With the students arriving in force, the beginning of the school year is filled with promise and anticipation. It is with this same promise and anticipation that we look forward to a new year of activities and programs advancing the vision of a sustainable HKUST.
So what exactly does a sustainable HKUST look like? It is an interesting exercise to consider: if we were to accomplish the objective of becoming entirely sustainable, what would we have achieved? This is a subjective question, but the way we answer this question could have long-lasting impacts on the way we conduct our business. We had a chance to ask some members of the HKUST community, and the answers were illustrative.
A sustainable HKUST:
- is a large laboratory in which every member of the community has a role and can make important contributions to sustainability.
- is where sustainability is integrated in all levels of actions and decisions, from academic, research to operations and student activities.
- is a place where all members of the community are enriched by the experience of working or studying within its boundaries.
A common theme is that sustainability at HKUST is something that cuts across all sectors and demographics of the university, with all members of the HKUST community playing a part. This is an interesting idea, but what does it mean, and how would it work?
Before we try to answer those questions, it might be helpful to determine what we mean by the term "sustainability", and what it implies from a practical point of view. In a previous issue of Safetywise 'From Environmental Protection to Sustainability
', we pointed out the difference between environmental protection and sustainability, and noted that sustainability often takes a broader, global view as compared to local efforts to protect the environment. We can go further than that, though. Let's think about environmental protection as the physical and concrete actions that we take to reduce negative impacts on our surroundings. We clean beaches, we recycle bottles and cans, and we find ways to prevent pollutants from infiltrating our air and water. Environmental protection is all about action.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is all about thinking. We use sustainability to help solve problems or determine better ways to manage our resources. We use sustainability concepts to understand how humans interact with the natural environment, and how we can thrive while using resources wisely. Sustainability, therefore, is more like a toolbox – one that contains lots of ideas and principles that help us become better managers of our surroundings.
For example, the sustainability mindset encourages us to think in the long-term. What are the kinds of decisions we are making today that will make us better off 10 to 20 years from now? Are we incorporating our plans for the future into the efforts we are undertaking today? The environment plays heavily in these discussions because we are impacting it at such a great pace. Therefore, protecting the environment is an outcome of a long-term sustainable strategy. It helps make the university resilient to financial or climatic shocks, as well as make it an even more attractive place to live, work and play. Focusing on the future provides more for us to think about, and provides positive environmental benefits as a bonus.
Sustainability also encourages us to think of the human experience in the midst of our physical surroundings. If reducing environmental impacts is our top priority, then tearing down the university buildings and restoring the campus to its pristine natural condition would seem to be a logical goal. Obviously that is impossible – and impractical for a thriving university – so the sustainability mindset asks us to consider how we can fit our human needs into the landscape in ways that minimize ecological disruption while providing a positive human experience.
This brings us back to the earlier question about how sustainability could connect with all sectors and demographics of the university. If sustainability is a mindset, then everyone can participate. After all, each of us makes decisions on a daily basis that impact our university, from simple actions like deciding whether to print a piece of paper, to more complicated decisions like developing the specifications for a major purchasing tender. Each of these decisions can be informed by a sustainability mindset; how will this decision impact the university in the future, and how does this decision create a more positive social, communal, and healthy learning experience for our HKUST community?
A sustainable HKUST will not happen without everyone's commitment, and starting to think about these easy questions is a great way to start.