Sustainability – what does that word mean to you? And how does it affect the way you live your life? Originating from the Latin sustinere, to hold up, the word sustainability today seems to be everywhere, a buzzword for environmental activism, an effort toward preserving the earth’s ability to harbour, or sustain, its inhabitants indefinitely.
While it’s important for individuals to practice sustainable living, it’s not enough. Widespread, institutional efforts toward sustainability are vital for the long-term preservation of our planet’s health and people. Fortunately, for many institutions, that need has been recognized, and sustainability efforts are now part of doing business.
One of the main challenges of building a strong sustainability effort is changing people’s behaviour. To this end, it’s important to teach young people, from early in their lives, how to live with sustainability in mind, and give them good examples from their home and environment, including their schools. This does not stop at elementary or even high school, but must continue into their higher education years.
At a time when many students leave home and begin an irresponsible lifestyle in direct rebellion to the one they left behind, it’s good to see that many institutions of higher learning are calling on these same students to begin living thoughtfully and responsibly.
Recently, an article in the New York Times revealed some of the efforts taking place at various Canadian universities. From shower water heated by solar panels, to closing lab vent hoods when not in use, students are participating in ways to not only save money, but live practically and sensibly as well. Montreal’s McGill University, one of Canada’s most prominent universities, is at the forefront of finding ways to live and run a university in harmony with both the surrounding community and environment. The McGill Feeding McGill program combines the efforts of both the cafeteria services and the Plant Science Department to grow vegetables at the Department’s agriculture campus (about 40 minutes outside the city) for consumption by the students living downtown. Not to be left out, the downtown students grow vegetables for a local Meals on Wheels program, part of the university’s community outreach efforts.
McGill University also hosts the McGill Farmers’ Market, held each autumn, with part of the produce going to shareholders who have pre-ordered a weekly allotment. In this way, people get used to eating more locally and seasonally, a practice all but forgotten by modern Western societies.
Elsewhere in Canada, for example, the University of Victoria offers a transit pass that has reduced car travel on campus by 25% since 1996. The University of Toronto encourages its students to practice simple measures like turning off lights when they leave a room, a message they’ve probably even heard at home!
Tyler Hunt, one of the project’s coordinators, describes it as emphasizing the “behavioural and cultural side of sustainability”. Unlike some other universities, which have just recently gotten on board with sustainability efforts, Toronto’s program is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and boasts one of Canada’s highest institutional recycling rates – 74%.
As we look at ourselves, Canada’s southern neighbour, we can also see sustainability efforts mirrored at home. Climate change, energy, recycling, and green building, among other environmental concerns, are being addressed at major universities like the University of California at Berkeley, Yale, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Cornell, and the Universities of Michigan, Oregon, and Florida. Duke, Harvard, and Yale (among others) are LEED-certified. Even small colleges like Colorado College and Lewis and Clark College have sustainability offices.
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), serves as a central resource for education, conferences, and news pertaining to sustainability efforts in institutions of higher learning. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, AASHE offers workshops, conferences, a membership program, press releases and education kits. This year, their annual conference will be held in Nashville, Tennessee, from October 6 to 9. Entitled “Resiliency and Adaptation,” it will cover the spectrum of sustainability initiatives and issues on campuses around the world. Not only for educators or those involved in administration, the conference will also include a student summit. You can find extensive details of the event here.
Most of us don’t want to give up a modern lifestyle, and its conveniences; to that end, we must find ways to sustain it by using our resources efficiently. For example, in Colorado, where I live, it could be by using wind and sun energy. In fact, my husband and I are getting solar panels this autumn.
Research your local university, or your alma mater, to see whether they include sustainability practices as part of their business model. Get involved in local sustainability efforts, either as part of a university to the extent possible, or as part of your community. And it shouldn’t matter to which side of the political or economic spectrum you belong. This earth is everyone’s responsibility, and most of the ideas put forth by sustainability initiatives are practical and logical steps toward the age-old wisdom of not being wasteful.
As you or your kids head back to school this month, whether it’s elementary or university, it’s a great time for families to make some “new school year” resolutions. Reuse what you’ve got, reduce your consumption, and recycle the old into new. Most importantly, get involved. You can make a difference.
Have a great school year!