The Changemakers: Student Environmentalists at the U of A
It took me a few years at the University of Alberta to find other environmentalists. Maybe I wasn’t looking very hard, or maybe it’s a small community. Either way, it was only last year that I became involved with Terra Informa, the campus radio station’s environmental news radio show, and met some Nalgene-water-bottle-packing, tote-bag-carrying environmentalists. From there, everything snowballed, and I met student environmentalists who fill all kinds of niches. It made me think about what student environmentalism looks like. I guess the question I was really looking to answer was whether I fit in at all.
I want to introduce you to four student environmentalists I’ve met at the U of A, who are united by their cause but different in so many ways. They are each inspiring, I didn’t realize quite how much until I sat down with them to actually ask them questions about environmentalism. Mostly they are full of hope in a time where I don’t feel quite so hopeful, and talking to them made me feel a bit better about the future. That’s a gift I hope to pass along.
I first met Olivia deBourcier in the office of The Gateway, the U of A’s official student newspaper-turned-magazine, where I had just started my tenure as News Editor. It was the summer and most students weren’t around campus, but she walked into our volunteer meeting like a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember exactly what she was wearing but I can safely assume it was a carefully-crafted outfit that made her look like a starlet on a safari in the 1950’s. She was also probably wearing big earrings in the shape of some kind of animal, and her curly hair tied up in a scarf. Later she would tell me that her safari style is the way she expresses herself, and how she has fun with environmentalism. “As an environmentalist, things can get really depressing and I think it’s fun to have an outlet to enjoy nature and have fun with it even when you’re frustrated,” she said.
She took a story I pitched on campus wildlife in spring, and when she handed it in, complete with her own earthy illustrations of magpies and squirrels, I was immediately impressed. Over coffee, I learned that Olivia was in environmental and conservation science, but her real goal was to be a science communicator — to combine art and writing and a winning personality to become some sort of blend of Jane Goodall, John Acorn, and Bindi Irwin.
Olivia grew up riding tandem bikes in the river valley and travelling to Victoria every summer. She was (and still is) obsessed with wildlife, and she would look for animals everywhere she went. Once, in the fourth grade, she saw orca whales on a whale-watching trip. “ I just thought they were the most incredible things I had ever seen, they were huge, you could feel their power, and I was just so excited by them,” she said.
She’s not sure exactly when she learned about anthropogenic mass extinctions and climate change. Probably she read it in the books she was glued to. She pondered being an artist, but how could she be so selfish when there was so much change that needed to be made? It would be better use of her talents, she thought, to devote herself to the environmental cause. And so Olivia found herself coming out of an arts high school and enrolling in commerce with an environmental focus at the U of A. It wasn’t exactly the right fit, and so she transferred to environmental and conservation sciences.
But she doesn’t feel quite at home there either. While she can appreciate the analytical approach to environmentalism, she wants to connect with people, especially young people, and to get them excited about what she sees as the inherent value of nature. “I think there’s a lot to be said for curiosity and wanting to preserve what’s there simply because it’s interesting and unique,” she said. “We have this unique ability to appreciate [nature] and to engage with it in a different way than other species can.”
For Olivia, a lot of this connection can be forged at museums, aquariums, and zoos. Controversial as they may be, she says those experiences solidified her environmentalism as a child. She has been volunteering at the Edmonton zoo for years and is working there this summer as an interpreter, introducing kids to the animals she loves. For a lot of these kids, she said, this is their opportunity to connect with nature in an accessible way.
“I think a lot of environmentalists and scientists can take themselves too seriously sometimes,” she said. “I like to be silly and have fun.”
Sam Goertz, an honours political science student, is one of those natural politicians who always greets you on campus with a genuine smile and laser-focused eye contact that makes you feel like the only person he cares about. When I sat down to talk to him over Skype (he’s spending the summer in Washington, D.C. as an intern), his eyes and charisma could still penetrate through the screen.
I don’t know Sam well and over the course of our conversation I was most surprised to hear that this environmentalism thing is relatively new for him. In fact, in high school he didn’t really care about much at all. Let me just highlight for you that this is SO WEIRD because man does this guy seem to care a lot. So what changed?
Well, not to plug the blog I’m writing for literally right now, but it was his then-roommate, Matt Gwozd, asking him to write for The Green Medium back in fall 2015 that ended up lighting an environmentalist spark in Sam. He loved writing for the blog and kept doing it. When The Green Medium won an Emerald Award in 2017, Sam became an official managing editor.
“Someone asked me to care and then I started to care so much, and I saw how important it was,” he said. “That’s what we need to give to other people: an opportunity to care.”
Sam’s philosophy is all about inclusivity because, he said, environmentalists need everyone on board. While environmentalism is a deeply moral and emotional issue for him, he knows not everyone sees it that way yet and he doesn’t want to push anyone away. As a budding politician he’s pragmatic out of necessity. “If you don’t have support across a broad spectrum then change is much more ineffective,” he said. He thinks there’s room for debate about how to tackle climate change “but it’s important that we don’t give up on people as much as possible.”
