Sustainability and Resilience at Sussex

These are just a few notes from the Sustainability and Resilience at Sussex panel I was fortunate enough to participate in yesterday, part of the Sussex Library Staff Conference.

Chloe Anthony, a doctoral researcher in environmental law at Sussex (researching the impact of Brexit), introduced the work of Brighton Permaculture Trust (including a variety of permaculture courses, plus events like Green Architecture Day). Chloe gave us a crash course in the history and philosophy of permaculture, and the applications of permaculture design both in everyday life and more specifically in academic projects. The three permaculture ethics of “earth care, fair share, and people care” are not one-size-fits-all dogmas, she explained, but rather tools for thinking through particular sustainability puzzles, which bristle with distinctive detail at the local level. Chloe also touched on themes such as working with nature rather than against it; responding imaginatively to change and working where possible with what is available or becomes available in the world around you; eliminating waste; using renewables; creating closed loops of energy and resources; valuing diversity both as an intrinsic good and for the resilience that diversity can bring; and creating beneficial connections among the diverse elements of your system, integrating rather than rigidly segregating and pigeonholing.

Claire Sumners runs the campaign Plastic Free Seaford. She talked us through her own growing awareness of plastics: from having never given much thought to what plastic is made of, or how long it sticks around in our ecosystems, to becoming an environmental activist and educator herself. Getting Seaford certified as a ‘Plastic Free Town’ didn’t mean hitting some kind of literal zero waste target, but but rather unlocking a set of achievements to support ongoing transformative work. For Claire this has involved starting conversations with businesses, schools, politicians, and other stakeholders. One thing sounded out loud and clear: the importance of taking action at many scales, simultaneously. Addressing the environmental emergency means advocating for system change at the global and national level, and being open-minded and imaginative about new ways of doing things at the ‘middle’ scale of sectors, institutions and organisations, and making those many smaller changes in our everyday lives. In fact, as society as a whole transitions to net zero, actions at all these different levels should start to complement each other more and more.

I also detected in Claire’s talk a real subtext (maybe it was more than a subtext!) of meeting people where they are, and then giving them the support and encouragement to take a couple steps in a new direction. A not insignificant part of the work of coping with the climate emergency is affective labour: the work of listening, empathisizing, the work of storytelling and worldmaking.

In my bit (slides here) I introduced SHL and our recent Sussex Humanities Lab’s 2020 Environmental Strategy. SHL’s plans for 2021 include a more fine-grained scoping review of the sustainability work and priorities of DH centres (and adjacent) across the sector, so watch this space! I also elaborated on one or two points from the Strategy document. For example:

  • Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) and geoengineering play an important role in climate modelling and policy in every future scenario seriously considered by the IPCC. Yet it seems like they’re not really talked about outside of this ‘big picture’ context, for example, when we think about our sustainability plans as individuals, institutions, and local communities. So I think it’s important we cultivate a rich critical awareness of climate technologies, and become literate in the issues and uncertainties, so we can make robust decisions and protect ourselves the risks of Net Zero on paper only.
  • Obviously there are many different routes to Net Zero, and it’s also important we don’t elide their political differences in the drive to get there speedily and efficiently. In other words, it’s not just about “us” getting to Net Zero as fast as “we” can (although obviously it’s time to get a move on). It’s also about recognising that resources and responsibilities are unequally spread, and that different decarbonisation strategies spread the costs and the benefits in different ways. This is just the kind of critical thinking, I suggest, which humanities academics can often bring to the table … although of course it’s also something we all can and should be thinking about!

Samantha Waugh, Sussex’s Sustainability Manager, then gave a very useful overview of where the university is at and where we might be heading. A new Sussex-wide strategy is in the works (publication in the spring), structured around four themes, mapped to the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. There was a lot of great detail (albeit some of it necessarily a bit provisional): here’s my (probably slightly unreliable!) summary …

Sam kicked off with strategic drivers: how is the environmental crisis is manifesting at the institutional level? This includes of course the global context: all the ways that our understanding of the environmental crisis is expressed and contested across scientific research, grassroots activism, and national and transnational policy contexts. Another significant piece of the global context is the pandemic itself, the risks and opportunities it has created, what it has accelerated or put on hold, what it has made more visible or less visible. Some relevant drivers have a more specifically Sussexy flavour: we are lucky in that our staff and student communities generally already have a deep personal commitment to social and ecological justice, and passion and impatience to make the necessary changes. NSS scores are one window into those student priorities. We also have really world-leading expertise in Development Studies, with all the opportunities and obligations that implies. More generally, we need to ensure our sustainability policy and practices are fully alligned with our Sussex 2025 vision.

With that in mind, the four threads are:

  1. Interdisciplinary Development. Sustainability will be embedded throughout the curriculum, in particular via a flagship first year module in each school. It will also be embedded in our employability strategy. Interdisciplinarity also means recognising that sustainability is also about environmental justice, so this theme is also likely to be where a large chunk of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work sits. There are tremendous opportunities here for collaborating with our passionate and brilliant student body to drive transformation, creating spaces, solidarity, and support to test out more radical ideas.
  2. Decarbonisation. Our decarbonisation strategy is also in the works, and will include SMART targets for achieving Net Zero by a particular date. Will it be 2035? Maybe earlier? Some modelling has been commissioned which should give us a clearer idea early next year. There are questions of course around how decarbonisation will be incentivised and monitored across the sector and the UK economy more generally, and the potential for Sussex to show pre-emptive regulatory alignment. But there’s also the potential for leadership: this could be another area for creative exploration, innovation and social and commercial entrepreneurship. Sam hopes to put in place prizes for green innovation, support for spin-offs from research, and so on. Other priority areas to look at are buildings, facilities and construction, and flexible and remote work policies. Sam reinforced the point that the carbon implications of flexible and remote working may be more complex and mixed than they at first seem, and the importance of taking an open-minded and holistic view as we steer through these transformations.
  3. The Civic Leaders and Partners theme is about our engagement, outreach, and collaborations, including charity partnerships. So this relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals of good health and wellbeing; sustainable cities and communities; peace, justice, and strong institutions; and that final goal which is to pursue all the others through partnerships and collaborations. For Sussex this means, among other things, a sustainable and active travel action plan, and a sustainable procurement policy and practice. Sussex must use our influence with suppliers and other strategic partners to normalise a society of ecological sustainability and personal and collective wellbeing, including ensuring partners have their own appropriate Net Zero commitments and plans in place, that they pay a living wage, and so on.
  4. Environmental Champions. The fourth thread of our strategy maps to the UN Sustainable Development Goals of clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, life below water and life on land. There will very shortly be published (probably already out) an initial benchmarking exercise, ahead of a sustainable food and waste action plan and biodiversity policy and action plan. The initial targets will be to be in the top quintile of performers.

Sam also shared a provisional timeline with a number of milestones, including sustainability committee subgroups to launch in December 2020, a net zero commitment to be announced in spring 2021, and sustainability to be integrated into the curriculum in time for the 2022 intake.

There followed one of those lovely rich Q&A sessions which you know could have gone on much, much longer, but which you also don’t mind ending, because you know these conversations will still be flourishing long after the Zoom window winks shut.