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Sustainability isn’t about telegraphing our environmental virtue anymore; it’s about surviving a planetary emergency

Dear Editor,

Hawaii’s reputation as a paradise revolves around its perfect climate. Summer temperatures average a moderate 29 degrees Celsius, while Winter runs an idyllic 25. Anyone that grew up watching Magnum PI knows there’s one wardrobe for all seasons. 

This week, however, many of Oahu’s beaches lay empty after a storm featuring 140 Km/hour wind gusts knocked down trees and powerlines. Emergency crews rescued hundreds from mudslides and flash floods. And it snowed; in Hawai’i. 

Every year I ask my students what does the future hold? After a semester of studying postwar history, the time is ripe to consider how the dynamics driving contemporary society will shape their future. Will your degree intersect with burgeoning trends in the labour market? Will your generation be as prosperous as your parents’? The purpose of such questions is to prod students to consider how the historical forces they have studied will shape their lives. 

In seventeen years of teaching at the University of Ottawa, I have found that a majority of students are optimistic. That’s good, because they represent our future. During previous semesters I would often find myself tempering student optimism about technological salvation, but at least I took solace in their rosy outlook. 

This year, students were unanimous in their despair. Climate inaction was on their mind. So too was the power, and seeming unaccountability, of global corporations. Students could not come up with any solution that they believed would get us off our disastrous track. Their arguments were cogent, and echoed ideas in my book. 

It’s humbling to fail as a teacher. How had I convinced this group of bright-eyed students they were doomed? Just three months before I had asked them what we needed to do to make a better world. As a group they recognized different shortcomings in our society, but they were brimming with ideas about how to reform our institutions.  

With only ten minutes left in the semester, I desperately tried playing Devil’s Advocate. My arguments for a socially conscientious capitalism fell flat. The class didn’t end in a kumbaya moment. We couldn’t channel John Lennon and imagine a future without a lot of hardship and suffering. 

I have felt student alienation rising over the last decade. It mirrors a global trend of declining faith in democratic institutions. Many feel that government does not hear us, or is unable to make meaningful changes to address crises like climate change. 

Students appreciate that snow in Hawaii isn’t some strange anomaly; it’s a glimpse into their future. As Bill McKibben observed in Eaarth, the world my generation was born into is dead and gone. After crashing through the 400 PPM barrier in 2016, we are in the early innings of a violent shift in our weather patterns towards a new normal. The Fraser Flood and Lytton Fire signal that future disasters will only get worse, and strike closer to home. 

Our society needs to adapt. Our built environments must become more resilient. Canada’s government has announced a road map to decarbonize our economy. Our universities, however, seem trapped in the past century.  

During the 1990s the University of Ottawa signed the Talloires Declaration committing itself to incorporating sustainability into the core of its business. By 2006 the sustainability committee’s modest recommendations to the Vision 2020 process were downshifted. Proposals like divesting from fossil fuels and appointing a coordinator to instill sustainability into an interdisciplinary curriculum were apparently deemed too radical. 

Snow in Hawaii represents our Rubicon. Sustainability isn’t about telegraphing our environmental virtue anymore; it’s about surviving a planetary emergency. Across the biome, ecosystems are flashing red, crops are failing, and insurance premiums are skyrocketing. In the decade ahead, climate change seems likely to intensify resource conflicts, environmental migration, and geopolitical tension. Nihilistic neo-fascist movements hostile to the values underpinning Canadian liberal democracy are gaining strength. This represents an existential crisis for our universities.  

There is also opportunity. Clean technology and green methods will soon coalesce in a Fourth Industrial Revolution that will transform how we work, move and make things. Universities could be important partners in facilitating this green transition, but they are notoriously conservative institutions. If climate change represents the challenge of our time, our faculties should be focusing their research more squarely on preparing local businesses, our communities and students for a radically different future. We also need to rethink the disciplinary scaffolding of our curriculum that so often lets multidimensional challenges like sustainability fall through the analytical cracks. The future generation of students needs to be scientifically literate, entrepreneurial and appreciate how their agency might bring about a better future. 

Thomas Boogaart is an LTA professor in the University of Ottawa’s department of history.