Making Space for Utopia: the power of knowing and saying what you’re for

Students campaigning for divestment

Students campaigning for divestment

 

An earlier version of this article was published on Power to Persuade on the 27th April 2018

 
 
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Making Space for Utopia

As a wearer of many hats, one of my recent jobs was to coordinate the Sustainability Integration Program for Students (SIPS) at the University of Tasmania. I had one foot in the door of academic research and teaching, and one foot in the world of program and policy development. And I saw first-hand the need to inject hope into not only what we teach, but the places in which we are doing the teaching.

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In our ivory towers we bandy about policy ideas, political ideals, and talk smugly over coffee about the “devastating” impacts of the current global political/environmental climate.

Most of us go into policy or research work with the aim of changing the world for the better and we cope with the enormity of the challenge, I think, by sometimes retreating into smug gasping about how terribly dreadful things are while taking comfort from the fact that life for us isn’t actually so bad.

I work with a lot of young people passionate about social and environmental justice. As coordinator of SIPS, I spent a lot of time drinking coffee at the campus food coop. Often my job was to help students to tap into their passion for environmental change, gain real world experience in a workplace and ideally make changes to how the university operates.

What I discovered is that amongst the enthusiasm, passion and babble of optimism is a deep despair. A despair about the state of the environment and a real fear for what will happen to the planet in their lifetimes. And as if that is not enough, I see despair and fear about job prospects, secure housing and general rage that no one really cares. These students are staring down the barrel of a world of climate disaster, food insecurity and the mortification of literally having to serve those most responsible for the destruction of a safe and secure future their morning coffees (while being paid barely enough to keep a roof over their heads).

In 2014 students requested that the university divest from fossil fuels. Fossil Free UTAS worked all the strategies. They lobbied senior management, they lobbied the university council, they gathered petitions and they requested meetings with the Vice Chancellor.

The University was resistant to divestment. And so the students stepped up their actions moving from working within the formal pathways to more radical actions. What had begun as a polite request for change soon became a fairly hard-headed battle as students began to feel less and less respected and more and more fobbed off.

Camping out on the university grounds

Camping out on the university grounds

As a result the students stepped up their campaigns and began to break the rules of “nice” university etiquette. They camped out on the lawns outside the Chancellery, they camped out inside the halls of the Chancellery, singing and playing music and being fed for a week by the local food cooperative. One student climbed to the top of the highest building on campus and unfurled a banner – he had to be removed by the police.

Camping out in the Chancellery

Camping out in the Chancellery

The uni dug its heels in more firmly. The Vice Chancellor started using the sneaky back door to avoid students altogether.

The University really got angry when some of the students shed their protester attire and donned frocks and suits to attend a ticketed alumni event and hand out fliers.

A stalemate was reached. The students wouldn’t move and nor would the university. As a compromise, it was eventually agreed that if the students left the Chancellery  building, the university would take the interim step of quietly agreeing to become carbon neutral.


In the environment and social justice sectors we seem to be good at fighting against things. We’re good at knowing what we don’t want and making that loud and clear. Sometimes knowing what you don’t want is important, but I think we’re failing ourselves and those following in our footsteps by not providing discussion spaces for the future we want to move into.

Are we shipwrecked?

Are we shipwrecked?

In the university context it is easy to be critical. After all that’s what we’re trained in, to learn to critique, to pull apart and to deconstruct. This is an important and valuable skill in a world of fake news and loss of faith in the expert.

Yet I worry that we’re also not teaching students to dream, to build, to construct before, after and alongside the deconstruction and critique.

(Others such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Rutger Bregman write extensively about the importance of knowing not just what we don’t want, but what we do.)

 
 

So, inspired and informed by my work with Australia reMADE, I tried applying a different approach to the way worked with students. I not only  encouraged critique, but I also began to expect visionary thinking, to put utopia back on the agenda, a part of the very air that we breathe. And that process has had surprising results.

 
 

Fast forward to mid-2017, a year and a half after the agreed compromise to go carbon neutral, and there was still no sign of any action to make this happen.

