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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Winter 2008

The Great Green North

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Many campuses have adopted clean energy policies to reduce their carbon footprint.

courtesy of Tom Kimmerer, AASHE

Canadian students have flocked to join or start sustainability initiatives on their college campuses like they’re running for the dinner bell.

But for these environment-minded students, sustainability is not a dine-and-dash exercise, and they’re pressing their administrators, teachers, and fellow students to commit to serious institutional changes on campus beyond a simple recycling plan.

At McGill University in Montreal, the student group “Greening McGill” has started a “plate club” to replace Styrofoam dishes by renting out plates and cutlery for events on campus.

The group also pressured the school to adopt a paper policy that allows students to hand in their assignments printed double-sided. Senior Sunny Zhai, co-coordinator of Greening McGill, says all of the computer labs on campus automatically print double-sided now.

Students at the University of Alberta created a full-time, student-run environmental coordination office on campus, and have conducted a sustainability and energy-use assessment of the Students’ Union Building. Mike Hudema, a member of the university’s chapter of Greenpeace, says students are in the process of retrofitting the building to make it “green.”

In Halifax, students started a Student Sustainability Office at Dalhousie University that aims to make the campus “more sustainable by moving towards economically beneficial, socially just, and environmentally sound practices,” according to the office’s Web site. The office is supported by a $2.00 per full-time student levy.

To jumpstart their campaigns, many students across Canada are collaborating with the Sierra Youth Coalition’s Sustainable Campus initiative, which “works to assist, empower, and network university students working to make their schools more sustainable.”

Anjali Helferty, 23, the national coordinator of Sustainable Campuses, says she’s excited by the “passion and enthusiasm” for environmental change from students. “There is a lot of hope coming out of [campuses],” she told Earth Island Journal.

But what drives students to action is often feelings of despair. Hudema joined the environmental movement on his campus because there is “a lot of inaction by the government and the corporations, who aren’t really consulting me.”

Hudema says he is most concerned about climate change. “We’re continuing to see [the government and corporations] invest more and more in dirty energy and not combating a looming crisis.”

Like Hudema, other students alarmed by the climate crisis have set aside their textbooks to demand action on climate change. In 2006, 48 youth organizations in Canada formed the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition to pressure the government to create a “sane climate future.” The Coalition has been targeting Members of Parliament (MPs) who are hesitant about addressing climate change through an “Adopt an MP” scheme, similar to adopting a stretch of highway or an endangered animal. Seventy-one MPs have been “adopted” by Coalition members, who then lobby the politician to make progressive changes to the country’s Clean Air Act.

But Canadian students aren’t going it alone at global warming. An initiative created in 2005 – the Climate Campus Challenge – bridges student efforts in the US with those in its northern neighbor. More than 30 youth organizations from both countries have joined the Challenge to organize their schools to adopt 100 percent clean energy policies. (See www.climatechallenge.org)

Helferty says college campuses provide the prime location for pushing and implementing systemic environmental changes. “Campuses have this unique system where there are a lot of people going through major changes in their lives as students, there’s a wealth of knowledge and information and expertise, and [campuses are] not so huge that you can’t make change,” she says.

And if campuses can become sustainable, Helferty asks, “Why isn’t the government doing it? Why isn’t our community doing it? Why aren’t we doing it on an international scale?”

Hudema hopes that the rest of the world will take notice as students amplify their measures to protect the environment.

“Colleges and universities are a microcosm of how our society could be,” he said. “If we can change that little area, it can be a model not only for other colleges, but how our cities live and how our provinces live, and eventually how our nation can evolve itself.”

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Credits (L to R): Jared Benedict; Paolo Sacramento; Chris Metcalf; Kevin Stearns/Cornell University Photography

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