Learning Holistically: A New Course Designed to Deepen our Understanding of Sustainability


The UBC Sustainability Inititaive caught up with Kai Chan, Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, to learn more about the inspiration behind developing ENVR 430: Ecological Dimensions of Sustainability, and how he sees UBC students benefiting from its content.  

Q. What inspired you to develop this course?

There are a surprising number of cases where public policy and normal social practices are strongly at odds with sustainability objectives. In fact, most people don’t realize the extent to which this is true, how to spot these systemic, ecologically doomed policies, or what they might do about them.  This course is intended to enable students to be effective ambassadors for ecology and sustainability - even if they do not go on to graduate school or science-related professions.

Q. How do you see students benefiting from the course?

In their first few years of their undergraduate degrees, students learn the foundations of many different disciplines but do not make connections to crucial social issues. As the foundations themselves don’t seem applicable to most students, many promptly forget most of what they learned. ENVR 430 is about making those connections in the context of group projects on pressing real-world problems. The course teaches students crucial ideas from the social sciences about individual behaviour, social practice, and institutional change. With these tools, ENVR 430 equips students to identify policies that don’t make sense ecologically, and to articulate a strategy for change.

Their ability to think critically about these ideas and recognize situations in their daily lives is reflected through their “ecology ambassador journals”, which by the end of the semester contained some extraordinarily impressive reflections on what they learned and how they intend to take that forward.

Q. How do you see science education helping advancing sustainability?

Most people seem to think that science matters for sustainability primarily as fodder for technological innovation. That’s just wrong. Ecological and social sciences are crucial for identifying policies and practices that will work, and those that are doomed to fail. We need to be passionate about the application of science. In countless cases, unsupportable scientific ideas are promoted by special interests, or well-accepted ideas are obfuscated, in order to maintain the status quo that benefits entrenched industries. This is deeply unjust.

It’s so easy to become cynical but the reality is that science and sustainability need champions!

Find out more about the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainabilty and the new ENVR 430 course.

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