As a research associate at the University of Victoria's POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, Justine Starke co-authored Planet U. She the moved to Vancouver to obtain her MA in Planning at the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning.
M'Gonigle, Michael & Justine Starke. Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University (New Society Publishers, 2006).
from BCBW by Sara Cassidy
The quest for a planetary university
by Sara Cassidy)
North American and European universities have been relatively quiet since the 1960s when students around the world protested nuclear armament, racial segregation, and the Vietnam War (and Jerry Rubin, the American Yippie, addressed a UBC rally holding a pig to symbolize repressive authority).
But according to the co-authors of Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University (New Society $23.95), that’s about to change. Michael M’Gonigle and Justine Starke have compiled a boldly idealistic vision of the university that is deep yet never cynical, while outlining the evolution of the university as an institution and delving into the tenets of bioregionalism, from local food production to alternative transportation to democratic governing structures.
They argue a “sustainable campuses movement” could soon have the power to transform the modern university from an ecologically destructive, corporate patsy into an innovative leader in environmental and social stewardship.
Of the ninety oldest institutions in the world, seventy-five are universities. But while the university’s lineage reaches back over 900 years, its role, according to M’Gonigle and Starke, “is still not well understood, its functions usually just taken for granted, its social role and potential unappreciated.”
Universities have been booming since World War II, and their impact on industry and the economy is substantial. Last year, over a million students were registered in Canadian universities.
University research sustained a million jobs and contributed more to Canada’s GDP than the pulp and paper or automotive industries. The University of Victoria, with a relatively small student population of 18,000, employs over four thousand people, and its economic impact on Victoria, a city of just 300,000, is $1.7 billion.
UBC is the province’s largest employer and has an economic impact of $4.6 billion. The University of Toronto is said to have an economic impact in ts region larger than the GDP of Prince Edward Island.
Far removed from its religious origins, the university is stuck in what Jane Jacobs calls “credentialism”—the process of producing employees rather than reflective citizens. Two-thirds of new jobs created by 2008 will require post-secondary education and already over half of the population between 25 and 54 have post-secondary degrees. Their training shapes the way we live.
In 1996, more than half of the US $100 billion gross domestic product of the Silicon Valley economy came from companies started by Stanford graduates and faculty.
Universities, as an industry, have a lot to answer to, according to Planet U, starting with our battered environment. A brief look at the university and its products shows that “higher learning” is often environmentally and socially removed. “We cannot have a sustainable world where universities promote unsustainability,” write Starke and M’Gonigle, a UVic law professor and chair of Greenpeace Canada.
So the times they are a-slowly changin’. Or at least getting cost-effective.
-- Installing energy efficient toilets and light and water fixtures saved Columbia University nearly $3 million annually.
-- At Middlebury College of Vermont, a quota of building materials must come from within 500 miles of the school, to strengthen the local economy as well cut resource use.
-- The University of California has mandated a zero increase in fossil fuel consumption and all new buildings must exceed the state’s energy efficiency standard by 20 per cent.
-- Some universities are serving local food in the cafeteria. Some adopt “sprawl containment” policies, others have communal “blue bicycle” programs. Dozens have “sustainability officers”. One has a “no species loss” policy.
-- The University of Victoria recycles water, has installed permeable paving for groundwater recharge, and composts food waste from campus cafeterias.
-- SFU is designed UniverCity with traffic-calmed streets and a network of bike paths.
-- The University of Colorado-Boulder provides 35 to 40 percent of the energy consumed by three of its buildings with wind power.
-- UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability has been developed to produce more energy than it uses.
Drawing on James Kunstler’s ideas in The Geography of Nowhere, the authors of Planet U note that “at the university, nowhere is evident in the spiraling acres of parking lots filled with mass-produced cars, the cafeteria food delivered via an exclusive servicing contract with a nameless multinational, and the standard-issue buildings heated and lit by energy from the void.” Students engage superficially with the built and natural environments and their “community” has no historical context or collective power.
By greening infrastructure, as well as uncovering local history, the campus becomes “re-embedded”: the university settles in to its place and this place has value; travelling the globe for conferences no longer signals importance. Paradoxically, the dream university becomes “planetary”—connected with the planet’s health and with other universities—by becoming highly localized.
In Planet U, the authors trace the history of the land beneath UVic, concluding that, like many other North American universities, it arose from colonial displacement of First Nations and the sacrifice of farmland to “suburbanism.”
Planet U introduces a host of sustainability thinkers. One is biologist and environmentalist Briony Penn: “There are virtually no institutions in Canada that are people the elements of where they live. In biology, there is increasing emphasis on microbiology and genetics; I get fourth-year biology students who can’t tell the difference between a red cedar and a Douglas fir.”
The magic of re-embedding is that it opens the “pedagogy of place.” Penn continues: “If place becomes an actual place, then everything is pedagogy. Every decision made on that landscape affects a particular commitment to sustainability, and this will change how people learn because it’s going to affect everything they do… That value system now affects how they see the world.”
Planet U ranges easily between the theoretical and the pragmatic, between Derrida to the U-Pass (the bus pass students automatically receive at upward of fifty universities, whether they drive a car or not).
The planetary university of the future draws on its internal expertise and is vigorously “transdisciplinary.” Biologists and civil engineers work together on campus sewage treatment; history, public administration and law students develop co-operative relationships with the local community; agriculture students and business students create an organic food market. Already at UVic, faculty and students collaborate with Facilities Management to identify and map exotic plants for removal from the campus’s native Garry oak meadow.
Rich with photographs, cartoons, and pithy quotes, Planet U would make an excellent textbook to promote discussion—but don’t keep your fingers crossed. Planet U identifies the biggest stumbling blocks to change are the university’s own hierarchical structure and bureaucratic inertia.
Sara Cassidy writes—and attends university in—Victoria.