Written by Anisa Rogers, March 2017
When an institution as big as the University of Melbourne attempts to make a policy on anything, it is no easy task, and the Sustainability Plan is no different. A lot of good work and good intentions have gone into it, but with the terrifying reality of climate change and environmental degradation we need to be critically analysing what the university does to make sure we are helping, not exacerbating the situation.
As Environment Officer in the student union for 2016, I was very excited about the idea of the Sustainability Plan. It seemed like the administration was taking sustainability seriously by putting it into a policy that the whole university community would be part of enacting. I saw it as an opportunity to properly engage the wider university community about sustainability. I attended the meetings of the Sustainability Executive (1) during my term (December 2015 - December 2016) in which the Plan was discussed and ultimately written.
The meetings were exciting to begin with. There were discussions about creative ways of engaging students and staff. I knew that if the university decision makers, most importantly those who control the money, actually wanted to do this right then they had a lot of resources and power to make wide consultation happen. But after a few meetings I started to realise that this plan was not going to be anything like i had imagined. The university was not going to put nearly enough resources towards creating community conversation and input.
The University's main consultation came in the form of two forums and a website with an email you could send ideas and feedback to.The forums were well attended, due in large part to work by passionate students and staff from groups like Fossil Free and the NTEU, but had very little follow up. Throughout both forums there were numerous questions asked of Allan Tait (Chief Financial Officer and Chair of the of Sustainability Executive) which he could not provide adequate answers to (2). Instead of the hoped for spaces of discussion and collaboration, these forums seemed much more like a one way information flow, with no public follow-up on the questions asked. As well as this public consultation, there were also many internal conversations within the staff. While these were important they were not transparent or inclusive of the wider university community. Many students and staff I talked to were not impressed at all with the overall consultation of the plan.
This lead myself to attempt to reach out to students and staff to get them involved in the consultation process. I communicated to the Sustainability Executive early on that this was not part of my role as Environment Officer, but that I felt that someone needed to be creating a space for meaningful discussion and contribution from the university community. Originally I thought my events would be complimentary to what the university was doing, but I soon understood that these events were providing the only space for conversations between the wider university community and the decision makers about the plan. My ask of further resources were not met until very late in the year when they hired someone (the wonderful Angus Dowell) to help me. We ran fortnightly open meetings about the plan for people to find out more and have input, as well as weekly stalls in the university’s Farmers Market. These led to specific sessions on each of the five parts of the plan in which members of the Sustainability Executive attended. I asked the university to advertise these sessions for me, and they put them on the website, but so many of their existing avenues for communication were not used. A university-wide email asking for input could have been sent by Glynn or Allan himself but this was never done, and I was not given space to speak at the second forum to advertise them.
After a while I came to realise that despite the good intentions of all the people passionate about sustainability, and who put in huge amounts of effort to see action from the university, it wasn’t going to go anywhere near far enough to address climate change and environmental degradation. It falls short of properly addressing the current environmental crisis; huge and increasing over consumption, the idea of infinite economic growth and rampant climate change. The urgency of the situation is not made clear through the actions laid out in the plan, and the mention of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees is bordering on tokenistic when the university still privileges profit over its role in addressing climate change.
Part of this is that the University is - once again - seeking to engage with the fossil fuel industry that urgently needs to be phased out. As the Fossil Free MU media release states: “The … Sustainability Plan has failed to make a commitment to divest from 21 of Australia’s most polluting fossil fuel companies. The investments portion of the plan commits to developing a sustainable investments framework by the end of 2017, and to have withdrawn investments from the decided companies by 2021. There is no assurance within the plan that this will lead to the powerful statement of full divestment these 21 companies, nor is there any indication that implementation of the plan will fulfil their commitment to honour the Paris agreement to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees.”(3)
The plan has so much potential to present a way for the University of Melbourne to meaningfully engage with the very real issues of sustainability, climate change (etc.). It seems clear the University’s existing ties with fossil fuel companies (such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton) are inhibiting meaningful engagement, begging the question of whether the University, like so many other institutions, are simply doing the bidding of global corporations.
All of this points to a bigger story of our university, and what we want our university to be. I want a space of critical thinking, where anyone can come and learn from each other and provide services to our society. A place for constructive debates, a place that promotes the highest ethics. However, we can now see that the way the university is run us shaped heavily by corporate donors.
The most recent announcement of the partnership between Lockheed Martin (a huge weapons manufacturer) and Melbourne University are a worrying step in the wrong direction (4). How can a university have an independent critical view and interpretation of society when it is being funded by some huge and very questionable corporations? And worse still, how can our university act in the interests of society and future generations if it is reliant on unethical corporations for funding? This is obviously a huge topic with a lot of nuance, but one that we need to be thinking about if we are hoping to see a better more democratic university.
At Fossil Free MU (and the UMSU Enviro Collective) (5) we will continue to engage in the Sustainability Plan and with the university decision makers, but we are very wary of them wasting even more of our time with lengthy non-democratic bureaucracy and “consultation”. But we also do a lot more than that. Mostly we spend our time organising students, about divestment and also other campaigns, and planning further and escalated action. We have realised that our university being beholden to the corporations that fund it is holding it back from making meaningful action, and there is more need than ever to get organised and challenge that. We are looking forward to working with you in the year ahead, so please get in contact!
We will be tracking the University’s progress re: the sustainability plan over the next 4 years on https://www.musustainabilitywatch.org/, so keep your eyes peeled!
(1) A decision making body that is part of Chancellery. It was created a few years ago and people from all over the university sit on, with Allan Tait (Chief Financial Officer) as its chair.
(2) You can see more about the process here, including a recording of the second forum. https://ourcampus.unimelb.edu.au/sustainability-plan
(3) For the full media release see here: http://www.fossilfreemu.org/news/the-sustainability-plan-is-greenwash2412017
Campaign against Lockheed Martin at Melbourne Universities - www.facebook.com/lockoutlockheed/
The subversion of Australian Universities - http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/sau/index.html