really make me happier? And what we find is that experiences, things that don’t necessarily require high levels of input, throughput and consumption, I think are our pathway to being more sustainable, but also being happier.

And there’s people like E. F. Schumacher who had written in the ’70s, the book Small Is Beautiful, and talking about how sometimes living a simpler life can be better. And for me, the people would say, “Well, you’re advocating, you’re anti. He wants us to go live in caves and turn off the lights.” I think it’s the exact opposite. I think that we’ve confused ourself with that consumption and happiness are the same thing and they’re not.

There’s a threshold where you meet your needs, you’ve got enough to eat, you’ve got shelter. There’s basic things that can determine happiness that are not around consumption. But I think for most of us, we’re way beyond that. And so I think that’s what I would say is do things that are really going to make you happy, but always understand the difference between consuming or happiness and the dopamine that you get versus real happiness that’s often derived from relationships and experience and things that don’t necessarily stress our resource base, that’s my enduring message to people.

And I have to do that for my own life. I can get caught up in things too, because there’s a real dopamine hit you get from buying stuff off of Amazon or walking through mall and buying things. And I don’t think that makes us happier and it does stress out the planet. We buy a lot of plastic junk that we use once or throw away or buy for our kids and no one’s happier because of it. And it’s sitting around the house and doing less of that and taking my kids for a hike, for example, or those kind of experiences are good.

So that’s my answer beyond just the nuts and bolts of recycle or ride a bike or these kind of things, which I think we all know at this point, you can Google it and the list is out there. The general drive is, don’t think of consumption as happiness. And I think that gets you there pretty quickly.

Radha Velamuri:

Yeah, absolutely. That makes me think of this phrase, less is more. I mean, I remember hearing that all the time. Of course, I was hearing it in the context of using makeup, which that makes me sound vain, but that is just… I don’t know, I think it could imply to this so I’m going to put it out there.

And then also, the little philosophy lesson kind of made me think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You never see conception of stuff on there. You have physiological need, feeling safe, belonging, and then at the top, it’s the self-actualization. I’ve never seen buying more clothes on there, so that’s just-

Stratis Giannakorous:

We know that’s not a case. And I think in that regard, people would say, “Well, you anti-economic development.” There’s this critique that comes down that you just hate modern society. And I would say that qualitatively, for example, people being healthier, having more access to healthcare, that creates jobs, it drives the economy. I would rather focus my money and our social effort there than on more physical stuff.

I think that me being healthier unequivocally is going to make me happier than one more widget. And so I think we have to direct our resource consumption and our efforts and our development towards things that really do matter and less towards driving this sort of GDP, artificial economy. I think the economy grows. I think people are happier, wealthier in general, but it doesn’t involve this decoupling resource use with happiness. Is it effort we have to engage in?

Radha Velamuri:

And that brings it. A lot of these are individual actions, choices that people can make. But I also want to think about it from a collective action standpoint because individuals make up a collection of people and only then can change actually happen. Because if every single person thinks that they’re the only person doing something, they would be less motivated to…

People bring this up with voting, “Why will my vote count?” And it does, everyone, please vote. Your vote does matter because if everyone votes, then everyone can make a difference. You know what I mean? Collectively.

So do you have any ideas or do you know any sustainability challenges that require that more collective effort? Or do you think they’re more individual-focused? But I guess, I just mentioned that there is no individually-focused things, but I just kind of want to hear your perspective on that.

Stratis Giannakorous:

I really tend to think that sustainability in general, but in particular climate change, require broader social policy-oriented approaches. Yes, you can in your life, minimize your impact, your ecological footprint as we call it, which is a questionable way of analysis, but you can reduce all of your impacts in your life.

But there are things that are beyond you that are structural, how we transport our energy that you can’t just directly invest in change because you decided to use your lights less. In some cities, just biking, the active biking requires that the city’s designed in a way where you don’t put your life at risk, where it’s set up for you to do that. And people talk often about cities, “Why don’t you ride a bike?” Well, in some cities like in Houston or in Kansas City, it’s like that. It’s downright dangerous. You’re crossing highways, there’s no pedestrian bike footpaths. If you’re in a Copenhagen, it’s very different. The city’s set up where it’s harder to drive a car.

So the choices we make around individual actions can make those, it easier for you to engage in certain practices or not. You can fight the current, but the way we build our infrastructure, the ways we allocate social resources from a policy perspective either preclude or enhance your individual actions and behaviors. So yes, do the right thing. Like I said, try to think about, have an intentional lifestyle.

But if cities are built in a dispersed low-density way, having light rail on public transit isn’t an option. Unplanning is a choice to plan for a certain kind of car-driven future, for example. And so people often say, “You can’t fight the Fed on policy.” You really can’t fight social choices that privilege, say single person transit over mass transit.

And those kind of investments can’t be made by individuals and they can’t even made by corporations. They’re large-scale, long-range, low-payback, low-return investments that are socially determined that aren’t just come down to you voting with your dollars on a case-by-case basis for what you want. They come down to you voting at the ballot box or elected officials to make good on promises to deliver on whether it’s renewable energy infrastructure or changes in our food system or transit changes.

And I think that’s the vast majority of our problems are solved at that level and not based upon your goodwill as a citizen, which yes, is important. And yes, that ethos drives social decision-making, but I think we tend to focus too much on individual actions, partly because I think a lot of times people want us to, right? They want you to have this responsibility as a consumer to say, “Make the green choice because it absolves corporations or others of having set things up in a bad way.”

