Saturday, 14 July 2012

Sustainability (big word) and what institutions can (should/will/won't) do

Time to talk a little about the actual learning I'm doing at Yale in between my mad rushing about (currently on a train to Baltimore).

The course I'm taking is called Sustainable Institutions. Using Yale as a case study, we are looking at sustainability and sustainable development (as per Bruntland Report and similar) and the role of institutions in going beyond 'greening' to true sustainability.

What at first glance may seem an odd topic has become more appealing to me over time. As global as our environmental problems can get, we experience them and their solutions locally. We interact with institutions (or organisations as the policy jargon goes) every day. Our workplaces, schools and governments are the places we go to make change - what exactly do we want them to do?

Our teacher Julie, Cynthia and Noris

As students, we are an international and eclectic bunch, with representatives from the US, China, Japan, Denmark, Singapore, Switzerland and Australia. We bring very different views from home regarding the role of government and of educational institutions. One thing that strikes me (and the Danes) about Yale's approach is the grassroots, bottom-up focus that avoids any reliance on government intervention. Given America's climate politics, an emphasis on private leadership and first movers makes a lot of sense here, and may offer helpful lessons for Australia (sigh). But for the Danish and Singaporean students, government has the ability to take a far more forceful role, for better or worse.

Pil, Ippy, Nathalie, Kerr, Snow, Jessica and Ayako

Exploring the stories of companies who 'go green' voluntarily has been encouraging - we see cases where environmentalism has become the sensible thing to do, with unexpected players like Coke putting a lot of effort into auditing and reducing their water use. I'm torn between being pleased and unimpressed. No matter how efficiently they do it, Coke is still a company that takes up water and arable land to sell sugar in bottles to people who can't really afford it, or the health problems that follow. If we're aiming for true sustainability (as opposed to just 'greening'), does Coke have a place in that picture? Do 'the needs of the present generation' really include softdrink (or soda, as it's called here)? Might the day arrive when their CEO says "You know what? The whole soda thing really doesn't make sense from a truly long term, holistic viewpoint. How about we just focus on getting bottled water to drought-stricken regions?"? 

We'll see. In the same way, I wonder about the big picture of sustainable universities. Of course Yale, ANU and countless others can do good by saving water, buying organic food and building the most energy efficient buildings possible, but in my crazy ambitious mind, a truly sustainable institution is one where all outputs and work form part of a sustainable future. This leads me to the uncomfortable area of teaching and research, which I doubt the office of sustainability has a say in. But does it really matter how well insulated ANU's new Economics buildings are if the lessons they teach inside are all about maximizing short-term revenue without looking at the bigger picture? Or if the lecturers persist in saying "IF you're worried about climate change, people breathing out CO2 and all that stuff" (they really do say that.)?

That's ambitious stuff, and it goes way beyond chatting with your coworkers about printing on both sides and not using styrofoam cups. I personally have never worked in a big organisation and tried to have conversations about radically overhauling the values and guiding principles that define everything we do. It occurs to me that with my intention of working in organisations that already share my environmentalist worldview, I may not find myself in that position anytime soon, but it must be a common one. Most of us work in organisations that are way part of our current economic and social systems instead of fighting them. Most of us (I hope) do worry about the environment and the kind of future we are creating for ourselves. Now I'm just making stuff up, but my guess is that people don't feel like they can take those worries to work, and that saying 'sustainability' in a typical office will lead people to a talk on recycling bins.

So in light of all this, I'm mulling over the focus for my final essay and I'm tempted to study something super messy and confusing. I'd like to hear the stories of people who try to introduce sustainability to their organisations - both the recycling and the bigger picture. What's their battle plan? Who do they talk to? Is it awkward to be tagged as the environmental nut? Why are they doing this and how did they get the courage to reach out and talk to people about their worries?

So there's my research question so far. How does an personal journey of sustainability become an institutional one?

If anyone has any thoughts, I'm eager to hear them.

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