Sustainability: a battle between ambition and doubt
On Sunday, I dutifully drove down to the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough for my first Covid-19 vaccine. Arriving in the ‘Boro half an hour early, I pulled up on the campus of the University of Teesside and wandered around. As I mentioned in my turning 50 retrospective last week, it was here (on the second floor of the building over my shoulder) that I ran the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) for six years, 2000-2006. These six years represented the maturation of my Sustainability thinking where I got the chance to take some of the theory I’d learnt in my previous research job and try it out in practice in a sandbox where the businesses were contributing very little to the cost of the project, so were more open to new ideas.
Why did I leave? Three reasons:
- A 80-mile round-trip commute was unsustainable in both environmental and quality of life terms.
- CLEMANCE relied on public sector funds, with a zillion boxes to tick and hoops to jump through. I craved flexibility to match our service delivery to our clients’ needs, not funders’ ideas of what was a successful project.
- The University itself was highly bureaucratic, with a mindset based around academic years, not getting contracts signed, working on trust or issuing invoices in real time. One of my colleagues used to refer to the Department of Academic Enterprise we reported to as the ‘Department of Oxymorons’.
So, why break my back to run a consultancy for the University when I could run a consultancy for myself, from home, with minimal bureaucracy? I still remember printing off my first Terra Infirma invoice, putting it in an envelope and walking up to the postbox, and thinking “Blimey, that would’ve taken me a whole day to get Finance to issue that.” Of course I don’t even have to print invoices now, so can focus my time on making Sustainability happen. There’s no way I could do what I do now under a bureaucratic regime.
Still, it was nice to be back and see what had changed on Campus – a huge number of fancy new buildings have sprung up in the last 15 years which suggests that the University’s money-raising powers haven’t been much diminished by years of austerity. Some of the uglier old buildings had been trimmed back to create more open space and the busy road that used to cut the campus in two had been pedestrianised. It looked good.
And then on to the Riverside. When I went in, the lady asked me if I had any concerns about taking the virus. “No.” said the conscious part of my brain while my stomach turned somersaults in protest. I queued, got the injection, and then sat nervously for 15 minutes in a post-treatment waiting room to see if I fell over, before wandering back to the car.
When I was a student I used to get armfuls of vaccines before travelling to exotic climbs with nary a blink, so I really despise the antivax movement for sowing those seeds of doubt in my gut. Between Covid and measles, those idiots have countless deaths on their tinfoil-hatted heads. While there is a big overlap between antivaxxers and climate denial, the hippy end of the environmental movement is also a depository for vaccine refusal, seeing it as ‘unnatural’ – and one reason why my putative exploration of the deeper green end of green thinking came to an abrupt halt.
And my day out on Teesside kind of summed up the countervailing forces on Sustainability: ambition and doubt. We need to break away from the box-ticking of yore and create flexible paths to Sustainability, making it easy rather than forcing people to jump through hoops. We also need to understand that people innately fear change (and that others will cynically exploit those fears by stoking doubt), so we have to make the Sustainable path the most desirable one to follow. This balancing act isn’t easy, but it is a lot of fun when it goes right.