21 July 2014


Hi there,

My name is Ed McMahon and I am the holder of the Sustainability Portfolio on our Board of Directors for the next year.

The Sustainability Portfolio has existed for two years and I am the third person to hold it. It has recently been complemented by the creation of the Sustainability Events Coordinator position (applications for which have recently opened, so consider applying!) The Portfolio Holder is responsible for overseeing the organisation to ensure its sustainability credentials, whereas an events coordinator is responsible for initiatives, such as events, that raise the profile of issues relating to sustainability. Of course, there is plenty of room for us to work closely together.

I want to take a brief moment to consider the terminology. Sustainability, after all, is one of the three main pillars of this organisation's current strategic plan. However, in the context of that plan "sustainability" is used to describe organisational and economic considerations, rather than just environmental ones. Indeed, only one of the listed strategies under the heading concerns itself specifically with "community and environmental needs." By contrast, the Regulations that contain the sustainability portfolio require that the Portfolio Holder be an environmentalist. So it is clear that my mandate is one of environmentalism. Indeed, that is why I wanted to hold the portfolio, for one of my primary election platforms was environmentalism. But even that term is fraught with ambiguities.

What does it mean to be sustainable? One line of argument is that without organisational and economic sustainability, we are unable to make any meaningful contribution to environmentalist outcomes. The error of that argument, however, is that organisational and economic sustainability is defined by reference to a capitalist market that has mercilessly consumed fifty percent of the planet's non-renewable resources in half a century and occasioned the greatest mass extinction event since the dinosaurs. To be perfectly blunt, I am personally of the belief (and I have the stone cold hand of hard scientific fact on my side) that gradual environmentalist tweaks at the seams of neoliberal capitalism will not be enough to achieve true sustainability.

All of that said; it is of course necessary to consider our organisation's longevity in all that we do. I do not believe that we should always define ourselves by reference to "the market" for the reasons outlined above. We must, however, ensure that we remain viable in the context in which we find ourselves. More often than not, viability in fact comes from environmentally conscious thinking. The fossil fuel industry, for example, is ultimately doomed; not only because we will "run out" but because renewable energies are already competitive and indeed an economically prudent alternative. The willingness of organisations like ours to divest from fossil fuels or install solar panels is an important part of ensuring that fossil fuels continue to be shut out of the market. In short, there are decisions open to us that allow us to both ensure our organisation's ongoing viability and to lead the way to a more environmentally sound future.

This is the beauty of our organisation. We are a student union comprised of great and enthusiastic thinkers. We can be the architects of a visionary organisation that has a meaningful impact on the lives of its members and that can also contribute to broad societal changes. Through this organisation we can contribute to changes that are much bigger than any of us, and our time at university.

Clearly I have left a lot of questions unanswered. There are many instances where economic thinking and environmental thinking are at odds, and I do not have a blueprint by which to solve those tensions. What does sustainability mean? What does it mean to be an environmentalist? How does such a person respond to these tensions? Do we engage with and profit from the destructive policies of neoliberal capitalism, or do we have a duty of civil disobedience in the face of ecocide? What even is the environment? Although it is covered in sandstone and concrete, our campuses are part of this elusive "environment". Interestingly, for example, the loveable ibis is with us because its native wetlands in the north-west of the state have been destroyed by activities such as mining – I have written about this previously for Honi Soit - http://honisoit.com/2014/04/ibis-intrigue/

When we live in a closed system such as our planet, questions of sustainability become much more complex than a simple balance sheet.

If you have any answers to the questions raised here, or want to help me find them, you can email me at E.McMahon@usu.edu.au. I'm not necessarily looking for complete answers either. You may simply have a suggestion about how our day-to-day operations could be more environmentally conscious, or perhaps you want to propose a way in which we can support your environmentalist endeavours. Alternatively, if you want to be involved with the environmental movement more generally you should consider heading along to Enviro Collective, details of which can be obtained from the SRC.

In love, rage, and rainbows,

Email: E.McMahon@usu.edu.au
Consultation hours: TBC - watch this space!

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