Written By: Michelle
On November 19, I had the immense pleasure of delivering a speech at ECOLOO, an annual conference centered on sustainability, organized by the Sustainable Campus Initiative. The event brought together environmental groups both within and outside of campus, all united by a common goal of education. Among those in attendance were representatives from Fossil Free UW, The WWF, Entrepreneurship at Environment, students from Renison, and the Ecology Lab. My speech is my personal take on what sustainability means and how we can translate its importance to Waterloo students and the greater community.
“Good afternoon! My name is Michelle Angkasa, and I’m a first year environment and business student in the Faculty of Environment. I first want to start by saying a big thank you to the Sustainable Campus Initiative, the organizers of this event: they’ve worked tirelessly to bring this all together. We’re so lucky to have forums like this, where all the best and curious minds can come together to learn more and work to make our world a better place.
When I was applying for this position, I was prompted by a simple question: What is an issue in sustainability that you care about? Personally, I have one very clear philosophy: “Live lightly on this earth”. It’s ultimately a simple goal: saving the planet. I have always been motivated by a desire to empower people to make greener choices to help save the planet in their own way.
Since my childhood, the value of conservation – of waste not, want not – has been carefully instilled in me by my parents. Having grown up in a country where nothing of value was thrown away, and under the pressure of scarcity, they taught me to respect the blessings I was given and to not take them for granted. This philosophy extended into my relationship with energy, food, and water. I was told finish my food, to use appliances during low peak times, to reuse and recycle. And so it’s no wonder that I now care deeply about the environment and am striving to become more conscious of my own impact on the earth. When I moved to Canada, one of the biggest culture shocks I experienced was the astounding waste I saw everywhere, due to our culture of abundance. We live in a disposable society; where good food is destined for the dump, where water is carelessly spent on frivolous activities, and where recycling is largely ignored. We are so far removed from the devastating impacts of our actions, and thus it is so easy for us to simply turn away from the ecological destruction that is unfolding before our eyes. Climate change is arguably the most pertinent issue that humanity is facing right now, and much of it is due to the fact that we have decided to ignore the elephant in the room: that our choices today have real, significant impact on the future we want to create.
This desire to live my best ecological life has always served as an influential compass for my decisions, including why I chose to pursue a degree in environment through the environment and business program. On the other hand, the environment faculty can often feel like a bubble. Within the cozy confines of these living walls and shaming people for using plastic water bottles, it is easy to make those ecological decisions, as everyone shares that same internal drive. However, as soon as you step out of the environment buildings, the world is a very different place. We are constantly bombarded by falsely sensational doomsday messages of climate change, with recurring waves of apathy and ignorance.
It is evident that our society is being pulled in two different directions. Confronted by the deluge of dire warnings about climate emergencies and global warming, we seemingly have two possible reactions: fight or flight. We can either submit to the fatalist “this isn’t MY problem” viewpoint, or hopefully, take action. Extinction rebels all over the world block streets and demand change, over 4500 people show up right here in Waterloo for a global climate strike, and courageous youth stand up to their politicians, but yet fossil fuel interests still dominate board rooms where major decisions on the future of our planet are being made. When confronted with the barrage of damning evidence, it is all too easy to turn away, because after all, we’re too far gone, right? While it’s personally motivating to be surrounded by like-minded individuals here, the real problem extends further than this faculty. The blueprints for a just climate transition are out there; now the only obstacle lies in communication and connecting the expertise with the general public.
The key in mobilizing people to make ecological decisions is to emphasize that our actions have tangible and significant consequences. However, that realization shouldn’t paralyzing, instead it’s an invitation to environmental action. After all, people respond much better to possibilities than limits. My green motto of “Live lightly on this earth” is all about encouraging the kind of thinking that acknowledges our great privilege of being denizens on this planet while understanding our responsibility to it. After all, we are not just inheriting it from our ancestors, but borrowing it from our children. To me, sustainability is humanity’s greatest call to action, and we need to bring everyone along on the mission.
Living a sustainable lifestyle requires a profound mindset change, and an upheaval of everything we might have taken for granted. First and foremost, “living lightly” requires you to consider a perspective greater than yourself. For example, thinking about where the things you use come from, and where they’ll go after you’re done using them. It’s considering that the apple you eat without a second thought was grown in an orchard somewhere, and required land, water, labour, and carbon emissions to get to you. And after you’re done with it, it will be disposed of, where it may continue to have a negative impact on the earth. Though we may only use things once, the implications of its creation and disposal are part of the responsibility we must take on. This concept of a product’s lifecycle or “shadow” is something that’s often missing from sustainability debates.
One possible solution, attributed to Interface CEO Ray Anderson, is the idea of leasing solutions instead of selling products. For example, Interface, a carpet company and one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable businesses, leases “floor covering solutions” instead of commercial flooring. This subtle modification carries drastically different implications: instead of selling carpets and passing the buck to the consumer and the various inefficiencies of their local waste disposal systems, Interface has rewritten their entire business model. Instead, they sell carpet tiles, which can be replaced on an as need basis, which greatly reduces the overall amount of materials and energy needed to make their products, and also can efficiently recycle used carpets to fully consummate their closed loop production model. The best part of this system and thinking shift is that both parties benefit, demonstrating that sustainability, done properly, is in everyone’s best interest.
I have a hypothesis is that one of humanity’s greatest regrets in looking back at today’s climate crisis will be making plastic, an extremely durable and non-biodegradable material, and yet is somehow our material of choice for single use products. Just to consider the millions of tons of the stuff we make and throw away every year (after perhaps using it for mere days or even minutes) is almost insanity. Our world’s obsession with plastic is emblematic of our lack of knowledge and concern for our indirect impact on the earth. Our myopic view of our relationship with the climate and our insatiable hunger for even more and more instant gratification has wreaked havoc on our planet. But as CEO Anderson has illustrated, the solution is clear: we need to reroute and weigh both the direct and indirect costs of our actions.
That begs the question, what can we do NOW? To tie it all back to my green philosophy, education is just the first step. It is only a preliminary stage in the journey to a greener future, because it is not facts that motivate people: it’s emotion. Spreading the gospel of sustainability requires a lot more than shoving figures and hard evidence in people’s faces, we need to meet them where they are, and show them how everyone, whether they are cognizant of it or not, have a stake in the climate crisis. After all, to quote the fearless Greta Thunberg, our house is on fire, and we are, for better or for worse, all responsible for it. It cannot be the responsibility of just a select few, but we must all shoulder in part the burden of being “woke”. Thus, my best advice to all of you here today is to start that conversation. My policy is that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not digging deep enough. We simply cannot continue with “business as usual” in our own lives: climate change may not affect us personally in the short term, but if we do not act, we will miss our narrow window of opportunity to mitigate the immense risks. As people privileged enough to live in Canada and be sheltered from the first wave of climate devastation, we must leverage our economic and political power, especially for those who are most vulnerable all over the world.
In conclusion, I hope that my talk of “living lightly” has compelled you to do some self reflection today, as I know it has for me. It’s time we all take a long hard look at ourselves in our ecological mirrors, and really think about the legacy we will leave on this earth.”