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He Tāngata

UWCSEA East is one of the most sustainable buildings in Singapore, but is it enough?

By Medina Ayasha Nordiawan - 10 FIB

“He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

In the middle of the whirlwind of busy lives in Singapore, standing on the East Region is UWCSEA East Campus –– massive, home to 2,557 students, and surprisingly, with an outstanding level of environmental sustainability.

It’s hard to be sustainable in Singapore. Yet, it’s not very well known that the campus is designed specifically with environmental sustainability in mind. Of course, from an outsider’s perspective, they can see the solar panels lined up neatly on the roof, helping to reduce the energy the school uses to accommodate its size. They will see the gardens when walking through the sky bridge, and the composting program on the first level. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

When you look a little deeper, you will discover that our vast field is made of recycled materials, and under that is an immense space for rainwater collection and storage, where it is then used to water our plants. Walking up the stairs from block to block, you will feel under your fingertips the railings that are all made of recycled materials. Entering the classrooms, you will walk into the relief of a cool breeze from the extremely low-energy fans and energy-efficient air conditioners, just enough to fight off Singapore’s heat.

“Our approach to sustainability is well-being within the means of nature,” Claire Psillides, UWCSEA’s Head of Environmental and Sustainability stated. “Sustainability is embedded in the curriculum at all grade levels, teachers are trained in the sustainability compass.” These values and love for the planet have been rooted in the learning of students at every level, shaping a community that is educated and sustainably aware.

Despite the extraordinary growth towards a more sustainable future, the urgency of climate change raises a question: are we, as a community, doing enough? In the middle of a race with time, shouldn’t we be doing more?

Sometimes it’s the little things with the biggest impact –– the polyester container from the hawkers sitting at the corner of the basketball field, or the guilty GrabFood coming into school during lunchtime. It’s the whispered hush of complaints on Wednesdays when there’s no meat in the campus canteen. We can’t yet talk about carbon footprints from flights when we still fail to make sustainable, responsible choices.

It’s not easy. Even as we try to raise as much awareness as possible about the environment in the school, it’s effortless for people to brush it off in the middle of other calls to action happening all around them. Even as we’re approaching 1.5ºC of global warming and sea levels rising with the possibility of us losing biodiversity and all our resources, the bells still don’t seem to be ringing loud enough.

“We talk about sustainability a lot in class, even in English or Math,” Oscar Landgren, a Grade 11 student, testified. “But for some people, they know about it, but maybe they just don’t feel like it’s urgent enough. Maybe they don’t feel like it’s as immediate as other issues such as refugees and human rights.”

That is not to say that progress has not been made in the past years. In the boarding house alone, plastic has reduced significantly. More people are taking public transport, and deliveries are down by three times compared to the past 2 years. Some of the strongest environmental initiatives, such as Solar for East and Veggie Wednesday, were started by students and continue to be student-led, leading the sustainability scale of the school. People are having conversations about how they can make a less harmful impact on the planet, from K1 students to Grade 12. With the very strong concentration of the students who are very much aware of the climate urgency, the sustainability of the school is being kept alive and strong. If all 2,557 of us can come together, our actions would certainly be more than a drop in the ocean.

The action of the people in the community is the most important part of it all, because just having a building that is built on a base of environmental care, awareness, and sustainability, will never be enough.

It is, after all, the people who matter.

It is the students coming to school with public transport every day. It is the Sodexo staff having meetings on how they can make their service more sustainable, constantly innovating more and more ways to make it eco-friendly. It is the conscious choice of eating plant-based food for lunch instead of beef or not ordering food deliveries. It is the people who take 5 minutes of their week to go to the composting centre. It is the ideas being put on the table during student-led meetings, trying to think of other ways to live more sustainably.

“I’d like to see more and more students pushing other students for change,” Rob Storey, a boarding houseparent, expressed. In the end, it is the youth on the campus who drive the environmental and sustainability aspects of the school. The same with how the climate is going to affect our future the most, it is also us who have to work hand in hand to open each other’s eyes, minds, and hearts.

“One simple thing can really shift our thinking,” Ms Psillides solemnly said. “It is our responsibility, as educated and sustainably aware people, to care for our people and the planet.”

So of course, we can continue building sustainable buildings, installing solar panels, and using recycled materials for our houses. We will continue to stand up for what we’re standing on by continuously making creative, innovative decisions without compromising our planet.

But we must remember to go back to the most significant piece of all this; what is the most important thing in the world?

It is people, it is people, it is people.

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