Universities are society’s bastions of good sense, chock full of learned (and learning) minds, busying themselves thinking up the best and brightest of ideas to make the world a better place.
It only seems natural, then, that some of those ideas would find their way out of the lecture halls and into the daily life of the campus at large. Indeed, why not have the people who study how to do things better in theory, actually do things better in the here and now, right in their own backyard?
Zöe Caron can’t think of a single reason why not. As the Atlantic coordinator for the Sierra Youth Coalition’s Sustainable Campuses project, Caron is helping put theory into practice at five east coast universities, including Metro’s very own megaschool, Dalhousie.
Not surprisingly, the concept for the Sustainable Campuses project started in school. In 2003, a grad student named Lindsay Cole wanted “to transform the way that our campuses teach, research and operate, into models of sustainability.” As part of her master’s thesis, Cole created the Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework, a way for universities to measure themselves against a sort of sustainability scale, to find out what they were doing well and where they could improve.
But don’t let the name fool you. The CSAF is far from simply a green metre. It’s a massive assessment tool with more than 170 different indicators covering everything from air, land and water quality to economic and social justice. “A lot of times people think of the environment when the word ‘sustainability’ is used,” says Caron, “but essentially it’s looking at the impact that the university has on the world around it in every sense. It goes into really detailed social and equity issues. Are there spiritual resources for everyone on campus? How accessible are the recreational spaces? Are tuition rates fair? How much are staff getting paid? Are the clothes in the bookstore from a sweatshop?
“Happy people, healthy planet is the goal of every indicator,” says Caron, “along with looking ahead seven generations and thinking about how things are going to play out. It’s about meeting our own needs without compromising the needs of future generations.”
The drawback of such a comprehensive assessment is that it’s a massive amount of work, and doesn’t get completed overnight. Fortunately, students can sometimes incorporate their research work on the CSAF into coursework for credit. The University of PEI actually has an entire class dedicated to completing the assessment, and last year’s Environmental Problem Solving class at Dal spent a term working on projects that contributed to the Dal assessment. This year Caron also expects to get some help from environmental engineering students, who need to conduct greenhouse-gas emissions calculations as part of their normal studies. “That’s what a lot of this is,” says Caron, “getting students who are doing research anyway, instead of using random examples, to use the campus as a living laboratory.”
The concept is not exactly new at Dal. Dr. Tarah Wright, director of environmental programmes in the faculty of science, teaches a course subtitled Campus as Living Laboratory. “It actually wasn’t developed specifically for the CSAF,” says Wright. “It was developed so that students could get independent research experience and at the same time, look at the campus and see ways to improve it environmentally. It was kind of a two-fold mission.” Over the years students in Wright’s class have completed studies on vermicomposting, rainwater collection and a car-free University Avenue. A 2005 student paper entitled “Where does your paper towel go?” has led to a pilot project that will see separate bins in some Dalhousie bathrooms to divert compostable paper towels from the landfill. “They did a feasibility study to see if students, staff and faculty would actually adhere to the rules of putting your paper towels in one bin and your garbage in another,” says Wright. “And they found there was pretty good compliance with that. It’s a small, little baby step, but it also helps to change people’s mindsets when you take those baby steps. I’m pretty optimistic that we can achieve some sort of cultural change within the university through engaging in those small, little projects.”
Last spring, a group of Dal students, faculty and staff formed the Dalhousie Integrated Sustainability Initiative to continue work on the CSAF and set up a sustainability office at Dal. “We try to get a bunch of diverse stakeholders on board to help make decisions around the research project,” says Caron. “This also ensures the longevity of the project, since there’s such a huge turnover of students.”
However, says Caron, “the big problem at Dal right now is that the administration does not seem supportive.” Despite a sustainability-savvy facilities manager (“If he had all the money in the world he would make the entire university energy efficient,” says Caron), the university is just not willing to pony up the initial investment. “It’s unfortunate,” says Caron, “because the payback on is huge.” Canada’s leader in sustainable campus re-design is UBC, which recently completed a massive $35-million building-and-facility retrofit that will pay for itself in 10 years. With $3 million in savings on heat and water bills annually, the west coast university will actually double its money in 25 years.
Wright is carefully critical of Dal’s commitment to sustainability. “There’s lots of room for improvement,” says Wright, but, “one of the challenges is that we’re in times of fiscal restraint. It’s difficult for the university to say that we will go into debt or raise student tuition in order to have that long-term payback. Most universities feel that their hands are tied.”
Caron thinks the issue is more about attitude than accounting. “There are so many changes that could be made without huge costs,” she says. “And when you look at the money they’re putting towards other things like reputation-building, it’s frustrating. We have the resources, we have the technologies. We have the access and the money and the ability. And it’s not happening because of fear of being the trailblazer.”
The Dal administration wasn’t always so shy about sustainability. In 1991, Dalhousie hosted an international conference on the role of universities in environmentally sustainable development, a follow-up to a meeting in Talloires, France, the year before. The Dal conference produced the Halifax Declaration, a statement clearly outlining the responsibility of universities to become models of sustainability. “Dal really led that crusade,” says Wright. The university even produced an action plan from the conference to bring to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, however, the momentum seems to have been lost. The current president, Tom Traves, was appointed in 1995, and sustainability fell off the university’s priority list.
Caron is optimistic that will change. “Enough students are getting informed about it and excited about it and wanting to change things that hopefully it won’t be like this for much longer,” says Caron. “The initial stigma is, ‘oh, this is just some environmental project. It doesn’t involve me.’ But once you start talking to people and making the connections between things…that A affects B, which affects C, which affects D…people are like, ‘whoa, I’d never thought of it that way.’ So many students get excited about it. It’s interesting to see this generation get pissed off.
Going Green 101
Walk or bike to campus. Or take the bus (if you go to Dal or SMU, you’ve already paid for it!). Or carpool. Anything to avoid being a SOV. (That’s Single Occupancy Vehicle, silly.)
Turn off computer monitors when not in use. This makes for huge energy savings, and you don’t even have to wait to reboot every time you want to check your email. If you have it, enable your computer’s sleep or hibernate mode. If shopping for a new computer, check its energy rating online at the website www.energystar.gov Turn off lights whenever you leave a room, on campus or at home. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to save a whopping 75 percent on bulb electricity consumption.
Avoid making garbage every time you eat or drink by bringing your own mug and/or reusable containers for take-out food. Encourage your favourite food vendor to invest in reusable dishes instead of styrofoam.
Ask for, and buy, Fair Trade and/or local products from your favourite coffee shop, restaurant or grocery store.Ask professors if you can hand in your assignments electronically, on double-sided paper or on the back of used paper. This can cut your paper use in half, which is a great start. In 2003, Concordia University calculated that its paper consumption in one academic year used the equivalent of more than 10,000 trees.
Go carbon neutral. It can be tough to negotiate biking home for winter break, but if you fly or drive home for the holidays, you can pay to offset your carbon emissions. Tree Canada (treecanada.ca) will charge you about $5 for a return flight to Montreal, and then plant enough trees to offset your carbon emissions over their 80-year lifespan. Web-based company Carbon Zero (carbonzero.ca) will charge about the same amount, and let you choose whether you’d like to invest in alternative energy production, buy energy-efficient light bulbs for low-income households or plant trees.