Ian Johnson is a broad thinker with broad experience.
As the sustainability director at Colorado College, he said he’s taken a sociological approach — giving students the information and tools, while letting them identify what’s important and needed on campus and in Colorado Springs.
“Most of the change and drive for change on campus comes from our students,” said the 38-year-old. “I love their energy and passion. We try and infuse sustainability principles into every department; things I’ve brought to the table, students have wanted to be a part of.”
What is your background?
I’ve always been nontraditional, starting with military service and then going to college. Out of high school, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was in the military from 1996-2000. I was in avionics and worked as a repair tech. I was on a rotary squadron that worked on helicopters.
When I left the military, I wanted to do the polar opposite and at the time, had a friend who was in a construction management program. I grew up in Eau Claire, Wis., which is about an hour east of the twin cities and chose to attend UW [University of Wisconsin]-Stout for my undergrad in construction management.
What led you to a career in sustainability?
During college, I started a construction business and it helped pay my way through school. When I graduated in 2003, I ended up working for a builder in the Twin Cities [Minneapolis-St. Paul] area. At the time, it was the largest homebuilder in the country. I spent about four years working as a project manager, building residential homes in the suburbs.
But something just wasn’t quite right about that for me.
Part of that was the profit-driven model. The houses we were building were designed to essentially last through the first mortgage and we were plowing down fields, basically building with reckless abandon.
I love the outdoors and grew up camping and fishing. I found a master’s program in sustainable community development at the UW-River Falls, 13 miles from where I was living.
What has been a focus for you as the first sustainability director at CC?
The coolest thing about my job is that there is no one main focus. No two days are the same and I get to work with students, faculty, staff, administration and community organizations.
What is a new development in your office?
This year we created a Sense of Place program. It can take the shape of so many different things because place means something different to everybody. As far as environmental impacts, we talked to staff at the ski resorts about how they’re planning for climate change, what they’re doing about it and how it impacts their ski season.
It’s a strategic program that gives students the opportunity to define what pieces at Colorado College are critical to the campus.
What is a sustainability goal at the college?
Monitoring the school’s carbon footprint. Our goal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020. Since we’ve started this process in 2008, we’ve reduced our footprint by 25 percent, which is not the trajectory, but our biggest step will begin in June. Our library will be going through a major renovation for the next 18 months. It will be a net-zero energy and net-zero carbon building.
What is a misconception about sustainability?
We’re talking a lot about environmental crises such as mass extinctions and climate change. The environmental movement was the predecessor to the sustainability movement in many ways.
If you’re looking at it from a whole — we can go back to environmentalism as the ultimate goal of the issue but there are so many things that play into that. A huge misconception is that sustainability equals environmentalism.
How can Colorado Springs retain more young professionals?
It’s certainly been an issue for us. A good majority of our students graduate and then go elsewhere. In my time here, I’ve seen that change among students, particularly those involved in community issues, especially the local food issue. I think that’s key: Getting engaged and continuing this trajectory that we’re on. We are evolving into a much more modern and applicable city to the current generation.