As our rapidly changing world gives us the tools we need to make positive environmental change, Canada Research Chair Sarah Burch help build the toolbox.
Societies are constantly transforming, but you’re not alone if you feel like things are moving faster than usual right now. It seems that very quickly we’re becoming more global, more urban, with new information and ideas technology arriving every day. A big reordering can be challenging, chaotic and stressful, but it’s also a rare opportunity to make big positive changes to our environment.
Sarah Burch, a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Sustainability Governance and Innovation, has dedicated her scholarship to helping people realize that this opportunity is here and inspiring us to seize it.
For instance, one of our biggest environmental challenges is climate change, but where many see government inaction leading us to potential doom, Burch sees possibilities. “I choose to focus my research on community sustainability transitions because there’s so much potential here for transformative change,” she says, “Our communities are where we experience the impacts of climate change, where we emit most of our carbon, and where incredible sustainability innovations are springing up.”
Those innovations come in many forms. Recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, alternative fuels, energy storage and big data are just what we need to put humanity on a sustainable low-carbon pathway. The only thing we’re really missing now is the social license to use these innovations to solve our climate crisis. What Burch wants people to know is that this licence doesn’t need to come from a federal government. It can come from our communities.
For instance, Burch is currently working on research showing small businesses (SME’s) in Canada aren’t waiting around for policy to compel them to make sustainable choices in sourcing products, employment equity and lowering carbon emissions. In Toronto and Vancouver most SME’s are already innovating toward environmental justice. They’ve given themselves the social licence. Considering SME’s make-up close to 98 per cent of all businesses in Canada, that’s an incredibly promising shift.
The nearly total small business shift toward sustainability might surprise people (including the businesses owners themselves). So sharing that message is another key component of Burch’s work as a CRC. It’s all about gaining momentum. Although she’s reluctant to call herself a “public intellectual,” her user-friendly approach to sustainability is one of her greatest assets.
“I put myself out there because I think it’s incumbent upon those who have cultivated expertise in domains of pressing social concern to support positive change whenever and wherever they can,” she explains. “I also feel very strongly that my research benefits even more from listening than it does from talking — solutions to sustainability and climate change challenges need to be co-created by people from all walks of life, not crafted and exported by one particular type of expert.”
Not being one “type of expert” speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of Burch’s work. Before become a Canada Research Chair in the Faculty of Environment Burch contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She also worked as a lead author on the Second Assessment Report on Climate Change in Cities. Both reports served as monuments to collaboration and incorporating multiple perspectives in big problem-solving.
“Interdisciplinary research is absolutely central to my scholarship. I work on complex, evolving, deeply human problems — so there isn’t one single set of skills that is nearly adequate to solve them. Being interdisciplinary expands my toolkit immensely and gives me deep respect for different ways of framing both problems and solutions.”
Burch, who is relatively young, is a new kind of researcher. Interdisciplinary, inclusive and connected to her community. She sees herself as a partner in making positive change, not someone issuing advice from on high.
“I would say the movement, if you call it that, has really benefited from increasing diversity of voices but I think there's still some voices that are severely lacking and I think there's some new and really exciting conversations about the climate agenda and the environmental agenda.”
On International Women’s Day 2018, all of the Canada Research Chairs in the Faculty of Environment are women — this isn’t necessarily by design — but it does stand out, as it speaks to the importance of representation in academia and the changing face of environmental justice.