How Going Green went
In April 2001, University Affairs charted how some universities in Canada were "going green" by undertaking various conservation initiatives, usually led by student activists. Since then, the movement has broadened to involve more institutions and a broader range of people
At McGill University, Kentucky bluegrass is replaced with a community garden. At Carleton University, hungry university students drop by the G-spot for a vegan meal. At the University of Calgary, students and staff are getting accustomed to the new campus landmark: communally available red-and-yellow bicycles.
These initiatives and others like them were launched by a coalition of student activists, concerned faculty members, forward-looking facility managers and visionary administrators, busily engaged in campus makeovers. At first glance, ripe tomatoes, "pay what you can" meals and battered bicycles may not correspond with conventional ideas of a "green campus." Yet each illustrates how campus environmentalism has coalesced around the principle of sustainable development, or balancing economic growth with the need to protect the environment for future generations.
It's not easy to define the scope of the sustainable campus movement, but a few key points can give some sense of it.
In 2001, just a handful of Canadian universities had written statements of environmental principles. Now, 24 have signed the 1990 Talloires Declaration, a 10-point pledge by concerned university presidents around the world to make their institutions better stewards, in light of rapidly increasing pollution and environmental degradation. Five years ago, just a few Canadian universities had drafted environmental audits and had seen them approved by their board of governors, a lengthy and sometimes difficult process. Now, 30 have audited at least part of their campus operations, typically employing students to measure indicators against concepts like "ecological integrity" and "social equity." Ten universities have responded to the Kyoto Protocol by registering with the Canadian Standards Association to reduce their campus greenhouse gas emissions.
Five years ago, the movement was student-driven and environmentalism often referred to things like energy consumption and waste. But in today's paradigm, "environmental change is frequently tied to cultural change," observes Almut Beringer, director of environmental studies and sustainability at the University of Prince Edward Island.
In endorsing a sustainability framework, universities broaden their attention from the ecology of their campuses to consider the less tangible effects that all their activities leave on the Earth. Advocates of sustainability say ecological stewardship, social justice and economic viability are interwoven. For example, sustainability often includes discussions about disparities in salaries and the availability of non-Western medical services on campus.
To be sure, many universities aren't involved in these kinds of talks. And there are professors of environmental studies, like Peter Victor of York University, who worry that a "broad brush" discussion that covers the type of medical services to offer on campus moves the focus away from more immediate, local environmental concerns.
More people onside
Campus environmentalists today may be students, but nowadays they're just as likely to be university employees, and more often than not they are working hand-in-hand with the administration.
Over the last five years, a growing number of Canadian universities have appointed sustainability coordinators and incorporated sustainability language in their strategic plans. Tarah Wright, professor and director of environmental programs at Dalhousie University, says this signals an important development, because "in order to make a change in the campus, and all research has shown this, you need to have university administrators on board."
As an example, University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy made a public commitment to develop a sustainability plan for the university during a conference in 2005. By August of this year, a university task force had submitted a sustainability policy to the board of regents, and received unanimous approval in October.
Sustainability coordinators say their job involves championing green causes as well as channeling latent staff interest in reforming the less environmentally friendly parts of their institution. The University of Ottawa's new sustainable development coordinator, Jonathan Rausseo, says he was surprised to find that he didn't have to preach the gospel, but often had only to respond to initiatives brought to him by equally concerned faculty and staff.
Throughout Canada, the major way that universities are supporting sustainability is by becoming early adopters of so-called "green buildings." In Montreal, école Polytechnique's new Lassonde Buildings, home to the departments of computer and electrical engineering, the library, and IT services, achieved gold-level certification in the Canadian Green Building Council's rating system by meeting a wide range of environmental measures. The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, going up at the University of British Columbia, is aiming for platinum recognition, as well as for the status as the greenest building in North America. Its pioneering architect Peter Busby says structures like this one, which don't pollute or use non-renewable resources, are "actually incredibly achievable."
Others agree with him that "building green" is easier than ever. Dr. Wright of Dalhousie University notes that cash-strapped universities used to face tough choices in investing in green buildings, as well as an obstacle course of financing mechanisms, zoning laws and building codes. But now these obstacles are disappearing. In British Columbia, Karen Hearn, facilities director at Kwantlen University College, says she can put up a green building that is virtually "cost neutral." Some objections from users are resolved fairly easily: Kwantlen librarians worried that without carpet their book carts would rattle excessively. The inexpensive solution? Pneumatic tires on the carts.
Most people engaged in campus sustainability would say the university has a moral obligation to be a leader in its community. But many worry that the movement is not keeping pace with the scale of environmental degradation. "We cannot wait," says Michel Rose, executive director of major construction projects at école Polytechnique, echoing a concern shared by many of his peers.
Activists say, too, that energy-efficient buildings cannot be the sole answer to global sustainability. Michael M'Gonigle, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Victoria, wonders whether a culture of sustainability is even possible inside the university without a fundamental transformation of its governance structure and academic programs (a review of his new book, Planet U, is on page 36). Even those Canadian universities that have signed the international Talloires Declaration have not dramatically altered their curricula to promote "ecological literacy" and "environmental citizenship," as the declaration promises.
David Orr - the father of the university sustainability movement and chair of environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio - argues that committing to sustainability raises fundamental questions about a university's mission, structure and place in society. Dr. Orr's hope is that the campus can become "a repository and a fertile place for the reconsideration of humankind's role in the natural world."
According to that lofty standard, campus sustainability in Canada remains a work in progress. It is still searching for a way to reconcile an ever-greening campus with a still-browning world.