Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why I am not an activist but most probably should be

by: Adrian Semmelink, honours thesis and incoming Master's student in the Chan's Lab group. 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
~ Onceler, from Dr. Seuss’ book The Lorax

I care about the dysfunctional relationship between people and our environment, and I believe we need to make large changes if we are to thrive as a species. But so what if I care? I've never gone to a protest, written a pro-environmental op-ed and I rarely sign petitions. At the same time, I'm excited to be part of a lab that does engage in debates and controversies. Previously, lab members have testified against the Northern Gateway pipeline, lead petitions, written op-eds (e.g. see Maayan and Kai’s recent post on Okanagan parks), and worked with NGOs.

The Onceler                                                     image: Dr. Seuss

That's all great inspiration, but my question still boils down to: why haven't I participated in advocacy? Maybe because I have never identified with the out-dated stereotype of the activist who chants at protests or goes from door to door collecting signatures and/or money. But, there are other ways to be an advocate, as my lab demonstrates. If I dig a little deeper, I’ve found three reasons why I haven’t engaged in activism:

1) Objectivity. As a junior researcher I am concerned about supporting a cause related to my field of research that could harm my perceived objectivity on the topic. One of my lab colleagues, Sarah Klain, experienced this first hand
1. She and my adviser Kai Chan co-authored an opinion piece that highlighted the environmental risks associated with farmed salmon. She also tweeted a link to an anti-salmon farming march and demonstration. This opinion piece and tweet posed an obstacle to conducting interviews with official representatives from the salmon farming industry, one of the various industries pertinent to her research. She was eventually able to continue her work with the desired breadth, and continues to advocate for issues that are important to her and related to her research, but it is a consideration for all students conducting field work.

2) Future Job Prospects. My second reason is perhaps more specific to my own financial background. I have a large student loan, which makes me more conservative about the choices I make because of the impact they may have on my future opportunities with organizations operating in the environmental or natural resources realm. This includes choices around activism where it often seems riskier to engage compared to staying out of the fray (eg. in BC LNG is a highly charged 
natural resource issue that one may not want their personal views to be public knowledge). Conversely, this circumspection could be damaging as it also limits the present opportunities I take. 

3) Expert Knowledge. Finally, I have feelings of inadequacy around engagement and how to carry it out. And I am not alone – CHANS lab colleagues Singh et al. (2014)
2 demonstrates that self-perceived competence in engagement was a significant predicator of researchers level of engagement. However, if one does not engage how can one actually get an understanding of how competent one is at engaging? The irony is that those of us being more careful may not be world leading experts, but have been formally educated in these topics and could be strong contributors to productive discussions on the issues.

Where does this leave me on activism? I think I may need to start taking more cues from the Lorax and in the words of the Onceler start to “change the way things are.” Fortunately, the CHANS Lab seems to be a good place to try.

1. For an edifying discussion on using social media in science, including Sarah discussing her experience, check out this youtube video by SciFund:
2. Gerald G Singh, Jordan Tam, Thomas D Sisk, Sarah C Klain, Megan E Mach, Rebecca G Martone, and Kai M A Chan, 2014. A more social science: barriers and incentives for scientists engaging in policy. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 161–166.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Flying and Driving: An Overgrown Boy’s Efforts at Heroics

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, where we have a project that I
couldn't participate in without flying (FuturAgua).

Ever since I was a boy, I’ve imagined myself as a hero of sorts. I’ve given up on the 24-inch biceps, but elements of the hero image still have a pull. The Energy Biographies website includes inspiring stories about environmentalists who have virtually given up on flying, which is a personal sacrifice that strikes me as the kind of heroic act that I could enjoy. I firmly believe that we all ought to take responsibility for our impacts on nature and on people via the environment. Climate change is a crucial vehicle for such impacts. So I should give up flying, right?
Years ago, I was poised to make this kind of a leap, but colleagues of mine at UBC (Hadi Dowlatabadi and James Tansey) presented me with an argument that led me to a different approach. They pointed out that trying to mitigate one’s impact on the planet by changing one’s own lifestyle or purchasing is extremely inefficient.
The car we ended up buying, with my family (my younger
daughter dressed to match).
Consider, for example, my dilemma re: cars. I wanted to express my concern about greenhouse gases when purchasing my car. I could either buy a fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle (e.g., a Toyota Prius), or I could buy a similar conventional gasoline-powered car (comparable vehicles to the Prius are several thousand dollars cheaper—as much as $10000 Canadian, even including the gas savings which are small for me as an infrequent driver), and invest the money I’d save to help others reduce their emissions. These ‘others’ would be people, communities and businesses that are interested in energy efficient options, e.g., skating rinks, swimming pools, but they would lack the capital to build the most efficient one. My money, along with the money of like-minded consumers, could help these others build infrastructure that will save many tons of greenhouse gas emissions at a fraction the cost. In the form of a ‘carbon offset’, I can get credit for some of the reduction in emissions, thereby effectively mitigating the climate impact of my driving for many years. For $100 Canadian. That’s ~100 times cheaper.
Nelson, NZ from the air. This offset (round trip from Vancouver
to New Zealand) was no small matter: $122.54. Worth every cent.
I like smart investments, so I’ve been ‘offsetting’ my travel ever since. I’ve made a commitment to myself, and to the rest of the world, to do so. It is a personal sacrifice, because carbon offsets are often not reimbursed or covered by grants, so I pay out of pocket more often that not. And flying has a very heavy toll for the climate, so $100 doesn’t even offset a family trip to our extended families in Toronto. It’s no 24-inch bicep, but it still helps my grandiose eco-hero self-image.
I never would have made it to
this beach without flying.
My commitment doesn’t make the kind of a statement as buying a Prius, or as refusing to fly. There’s something differently powerful about those conspicuous choices, and I applaud that. But personally, I also worried that by giving up flying I would be severely limiting my ability to be effective in work and advocacy. I feared that giving up my travel was giving up too much because I am optimistic about the impact I have when I travel and my ability to inspire others to take responsibility for their environmental impacts.. Besides, travelling can be fun!
I have no financial stake in offsetting companies, and I am very sympathetic to arguments about the failures of carbon markets, etc. (For several reasons, that I can expand upon if you’re interested, I think that reputable offsets, such as through, are not problematic in the same ways as carbon credits purchased off carbon markets.) But I do firmly believe that we need to provide a set of options for taking responsibility for environmental impacts that anyone could be keen on, not just those of us who fashion ourselves as climate superheroes.

Clearly there's no one right answer. What do you do? How do you navigate the competing demands of family, work, pleasure, and climate responsibility?
[If you’re interested in mitigating your environmental impacts—not just reducing them but having a net positive impact on the climate and other aspects of the environment, and leveraging larger structural change so that it doesn’t always take heroics—we’d love to hear from you at, so we can tell you about CoSphere, a Community of Small Planet Heroes….]