Worst of times or best of times? You decide.

This post was written by Kashmir Kaur, lecturer in EAP at the University of Leeds and Staff Sustainability Architect for the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies.

Bastardising Dickens, I’ve been deliberating, these last few months, if we are in the best of times, worst of times, age of wisdom, age of foolishness, epoch of belief, epoch of incredulity, season of light, season of darkness, spring of hope, winter of despair, we have everything before us or nothing before us…

It is indeed a strange and surreal time that we are inhabiting at this moment. The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ period has given rise to contemplation, reflection and conjecture. This enforced hibernation has afforded us the luxury to ruminate, deliberate and ponder to rethink, reconsider and re-evaluate what is important and necessary to live a life that is meaningful.

The external world events coupled with the internal events of the domestic sphere has resulted in me waking up each morning with a heightened sense of anxiety and wondering how on earth I’m going to get through another day. I have to admit ‘waking up’ is a misnomer as these days I am finding it increasingly difficult to sleep. My dearest mum died suddenly of glioblastoma – from diagnosis to death was barely four weeks. It all happened so very quickly. It is still hard to process and accept. A huge loss. There is so much loss, grief, sadness and pain and felt more keenly during this pandemic.

My mother’s influence touched and impacted many lives. Not only as a parent but also as someone who was passionate about nature and the environment. Living life in a sustainable way was the mantra my parents ingrained into us at a very early age, a time when the word ‘sustainability’ was not ubiquitous. Growing up, my siblings and I were regularly taken to task for misdemeanours such as running the water too long or leaving the lights on or throwing something out that still had potential for further use or not finishing everything on our dinner plate that we had so very enthusiastically piled. In fact, to our (and the neighbours’) horror my parents metamorphosed the lawn in the large south facing back garden (where we had whiled away many happy hours playing) into a vegetable plot and subsequently we were conscripted as reluctant labour. However, very soon their joy in nurturing home-grown produce seeped out of our DNA too and started my lifelong love affair with the concept of sustainability.

Over time my understanding of sustainability widened and via the University’s Green Impact initiative, I attempted to inculcate it into the work environment by inviting colleagues and students to bring their good sustainable habits in the home and continue them in the workplace. This was an interesting time as I was assailed with varying reactions. Some colleagues were enthused, some non-committal and one or two, shall we say, deemed it patronising. However, the students on the Pathway Course were very much engaged and resulted in them researching, producing and editing a ‘virtual’ Green Impact magazine, which was well received and heralded a critical success. I particularly found it rewarding to observe the seed of ‘sustainability’ nurture within the students for whom it was an alien concept. A year or so later, I received an email from the study abroad Korean student who was inspired to conduct a similar piece of research and produce a magazine in the same vein as the Green Impact magazine as part of her studies.

My passion for sustainability morphed into the Language in Context Sustainability module, which I’ve delivered in the second term for the last four years. One of the reasons for its success is that it has always been aligned to the ‘real’ world in an authentic way. I ensured the cross-discipline students were able to relate the concept of sustainability to their various disciplines and future studies as well as to their daily lives. I was also keen for the students to work in their ‘flow zone’ integrated with Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development to enable the ‘zone of proximal flow’ to produce something that challenged them and took them out of their comfort zone. For example, last year the students were given the opportunity to think outside the box and allow their creative juices to flow to produce something that would promote and engage students and colleagues with the University’s #2023 Plastic Free Campaign.

I thought the students would be super excited about the task that had a tangible creative outcome. However, I had misjudged their response as several of the students claimed they were not creative and did not know where to start. Fortunately, I had a trick up my sleeve, thanks to Dan Trowsdale’s (School of Mechanical Engineering) inspiring Lego workshop. I was able to use Lego as a vehicle to awaken students’ creativity which resulted in the cross-discipline groups producing different pieces of ‘art’ and an ‘art installation’ by repurposing single use plastic and plastic bottles found in the University’s recycling bins. One of the pieces, the ‘Sustainable Tree’, is on a grand tour of the University campus and is currently exhibited in a prime location in the Edward Boyle Library.

This year, the students rose to the challenge of presenting at the University’s 2020 Sustainability Conference. The group’s abstract was accepted and they presented a poster and a PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Our Journey to Sustainability’. The students relished the opportunity to present in a ‘real’ University wide student research conference and were excited to receive a special commendation from the Sustainability Conference Organisers for

the presentation [that] was engaging and honest, explaining how they had learnt about sustainability within both a local and global context, applying this to the University of Leeds Sustainability Strategy. They discussed how they will now apply this knowledge to both their professional and personal lives. It was fantastic to learn about the journey the students had taken, with their delivery being confident and detailed, which was especially impressive as English is not their first language. Congratulations to all those students involved.

The government-imposed isolation has no doubt led to much soul searching and self-interrogation. Should something concrete not come out of this navel-gazing? The brutal Covid-19 pandemic, in tandem with contemporary events, has created a perfect storm to rethink and reshape our world.

The current zeitgeist (Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Extinction Rebellion, Decolonising the Curriculum) compels that we inculcate sustainability into the curriculum and reconsider what we teach and how we teach it. As eloquently reminded by Bernardine Evaristo, the 2019 joint Booker Prize winner, the Black Lives Matters slogan “your silence is compliance” is telling. It doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals do not care but just don’t care enough until it affects them directly. I posit not having a sustainable outlook in all its aspects – economic, social and environment – is seriously detrimental and directly affects us all. There is a chink of light, a moment of genuine enlightenment for reviewing how we present our values and the positive impact this could have on the wider world. Should we not lead the charge? Should we not drop the laissez-faire attitude? Should we not commit to sustainability?

Life has dark notes, light notes and shades in between. It is a strange and difficult time to live through currently and developing resilience is a necessity. I’m nailing my colours to the mast and I assert seismic change is on the horizon as the prevailing zeitgeist indicates, it could be the best of times where we have everything before us…so let’s start the ‘sustainability’ conversation to participate actively and follow-up with an action plan and steps to become more sustainable in all our aspects – all voices welcome regardless of role or context. Change is possible.