When we think about sustainability, most people will think of it from an environmental perspective; but sustainability means a lot more than just protecting the planet. Sustainability as a whole relates to our capacity to maintain ourselves at a level that we’ve determined to be acceptable. Beyond the environment, it’s also imperative for us to maintain sustainable behaviour economically, socially, and mentally.
This fact has never been more apparent to me than during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequent lockdown into which Toronto has been submerged under for the past year. As a sustainability-minded engineering student, I’ve been a part of the Sustainable Engineers Association (SEA) for just about 4 years. The story of SEA during COVID has been unlike that of any previous year I’ve experienced, and likely mirrors the experience of other student clubs or design teams in the Skule™ community.
With over 40 members, SEA has always relied on in-person meetings to foster connections inside and between our various sub-teams. But with limitations on indoor gatherings rendering such meetings impossible, many of our members have been unable to meet their teammates. We’ve spent nearly a full school year trying to work, collaborate, and create with others whom we’ve only ever seen through a video screen. This hasn’t been great for intra-team relationships, and it’s made it that much more difficult for us to work together as a unit, rather than a group of individuals.
As anyone who’s tried to attend an event recently knows, one of COVID’s most significant impacts has been a universal switch to online everything. Many of SEA’s biggest events, like our Career Fair and Sustainability Conference, have central networking themes that were greatly hindered by a switch to online events. Compounding the difficulties in having to plan differently, we’ve also faced a concerning drop in attendance at many of our events, likely due to the inherent poorer quality that comes with rushing to adapt in-person events to an online format. On top of this, COVID has had a noticeable impact on the mental well-being of our members outside of their involvement with SEA. Being stuck indoors, away from friends and (in some cases) family, has made it harder to find the drive to put time and effort into an extracurricular club.
Yet amid all these negatives, I think it’s become more important than ever to not overlook the small positives that have managed to creep in. For SEA, the move to online events has allowed our events to reach a broader audience from other parts of the country and across the world. Our marketing efforts, which have always played an integral role in pushing awareness on what SEA does, has been largely unaffected by virtue of its online focus even in pre-COVID times. And in some cases, we’ve used our current situation to build entirely new initiatives that take advantage of COVID’s impact, rather than suffer from it.
At this point, I feel the need to stress that none of these problems or solutions are unique to SEA; every single student at UofT, whether involved in extracurriculars or not, has had to struggle with this same situation. In a weird way, it can sometimes seem like COVID might actually have brought us all a bit closer together, even if we’re only united in an uncertainty about the future.
One thing that I’ve come to realize watching SEA change as a result of COVID, is that people have a remarkable ability to adapt to the changing times, and take in stride the situation that the world presents. Change can be helpful; it can spur innovation and force us to try new things that we might otherwise have dismissed. So while I certainly don’t want to minimize the terrible loss of life that COVID has inflicted, I’m starting to believe more and more in the importance of recognizing the small goods that have arisen as well. Without the knowledge of how long it might be before our lives return to the pre-pandemic normal, focusing solely on the bads just doesn’t seem very sustainable.