Like any other 39-year-old facing the prospect of 40 candles, it is time for the Earth Day movement to reflect on what has been accomplished and what remains to be achieved.
In this regard Earth Day 2009 offers an important opportunity to reflect on how environmental sustainability efforts are progressing at The University of Western Ontario.
Is it possible to say environmental sustainability is now part of Western’s collective DNA? A C- rating given to Western’s sustainability practices in a 2008 study conducted by the Sustainable Endowments Institute might give pause.
But one survey does not necessarily capture a complete picture. The university has indicated it is in the early steps of a broad sustainability initiative.
In an in-depth study by Tima Bansal, Chair of the National Research Network for Business Sustainability at Ivey, she indicates that for environmental concerns to become part of an organization’s culture there “must be congruence between organizational values and individual concerns.”
For starters, environmental sustainability appears to have become a priority based on the number of guiding materials that name it as a key part of future directions. A quick inventory includes Western’s Strategic Plan, Master Plan, and inclusion as one of the ten signature research areas.
While these documents are important for setting the course, there also needs to be a connection between what is being said and what is actually happening. Are we walking the talk? When there is a disconnect between organizational values and actual efforts, environmentalists term this “green washing.”
According to Dan Shrubsole, Acting Co-Director, Environmental & Sustainability Programs, Western is taking steps in the right direction and suggests the vice-president’s recently formed Environmental Sustainability Working Group comprised of faculty, staff and students is a good example of these efforts.
“I really think this working group will allow us to do four key things,” says Shrubsole. “First, it is an opportunity to develop a comprehensive inventory of what Western is doing in the environmental area and this in turn will help highlight things we may be missing. This group also might be helpful in the development of targets. Simple yet meaningful measures would help people to gain a grasp of our collective efforts. Finally, increasing the level of transparency in our activities will allow individual staff, faculty and students to be more aware of how they can get involved.”
Getting a handle on how Western is doing can be a challenge because environmental sustainability is not owned by any one area or program.
A closer look reveals three key and interconnected areas comprised of academic programs, 13 major research programs and hundreds of campus initiatives implemented by student groups, departments and individuals. These three areas are highlighted in separate articles on these two pages.
Having multiple stakeholders can add to the complexity of understanding an issue but it also appears to be a real strength for Western where many new and interesting partnerships have developed.
According to Charles Trick, Beryl Ivey Chair in Ecosystem Health and Co-chair of the new Ecosystem Health Graduate Program, “Western has a great opportunity to build on a number of very key research areas.
“Critical to this success are the transdisciplinary efforts such as the one which serves as the basis for the Ecosystem Health program, a partnership between Schulich and the Faculty of Science.
“It is this model of partnership that drives how we conduct our ecohealth research,” says Trick.
In this research students are taught to consider not just the health of the patient, but also the health of the community, the population, the biosphere and the earth. Next month the team will make their first visit to Attawapiskat First Nations in Northern Ontario to begin a community-based participatory model similar to the one they have been involved with for the past five years with the community of Walpole Island.
In assessing Western’s commitment to environmental issues, Will Bortolin, EnviroWestern Coordinator, suggests, “It is important to remember that with all environmental sustainability initiatives we are not aiming for an end point because we can always be improving. Our objective really becomes making continual progress towards reducing our collective impact on the environment.”
Trick adds, “One of the goals Western should aspire towards is making sure every graduate is a great global student who has an idea of the real cost of being on this earth.”
So as Earth Day at Western prepares to enter middle age, it does appear to share some of the same attitudes and values of its fellow members of Generation X. These traits include a good balance between collaboration and self-reliance with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in to ensure efforts continue to build in credible and meaningful ways.