By News Editor Aislinn Cottell
For the most part, Glenda Hunter is very happy with the university at which she works. A professor of chemistry and biology in the Adult Basic Education department, Hunter loves the community, values, and environment of the VIU campus. However, in December of 2016, she faced a dilemma. When walking past one of the new construction zones, she saw several workers surveying a grove of five Douglas Fir–“skam-alk”–trees. When she inquired as to their intention, she was informed that the trees were to be removed to make way for the new Health and Science Centre that was planned for the site in 2019.
“I said, surely there has been a mistake, as those “dougfir” trees are sacred, and endangered, and as old as 100 years,” Hunter recalls. “And at VIU, we have a sustainability policy upholding the Earth Charter, and we are a signatory to the Talloires declaration.”
The first ‘sustainable action’ at VIU took place in 1999, when it was decided that the fees collected from paid parking on campus would be used to fund green spaces for students. In 2006, the university put a more concerted policy into place, which referenced the Earth Charter and Bruntdtland Report. Next, the university signed the Talloires Declaration in 2007, a document established in 1990 by a number of universities pledging to be world leaders in developing and maintaining sustainable practices. Today, VIU has implemented initiatives such as a compost and recycling system, farmers’ market, and water bottle stations, while groups such as ACER work to promote awareness of environmental issues.
Hunter herself is no stranger to sustainability. Studying soil chemistry for her undergrad at Dalhousie University, she went on to complete her masters in agronomy, the study of using plants for multipurpose tools for food, fuel, fibre, and land reclamation. She then competed her EdD in leadership and policy at UBC in 2014, with her thesis being a case study of sustainability policy at VIU itself. In her classes, Hunter uses environmental protection as a core principle in her curriculum.
Concerned about the incongruity of the trees’ removal with these values, Hunter made a short video about the issue, and attempted to communicate her unease to her colleagues and VIU President Ralph Nilson via email. However, when she returned to the campus in January, the trees were gone.
“That was my first day back at work and I was speechless,” said Hunter. “One of those trees was at least a hundred years old. In my lifetime, if I’m fortunate to live a hundred years, a tree will never be that big.”
Hunter is not against the new building—far from it. The new construction is being planned as eco-friendly, with expected LEED-Gold status and a geo-exchange energy system utilizing the flooded coal mines already present beneath the campus. Furthermore, as someone passionate about the sciences, Hunter is enthusiastic about the new opportunities that will be available for students and proud of the “green chemistry” movement at VIU.
However, she is concerned about the message the construction sends.
“It may not seem important to protect these things at your workplace, but we have to show leadership and sustainable environmental practices for our students,” said Hunter. “If they see that a parking lot and a building is more important than a forest, then maybe that’s what they’re going to take with them when they leave our institution.”
Hunter reminds that we are obliged by BC’s carbon neutral legislation and that every tree we remove is a step away from that.
“If we take out those green spaces we already have, I’m not sure how we’re going to get them back,” she says. “The other thing that concerns me on a practical level is the slope stability–each time we carve out more of those majestic, sacred, magnificent trees, we also make the slope less stable.”
She cautions that it can be easy to pay lip service to the concept of sustainability but that it takes real commitment in the present to make that concept a reality. For example, VIU’s 50-year plan—available on the VIU website—envisions a campus with substantially less parking space than it has today. While Hunter says this is an admirable goal—envisioning a future where we are less dependent on cars—she cautions that it’s dangerous to set such high expectations on future students and faculty. Instead, we should be working to improve what we have now and not make assumptions about what we will be able to achieve in future decades.
“I believe we really don’t know what 50 years in the future is going to look like. I cannot imagine people not using cars 50 years from now.”
Hunter says part of this problem lies in the idea of “condensation symbols”. These are terms defined as “a name, word, phrase, or maxim which stirs vivid impressions involving the listener’s most basic values and readies the listener for action.” This may sound great on the surface but Hunter says the issue occurs when the symbol in question does not have a clear meaning to everyone using it.
For example, take the term “sustainability.” It’s a buzzword that pretty much anyone will agree is a desirable goal but may not actually understand what it takes to get there, or what “there” really looks like. At the same time, Hunter says that Western culture has a “habitus” of unsustainability, aka, a daily lifestyle and set of habits that are inherently unsustainable. The average Western household usage of water, fossil fuels, and food, for example, is far beyond the scope of what Earth can support. The combination of not having a clear goal and path to sustainability, as well as working in a culture that is inherently unsustainable, can make progress difficult.
According to VIU, the construction is necessary for the future plans of a greener campus.
“The VIU Campus Master Plan focuses on higher density buildings with the goal of creating more green spaces on campus, including the reforestation of a greenway across the top of campus for the reintroduction of traditional plants and trees,” said William Litchfield, executive director of University Relations. “The realization of the Campus Master Plan does require some landscaping adjustments to develop improved learning spaces for students, implement a close to zero carbon geo-exchange energy system, and create the opportunity to consolidate infrastructure for the reforestation stage.”
Hunter understands that compromises must be made, and says that she wants to work with the university to build a better future. “I want to bring a solution, I don’t want to criticize. I am very respectful of the leadership at this university.”
Hunter has several projects on the go, the most directly related being a grant application to install a living wall in building 205. Living walls are self-sustaining vertical gardens that can be attached to the exterior or interior of a building; Hunter was teaching at Dalhousie when they installed one. She thinks it would be a great option to improve the quality of life on campus for both students and the environment.
“It’s off the beaten track, but it’s the right way to transform how we do things and protect the environment,” says Hunter. “It’s so important to do this, even if you don’t care about wildlife, even if you don’t care about people besides yourself—you need oxygen, you need food.”
Hunter also held a project with her BIOL 047 students this semester, building posters calling awareness to the different species of trees on campus. They presented these at the CREATE event on campus in March, among over 130 other student projects. Hunter says she is optimistic about student involvement in issues of sustainability.
“We need more student leaders. We need to look to students for leadership—and they have leadership skills,” she says. “I find students feel they’re overwhelmed by the environmental degradation around them and they feel they are powerless—they are not powerless.”
Aislinn is a third year Bachelor of Arts and Science student majoring in creative writing and minoring in chemistry. New to The Nav team this year, she’s enjoying finding out about all the interesting things happening on campus. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, Netflix, and the copious consumption of coffee.