The race to No. 1 Grafton St has been dominated by local issues – bureaucracy, funding, the coronavirus – but one global issue has also played a role: the climate crisis.
This should not be a surprise. Carbon dioxide levels are approaching those that existed four million years ago when the temperature was between two and four degrees Celsius higher than the current climate. Deforestation is devastating the environment, with 178 million hectares having been cut down since 1990. Last year, the Arctic freeze was two months late.
The climate crisis has shaped conversations around everything in Trinity, from education to infrastructure, forcing candidates to consider how campus must change, but also how curriculums must change too.
Prof Norah Campbell, an associate professor in marketing, was one of the founders of an ad-hoc group aimed at bringing these issues to light and challenging candidates on their strategy. When The University Times asked about Trinity’s direction in terms of climate and what she expects from the next provost, Campbell compiled answers supported and worked on by a group of 37 staff members (herself included), representing the beliefs of some of Trinity’s most environmentally minded staff members.
According to the group, Trinity is at a crossroads, and if we choose the wrong trajectory, we could end up at a dead end: “We can continue to make incremental changes and follow legal requirements for carbon reduction, or we can imagine and help create a different world to that which we currently live in; where our planet and all living beings on it can thrive.”
We can continue to make incremental changes and follow legal requirements for carbon reduction, or we can imagine and help create a different world to that which we currently live in
All three candidates are well placed to make waves nationally and internationally, even before taking up the provostship. Prof Jane Ohlmeyer is chair of the Irish Research Council, Prof Linda Doyle is the founding director of the Centre for Telecommunications Value Chain Research, and Prof Linda Hogan has experience as an internationally minded second-in-command to the Provost.
“At a systems level, we can show leadership by influencing public policy at national and international levels to insist on decision-making that is commensurate with the evidence of ecological crisis. We can be a voice that is singularly brave”, the group explains.
“At a campus level, through our interactions with students, staff and visitors, we can create new norms and values. Through experimentation, we can create and embody the beautiful world that we know is possible and available to all. We can set a new standard for what counts as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’.”
The group sees the need for a “system change” in Trinity. There is a need, they say, for College to become a “social movement which finally makes peace with nature, and ourselves as activists within it”.
“While carbon reduction is indispensable”, they continue, “it also becomes a reductionist distraction from what needs to happen to heal our living planet (and us in it). Healing entails a profound cultural change that goes far beyond a section in the university’s strategy or carbon metrics in malleable spreadsheets”.
“It is more about uncomfortable conversations and difficult decisions by those in charge about what can no longer continue, and creative visions of what the world (and the university as a microcosm within it) could look like if we believe nature is the necessary starting point.”
Through experimentation, we can create and embody the beautiful world that we know is possible and available to all. We can set a new standard for what counts as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’
So what does the group expect from the next Provost?
When it comes to environmental issues, they want the Provost to accept that the next 10 years will see a lot of give and take. “How do we make the trade-offs internally (financial, educational, operational) and who makes those difficult decisions?”, they ask. “Will we continue to allow cars on campus? What will we no longer teach to make space for environmental literacy for students? What workload will be removed to make space for the environmental awakening of staff? What money will we not take? What trips will we not make?”
The group also raised the question of world university rankings – a subject which has gotten its fair share of discussion throughout the long campaign season. Hogan and Ohlmeyer are both intent on Trinity rising up the ranks, while Doyle has said “rankings shouldn’t drive our behaviour, behaviour should drive our rankings”.
But international rankings are controlled by just two groups – Times Higher Education and QS – and the factors that determine a university’s place on the list don’t consider climate. Is it time that these rankings be subject to increased scrutiny? The group believes they are “unsustainable metrics”, and that boycotting the agencies that produce them will be a decision College will have to contend with down the line.
On their reaction to the candidates’ answers at climate change hustings, the staff members concede that the next Provost should not be expected to have all the answers. “That climate change debate was never intended as a forum where the ecological vision of the next Provost was set out for us to hold account over. Any potential leader who claims to hold all the solutions in advance would be a cause for concern.”
But they argue that whoever is elected on Saturday must bring College’s everyday activity in line with climate change research – especially the research being done in Trinity. “A massive divide remains between the world leading environmental research taking place in Trinity and the way we teach our students and run College.”
Will we continue to allow cars on campus? What will we no longer teach to make space for environmental literacy for students? What workload will be removed to make space for the environmental awakening of staff?
All of this costs money, but the signatories of the email stress that this mission cannot be reduced to a numbers game: “Funding is absolutely necessary, particularly given the massive reductions we’ve experienced in state support, and there were a range of promising funding options presented by candidates. But this is where the honest and difficult discussion of trade-offs comes in. What do we need money for, how can we be more efficient and effective with our financial resources, and at what point does it become a distraction?”
Dedicated academic posts teaching students about ecological matters has been a frequent topic of discussion in the Provost election, something the group recognise. New posts, secondments within College and experiments with teaching will all require “significant funding”, they say.
“The most important things staff and students need are time, space and energy”, they explain. “To do this, we need to buffer the loss of income this period of reflection will bring. Nothing will change if we do not accept the need for a dramatic pause in College operations, accompanied by a time of authentic reconnection with each other, and this planet which is the foundation of everything.”
“We must be cautious about using money primarily for additive measures, technological solutions, and ‘buying in’ our response”, they continue. “We must recognise when funding ties us into new projects that distract us, take our energy from, or even compromise our ecological aims.”
The group’s vision for Trinity in 2031, the end of the new Provost’s term, will represent a marked challenge for whoever has to oversee it. “In ten years’ time you should walk onto this campus and find eateries which provide organic vegetarian food grown in the Trinity allotments by students and staff, swap shops for student essentials to promote circular and gift economy, a car-free campus where every inch of space has a purpose in regeneration, a careers service which promotes alternative careers for students coming from all disciplines.”
We must recognise when funding ties us into new projects that distract us, take our energy from, or even compromise our ecological aims
Beyond the makeup of campus and activities taking place there, “learning would not be limited to indoor-seated activities or screens but include significantly more time learning outdoors, exposed to and engaged with the living world”. Environmental and ecological education “would not be on the curriculum periphery – an afterthought and add-on subject – but a central lens through which we teach all subjects”.
“Invisible but powerful concepts of growth, efficiency, progress, control, happiness, speed would be visibilised and questioned. Experiments in living another way would be part of the curriculum. Travel would be a slow, mindful experience and engagement with other places and cultures would be meaningful. There would no longer be a need for Green Week or Earth Day because that is the lens through which we see our institution.”