To Satyam Kathpalia (21) and Julia Dalibor (25) at the UvA Green Office, sustainability isn't just about recycling more or eating less meat. 'There's nothing wrong with occasionally eating meat or flying as long as you're aware of the effect your decisions have. Sustainability is so important that it's vital we make it fun too!'
The UvA Green Office is a student organisation that seeks to boost sustainability at the UvA under the auspices of the Executive Staff & Facility Services. 'We want to be a platform for students and academics to come together to discuss and consider the issue of sustainability', say Satyam and Julia.
Both are drawing inspiration from abroad. Satyam told us about growing up in New Delhi, the capital of India and one of the most polluted cities in the world. 'I constantly had breathing difficulties and living there has probably reduced my life expectancy substantially. When I went back to India a couple of years ago to visit my parents, I saw that the beach in Mumbai was completely covered in rubbish and plastic. Upon my return, I felt like I had to do something, and a friend told me about the Green Office. This is now my second year in a row as a chairman.'
Julia, who hails from Berlin, went to South Africa during her gap year to teach people about sustainability and the environment. 'While I was there, I learned how to help children live more sustainable lives.' Julia eventually found out about the UvA Green Office via social media. 'It was fortunate that I saw something last year, as our visibility and social media presence were far less developed then. As the communications team leader, I am now focusing on increasing this visibility.'
Why is the UvA Green Office run by students?
'Sustainability is one of the responsibilities of the UvA's Facilities Services department', explains Satyam. 'Although a UvA-wide vision of sustainability is currently in development, there's no dedicated sustainability department at the UvA, or at least, not yet! For now, you could say that we are the UvA's unofficial sustainability department!'
'At the UvA Green Office, we want to bring together environmentally conscious students and staff to discuss and contemplate the issues of sustainability and the environment and consider how we can become a more sustainable university,' adds Julia.
So that's all you do, talk and think?
'Haha, no!', laughs Julia. 'We do much more than that. We arrange lectures and symposia on sustainability, we organise second-hand clothing markets and we publish The Green Guide, which helps people in Amsterdam make greener choices. And we do so many other things that we wouldn't have time to tell you about all of them!'
'The primary focus of everything we do is raising awareness', adds Satyam. 'Our goal is to emphasise the need for and the benefits of sustainability in order to encourage people to make greener choices, for example, by integrating the sustainability philosophy into education at the UvA.'
Tell us more...
'For example', says Satyam, 'our economics education is often based on the traditional profit model, while the sustainability philosophy always takes into account the effect that people have on the planet. We always hear much more about making profits than about the scarcity of our resources, and this has to change. A happy life is about much more than just your bank account. It's all about including people and planet in our considerations rather than just profit.'
'We have to find alternatives, as we simply can't keep exploiting our planet like this', says Julia. 'As Satyam said earlier, our main focus is raising awareness, and how better to raise awareness than via our education?'
How do you do this?
'We ask our members to look for popular subjects that are lacking in sustainability philosophy', says Satyam. 'We then talk with the programme director, the Programme Committee and the Faculty Student Council about how to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.'
'We've been doing this for a couple of years now', says Julia, 'but progress has been much slower than we'd hoped and unfortunately, Satyam and I will have left by the time the first results are implemented. It really is a long-term project.'
Is the UvA doing enough on sustainability?
'The UvA's decision-makers know exactly what the situation is', says Satyam, 'but the UvA is a large and often highly bureaucratic organisation, which makes quick changes extremely difficult. However, you sometimes have to take radical steps as sustainability is far more important than bureaucracy. As Julia already said, our progress has been slower than we'd hoped, and I think the Executive Board feels the same way.'
'The UvA has a good reputation', adds Julia, 'and it could use this reputation more to play a leading role in crucial social issues. Young UvA students are asking themselves what kind of a world they wish to live in, and what is important to students and staff should also be important to the UvA.'
How do you know that sustainability is important to students and staff?
'Students and staff are contacting us more and more with great ideas about sustainability at the university', says Julia. 'Ideas for the food in the canteen, the paper in the printers and the collection of electronic waste. Students and staff with bright ideas now know that they can come to us.'
How can new students and staff help the UvA Green Office?
'Students can pitch their own ideas or get involved by registering as members via the website', explains Julia. ‘Currently however we are not actively looking for new members, because we have no more places available. But when the registration period will re-open in the beginning of the new academic year we will be looking for people with a passion for sustainability.'
'Enthusiastic staffers with good ideas are also more than welcome', adds Satyam. 'The UvA Green Office works together with staff from several UvA-departments such as the Facility Services, ICTS and the Executive Staff. However, we remain a student organisation at heart and therefore don't refer to staff as Green Office members.'
How do you make sure that everyone's on board and that you're not just preaching to the choir?
'We have to keep talking to each other, searching for solutions together and not alienate people from our common goal', says Julia.
'Sustainability should never be about us against them', adds Satyam. 'Sustainability is about everyone and it affects everyone. We need absolutely everyone, including people who may be less sustainability-oriented!'
Finally, do you have a few good tips for us?
'Make sure you know what is effective!', says Satyam. 'You can recycle until the cows come home but if you also eat meat every night, you're cancelling out all of your good work.'
'And make sure it's fun!', adds Julia. 'For example, organise a clothes exchange with your friends. It's a fun and sociable way to help move towards a more sustainable world, and above all, it saves you money! Sustainability is so important that it's vital we make it fun too!'
'It's not about constantly making people feel guilty about the decisions they make. There's nothing wrong with occasionally eating meat or flying as long as you're aware of the effect your decisions have. As far as we're concerned, that's what makes the biggest difference.'