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University of Southampton Transition
An outline proposal for an alternative way forward for the University of Southampton
A Crisis Forum manifesto
Anthropogenic climate change is now acknowledged as at the nub of the crisis of the 21st century. It encompasses the totality of practices, economics, technologies and socio-cultural behaviour which are now threatening the human species with potential extinction. Indeed, it is not just the human species that is at risk. A study published in Nature in 2004 estimated that by 2050, fully 25 per cent of the planet’s species could be extinct or on the road to extinction. Yet climate change also, paradoxically, presents humankind with the greatest potential opportunity for a safe, just, tolerant and sustainable world – in other words, one very different from the dominant tendencies of our contemporary development.
The University of Southampton, through its leading departments, including NOC and Environmental Sciences, but also more broadly still, has been at the cutting-edge of research into the present realities and likely future trajectory of anthropogenic climate change. The relationship between the economic drives of our globalised system and the threat to the stability of the biosphere upon which we depend is now through such work, well proven, as it has also fed into IPCC and broader scientific analysis. Crisis Forum, however, would argue that while this type of work is absolutely necessary it is, of its own, no longer sufficient to the role and future purposefulness of this and other universities in the face of the encroaching biospheric emergency. A university with the sort of information at its finger-tips must also act with responsibility on the basis of that information. Moreover, if there is to be a broader paradigm shift in to the way society at large responds to these new realities, then there needs to be from within those bodies who have provided the warning, socially practical and purposeful example.
The question, in a nut-shell that Crisis Forum poses to the new V-C is thus: ‘Will he pursue the same trajectory as Southampton, and most other universities have done, and in which the pursuit of the economic bottom-line has remained primary, or – recognising that business as usual will not only no longer suffice but entirely and wilfully contradicts the climate science data – set out instead on a path which seeks to bring the University into alignment with that data? In effect, this is the same question we posed in 2002, at the elevation of Prof. Wakeham to the post. The difference of seven years is also the margin in which the science (Southampton science included) has made it unequivocally clear that time is running out for all of us. The University can either pursue courses which will reinforce humanity’s drive to the abyss. Or it can take a visionary path towards a better university – a better place.
Crisis Forum is not proposing that a model of change can be implemented overnight. We recognise all too well that there are major institutional, modular as well as the most fundamental economic implications. A shift such as that which is being proposed goes against the grain of everything which has been taken as conventional wisdom over previous decades.
So how does one undertake a process of radical change? The question has been posed in the wider community by the Transition Towns initiative thus:
“A Transition Initiative is a community working together... [to] address this BIG question:
“for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”” (Transition Towns Wiki, http://www.transitiontowns.org/ 2009)
The Transition movement has become one of the more significant, alternative paths by which cities, towns and villages across the UK and beyond have begun to think through this process. There is now indeed a proposal for Southampton city to join the initiative.
Could it be applied to this university?
Crisis Forum is proposing that Southampton University could be one of the first universities to seize the transition initiative. In other words, it would go beyond a rhetorical position of simply supporting ‘green’ as a concept but would actually seek to implement its own energy descent. This, of course, has an initial base in the form of some of the University-directed efforts through its Carbon Management group to maximise energy efficiency and savings, architectural improvements and drive towards renewables’ projects such as the use of geo-thermal energy. These are valuable and necessary to the project but not in themselves sufficient to what is being proposed. Crisis Forum subscribes to the principles of Contraction and Convergence as outlined by the Global Commons Institute (www.gci.org.uk) as the broad framework within which the climate change challenge can be met. A trajectory based on transition would begin to marry that principle with practice.
Here are some areas where commitment to a genuinely Southampton Transition University might begin:
1. Food Policy
The University would set itself on a course of purchasing primarily locally grown, preferably organic, seasonable food for all its outlets and catering requirements. As a conscious addition, it would implement a programme of communal gardens, and orchards, possibly even livestock, where appropriate (assuming land being limited at the university itself) in association with Southampton City Council and other local organisations. Students would be encouraged and mentored in food production. Halls of residence students would be particularly encouraged in this direction. There could be incentives put on offer, too, including rent rebates for monitored participants. As a further addition, the University would consider the development of a food waste recycling scheme, possibly on the lines of the Greenfinch bio-digester system developed at Ludlow, either alone or in association with Southampton City Council and other interested parties (The Ludlow scheme already has a major Southampton research input).
