Earth Day takes place on April 22, marking 45 years of efforts to get people talking about what they can do to protect the environment.
In this Q&A, John Robinson, UBC associate provost of sustainability, discusses the impact of Earth Day, highlights UBC’s sustainability strategy and explains why guilt tripping isn’t effective in changing behaviour.
Note: the UBC Botanical Garden is offering a special Earth Day tour on April 22, exploring climate change in the Pacific Northwest. The tour takes place from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information, please visit here.
Is Earth Day a help or hindrance when it comes to greater environmental awareness?
I think Earth Day is definitely a help in the sense that it’s an occasion to reflect. Our goal, however, is to get to a point where we don’t need special occasions. It’s like the parental response to children about why there isn’t a “Children’s Day.” Every day is Children’s Day, as the standard response goes.
That’s where we want to get to – but in the meantime, Earth Day helps increase awareness of our impact on the environment.
You’ve say you’re not a fan of guilt tripping people into changing their behavior. Why?
When you’re guilt tripped, it often leads to denial or apathy – and neither of those is a good basis for action. Denial means that you resist the whole message. A lot of climate change skepticism is of that nature – people feel beaten over the head with this stick of bad behaviour. And so they just deny that anything is happening.
Or they throw up their hands and say this is intractable – “what can I do, as a single individual, about this global problem?”
People are more likely to act if they’re given an opportunity to contribute and create positive outcomes, rather than if they’re simply told that they’re evil for driving their SUV to work.
Sustainability implies a big enough change that we have to engage everybody. If we start with an unengaging message, we’re tying our hands behind our back. Let’s find a way to express things in terms of positive outcomes, in terms of contributing to something – rather than blaming.
Moreover, when we guilt trip, we’re putting the whole burden on the shoulders of individual behavior. In fact, a lot of times it’s big, collective decisions that are crucial – things like urban form, density, land use, transportation infrastructure, energy and water systems. No individual makes these decisions, and yet they very much constrain our behavior. We also need to address these collective issues.
Earth Day engages people around the world. You also stress the need to address issues and work with communities beyond academia. Why?
More and more, it’s recognized at universities that community service learning is an important part of the curriculum. We need to build in those kinds of experiences for our students – get them outside academia and working in the community. That’s something that’s increasingly part of the curriculum at UBC.
We’ve got to change not just universities, but the world. Universities have a really important role they can play as a testbed for sustainability activity. It’s an opportunity for the university to show its value to society.
You’ve been UBC’s associate provost of sustainability since 2012. What is the university doing right, and what more needs to be done?
What we’re trying to do at UBC is link academic sustainability and operational sustainability. Every university is doing both. They’re undertaking a bunch of programs – energy systems or water or waste – on the operational side. And researchers and students study and teach sustainability.
But the two cultures are almost entirely unconnected. At UBC, we’re aiming to deeply connect them in a “living lab” context – the university as a sandbox for society.
The thing that’s hard to change is institutional culture. It’s easier to get policies in place than to change culture. But if you don’t change the culture, the policies aren’t very effective. I feel we have made major strides in changing the culture at UBC, but of course much more remains to be done.
We now have a 20-year Sustainability Strategy. I’m excited about that, because it gives us our marching orders. Now, we have to practice what we’re proposing: to create a sustainable community where teaching, learning, research and operations are deeply integrated.
It’s a 20-year strategy for a reason – this won’t happen overnight. This is a journey.