SFU’s Sustainability Summit: A Personal Account

Written by Caitlin Jakobsen, a participant in the Sustainability Summit. 

Given that SFU’s Strategic Sustainability Plan is reaching its final year, the university is currently looking for input from its various stakeholders to help it formulate a sustainability plan that truly reflects the interests of those who live, work and study here.  That’s where the Sustainability Summit came in, to offer a platform for students to determine the following:

“What Does a Sustainable SFU look like?”

To narrow down such a broad question, the summit participants divided into working groups that attempted to envision what sustainability would look like for one of six areas: Learning and Discovery, Energy and Emissions, Consumption and Waste, Mobility and Travel, Society and Equity, and Risk and Resilience. Participants in each working group first envisioned what they wanted their given area of focus to look like by 2021 (termed a Description of Success) and then identified a list of five concrete goals to help decision-makers reach this description.  These ideas were then refined by other groups.  However, in this post I would like to address not our concrete goals, nor any particular Descriptions of Success, but rather, what the students I participated with seemed to agree were integral to achieving “true” sustainability.

1)    “Closing the Loop” Of Current Practices Should be done first, followed by New Approaches

Sustainability cannot be achieved until all aspects of our current everyday practices operate in a cyclical rather linear fashion. By this I mean that our everyday practices, whether that be flicking on a light or throwing a Styrofoam coffee cup in the garbage, generate a lot of waste.   When talking about changing wasteful practices however, we tend to think we need to completely reinvent how we live our lives, from the technologies that we use to the ways that we travel from point A to point B. And while thereIn her influential paper on the murder of Pamela George, a Salteaux woman in Regina, Sherene Razack makes the argument that sexualized violence against racialized others and, more particularly, against Aboriginal women is a hallmark of White settler societies such as Canada. is some truth in this, participants kept reiterating a slightly different message: you don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel to be sustainable! For example, people are often worry that we can’t feed an ever-growing population. Yet, “close to half of all worldwide food is wasted—discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and kitchens.” We should focus on how to improve our existing practices first before setting out to change them.

When it becomes appropriate to create completely new practices or policies, rather than simply modifying old ones, then these changes should be relatively universal (i.e. a policy that requires all new SFU buildings to meet LEED building requirements, for example) and equitable (discussed below).

2)    Sustainability practices must be both consensual, equitable and engaging

If new policies are created in a ground-up, collaborative fashion, they have the potential to turn into best practices. However, this cannot be achieved if the method of creating sustainable policies do not consider the voices of those not typically heard. Minority groups have a history of being ignored in respects to environmental and social policies, and are either not consulted in an appropriate manner or are not considered relevant stakeholders. This can lead to failure when imposing “sustainable management policies” on groups who’ve had no stake in creating them, which can lead to feelings of animosity or even indifference towards such policies. For example, national parks have traditionally prevented First Nation groups from partaking in traditional hunting practices, even though such practices are actually sustainable! As a result, First Nations are now (rightfully) cautious when people start proposing national parks in their traditional territories, even if such intentions are meant to conserve ecological diversity. Likewise, at SFU, if we’re not careful “sustainable policies” can actually create more harm than they do change.

3)    Education is essential, but should be accessible and easily engaging

Many participants stressed that none of our sustainability goals could be achieved without greater public awareness on sustainability issues and the potential of new policies and practices to address those issues. At the same time, we recognized that many people don’t have the same love affair with environmental and social issues that we do: education must be easily consumable and accessible to people going about their day-to-day routines.

Why does this matter? Sustainability is not just a way of life. It is a way of mind: how can we see the value of living a sustainable lifestyle if we don’t understand why living such a lifestyle is important. To put another way: we need to change the nature of our relationship with both the natural and social world.

In light of my work in the summit, I propose that the following tried-and-true definition of sustainability given by the Brundtland Commission:

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Should look something more like this:

Equitable and collaboratively informed development policies that treat relationships with resources as cyclical rather than linear, and that meet the needs of all living creatures without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


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