Transition Universities: One thing leads to another

Environmental journalist, charity trustee and transitioner Gareth Simkins tells how the Going Greener: Transition Universities campaign kicked off.

It’s funny how the smallest things can have the most extraordinary consequences in life. It’s certainly been my experience even before I became involved with People & Planet. The same applies to how its campaigns to get our nation’s universities to pull their environmental socks up have developed.

I had considered myself an environmentalist ever since the late 1980s, when I was still in junior school, after seeing some cute baby fur seals being clubbed to death on the telly. The threat of climate change was also becoming known at the time. But other than a spot of organic gardening, I never really did much about the state of the world.

Joining People & Planet certainly solved that problem. Some of my greatest memories include halting arms maker BAE’s recruiting efforts at York, helping to stop a new shopping centre, and working to get the higher education staff pension scheme to adopt ethical investment. Oh, there’s also the minor matter of falling for my lovely wife Anna at People & Planet’s annual conference Shared Planet.

I got a lot done as student union environment officer – which I was persuaded to run for one boozy night in February 1999. After two years in the position, I had raised a huge amount of money by refurbishing and selling abandoned bicycles, got recycling properly integrated into campus waste management and helped found the university’s environmental performance working group. I also helped lay the groundwork for a student energy conservation initiative.

I was asked to write an environmental audit of the university after I graduated – which in turn led me to write my master’s dissertation on university environmental management, at UEA. At the same time, a regional rep told me that People & Planet was thinking of broadening its campaign for universities to run on renewable power. I ended up developing People & Planet’s original Go Green campaign, based on my research, in 2003.

I found that universities had to have top-level support, an environmental audit, environmental policy and full-time staff to have any real hope of long-term improvement in environmental performance. The combination was very rare at the time and performance was generally poor.

In large part due to the efforts of students, universities soon woke up and smelled the coffee. Go Green was so successful, it spawned Go Greener: Transition Universities – People & Planet’s own take on the vast and rapidly growing Transition Towns movement.

Transition Towns bring communities together to plan and implement their own responses to climate change and peak oil – the rapidly approaching point where global oil production will start its inevitable decline. Both mean changes to our generation’s carbon-hungry lifestyles are vital – whether it’s installing home insulation, growing food or just learning how to repair your clothes.

I’m part of the movement myself, in Wimbledon, and I also help to run Sustainable Merton, the charity that oversees the project and much more besides.

So, if you aren’t already a member up – think like Neo in the Matrix (the first one, not the rubbish sequels). The red pill could be your gateway to some great adventures.

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