Cross-university project gives academics the chance to reflect on how to prepare tomorrow's sustainability leaders

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Christine Barbeau and Sarah Wolfe

SERS professors, Sarah Elizabeth Wolfe and Christine Barbeau, are leading a collaborative research program that recently received a $200,000 SSHRC Partnership Development grant to study how fear and awe influence how students learn about and respond to climate change.

“You can’t scare most people into pro-environmental choices,” says Dr. Wolfe, currently a visiting professor at Royal Roads University and the Principal Investigator of the five-project program.

Wolfe developed the program, The Affective Load of Sustainability Education: The implications of emotion for students' engagement and knowledge retention, to extend her earlier Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada research using Terror Management Theory as part of her Society, Environment and Emotions Lab (SEE-Lab).

Along with Dr. Mickie Noble, associate professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads, the team is led by the University of Waterloo and includes water faculty members from the University of Victoria’s Civil Engineering department.

“This cross-university project is an excellent opportunity to reflect, as academics, how we can offer courses and teaching that prepares our students for becoming tomorrow’s sustainability leaders,” says Simon Courtenay, director of the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. “Dr. Wolfe and her collaborators are opening a new avenue in how we collect empirical evidence to inform our pedagogy.”

With Wolfe's expertise in water, the project will draw from the University of Waterloo's bench strength in sustainability teaching and research. Wolfe works closely with The Water Institute, which is home to 150 faculty members and 300 graduate students from all six Waterloo faculties, who are breaking boundaries in water research by providing a forum for interdisciplinary research and education, including Students of the Water Institute Graduate Section (SWIGS)

Good science

The idea for the research program emerged from Wolfe’s decade of teaching interdisciplinary environmental studies at the University of Waterloo and the past seven years researching emotion and water-related decisions.

“Good science is unquestionably a necessary ingredient in our solutions to environmental problems, but scientific knowledge is never enough by itself,” says Wolfe.

“Science can help grasp the global scale of problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and fresh-water scarcity, but potential solutions are also deeply intertwined with psychological, cultural, economic, and political factors that operate mainly at the level of individuals, communities, and societies,” she says.

Wolfe says, in education, it is often assumed that more scientific knowledge will lead to more rational personal behaviour and public policies, as well as better environmental outcomes.

“However, what that curricula are missing are the powerful tools to create the necessary spiritual and cultural transformation that will support pro-environmental behaviours and decisions at all scales and over time,” she adds.

“As a researcher, environmentalist, citizen and parent, I know that we cannot lessen peoples’ fear by highlighting doomsday scenarios, nor by minimizing or rationalizing environmental or water problems. Instead, we need something more powerful than fear. In my role as a professor, I decided to apply these scholarly insights and research findings to the structure, content, and delivery of interdisciplinary environmental education.”

Fear factor

Wolfe quoted Dr. Gus Speth, an American environmental lawyer and advocate, in the grant application.

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change,” Speth wrote.

“I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy. And to deal with those, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

The research team will examine how the rationality assumption constrains post-secondary capacity to generate spiritual, cultural, social, and environmental transformations necessary to tackle climate change.

“We start from the premise that emotions underpin decisions and that learning about environmental problems is qualitatively distinct from feeling that one can do something meaningful and positive to address those problems,” says Barbeau, a co-investigator from the University of Waterloo.

The goal of the program is to develop new cross-institutional approaches, as well as recommendations for further research.

“The projects’ findings will have implications far beyond Canada,” Wolfe says. “As North American and international researchers try to grasp how emotion influences environmental awareness and citizen action and engagement, our research findings will help universities and instructors improve their interdisciplinary environmental programs, with implications not just for these young adults’ well-being but also for their future contributions to society and the planet.”

One hundred percent of the grant’s budget is designated to support four masters and one doctoral student in completing five interrelated research projects over three years. Recruitment of graduate students will begin in the fall with project descriptions posted via Twitter and on the SEE Lab site.

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