Sustainability? What to do?

Photo by Erfan Mohseni

This is an article by the Green Office, written by Daniel MacRae and Hubert Matuszewski


You’ve done everything you can to be more environmentally friendly on a personal level. You avoid plastic, recycle, perhaps you changed your diet; everything short of learning how to photosynthesise. But have you considered broadening your impact beyond the four walls of your house?

Well, that can be a little tricky at times, and in this article, we'll discuss why that is.

A vital first step is to understand how your city contributes to combating climate change. In our case, we tried to figure out what Groningen is doing in terms of sustainability, what plans they have and how they are implementing them.

Last year, in Challenges of Modern Society 2, we were tasked with doing just that. Early on in this process, we decided that sustainability shouldn't be limited to merely environmental aspects, as is too commonly done. Instead, three pillars of 'sustainability' should be considered: social, economic and environmental. This is how we put it:

A framework for structuring economic growth so as to not compromise natural resources and their surrounding ecology, while augmenting the health and well-being of future generations.

With a focus on students and the idea of a ‘student city’, we researched and evaluated how well Groningen deals with its student population, and whether it can continue to do so in the near future. Ultimately, this culminated in a paper titled Is Groningen a Sustainable Student City? where we found that the city prides itself with its environmental proactiveness. We see this in existing infrastructure, such as public transport and the bike infestation, and in ambitious plans to switch to renewable forms of energy and become CO2-neutral by 2035.

However, we found that social and economic sustainability were slightly bigger problems, especially with students. Despite a quarter of residents being students, and the city advertising itself as an international student city, it appears as though universities and Gemeente aren’t on the same page when it comes to managing the ever-growing international student population. The biggest problems in this regard are the housing crisis and a lack of social integration. For the purpose of showing what hinders environmental activism beyond the individual level, we'll focus on the latter.

While students are generally regarded as the group that cares most about the environment, we found that they don't have ample opportunity to collaborate or engage with the Gemeente's climate change ambitions. Students seem to be perceived as 'consumers' who come to the city to study, pay their tuition fees, buy local groceries, dine in local restaurants, and then leave after a few years, rather than becoming a part of the local community.

An indicator of this is the way students are dispersed throughout the city. There are few neighbourhoods where students make up a high proportion of the population and others where there are few students. This clustering of students and non-students suggests an inability of students to integrate with the city's long-term residents. Interestingly, this clustering effect is also the case with minorities and non-Dutch residents, raising the question of whether a similar problem arises.

There is also an underrepresentation of international students and minorities in local politics, with almost all members of the Committee for Welfare and the Council for Social Employment and Minorities being Dutch. The language barrier also poses a significant challenge for internationals looking to get involved. In most cases, documentation is simply not available in English; in a self-proclaimed international city. While it is reasonable that simpler, one-page documents, such as your bank statements, are entirely in Dutch (google translate is a pain, yes, but we live in the Netherlands at the end of the day); hardly any student can be expected to achieve sufficient fluency to read formal governmental documents. They have their entire university and part-time labour workload to manage anyway; having no compensation or incentive to learn Dutch, even an intermediate level, is a burden upon both the students and the government.

Given the inability to integrate, the language barrier and political underrepresentation, it's clear that there are certain obstacles to having your voice on environmental and sustainability issues heard outside of your home. It's difficult for you, as a student, to communicate these among your Dutch neighbours, and to have your concerns addressed by the Gemeente. In a later article, we'll show an example from the "Groenplan", and how its authors responded to us.

We wish to go into depth about how we can implement sustainability measures on a broader basis, outside of buying local food, sorting your waste and being "green" in general (whatever being "green" means). However, we must warn you that you're going to face difficulties in going beyond your own habits. As with any such issue, voicing your concerns and spreading the word is always a good step; the larger the movement, the less ignorable it is. We still urge you to try to contact the Gemeente or any other relevant authority if you have any sustainability concerns, no matter how disappointing the result. Don't be deterred, gather strength in numbers, and talk to people about it. Sustainability isn't achieved with the click of a button.

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