It may be difficult to tell the difference at first, but unless you were living under a comfortable rock during the past year, it was impossible not to notice a shift in attention on campus towards all things environmental, sustainable and generally green-coloured during the 2004-05 academic year.
Last year administration finally woke up and realized it had been in hibernation for too long, its environmental reputation shameful compared to other universities or even the politics within our own city. Along with this shocking revelation, the University of Calgary administration was hit by the Sustainability Initiative this past January, a small revolution of sorts amongst the policy makers.The SI aims to spread actions and attitudes across campus making our university more sustainable. "Sustainable" means making resources last many generations, rather than using them up quickly and polluting the hell out of them. The SI has laid the groundwork for new courses on sustainability, a multi-million dollar deal with Direct Energy to start saving energy (and money, coincidentally) and top-of-the-line building standards for all new campus projects. Provided this is not a fad, this year will likely bring us many more long-overdue green developments, courtesy of the SI.
Students were also more active in 2004-05 than in recent years. Last year witnessed some hell-raising campaigns from the EcoClub, an environmental awareness day from a group of students, and a campout on the front lawn of MacEwen Student Center for human rights in Darfur. Rumours of this year's plans include a full week of environmental awareness, an energy campaign from the EcoClub, and a sustainability umbrella for clubs on campus.
There is a great deal to be excited about, but a great deal more to shake your head at and ask, "What the hell are they thinking?" For instance, the university spends around $17 million in energy costs alone every year. That makes our campus the highest point of energy usage in the city--$17 million would completely cover about 3,091 student's tuition. When you think about it this way, it starts to tick you off when unattended lecture theatres are lit up like Christmas trees, or computer labs are powered up but the doors are locked.
How about the recycling on campus? Recycling really isn't that glamorous and most students don't get worked up over it, but landfills aren't exactly fun things to be concerned with either. The majority of recycling on campus is the kind that makes us money--cans and bottles. It may not seem like much, but with tens of thousands of students tossing away five cents at a time for eight months of the year, it adds up quickly--to tens of thousands of dollars. Seriously. Paper recycling only exists if you're within the vicinity of a photocopier. Plastics? You've got to be joking. Organic waste for composting? Not on this campus. Near the end of last year, students finally set out paper recycling boxes all over campus out of frustration. The boxes overflowed in some places, and though months have gone by with the boxes in use, the people who get paid to look after the waste management of the university still have not replaced them with proper models or assigned staff to empty them.
For all the grandiose gestures the university might make, it's important to remind those who run the show that building design and energy deals are great, but if you can't provide the simple day-to-day operations that would quickly lessen the impact our university has on the environment, you aren't showing a real commitment to the issues.
Fortunately we still have students who happen to think there's something wrong with millions of dollars in energy use and garbage that could just as easily be used in place of raw and disappearing resources. It is up to students to continue putting pressure on the powers-that-be, not just for a couple contracts and media opportunities, but for a campus with little impact on the environment. And fortunately, there is no better or more exciting time to get involved than right now. So at the eve of this new semester, ask yourself: what part will you be playing this year?