She showed them how much they had to gain in making life at university a more appealing lived experience – one that would be made possible by a strong commitment to reducing carbon.

That’s when Rachel stepped in. Rachel worked with me as a student intern. Clever, social and willing to ask questions, she wasn’t afraid to take her work seriously. She really wanted to push the university to hold up their end of the carbon neutral bargain. 

Having seen what had happened with the more adversarial tactics of the divestment group, we tried to think of a different approach: what if the students came out strongly FOR something, as a collective of diverse voices, rather than AGAINST something?

So Rachel got to work. Firstly she contacted the student clubs and societies and invited them to a networking event. Then she asked each group to write a brief statement about why sustainability was important and relevant to them. 

Building on the Australia reMADE approach to developing a vision, Rachel went about asking people what kind of university they really wanted. 

Together the students crafted a beautiful Vision for a sustainable UTAS (read the full text at the end of this article):

We see a university, with solar panels on its roofs, basking in the sunlight, as we do when we study outside on UTAS' grassy knolls. As students come and go, we see them nourished by food, sourced from Tasmanian producers, and informed by the vast number of cultures from which our students come. We aim to have no waste, with left over food given to projects which ensure food is provided to those who need it most in our community. Everywhere we look, we see recycling bins, along walkways and in buildings. In our hands, we see coffee cups, equipment and books that we can reuse and recycle. We see students from all over the globe learning, studying and innovating on climate and sustainability issues. We see these students taking this knowledge to their homes, across the world, to create global action on climate change. We see our university invested in clean, renewable energies and supporting businesses that provide innovation and employment opportunities for generations of students to come.

But it wasn’t just the creation of the vision that was important. It was also the way that the vision was created – as students with different interests, skills and disciplines were given the opportunity to participate in imagining what could be. 

The students held a Market Day of sustainability-related groups, building up visibility and possibility before inviting the Vice Chancellor to a Carbon Neutral evening.

It culminated in a huge Carbon Neutral presentation night, where students, faculty and the university’s leadership gathered to hear what the students had to say. To the Vice Chancellor’s surprise, the groups present represented thousands of students, and the lecture theatre was packed full of young energetic goodwill (although the despair fueling the anger was there, hidden beneath a strategic hope).

Every club and society read their short statement. Doctors for the Environment presented a petition. An international student spoke about climate related flooding in his home town. Lastly, Rachel read out their Vision for a Sustainable University.

After nearly two years of campaigning under the more adversarial approach, the very next day a very public announcement was made that the University would become  Certified Carbon Neutral...with action to back it up beginning immediately.  

Of course, all the work the students did in the lead up had laid a strong foundation, demonstrating their smarts and resolve. Management knew the students were serious, gutsy and not going away. Students’ various direct actions and interventions in business as usual on campus had even garnered global attention from the likes of Naomi Klein and Bill Mckibben. All that momentum then translated into the vision process itself, which provided the tipping point for real change.

Rachel and the other students had created a positive space for the Vice Chancellor and the senior executive to move into. She showed the university’s leadership how much they had to gain in making life at university a more appealing lived experience for everyone – one that would be made possible by a strong commitment to embodying sustainability and reducing carbon.


Rachel inspiring the crowd.

Rachel inspiring the crowd.

The students’ campaign for divestment is not over, but Carbon Neutrality is a big step in the right direction, and a commitment that’s being backed by action this time.

Even better, the student-led event itself was a huge success: a lecture theatre full of young people who now believe that they can make a difference; not only to push back against things they don’t want, but to fight for something they do want.

In the months after this event I saw a much greater number of passionate and enthusiastic students who believe they can make a difference. When I suggested to the next batch of interns that they use a similar process to Rachel’s, they were all over it. In fact they pushed it further, consulting less obvious groups and taking it as normal that fighting for something is just as important as fighting against something. They took utopia and ran with it.

They took utopia and ran with it.

