Making space for Utopia

In an inspiring tale of grassroots activism, Dr Millie Rooney, coordinator of the Sustainability Integration Program for Students at UTas, relates how mentoring students to fight for the world they want helped them access their “power to persuade” to achieve policy change at their university.


I coordinate the Sustainability Integration Program for Students at the University of Tasmania. My job is to link students with what they are learning in their degrees, with sustainability outcomes for the university. I have one foot in the door of academic and one foot in the world of program and policy development. This means watching first-hand the need to inject hope into not only what we teach but the places in which we are doing the teaching.

In our ivory towers we bandy about policy ideas, political ideals, and talk smugly over coffee about the “devastating” impacts of the current global political/environmental climate. 

Most of us go into policy or research work with the aim of changing the world for the better and we cope with the enormity of the challenge, I think, by sometimes retreating into smug gasping about how terrible dreadful things are while taking comfort from the fact that life for us isn’t actually so bad.

I work with a lot of young people passionate about social and environmental justice. I run an internship program as part of the sustainability team at the University of Tasmania and I spend a lot of time drinking coffee at the campus food coop. Often my job is to help students to tap into their passion for environmental change, gain real world experience in a workplace, and ideally make changes to how the university operates.

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What I am discovering is that amongst the enthusiasm, passion and babble of optimism is a deep despair. A despair about the state of the environment and a real fear for what will happen to the planet in their lifetimes. And as if that is not enough I see despair and fear about job prospects, secure housing and general rage that no one really cares. They’re staring down the barrel of a world of climate disaster, food insecurity and the mortification of literally having to serve those most responsible for the destruction of a safe and secure future their morning coffees* (while being paid barely enough to keep a roof over their heads).

In the environment and social justice sectors we seem to be good at fighting against things. We’re good at knowing what we don’t want and making that loud and clear. Sometimes knowing what you don’t want is important, but I think we’re failing ourselves and those following in our footsteps by not providing discussion spaces for the future we want to move into.

In the university context it is easy to be critical. After all that’s what we’re trained in, to learn to critique, to pull apart and to deconstruct. This is an important and valuable skill in a world of fake news and loss of faith in the expert. Yet I worry that we’re also not teaching students to dream, to build, to construct before, after and alongside the deconstruction and critique. (Others such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Rutger Bregman write extensively about the importance of knowing not just what we don’t want, but what we do).


So I’ve been applying a different approach to the way I work with students. I’ve been trying to not only to encourage critique, but to expect also expect visionary thinking, to put utopia back on the agenda, a part of the very air that we breathe. And the process has had surprising results.

In 2016 students requested that the university divest from fossil fuels. As the university resisted the students stepped up their campaign, occupying the chancellery, dropping banners, sneaking into alumni events. Against much resistance from upper management they eventually reached an agreement: the university would not immediately divest but in the interim would become certified carbon neutral.

Unfortunately by mid-2017 there was no sign of any movement towards carbon neutrality.

That’s when Rachel stepped in. Rachel worked with me as a student intern, clever, social and willing to ask questions she wasn’t afraid to take her work seriously. She really wanted to push the university to hold up their end of the carbon neutral bargain. Having seen what had happened with the more adversarial tactics of the divestment group, we tried to think of a different approach: what if the students came out strongly FOR something, as a collective of diverse voices, rather than AGAINST something.

So Rachel got to work. Firstly she contacted the student clubs and societies and invited them to a networking event. Then she asked each group to write a brief statement about why sustainability was important and relevant to them. From this she wrote a vision to present to the Vice Chancellor, a vision that situated both solar panels and students productively basking in the sunshine, a vision that opened opportunities for doing the right thing.

The students held a market day of sustainability related groups, building up visibility and possibility before inviting the Vice Chancellor to a Carbon Neutral evening.

At the Carbon Neutral event every club and society read their short statement, Doctors for the Environment presented a petition, an international student spoke about climate related flooding in his home town and Rachel read out the vision for a sustainable university.

To the Vice Chancellor’s surprise the groups present represented probably thousands of students and the lecture theatre was packed full of young energetic goodwill (although the despair fuelling the anger was there, hidden beneath a strategic hope).

The next day an announcement was made to go Certified Carbon Neutral.

The struggle for divestment is not over but Carbon Neutrality is a strong beginning. More importantly, the event was a success: a lecture theatre full of students believe that they can make a difference, not only to push back against things they don’t want but to fight for something they do want.


Fast forward six months and we’re seeing a much greater number of passionate and enthusiastic students who believe they can make a difference. I’ve got three interns this time working on engagement and they are shaping up to take on the establishment. When I suggest to them that they use a similar process to Rachel’s, they’re all over it. In fact they’re pushing it further, consulting less obvious groups and taking it as normal that fighting for something is just as important as fighting against something. They’re taking utopia and running with it.

So as we sit as experts in policy and research, smugly catastrophizing a future and tut-tutting over its horror as we do our best to manage our own deep fear and despair, I suggest we start to inject some hope. I’m not talking about Pollyanna-ing the situation, it’s far too serious for that, but I am talking about making hope a part of the air that we breathe, the context in which we push for change, research and make policy. Rather than being on the back foot, let’s go boldly forward and take those we mentor with us. Let’s take the time we feel we don’t have to actively ask about the future they want us to collectively have, let’s unleash some of the naivety of vision. Trust me, with our support, they’re more than ready for a better world.

Illustrations by Dr Millie Rooney

*This is not to dismiss the immense joy, pleasure and fulfilment many people get from working in hospitality. Rather work here becomes problematic when it is not by choice and is regarded as lowly and insignificant work.