Who has the mandate for sustainability in your university or college?

I was recently asked to think about who has the mandate for sustainability in your university or college? On reflection I realised this was the wrong question on so many levels! But first let me explain with a story I used…..this could be a story about risk or responsibility or governance. You can choose.

Imagine sitting on a plane on the tarmac, waiting for take off, engines revving and you look out to the wing. You notice that the vibration of the plane is loosening a rivet, one of 10’s of thousands of such rivets. Then it falls out leaving a hole. What do you do? Do you ignore it – after all there are thousands? Do you call the air steward? Do they tell the Captain? Who ignores it and who does something? How do they assess the risk?

So your choices are.

·       Do nothing

·       Tell air steward/stewardess

·       Insist Captain is told

·       Make the plane stop taxiing by whatever means

Now imagine that rivet was a species, lost forever,  leaving a hole in the ecosystem or web of life. Or it was an ecosystem process, or it is resource we rely on currently in all societies and aspects of life. Who do you tell? Who is responsible? Who will take action? Who assess the risk?

My thesis is that unlike an airplane where the hierarchy and ultimate responsibility is clear, when it comes to the care and maintenance of our planet there is no such clear hierarchy.

– There are no power structures,

– There are no hierarchical structures

But there are vested interests, as well as the status quo.

And there are our current societal myths and beliefs. Read Daniel Dorlings Injustice – why social injustice persists. In this he says that there are 5 faces of social inequality and they are based on beliefs and myths:

1.Elitism is efficient

2. Exclusion is necessary

3. Prejudice is natural

4. Greed is good

5. Despair is inevitable.

But are these true? What if they are not? What then? The first 2 seem pretty inherent in our current education system to me.

So there you are as a student in a college or university and you have been sold the myth that it’s a dog eat dog world out there, and these qualifications will prepare you for life, work and happiness ever after. So you have to follow the path set for you by people who need to carve out a name for themselves as an experts different from everyone else. Well I think the 1 million unemployed students must be questioning all this right now. I know my daughter did. I did.

What if the role of a university when taking money from students for this contract gets questioned? What if the students can see the gaps? We know they already are in Manchester having questioned their economics syllabus.

What if, instead, we saw students as partners in this who we could work alongside with to explore the competencies, skills, ideas, creativity that they and you think they need? What if universities saw that they were not experts in this but could be co-collaborators? What if sustainability was properly defined and not just as a campus-based set of SMARTobjectives? What if it was not a product? Or the responsibility of a champion but everyone?

Would we not be modelling the reality of who has responsibility for the planet? It’s all of us.

So instead of the EM Forster quote ‘only connect’ – instead I would  say ‘only let go’ to those in power and with influence. That’s my dream. Wouldn’t your dream also to be working creatively, collaboratively for the benefit of all and the planet?

So see the campus and the university or college as a large experiment, a place that will help develop a sense of place and care for your students forever, and not just a springboard into local communities or their future career.

What’s to loose?

Oh yes the life services and planet we need.

(with thanks to Doug Huyler, who uses a version of this story and possibly Paul Erlich ( via Stephen Sterlings memory!) who may have used the metaphor in the 1970s.