So as we sit as experts in policy and research, smugly catastrophising a future and tut-tutting over its horror as we do our best to manage our own deep fear and despair, I suggest we start to inject some hope. I’m not talking about Pollyanna-ing the situation, it’s far too serious for that. But I am talking about making hope a part of the air that we breathe, the context in which we push for change, research and make policy. Rather than being on the back foot, let’s go boldly forward and take those we mentor with us. Let’s take the time we feel we don’t have to actively ask about the future they want us to collectively have, let’s unleash some of the naivety of vision.

Trust me, with our support, they’re more than ready for a better world.


Student Vision for a Sustainable University

Tasmania is an island of towering trees, untouched wilderness, creeping trails, shimmering waters, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches. Its this beauty that attracts people from all over the globe to study and work at the University of Tasmania. We, the students of UTAS, see this natural splendour as our heritage and our future; an infinitely precious resource that must be preserved and sustained across the world. We strongly believe in mitigating the effects of climate change and protecting species, wilderness and livelihoods which our students, past, present and future, rely on, through more sustainable practises. To do this, we need a vision for a sustainable UTAS, which begins now.

As our university grows and expands, we wish to see students studying and living inside green buildings; buildings which reuse and recycle old materials and make sustainable what must be new. We wish to see the university partnering with local companies, such as Metro Tasmania, to see environmentally friendly transport available across campuses, for students near and far. For those nearer than others, we hope to see students walking and cycling to university. We see a university, with solar panels on its roofs, basking in the sunlight, as we do when we study outside on UTAS' grassy knolls. As students come and go, we see them nourished by food, sourced from Tasmanian producers, and informed by the vast number of cultures from which our students come. We aim to have no waste, with left over food given to projects which ensure food is provided to those who need it most in our community. Everywhere we look, we see recycling bins, along walkways and in buildings. In our hands, we see coffee cups, equipment and books that we can reuse and recycle. We see students from all over the globe learning, studying and innovating on climate and sustainability issues. We see these students taking this knowledge to their homes, across the world, to create global action on climate change. We see our university invested in clean, renewable energies and supporting businesses that provide innovation and employment opportunities for generations of students to come. We see a university that transparently protects the climate and the future of this earth at every turn.

To begin the process of bringing this vision into fruition, we see our university going carbon neutral, now. In UTAS' 2016 Sustainability Survey, 83% of students said that they wanted UTAS to be a carbon neutral institution. In 2016, the Fossil Free UTAS group were told that the university were committed to going carbon neutral. Auditing was done and it was found that this would take an investment of $175, 000 annually. This investment complements UTAS' other initiatives to become an internationally renowned, urban university. In aim of this, we see UTAS improving their lighting, heating and cooling systems, installing solar panels and generating energy on campus. This would be enabled by the wealth of knowledge in our community and university. We see students planting trees and measuring carbon to generate carbon credit. We see a certified carbon neutral accreditation on banners, hanging from flagpoles outside Lazenby's. This would support the wonderful and innovative work that our staff and students do to understand climate change and how we can mitigate its effects. This move can not only make our university more sustainable, and therefore a more attractive and responsible global institution, but it can enhance the learning opportunities and quality of life for students and the broader UTAS community. $175, 000 annually is what out university has estimated this initiative will cost. These positive effects, and many more, outweigh the small cost of implementation.

We call on UTAS to stand amongst universities, across Australia and the world, who are working towards making their campuses sustainable. Prestigious universities worldwide, including Yale, Stanford and Stockholm, have partially or completely divested from fossil fuels. In Australia, La Trobe, the Queensland University of Technology, ANU and Monash have committed to divesting. Charles Sturt University has gone entirely carbon neutral. We wish for our university to stand amongst these institutions by going carbon neutral, now, and formulating a timeline for divestment from fossil fuels.

We, the students of UTAS, are the future. Our vision for the future begins now. And we believe that the future is a sustainable UTAS, a sustainable state and a sustainable world.


 

DR MILLIE ROONEY

Millie is the National Coordinator for Australia ReMADE. Millie has a qualitative research background and has spoken in-depth with hundreds of Australian's about their lives, communities and dreams. She has worked in and around universities for over a decade building student capacity and enthusiasm for tackling wicked problems. Millie is also a carer for her family and community and is passionate about acknowledging this work as a valid, valuable and legitimate use of her time.

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