Finding the roots of Albertan identity to envision new possible futures

“The identities of oil workers can be compatible with an environmentalist if we’re not constantly villainizing each other.”

By Jenna Bell

As a student studying Environmental Science, I often find it difficult to understand why people aren’t doing more to combat climate change. Within my academic bubble, I am surrounded by people who share the same opinions and the sincere values for the environment that I have. Because of this, I become easily frustrated with the lack of progress that our province is making towards a more sustainable future. I have a negative view of the oilsands and the fossil fuel industry.

But I have to remind myself that this province is made up of 4.4 million people with differing backgrounds, occupations, upbringings and values. Not everyone in Alberta shares my perspective. To fight climate change we must come together and find common ground, for environmental change requires radical social change as well.

Madeline Toubiana is a University of Alberta professor in Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and an affiliate of the Sustainability Council. Her research aims to answer the question: what stalls or fosters social change and social innovation? Toubiana examines this question in a variety of contexts including the Canadian prison system, social entrepreneurship, social media, the sex trade and in other complex organizations.

When did you first become interested in studying social change?

And so I wanted to explore how we might get “unstuck” from a particular way of viewing the world. To do so, I began studying prisoners and their transition from prison back into society. I looked at what enabled some to be successful in shedding the institutional imprinting they carried, and what prevented others from doing so. It was my first deep dive into how we might get “unstuck”.

What are the complexities that an individual faces when trying to approach social change?

How can someone overcome these challenges?

So looking at Alberta, we’ve established a really deep rooted identity in fossil fuel production. Do you think this has made it harder for us to move in a sustainable direction?

We can disentangle our identity as Albertans by looking at the root of what unifies us. We can shift the focus from being fossil fuel providers to a broader understanding of what is at the core of this identity. Is it resourcefulness? A pioneering spirit? Being innovative? It is then less threatening to think about new possible futures and accepting the possibilities for change if we have a common identity to build on.

How can Albertans unite opposing views to better pursue environmental change?

So we don’t need to villainize people who don’t have our worldview, but we need to individually begin to expand our own. That is when we can envision possibilities to change in a non-threatening way. We have to find ways to expand our understanding of multiple worldviews and integrate them. It’s hard work, but it can be done, and when you start to understand either side, then you can hybridize! The identities of oil workers can be compatible with an environmentalist if we’re not constantly villainizing each other.

Madeline Toubiana is an affiliate of the Sustainability Council. She frequently teaches SMO 445 — Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Entrepreneurship, a course which is newly open to undergraduates in all faculties and part of the Certificate in Sustainability.