As we spoke, Sam was sitting in the same city as Donald Trump (unless the president was in Mar-a-Lago or Russia) and I couldn’t help but think that he must be feeling some kind of emotional crisis. And yes, Sam admitted, things are bad, but there’s still hope. “A solution where humanity isn’t wiped off the face of the earth is still possible,” he assured me. It’s scary that we’re at the point where that feels up for debate.
Talking to Sam though, I did feel hope. He and The Green Medium are calling in people to care. Maybe the environmental community at the U of A, and even in Alberta, is small, but maybe, he suggested, that’s just because people don’t know how to go about being environmentalists here. By getting the chance to investigate things they can see the problems, and think about solutions.
Amanda Rooney and I sat in the U of A’s main quad with my recorder between us and our tote bags sprawled on the grass. We had just finished recording a discussion of the wave of plastic straw bans for a Terra Informa episode and were still talking about how trendy environmentalism has become.
Amanda knows something about trendiness. I remember her from my first-year political science class, before we really knew each other. She had a red Matt & Natt backpack (the same one she has now, though it’s cracking and she’s on the lookout for a new one) and thrifted clothes that created a perfectly cohesive aesthetic. Amanda is so effortlessly cool that it’s intimidating, which is what prevented me from connecting with her before last year. In reality, she is so down to earth and sweet that I’m perpetually kicking myself for not saying hi to her earlier.
She describes her turn to environmentalism as a gradual one that really became cemented when, while doing her first semester at Concordia University in Edmonton, she and some other students started the campus’s first sustainability club. When she transferred to U of A, Amanda decided to pursue environmental studies and found herself falling into this university’s sustainability community.
Through the U of A’s Community Service Learning program, Amanda got the chance to volunteer with CJSR, the campus and community radio station, something she’d been wanting to try since she started at the university. She and some of her classmates created a piece on ecofeminism, in which she interviewed MP Linda Duncan. From there she was hooked, and now she’s one of the showrunners.
Amanda is particularly interested in food security, something else that was sparked by a Community Service Learning placement with the Alder Food Security Society. This summer, she’s completing an undergraduate research project on Edmonton’s food and agricultural strategy, called FRESH. She’s planning to talk to the organizations involved with FRESH to see how their views of food security compare and contrast. She also wants to ask them about how effective they think the strategy is.
There is so much to tackle though. How does food insecurity relate to urban sprawl? To affordable housing? To climate change? To geopolitics? Thoughts come tumbling out of Amanda’s mouth faster than I can write them down. A good environmentalist, she thinks, looks at a system as whole. “It’s easy to fixate on one component of something,” she said. “That’s why we started to think of ecosystems as systems, right? We need to broaden that to what’s going on in the social and political realms regarding whatever issues you’re looking at.”
Most of all, she’s happy to have a community of student environmentalists around her who all bring different ideas to the table, and who she can talk to when it all gets overwhelming. “Yeah I am in a bubble, but I don’t think it’s a bubble where I’m entirely shielded from opposing ideas,” she said.
Every day there is some moment where I look down at my phone to see my notifications are blowing up. For a second I feel popular, until I realize they’re all messages from Kabir Nadkarni to an environmentalist group chat I’m lucky enough to be included in. This chat is less of a conversation than Kabir’s recommended reading list, and it never fails to make me feel like a student way behind on the syllabus.
This is because Kabir, an engineering physics student, is one of the most informed environmentalists I know. He is constantly reading articles, scientific and otherwise, about climate science, renewable energy, big oil, and anything and everything else environmental. In our interview he also confessed to me that when he’s not reading those articles, and is taking a much-deserved break at the gym or on his bike, he’s still listening to podcasts about the environment. I honestly don’t know how this guy is still alive.
This summer, Kabir is working with the environmental economist and carbon tax advocate Andrew Leach as a research assistant. They are modelling Alberta’s energy grid and simulating how things like a $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions would affect costs, emissions, and more. In the past, Kabir has worked to bring solar energy to communities in Malawi, has started a U of A student group that hopes to build the world’s first electric airplane, and was a finalist for an Emerald Award this year for his work on creating a community solar guide with the Pembina Institute.
Something that strikes me about Kabir is how pragmatic he is. While I can hardly stomach the idea of trying to convince conservatives to get on board with the environment, Kabir is all over it with ideas about how to frame the environmental narrative. It’s about putting a price on things, he said. “The carbon tax will put money in Albertan’s wallets.” “Renewable energy is cheaper.” I’m glad there are people like Kabir out there doing that work.
“I feel like the pace of this transition is so quick that people aren’t keeping up,” he said. “A lot of the people who’ve worked in this previous paradigm have their heads buried in the sand and they don’t see these facts that are out there.”
Thinking about climate change all the time can get overwhelming and exhausting, but while working at Pembina, Kabir was told to remember that the weight of this problem isn’t on his shoulders alone, that this is a shared mission. Sometimes activism is driven by anger, yes, but it can also be rooted in curiosity and compassion, which is why Kabir has started to think a lot more about the human dimension.
Do you feel a bit better now? Remember that this problem isn’t just yours to solve. There are Olivias and Amandas and Sams and Kabirs out there who are young and hopeful and are trying to see this problem holistically. They want to stop climate change, yes, but they also want to make the world a better place for you, me, our kids, and the other life on this planet.
I feel better at least.