Sustainability in the time of COVID: Investing in the future to address culture, inclusion, and practice at universities

8 September 2020
Sydney University’s new Sustainability Strategy confronts sustainability through an intersectional lens of Caring for Country, championing a dialogue between research, education and campus life.

By Dr Lisa Heinze, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney; Prof Melissa Haswell, Office of the DVC Indigenous Strategy and Services team, University of Sydney; Assoc Prof Maryanne Large, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney; Prof David Schlosberg, Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney

Universities clearly face multiple crises as they grapple with COVID-19. And yet, once the pandemic eventually passes, we will still have to deal with multiple pre-existing crises. Climate change is increasing, colonialism remains a foundational issue, and students of ‘Generation Greta’ continue to express alienation and discomfort with the frequent disconnect between world-class sustainability research and teaching and the everyday life of university campuses.

How can universities make progress on these issues when their financial bottom lines have been ravaged by the pandemic? Key to making progress in these challenged times are the importance of a clear and ambitious vision, a commitment to changing the culture of the university, a focus on addressing intersecting issues simultaneously, and significant emphasis on the core business of universities – education and research – all backed by strong support from university leadership. Much of this work comes with a low financial investment outside of university’s usual business, but does involve investments of time and resolve.

Only by addressing multiple issues at once can we address the University as a complex system and efficiently realign practices with research toward a range of desired goals.

The University of Sydney provides an example as it attempts to establish the groundwork for significant change. It is laying out commitments to address its responsibility for the future of students and society in its recently released Sustainability StrategyStatement on Climate Action, and the upcoming release of the One Sydney Many People Strategy to progress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander access, participation and influence over education and research. Only by addressing multiple issues at once can we address the University as a complex system and efficiently realign practices with research toward a range of desired goals.

As developed with input from over 1,000 members of the University community and endorsed by University leadership, the vision guiding the Sustainability Strategy is to put sustainability research and education into practice in the everyday life of the University. It focuses on building and inspiring communities to create a culture of sustainability, enacting change, and transforming lives now and for future generations. The strategy encompasses Research & Education, Operations, and Governance – and is supported by and linked to a focus on caring for the Aboriginal land on which the University is built.

This foundational pillar – Caring for Country – is a reminder of resilient Indigenous knowledge and practice, and is key to our understanding of sustainability. As we move toward an unknown future due to climate change and biodiversity loss, the need to apply enduring Indigenous environmental and cultural knowledge becomes obvious. While this recognition is common in sustainability discourse, the University’s Sustainability Strategy operationalises Indigenous worldviews in tandem with a second ground-breaking University-wide strategy, the emerging One Sydney Many People Strategy.

As highlighted in the vision, a key to the success of these strategies is changing the culture of the University. While perhaps not a typical first step for an institution’s sustainability actions, often linked to large financial outlays and dramatic shifts to operations, embedding a sustainable culture informed by Indigenous knowledge will pay dividends long into the future (when the University’s bottom line will be healthier and can make the important operational financial investments).

Changing the culture of universities to be more sustainably-minded ultimately sees the research and education practices of the university shift. The University of Sydney has found that these core focus areas do not require a significant financial outlay compared to business-as-usual, but implementation will require deep thinking, consultation and planning. Dovetailing the Sustainability Strategy with the upcoming One Sydney Many People Strategy also supports the implementation of changes to teaching, learning and research in deeply sustainable, groundbreaking ways. For example, both strategies:

  •  Demand the University embrace past and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values and perspectives, emphasising the need to think holistically and recognising that sustainability is as much a social attitude as a scientific challenge.
  • Acknowledge the need to recognise and honour sustainability knowledge and ways of doing that reach way back in time but are also forward-looking. In doing so we embrace the Indigenous viewpoint of “deep time”, which encourages us to see ourselves as custodians, rather than owners, of the land, taking care of it for future generations.
  • Strive to create conditions that stimulate critical and appreciative thinking, initiative and leadership among students, in and out of the classroom.

Thus Sydney’s campuses are slated to become places of both ecological and cultural learning and doing; not just for reducing negative footprints, but also for connecting with Australia’s First Peoples and nurturing a thriving recovery, with an unmistakable positive handprint. Importantly, like Indigenous knowledge and experience, the research and teaching undertaken by the university strives for actions that aim for a positive collective future.

By embedding sustainability and the need to care for Country into the University culture, we can ensure our future doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, artists etc can embed these principles within their regular practice.

Research can explore and test solutions, as well as the many possibilities before us. Perhaps most important of all, universities educate future researchers, professionals, and leaders across all disciplines – touching every part of society. By embedding sustainability and the need to care for Country into the University culture, including our research and teaching efforts, we can ensure our future doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, economists, business people, artists, musicians and politicians can embed these principles within their regular practice.

While making operational changes to meet sustainability targets is central, a core tenet of the University of Sydney’s Sustainability Strategy is putting world-leading, impactful research and education into everyday practice on its campuses. In the extensive consultations involved in the development of the strategy, students and staff of all generations were clear about the importance of a campus that genuinely reflected their research, desires, and ideals, including actions on climate change, sustainability, and Indigenous relations. From a new biodiversity management plan, to eliminating single-use plastics and food waste, to procurement processes based on social and environmental sustainability, to the knowledge that all electricity will be from renewable sources, changes will be based in leading research and be visible, known and lived, on campus.

One key part of the strategy includes developing a Living Lab for sustainability across the University, integrating research, education, and operations to transform our campuses into sites of sustainability learning for all students, staff and visitors to the University. The Living Lab is a key component of further development in sustainability education at the University, which will also find sustainability being integrated into our students’ graduate qualities. The University also aims to develop a new multidisciplinary undergraduate major in sustainability, ensuring our students have a variety of pathways to succeed – and to embed sustainability knowledge, cultural knowledge, and pragmatic experience – in the jobs of the future.

Underscoring the vision, the development of a culture of sustainability, and shifting research and education to reflect sustainability in the labs, classrooms and campuses, is the support from University leadership. In addition to the Sustainability and One Sydney Many People strategies, the University Executive and the Senate have endorsed a commitment on climate action, which acknowledges the gravity of climate change, the necessity for urgent actions across multiple systems, and commits the University to play its part in addressing it. While COVID-19 has rocked many aspects of university business and life, universities must remain committed to addressing the complex and multi-faceted crises that exist in our world. They can do this by planning, committing to sustainable cultures, and preparing to make investments when the financial bottom lines are healthier.

Lisa Heinze is a pioneer in the Australian sustainable fashion movement and a sustainable lifestyle advocate. She completed her PhD at the University of Sydney on the transition toward sustainable fashion practices, is the co-founder of Clean Cut, Australia’s sustainable fashion council, and a Fashion Revolution committee member. Her previous work was in sustainable development and the green building industry. Lisa is a Research Affiliate of Sydney Environment Institute and she is the Research Lead on Sustainability on Campus.

Melissa Haswell is a Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing (Sydney) and Health, Safety and Environment (Brisbane). She is an integral member of the Office of the DVC Indigenous Strategy and Services team at the University of Sydney

Maryanne Large is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney. Maryanne is the course coordinator of the Postgraduate course, Inventing the Future INFC 700.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, Payne-Scott Professor, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental and climate justice.