We should do both. But I’m really lean towards, we get to decide as a society how we want society to look. And it doesn’t involve you getting on your bike. Yes, you have to have the desire to do that, but the bike lanes need to be there in a way that are usable. And so that’s where I weigh in on that, but climate change really can’t be solved by individuals. It really can’t.

Anya Morozov:

Yeah. So it’s this balance of individuals taking action, but also social institutions and corporations and a lot of different stakeholders taking actions to make sure we’re working towards this common goal that will benefit everybody.

You’ve talked about equity a little bit throughout this episode, but what role does equity play in your work? And you can think about this kind of at the University of Iowa level or at a higher level, wherever you want to take it.

Stratis Giannakorous:

Yeah, I bring out the same examples all the time. Climate change, we were focusing on that a lot. I know this is discussion around sustainability, but your podcast is focused on climate change. Let’s say climate change as an example.

We worry about climate change in its impacts on society at large. You add more carbon into the atmosphere, CO2 emissions. They gather energy, they stay there for a long time, they heat the planet up. We’re talking about one, two, three degree Celsius and the consequences that come with each increase in that level.

And we tend to think about it in this abstraction of climate change, bad for us, and we got to do something about it. But the truth is that depending on who you are, and by that I mean where you are on the planet geographically, what your socioeconomic status is, sometimes the color of your skin, which then is determinative of how much you make and where you are and where you are in society, means that the impacts of climate change hit you differently. So it’s not just everybody suffers.

There’s arguments about the unpredictability of how a climate-constrained or a future with a lot of warming impacts us, seeing that people who think they’re safe aren’t necessarily that safe. But in the very immediate, we know that, for example, if you’re already stressed economically in terms of your ability to afford energy because you’re poor, it also means that if you’re in a place that’s going to heat up, you’re going to probably have more degree days under heat stress.

You’re not going to be able to afford to run the AC as much as someone who has more money can. That in turn, in some areas can lead to poor air quality indoors, because you’re not running filters and fans and changing filters. It’s costly. It means you’re not running the AC, which is heat stress. In a multi-generational household, elderly people in particular impacted also. Poor elderly people, even more.

And I think that when you piece these things together, you start to see a picture of climate change is really about equity. When we think about the solutions and why we’re trying to solve it. We saw this during COVID, COVID impacted people differently depending on who they were. Climate change acts the same way.

And so I think that when we try to solve these issues, there’s a couple things here. Ethically, we should always worry about people in society. I think that from whatever walk of life you come from, we all agree that the weaker, the poorer, the younger children, we tend to admit that the focus of concern as a society ethically.

But also I think in terms of achieving policy, aims and objectives, if you’re designing systems around this broad nebulous idea that climate change is bad, I think it’s harder to get to the right solutions. And I think it’s harder to motivate people because, for example, if I am insulated from climate change and I have money and I have influence in the political system, I’m much less likely to be as concerned as someone who’s really on the front lines of this.

And so I think that if we’re serious about solving it, we have to put that person in mind and say, “Who’s going to get hit hardest and earliest in a scenario where there’s runaway climate change or increasingly a warmer planet?” And then that motivates us to think about solutions in a way that are more prescient, that we think about our ethics when we deal those solutions. And what it does is it benefits all society selfishly, when you focus on that lens on the most vulnerable, it prevents the cascading harms from reaching us because we’ve stopped it at the source to a certain extent.

That’s how I think about equity being at the center of sustainability too, right? When you talk about water quality or access to food or biodiversity, at every level, the poorer you are, the nearer you are to that fire. And so when we think about solutions, we’ve got to think about those communities because that’s going to help us, I think, to solve those problems faster. It’s going to push us to do more and it’s the right thing to do.

And that’s my quick soapbox on equity. But I think that you can’t really talk about climate change and sustainability, think about the solutions seriously, and not have some sort of an understanding of equity in that process.

Radha Velamuri:

I think that’s a really good way to tie everything together. Everything we’ve talked about today, from your experience, getting to where you are, you faced a lot of populations, a lot of different people, a lot of different positions, you were exposed to a lot of different things. And then in your position now, you’re kind of on that frontline where you try to promote and bring about practices and opportunities for students, faculty, staff, stakeholders to promote sustainability and to combat climate change, at least on our level.

And taking into account equitable practices and making sure that people can have the same… Not the same opportunities because that’s more equality than equity, but have the opportunities that they need to face problems or concerns or issues that will most likely be happening in the future because of our past with poor maintenance of our environment.

So you bring up very valuable points with equity, and I think this is a great place to wrap up actually. Is there anything else that you would like to bring to the table? Any last message you want to share before we wrap up?

Stratis Giannakorous:

My message would be thank you for taking time to do this podcast and thinking about these issues and the series of issues you’re thinking about. I think it’s really valuable. I think it helps anyone and all of us. Hopefully, what I’m seeing does make sense and it does resonate. And I think that it’s good that you’re doing this. It’s really wonderful.

Radha Velamuri:

Thank you for coming, talking with people like you is what gets us podcasters happy. And hopefully, our listeners enjoy it too.

Anya Morozov:

And that’s it for our episode this week. Big thanks to Stratis Giannakorous for joining us today. This episode was hosted by Radha Velamuri and Anya Morozov, and written, edited, and produced by Anya Morozov. You can learn more about the University of Iowa College of Public Health on Facebook, and our podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

If you enjoyed this episode and would like to help support the podcast, please share it with your colleagues, friends, or anyone interested in public health. Have a suggestion for our team? You can reach us at This episode was brought to you by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Until next week, stay healthy, stay curious, and take care.