Unsustained Sustainability

The AMS should consider systemic changes in how it approaches internal sustainability

Yan Yu, ArtSci ’11

The first time I tried to find the AMS Sustainability Office (SO), I ended up lost and confused. I had entered the AMS Offices in the JDUC and looked everywhere in vain. I was saved by the AMS Sustainability Coordinator at the time, who met me near the receptionist desk.

I was led, duckling-like, through the lower level of the JDUC and into an inconspicuous corridor. A sharp few turns later, we were finally at the Sustainability Office. It turned out I also needed help finding my way out—thank goodness there weren’t any minotaurs in that maze!

The geographic insignificance of the AMS Sustainability Office symbolizes its history of organizational irrelevance. Since its founding in 2006, the SO has been regarded as a fringe group within the AMS.

Its internal organizational role is to provide other AMS operations (but only those who want to) with reasonable and realistic recommendations for how to be more sustainable.

However, these recommendations are often ill-considered, if not ignored altogether. For instance, while the Tea Room started a vermicomposting program years ago, Queen’s Pub and the Common Ground are still trashing their organic waste.

In addition, the SO is not a member of the AMS Council, and does not have a permanent voice at AMS Assemblies, where the key decisions about AMS policies and budgets are made.

Essentially, the AMS, as an organization, cannot claim to be truly sustainable. What does it mean to be truly sustainable?

True sustainability is not just a bunch of small, feel-good projects done over a short period of time by a small number of people. True sustainability should be about making fundamental changes in the way we all do things, to maximize the efficiency of our resource use.

If done correctly, being truly sustainable will not only help save the planet, but it will actually reap short and long-term benefits for an organization, such as increased profits due to greater savings and more efficient production methods.

It’s kind of ironic that the AMS has not yet institutionalized sustainability. Waste reduction, efficiency in resource and energy-use and judicious use of money should be principles that all commissions, offices and services within the AMS follow religiously—because it’s in their best business and personal interest!

Here’s something even more ironic. Our student government represents us as university students. And university students are supposed to be the future leaders of society. We’re supposed to respond to sustainability issues and other societal challenges with creative thought and daring innovation.

Yet the organization that represents us seems hesitant to change, even when institutional sustainability can tremendously benefit the AMS. It’s a shame. Fire halls shouldn’t have to burn in flames.

The good news for the AMS is that the fire isn’t yet too large. This year’s AMS executive and their Sustainability Coordinator, have made valuable progress in sustainability initiatives external to the AMS—one example being their work with the administration to install solar panels on buildings across campus.

However, internal to the AMS, the Sustainability Office is still unable to mandate other AMS operations to become more sustainable without being considered intrusive or annoying. To their credit, a few AMS operations are practicing some sustainability initiatives independently of the SO.

But not all AMS operations are on-board with sustainability, and without a direct mandate, they don’t need to be.

Sustainability-related concerns can simply be, and are, deflected to the SO. The rest of the AMS can thus appear “sustainable” while carrying on with “business as usual.” In future years, this must change. I don’t claim to be an omnipotent genie, but here are some recommendations for how the AMS can become more sustainable as an organization.

One realistic, short-term solution is to make the SO into a “commission,” rather than an “office.” Becoming a commission would provide future AMS sustainability coordinators with more influence and more resources to work with, allowing them to work better and with less stress.

And since commissions are each given a seat at AMS Assembly, it will also ensure that sustainability issues are heard during key AMS decision making.

While having representation by a distinct group is important, the principles and values of sustainability should also be a guiding framework that applies to, and benefits, all groups in an organization.

To truly engrain systemic sustainability into the policies and employee culture of the AMS, the message must be broadcast from the highest rungs of power.

Future AMS executives should mandate, in writing, that all AMS commissions, offices and services must incorporate sustainability into both their planning and their day-to-day operations. Additionally, when hiring for these positions, the candidate’s willingness to improve the operation’s sustainability should a deciding factor.

A top-down mandate would also put the sustainability office/commission to greater use. More AMS staff would request assistance and consultation in how to make their operations more sustainable, turning the SO from an annoyance into a valuable resource.

Sustainability will be transformed from a tiresome chore into the good it actually is: something that can save money and resources—an essential requirement to sound management.

Fostering such a culture of sustainability within the AMS should be the goal of any future executives serious about the issue. To do this, the AMS must firmly demonstrate the resolve, courage and open-mindedness to evaluate and improve itself.

If changes to AMS policies or constitution would be beneficial, then changes should be made, regardless of whether or not it’s easy—because ultimately, it’s not about doing what’s easy, it’s about doing what’s right.

At the very least, it’s about giving next year’s sustainability coordinator an office that’s not buried in a labyrinth.

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