I get requests to talk about The White Coffin a lot. Often it is a student doing an assignment who wants to interview me. I get tired of the same old question so I point to the document on the website. And I ask them to tell me what questions they have. Usually, I will tell them I am bored with the same old questions but if they have some questions or issue which is stimulating, I will meet to chat with them.
Occassionally, I will get a request from the reporters of Berita Kampus, the campus newspaper, for an interview. Invariably, this will come when an intrepid reporter is trying to follow up on a story about some culprit breaking the embargo on use of polystyrene containers in a university event. The most recent one was an activity that was (allegedly) organised by the School of Art at the Permatang Pelajar outside the Dewan Budaya. I was also told by students that this university policy was breached at the School of Pharmacy recently. Typically, the issue raised is the (in)effectiveness of enforcement on campus.
In the last year or so, I would just ignore even such a request from Berita Kampus. In the first instance, I'm not the right person to give an official response. It should come from the Sustainability Officer at the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies (CGSS). But last week, I had an agenda. I wanted to see if I could move the Berita Kampus into bigger things. So, I agreed to see them and I ended up spending more than one and a half hours chatting with two of them.
The first thing I ask is, if you go to any of the canteens in campus, will you see polystyrene containers? They will all shake their heads. Come to the USM main campus anytime you choose, I can guarantee you (99.9%) that you will not see polystyrene used by any of the operators. I cannot vouch for the other three campuses because I have not been there for a long time.
The question is, when do you find polystyrene on campus? This happens, often, when students and staff buy food outside and bring them into campus in polystyrene containers. So, the follow-up question I ask is "do you want to see the security guard at the gate checking every bag that comes in to campus?". Almost without exception, the answer is no.
What about the breach by the schools and departments organising "makan-makan" events? It is unacceptable. But again, do we want to set up a "policing" squad to ensure compliance? Right now, some bosses turn a blind eye. It is not a top priority. Their focus is on KPI. Sustainability indices is still not in the KPI. When it is, the bosses will pay attention. Of course, one of the agenda for CGSS is to make clear policies and then audit the schools and departments to see if they are working "sustainably".
But I am not totally convinced that having a set of KPI followed by audit will lead us to sustainability. The big question we should ask is "what are we supposed to measure?" and following that, are we using the correct or right instrument to measure. Perhaps, more fundamentally, do we have to measure? When will we know we have reached sustainability? In fact, is sustainability measurable? Which instigated one of the reporters to ask whether sustainability is a myth? I replied no - but you have to come see me if you want the long story.
I threw a challenge to Berita Kampus to take their sustainability reporting to a higher, intellectual, level. To talk about ideas. Big ideas. Understand the philosophy behind The White Coffin. The White Coffin is not about getting rid of polystyrene containers per se - that is old news. We should work to create new news. The White Coffin is our flagship project for environmental activism. Understand that, and we can move forward.
I suggested various things. One of it is, could we have like a regular, perhaps monthly or semester, reports by student groups evaluating how "green" the schools are? And these become a regular feature in the BK. At the end of the year, we have a students' assessment of the greenest of the schools and departments.