2. Transport Policy
A radical programme would be implemented to reduce Southampton’s carbon miles. Staff would at all stages take the lead. The university would positively support those who eschewed air travel for conferences, research etc in favour of tele-conferencing or ‘slow’ travel to events. The university would make it a mandated plank of its mission to move in this greener direction. A website for car-sharing under university auspices would be developed. Again, students could be offered £sd incentives for walking or cycling in and around campus. A project recycling kitchen wastes and spent cooking fuel for the university’s small transport fleet and/or conversion to electric cars could be an early, achievable but high-profile statement of university intent.
The University would commit to introducing climate change into all undergraduate School curricula, as appropriate to each School. Pilot projects could be developed along the lines of HIST 2054, In the Face of Humanity already implemented under the aegis of Humanities. In this course lecturers from a wide range of Humanities disciplines have been supplemented with input from other schools. PhD or MA students in the different schools might be encouraged as a key element of their research to devise the pilot curricula.
4. Built environment
The University has already developed a Carbon Management programme with a remit to reduce energy waste, improve buildings in terms of carbon efficiency, and consider wider programmes in the field of transport. To date, however, this has been ‘a good idea’ developed by a small team on the basis of limited resource. Under a transitions’ framework, ‘energy descent’ would become central to the University mission not only to save costs but as a model to the rest of the Southampton city community. Incentives and disincentives, again, could be key to a programme of energy reduction amongst staff and students across the board. In terms of building stock or projected development, energy conservation would be as vital to the medium-term planning as investment in renewables, and geo-thermal heating.
5. Overseas Links
While recognising the economic value to the University of students from abroad and research projects involving foreign collaboration, the University in transition mode would seek to implement an alternative trajectory geared towards a) distance learning programmes or in situ teaching programmes, thus minimising air miles between Southampton and abroad. b) the development of inter-university projects which specifically fostered technologies associated with carbon-reduced slow travel, small-scale renewables, including micro-generation and appropriate technology both for domestic and third world utility. Conversely, it would seek to reduce or terminate projects which have been geared towards increased fossil fuel-based technologies. In other words, the emphasis at each stage would be on how University research could be enlisted to enable and enhance the ability of communities to produce and sustain local energy production, rather than further distancing them from it by its involvement in capital-intensive, hard technology projects.
6. Democratic Deficit
Key to the transition movement is a striving for all members of community to be involved, encouraged and pro-active in projects geared towards energy descent. This is not the route which this or other universities have been following as a model in recent years. On the contrary, one could argue that universities have become simply a microcosm of a more general institutional tendency to employ solipsistic criteria as a basis for policies, practices and the support of special interests which have little or no relevance or regard to, or for, the needs of communities at the grass-roots.
A transition approach thus, must include politics, but one geared towards a very different perspective to that which now prevails. Specifically for Southampton working towards a vision of a tolerant, greener yet still cutting-edge university:
In short the return of democratic scrutiny and accountability are the sine qua non for any shift to transition mode.
7. Collaboration with other Universities
The University will seek to make common cause with other universities who are also finding their way towards a transition model. This is a moment, and opportunity, for Southampton to take a lead, indeed to show genuine leadership. It could actively promote its case through other networks, notably the Russell group, developing a strong caucus which will lobby government for a broader but genuine green deal at the tertiary sector with government and other agency funding allocated accordingly.
With moves afoot in Southampton towards a city transition initiative http://transitionsouthampton.org/ this is an opportune moment for the University to reforge links with city, community and people. Rather than operating in splendid isolation, the University could at last claim its right to be called the University of Southampton.
What is at stake in this proposal? The distinction between a new telos and a redundant business as usual. The trajectory that universities have set themselves upon in recent decades is not only a social Darwinian hiding to nothing but is entirely out of synch with the given realities of the planet. Now is the time for a V-C with vision to enter on a dramatic new path. What is being proposed here, however, is not offered as the easy way. In some quarters it may even invite derision. But at critical stake is how the university sector can now be of benefit not to an outmoded version of UK PLC or to some spurious position on a league table in which Southampton will always figure but never to its ultimate satisfaction. Instead, something better beckons: to be of value to the common weal.
What has been presented in brief here should not be read as proscriptive but rather as a challenge to rethink the fundaments of what universities ought to be – and, more importantly can be – about. Others have dipped their toes in the water. In the USA both Harvard in the form of its Green Campus Initiative (http://www.greencampus.harvard.edu/) and Cornell (http://earthfirst.com/green-college-spotlight-cornell-university) have moved far towards implementation while a whole range of North American campuses are following suit especially in the development of their own cutting-edge interdisciplinary green curricula. Here in the UK, the pace has been slower but the University of West of England under its own more attuned V-C has sought to rethink its basic operating premises while others notably Leeds Metropolitan and Plymouth have also made some tentative strides in the right direction.
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