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

When did you first become interested in studying social change?

I was working in sales at a large luxury hotel and I had this feeling that what I was doing was not entirely ethical. The idea of “the more sales, the better,” it didn’t matter at what cost — it made me start thinking about what assumptions I had implicitly bought into when I took my business degree. I started to consider how we can become trained into a specific way of viewing the world, and how that could be what prevented different worlds from mixing.

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

The biggest one is their own institutional embeddedness — the ways in which they’ve been socialized, educated, and trained to see the world and the extent to which that limits them from seeing the possibilities of change. Because sometimes the first part of systemic social change is changing your own worldview — and that’s actually a very challenging thing to do.

How can someone overcome these challenges?

The first step is generating your own reflexive awareness of where you are in the world. What are the institutions that you inhabit that have shaped your worldview? And then hopefully this opens you to see what else is out there and why it is different. You can then better recognize your place in the world — whether that’s a position of privilege, disadvantage or of stigma. Once we become more reflective we can begin to see what social change really means from our particular position. From here, of course, we have to get involved and begin to think about what is the social change we want to pursue.

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?

Yes, absolutely. This is a really good example of what I’ve been talking about — the possibilities we can see for the future depend on our worldview. And if the world we see is shaped by a particular identity or understanding, then that limits the possibilities we can see for ourselves. Defining our identity as fossil fuel producers threatens the possibility for change.

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

Everything we do in life shapes who we are. Our undergraduate degree, being an engineer, being a business person — they all leave an imprint on our identity. All along that process, we’re learning ways to see the world.

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.