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On Feb. 4, Naomi Klein came to McMaster to discuss her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Her overall message was simple: our current methods of living — and especially making money — are not sustainable.
I’ll be honest, I have only ever been peripherally involved in environmental movements. My activism tends to focus on social issues that affect people: racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and classism. To an extent I convinced myself that environmentalism was a whole other world disconnected from mine, but Klein related many of the issues that I care so deeply about directly to the environment because of the connection between capitalism and climate change.
This got me thinking, what are we doing here at McMaster to tie environmental activism to our other work? Why have I become so complacent about the environment? Climate change is directly connected to other issues I greatly care about, yet I am significantly more passionate about other topics. Part of it is undoubtedly the overwhelming amount of work to be done to help save our planet. When I consider the enormity of the problem I can almost hear the sound of a door slamming as my brain shuts down. “No thank you, this is too much to bear, and I’m not interested in engaging with what you are selling.” While overwhelming panic is undoubtedly behind my inaction, I’m starting to think that complacency is the bigger culprit.
So how are we fostering complacency on campus? One example is water. McMaster’s sustainability website boasts advances in water conservation on campus, from “ultra low-flush” urinals in DBAC, to a rainwater conservation system at the Engineering Technology Building. In an attempt to engage students in water conservation, the MSU has created “plastic-bottle-free zones” and retrofitted fountains with spouts designed to refill bottles.
While the sentiment behind these changes is great, I am skeptical of their efficacy. Every time I fill my reusable water bottle, the fountain tells me that X number of bottles — including my own — have been saved from a landfill, but this isn’t strictly true. Just because I refilled my bottle doesn’t mean I otherwise would have purchased bottled water. Apropos purchasing water, if the MSU is invested in a disposable-bottle-free-university, why are bottled beverages still sold across campus? I don’t think that the steps we have taken are necessarily bad, nor should they be repealed, however I do think that they have given us a sense of false security. While we may indeed have reduced the use of disposable bottles on campus, our initiatives have given us a good excuse to pat ourselves on the back and consider our environmental sins absolved.
If the MSU is invested in a disposable-bottle-free-university, why are bottled beverages still sold across campus?
At McMaster we have fallen into the exact trap that Kline warned against: attempting to make our current capitalist system slightly friendlier to the environment as opposed to understanding that the system is the problem. McMaster’s environmental initiatives, such as recycling, are framed as important for saving money. Our campus waste audit report in 2015 listed the ways in which recycling could reduce operating costs, but not the potentially positive impact it might have on the environment. Recommendations were described as “appropriate and cost effective.” It is easy for us as students to feel ambivalent about sustainability efforts when they are framed as a way to reduce overhead. Outside of our tuition costs — which would not directly correlate to recycling efficiency — are any of us concerned enough about our university’s budget to religiously recycle in an effort to reduce spending?
Instead, we need to call for reforms that are less budget-friendly and more environmentally sound. Klein called for McMaster to follow the examples of Oxford and Harvard in demanding our university cease investing in corporations profiting from oil production. Divesting from fossil fuels is a fantastic place to start. We need to go beyond reusable water bottles and energy efficient urinals, because we don’t demand more, complacency will be our demise.
Photo Credit: Jon White/ Photo Editor