Justin Ritchie compares the UBC Reads Sustainability project to a book club—with one important difference. “There’s not that kind of guilt trip there for not reading the book,” he says, laughing.

UBC Reads Sustainability is a new initiative that’s part book club, part lecture series, and part opportunity to learn beyond the classroom. Above all, it’s a forum for students across disciplines to discuss sustainability issues.

Ritchie, who is a second-year Master of Science student and the AMS Sustainability Coordinator, spearheaded the pilot project last fall. The concept? Authors of cutting-edge books on sustainability issues are invited to speak. Books are chosen partly because their subject matter slices across disciplines. A discussion follows that tackles sustainability from many angles.

“Probably very few people have actually read the book before the talk,” Ritchie says. But after the discussion and interacting with the author, they may be inspired to do so. And even if students never read the book, they can take its ideas back to their faculties.

The 2010 lectures both had great turnouts. In September, David Korten spoke on his most recent book, Agenda for a New Economy, attracting students in faculties from Land and Food Systems to Applied Science to the Sauder School of Business. In November, Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, packed the venue at the Liu Institute for Global Issues.

“Stewart Brand’s message was rather controversial, in the sense that he was advocating for nuclear power plants, and his history was kind of a bastion for the environmental movement,” explains Ritchie. “A lot of people in the audience disagreed with the core of his message.”

“But that’s fine,” Ritchie continues. “That’s what we want to do, start a dialogue. I talked to some of the people who attended, and they said it made them consider approaches to sustainability they had never thought of before. That’s the goal.”

“It’s not just a lecture series. It’s really about sustainability education campus wide,” says  Jean Marcus. The Associate Director of UBC Sustainability Initiative’s Teaching & Learning Office explains why a common dialogue is important. “The sustainability issues we’re facing as a society are so complex that any solution is likely not going to come from one discipline but will come from multiple disciplines, when people put their heads together.”

She notes that any student may attend the co-curricular talks, making sustainability learning more accessible outside of formal courses. Her office hopes that individual instructors will incorporate the lectures into their classes in some way; for example, as part of the core curriculum or as a bonus assignment.

“Our goal is to work with instructors to make them aware that this great author is coming in,” she says. “They can get creative and include it in their course however they want.”

The next UBC Reads Sustainability talk happens on February 3. David Montgomery will speak on his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, which highlights the importance of our agricultural systems in supporting a sustainable civilization.

“Essentially it’s about how a lot of reasons are given for how civilizations and societies collapse,” surmises Ritchie. “But what all those reasons ignore—economic, military, other rationales that historians give—is their agriculture practices.”

With such a broad reach, the talk should attract students from geography, Earth science, history, the faculty of Land and Food Systems, the School of Community and Regional Planning, and more. “The book relates to a lot of things going on at UBC, in terms of UBC Farm and sustainable agriculture programs,” says Ritchie.

The talk takes place at 12:15 p.m. in the Victoria Learning Theatre at the Irving K. Barber Library. For more information and to register, see http://ubcreadssustainability.com/, where you can also find audio and video of past lectures. To suggest an author for a future talk, contact Jean Marcus at jean.marcus@ubc.ca.

By Salina Marshall