Re-imagining a different kind of future

Grass Routes festival aims to address environmental sustainability

Campus Sustainability Director Alana Lajoie-O’Malley has got the whole world in her hands.

Daniel Crump

Does the term sustainability become watered-down in meaning as it gets employed more and more frequently? Does it mean the same thing for everyone that we can talk about it as something part of the common good? And what is the relationship between sustainability (as in perpetual survival of life on this planet) and decolonization – in what ways must one occur for the other to be possible?  

Grass Routes, the annual University of Winnipeg sustainability festival (November 12-15), seeks to start conversations about these topics and explore aspects of sustainability through three different forms: ideas, skills and art. 

“It’s really to sort of try to have a campus-wide conversation,” says Alana Lajoie-O’Malley, Director of the Campus Sustainability Office. “One of the reasons I get so excited about Grass Routes is it really gets at some of the bigger picture reasons that universities are here, which is to have these difficult conversations and have them in creative ways.”

The guiding theme this year is ‘Living on (Un)Settled Land’, and though the event has seen a change in its timing, the format of organizing activities around the theme into the three categories remains.  

“We’re [a university], so we want to have lectures and interesting conversations about whatever the theme for the year is,” Lajoie-O’Malley explains. “That means developing hands-on abilities among students and community and staff that might contribute to re-imagining a different kind of future; and art, sort of always including some kind of creative component where we’re encouraging people to express themselves.”

The four-day event is packed full of such activities as DIY workshops, panel discussions, a photo contest and film screenings. Together, these free events aim to appeal to a wide range of people, including community members as well as students on campus.

One session, the ‘Urban-Geo Workshop’, asks whether a just city is possible. Facilitator Karina Cardona believes that an inclusive dialogue helps people to understand each other’s different perspectives on how we imagine our roles and participation in our urban space.

“In this particular workshop what I would like to do is to be able to talk about where we’re coming from when it comes to sustainability,” Cardona describes, “and talk about ideas of spatial justice, [which] talks about the fact that not everybody has the same kind of access to participation in society, in the city.”

It can be problematic for people to discuss sweeping generalizations about what our individual responsibilities should be in working towards sustainable communities. Recognizing that, Cardona sees a need for increased shared understanding between community members.

“[A]s a critical cultural geographer, the thing that concerns me about that is that we’re treating everybody like they’re coming from the same place to make the same decision, and that’s not the case,” she says. “And when we talk about civic policy and sustainability, I don’t think that we can say that what applies to one neighborhood applies to another, in the same way.”

Many popular suggestions for reducing impacts on our environment can be easily achieved by some demographics while they’re impossible for others, such as buying organic produce, which goes a long way toward reducing impacts on our environment but can be costly.

Cardona believes the best chance to dream up possible solutions for a sustainable future may lie within our imagination.

“Sometimes there’s too much telling of what things should be like, and not enough exploring of what things could be like,” she admits.  

“There are no consequences to imagining.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 6, 2013)

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