Environment is the key

"It's all about the environment, stupid!"

University of Lethbridge instructor Gary Weikum quotes Dr. David Suzuki for effect but the message is valid. To create a viable sustainability plan, one that encompasses all three aspects of the sustainability model (environment, social and economic), it must begin and end with a focus on the environment.

"There's a commonly accepted diagram that is used to demonstrate sustainability and its three components," says Weikum. "It shows three overlapping circles, representing the three aspects of sustainability, with the commonly held belief that the overlapping section of the diagram represents sustainability. A more accurate diagram would begin with a large circle representing the environment, within which smaller circles for the social and economic aspects exist.

"What we're realizing, as a result of science, are the limits of our planet and the impact we're having on it. It brings us back to the idea that the environment is a life support system for us and we need to ensure that it is going to continue."

To that end, Weikum is doing his small part by leading an Applied Studies course that is drafting a scoping study from which a sustainability plan for the University will eventually be created. He and his five students will complete the study at the end of the semester.

"Before starting a plan, you need to first prepare a scoping report, which is essentially an instruction manual on how to produce the plan," he says. "We're trying to figure out what topics should be included in the plan, how broad or how narrow we make this, who would be included in the planning process, what resources will be required and what timelines are reasonable to complete the plan."

Weikum speaks from experience, having been a city planner for 30 years. He sees this as a valuable experience for his students, all the while serving the University as it follows the direction of the University's Strategic Plan, which contains a priority directed towards the University's sustainability.

"That's what makes this so exciting for me, sharing this experience with some of my students," says Weikum.

Fourth-year urban and regional studies student James Switzer revels in the chance to work with a real client and participate in the making of a viable plan.

"This has been one of the most beneficial experiences of my university career," says Switzer, a Calgary native. "It has been an opportunity to apply the knowledge I have gained throughout my education in a practical sense; one that has provided a valuable and unique learning experience which has exposed me to some of the processes, issues and challenges which are involved in putting together such a report."

Fellow student Deanna Cambridge says the process has really opened her eyes to the limitations of what a real-world plan looks like.

"This project is only the first stage in the eventual creation of a sustainability plan," she says. "The biggest factor I have noticed so far regarding the realities of what can be achieved in the area of sustainability is in the University priorities, and therefore budget allocations. Sustainability needs to get backing and support from all stakeholders including students, faculty and staff. Part of our study focuses on how the University can get these groups excited so that sustainability is seen as something that is both wanted and needed by the entire University community."

Weikum describes true sustainability as achievable only when it supports each aspect of the equation. It will not take hold if unrealistic resources must be devoted to the process.

"We have to start within this economic system we've developed," he says. "In the long term, economic viability is determined by the viability of the environment."

Cambridge is excited to see the University set sustainability as a strategic priority, even though her contribution won't be realized until years after she has left the U of L.

"As a person with pride for this University, I would like to see it excel in sustainability so that it gains recognition in the academic community for its work and therefore can attract more students in more study areas," she says. "I also believe that if the University is able to make sustainability a top priority it will open up different practical and research study opportunities for students through the implementation of its policies."

Weikum and his students see the need for this plan at the University and the movement is beginning to take hold.

"The environment has limits, it has carrying capacities and we understand that if we exceed those carrying capacities, there is usually a negative feedback of some kind."
Turning that into a positive is beginning to take shape now.

This story first appeared in the November issue of the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.