Charles Menzies: The environmental impacts of the perpetual growth of UBC

Over the course of my term as a governor on UBC's board I have heard a lot of presentations about growth: academic growth, endowment growth, student enrolment growth, reputational growth and on it goes. I can't say I am surprised, but what was once opinion is now an observed fact: growth in various 'metrics' is a core feature of governance discourse and the operation of UBC. The cultural frame of our day pervades discussions in such a fine grained way that it may well be difficult for governors and administrators to escape the discourse of perpetual growth.

During the September meeting of UBC's Board of Governors there were three public presentations highlighting growth of UBC's Okanagan campus. We learned about the campus' "robust growth in students, faculty, staff, and research funding, within the context of surrounding communities also undergoing a period of significant development and change." We further learned about the "significant potential for innovation. ... [and] thoughtful way[s] that advance implementation of the strategic plan." This is simply one case among many and is highlighted here for no other reason than it was the primary work of the formal meeting. One could review the meeting documents of the past two years and, without much effort, find similar discourse.

The reports and formal discussions are filled with terms that resonate with the grand modernist project of late capitalism. There are four key terms. Growth, a natural, inevitable process of expansion that indicates success. Innovation, to turn 'knowledge' into 'value' (usually dollar value). Advance, to add (often through innovation) to a body of practice or reputation that indicates success. Development, an idea of improvement and expansion typically linked to physical plant, but may also include knowledge and innovation. Change, in this rendering change implies both development and advancement moving in a forward direction; change is positively valued and tied to notions of inevitable growth.

After careful observation, detailed reading of the board meeting packages, and close listening to what is said during meetings these are the operational definitions used in our university's governance. This kind of language naturalizes growth in a way that renders solutions not premised on growth impossible to execute, unreasonable, impractical, or even against the university's own best interest.

It would seem reasonable that even an institution that benefits from capitalism might at least consider managing its growth more expeditiously in order to reduce its negative impact on our shared ecological future. But even here it seems hard for the governance structure to pay any serious attention to the idea of managing without growth. I can personally attest to the bemused responses from developers, planners, administrators and other governors to the very idea it might be reasonable to throttle down on UBC's unrelenting growth. When ideas run against naturalized perceptions and beliefs it is rather difficult for adherents to take such ideas seriously.

The hard fact of the matter is that with each project, each modest moment of growth, each tiny expansion we are pushing ourselves that much closer to the ecological brink. With each capital approval we pass at the board, with each new project or program we agree to, with each new digital infrastructure we support, with each small incremental increase in enrolment, we are adding to the ecological harm inflicted on our world and locking in a future none of us on the board or senior management would ever wish to live in personally. Yet we continue with impunity.

Oceans are warming. Weather patterns are changing. Sea levels are rising. The time to act slowly has passed. It is time for real action; an end to the status quo. We need to make amends for the way we have ransomed the future of our children and our children's children for our own immediate gratification.

Part of doing things differently requires rethinking growth. As we do that we can make some intermediate changes that place a hold on growth right now. Long term changes would reorient the university away from the concept of perpetual growth toward one of equilibrium with our social-ecological world. UBC has a place to play, not in climbing global rankings, but in leading real change that ensures a thriving, ecologically sound future for all.

Charles Menzies is a professor of anthropology and an elected member of the UBC Board. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UBC or the Board of Governors.