Winders: Imagining 2022 not all that easy

This isn’t going to be as easy as you think. Check that, this shouldn’t be as easy as you think.

Western is beginning – somewhat belatedly – to address its sustainability in a university-wide context. Although many pockets across campus have been concerned about the issue for years, this effort, branded Imagine 2022, is finally exploring our collective footprint.

Not that we are far behind, mind you. Canadian universities have been late to the realization they should be leaders in – dare I say, examples for – sustainability.

Currently, Western’s initiative is in its crucial ‘consultation’ phase, engaging members of the university community on their individual vision of what a ‘sustainable Western’ would look like. Yes, it’s all a bit huggy-feely right now. But believe me, this is important.

Contributions from the early process will inform the President’s Advisory Committee on Environment & Sustainability (PACES) in its efforts to craft a 10-year sustainability vision for Western. This vision will be complete by January 2012.

I have heard from a few colleagues across campus who, knowing my interest in the topic, have expressed their doubts about how bold Western will be in its push. Certainly, that’s a legitimate concern inside any tradition-oriented institution – be it business, government or academic.

But what ultimately does (or does not) end up in the final plan will be subject for debate a few months down the road. What is needed now is input. Lots and lots of input. Believe me, if enough voices raise a particular concern, it will be hard to leave it off the final list.

But be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

If we truly want to be a sustainable university, one guided by the concept to the letter, it will require a tremendous number of uncomfortable decisions. So, right now, we need to ask ourselves one question: How far do we want to go?

Sustainability is more than a matter of putting out some extra recycling cans, or launching a poster campaign to turn off the lights. Some of our questions go to the very core of our culture.

Think about the financial investments we make. Western could wield major influence by investing in only truly sustainable companies, and becoming an active, vocal shareholder in those not yet there. But are you willing to take smaller returns – at least in the short run – in exchange for a sustainable investment footprint?

Think about the miles we travel. Our collectively logged air and road miles rank second only to energy as far as negative impacts on the environment go. Are you willing to attend that conference virtually, instead of traveling halfway around the world? How do you feel about fewer parking spaces, forcing more public transportation and carpooling?

Think about limiting on-campus food offerings to just a 100-mile radius. The positive benefits to the environmental and social footprint, as well as campus health, would be immense. But that means no Tim’s coffee. Or any coffee for that matter.

Think about zero waste, climate neutrality, building retrofits.

As we go forward, we need to be careful about throwing around pronouncements about being the ‘most sustainable’ this or that. If done correctly, these goals have major organization-altering implications.

Sustainability has been co-opted by ad agencies and spin doctors, who attempt to sell everything from jet engines to the Tar Sands as sustainable. Let’s not be another over-the-top pronouncement unless we follow through. If we say it, then we need to live it.

A more sustainable Western is a necessary and noble pursuit. But it’s not going to be easy.