Walsh: The green flame

The Olympics, once representative of all that we as a species can achieve, has given way to a yet grander symbol: all that we as a planet can achieve.

Chapter two, section two, bylaw 13 of the Olympic Charter instructs the International Olympic Committee “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly.” Inserted 16 years ago by the Centennial Olympic Congress, such vague and limp language long inspired predictably vague and limp action. But changing times have created new response to this bylaw.

Yesterday, with great pomp, Vancouver received the torch. For seven years — ever since winning the bid — the Vancouver Olympic Committee has worked to cover a laundry list of sustainability initiatives. It has, among other things, restored an industrial brownfield, focused efforts to encourage the use of public transportation, installed rainwater catchment systems, constructed timber roofs from pine-beetle ravaged forests and piloted a program that will transform its Olympic village into a LEED-certified neighborhood.

All of these efforts fit within VANOC’s definition of sustainability, a definition so maddeningly broad as to be essentially useless: “managing the environmental, social, and economic impacts and opportunities of our Games to produce lasting benefits, locally and globally.”

Over half the words in this definition are themselves difficult to define: managing, environmental, social, economic, impacts, opportunities, produce, benefits, locally, globally. Definitions of sustainability tend this way; the broadness is almost unavoidable. And such a catchall leaves plenty of room for criticism.

And there has rightfully been some criticism. Renovating four-lane Sea To Sky Highway makes little sense in the context of sustainability. The development of new waterfront housing for the Olympic Village, once touted as both green and affordable, is becoming just green. New ski villages augment energy expenditures and destroy natural habitats. The somewhat dubious translation of carbon offsets to carbon neutrality remains contentious. And the list goes on.

But these debates over sustainability, while important, tend to be myopic. Two of VANOC’s initiatives deserve laudation: first, undertaking expansive efforts to fold social and economic sustainability into the basic framework of development. Second, pushing hard to advance the sustainability dialog on a globally significant platform.

VANOC has worked to bridge a number of divides. For example, it has established and maintained a carpentry shop for at-risk, often homeless, populations, where basic woodwork is paired with education towards a carpentry certification. It has partnered with artists and leaders of four First Nations groups on whose traditional territories the Games are taking place. Through this agreement, leaders are involved in talks about development and artists are tapped to provide indigenous merchandise both related and unrelated to the Olympics. And finally, titled The Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, VANOC is the first to incorporate the Paralympic Games into the organizational title. While perhaps minor victories, these are important attempts to deepen our understanding and implementation of sustainable thinking.

VANOC has also used the Olympic platform as an opportunity to engage an unusually diverse audience with the relevance of sustainability. This publicity is critical to increasing and advancing global dialog. It spurred a 2005 meeting on sustainability between Vancouver and London, host of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Both cities agreed to collaborate on sustainability challenges — a first ever in Olympic history. At a time when politics has failed, these efforts are making progress, however slight and slow.

Lief Linden FES ’10 SOM ’10 who worked with VANOC last summer, notes that, “Sustainability is better defined a process — not an end goal — and in this respect Vancouver made significant steps.” The Olympic Games won’t solve the immense challenges of sustainability, and VANOC doesn’t always act in everybody’s best interest, but it is worth recognizing the bar that Vancouver has set. We should support what works and look forward with the expectation that London 2012, already deeply focused on similar issues, will stand taller on the podium.

Dylan Walsh is a first-year student at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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