I asked some Trinity students to fill out a survey on whom they believe has a significant negative impact on the environment – the individual, corporations, or the government. 70% of the students blamed major corporations. Overwhelmingly, students feel that the responsibility of stopping climate change does not fall on the individual. However, it is important to recognise that individuals all have an impact on the choices made by corporations and the government.
Speaking to students involved in environmentally conscious organisations and societies throughout Trinity about how much an individual can realistically impact on the environment reflected very similar perspectives. When asked about the significance of individual action, Aine O’Gorman, a final year Economics and Sociology student and campaign organiser for Fossil Free TCD, argued that individual actions are important for what they mean to those around you. O’Gorman stated that, “you having your water bottle, me having my water bottle, us all having our keepcups, it sends a signal that says: ‘I know that this is something good that I should be doing’”. However, she also pointed out that these things actions potentially can distract from the bigger picture. O’Gorman explained, for instance, that “we should be turning the lights off when they are not in use but if you leave the lights on for too long, it is still not the individual’s fault that the electricity being used is coming from fossil fuels and that’s where the focus should be – on changing the system”. She highlighted that the bigger picture can be muddled by the emphasis of small and, more or less, obsolete actions.
“According to the Trinity survey, 50% of students report supporting sustainable clothing some of the time, while 22% of students report always doing this.”
As for the actions of the individual, Hannah Charlton, a first year social work student and a student environmental activist who has previously worked with ECO-UNESCO, pointed out that “individual consumer choices are incredibly important. The only way you can activate some corporations to change is from grassroots activism – refusal, boycotting, and protesting the government.” Positive consumer choices can be as small as purchasing sustainable clothing, i.e. clothing from charity shops, sustainable organisations, or trading second-hand clothes. According to the Trinity survey, 50% of students report supporting sustainable clothing some of the time, while 22% of students report always doing this. That said, Izzy Jorgensen, a fourth year Environmental Science student and this year’s EnviroSoc Chair, pointed out that “corporations are a product of our decisions”, and “if you have the agency to do something, you should be doing it”. However, she also noted that “an individual can only limit their consumption in certain ways, so it is ultimately up to corporations to make better choices in terms of the products that they’re selling”. With that being said, Trinity student Katie Lynch also highlighted the ways in which companies use the good intentions of consumers against them, as she highlighted that “lots of companies try to commercialise on what they see as a trend towards environmentalism, so we have to learn to spot the difference between a good investment and a scam. I think it’s important to take ‘eco’ products with a pinch of salt and do some research before making a purchase.”
In terms of Trinity, the current environmental efforts seen by students are considered adequate but slow moving, with significant room for improvement. In 2016, Trinity divested from fossil fuels, which is arguably the most significant step the College has taken in the past few years. Since then, a sustainability committee has been formed, consisting of a panel of students and staff which address sustainability concerns here at Trinity. Conversations held by the sustainability committee address issues, including where the energy used in College comes from and how to power such large, old buildings, as panellists consider questions such as the feasibility of environmentally friendly actions like putting solar panels on the GMB.
“She highlights the Intimacy exhibition at the Science Gallery as a successful initiative due to the free publicity provided with the “touch me” stickers plastered around campus.”
Students involved in environmental initiatives across campus such as O’Gorman, Jorgensen, Lynch, and Charlton, feel as though Trinity is not communicating with the general student population in a way that keeps students informed and encouraged to engage with the environmental issues here at College.At the moment, Trinity has put all of the information regarding their environmental efforts on a webpage called the “GreenPages”. Despite the accessibility provided by digitising the information about College’s environmental efforts, O’Gorman points out that this information needs to be “super graphic, super public, super obvious” for students to actually acknowledge it. She highlights the Intimacy exhibition at the Science Gallery as a successful initiative due to the free publicity provided with the “touch me” stickers plastered around campus. Jorgensen agreed with the issue of Trinity’s communication, pointing out that most students do not know of the work of Trinity’s Sustainability Committee. According to Jorgensen: “They’re not confidential conversations, they just have no way of being circulated. I know the sustainability advisor really well, and I think she does a really good job, but I also think that her engagement with students could be more tailored towards what we’re actually using as a platform.” If Trinity students do happen to find themselves looking at the GreenPages, they will find that “communication, student involvement and transparency” is listed as one of Trinity’s primary initiatives. Under this initiative, Trinity lists their objectives, including those such as to “increase the number of green events on campus”, “increase the number of societies with Green Element”, “meet all requests for access to information on the environment”, “report on all environmental aspects”, and finally “increase the use of TCD Green Pages website”. Where these “active avenues of communication” fail is understanding how students best receive this type of information. Jorgensen points out that “a lot of the stuff happening on campus gets washed out, obscured, or you have to read it in the sustainability report”, an annual report on the state of sustainability in College. Jorgensen states that “the sustainability report doesn’t cut it. There should be a constant update on what’s going on here on campus.”
In addition to poor communication, the issue of how resources are being directed here at Trinity is one that students brought up as well, with O’Gorman stating: “Michele Hallahan, the Sustainability Officer, was thrown into this situation where she was told to change everything and I think she only has a part-time role. That is a lot of work.” Jorgensen pointed out that even with 14 committee members, EnviroSoc is still not able to respond to all of the students that reach out to them. Even then, out of all the students engaging with EnviroSoc, there are many more that are interested but do not follow through. Charlton highlighted that there are “people [who] feel like they are not knowledgeable enough to engage, that they cannot engage, that someone is smarter and better than them”.
Although a degree of environmental responsibility does rest on the individual, it is clear that many students across campus believe that the issue is much larger than ourselves. While keepcups, reusable water bottles, and recycling are all important efforts, it is imperative that Trinity maintains an open and relevant line of communication with the student body, encouraging students to get involved while also taking initiative as a large institution to change for the better. While climate change is irrefutably a “race we must win,” it is one that absolutely requires the support of the government and corporations.