ON A HILLTOP IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, Jacqueline Rowe and her team watched smoke fill the skies as three separate wildfires raged across the landscapes of Kamloops, Merritt and West Kelowna. The encroaching blazes and the trail of devastation left behind underscored for Rowe the escalating threat of climate change and the pressing need for action.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anxiety like that in nature,” says Rowe, an undergraduate student in UBC Okanagan’s Bachelor of Sustainability program. “It felt like all three fires were burning towards us, and I couldn’t help but wonder if summers will ever be the same as when we were kids.”
Replacing climate anxiety with climate action is one of the reasons Rowe enrolled at UBC Okanagan and eventually found herself on that hilltop as a summer research assistant. She’s part of UBCO’s first-ever cohort in the Bachelor of Sustainability program; her fieldwork with Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais was a real-world extension of her classroom studies.
Rowe worked on a project to enhance real-time weather data collection in British Columbia, which was critical given the province’s vulnerability to wildfires. She helped deploy cost-effective weather stations in strategically chosen locations alongside a team of student researchers, significantly bolstering efforts to identify areas of risk and mitigate any possible fire risk.
It reinforced her decision to choose UBC Okanagan. She moved to Canada from Australia just before their devastating 2019/20 “Black Summer” fire season on a gap-year adventure. She’d planned on working at the ski hills and appreciating all Canada offered her.
But wildfires are as much a fixture here as they are in Australia. She realized she needed to act and enrolled in the Bachelor of Sustainability.
Despite the challenges and the heart-wrenching scenes of scorched landscapes, Rowe found solace in her meaningful contribution. “It was an incredible experience that really felt like it mattered. It felt like we were making a difference,” she says.
Rowe said she hopes to eventually take her education into marine ecosystem and salmon conservation. Those experiences are what Dr. Kevin Hanna wants for every student who enters the Bachelor of Sustainability program. In an innovative response to the escalating climate change and biodiversity loss crises, the degree reflects the understanding that these global challenges can’t be tackled by any single academic discipline.
The Bachelor of Sustainability is designed to immerse students in select concentrations, honing the knowledge, skills and attitudes crucial for actionable solutions on both local and global scales.
This academic strategy blends traditional learning with hands-on and community-based experiences. The aim is to arm the next generation of leaders with comprehensive tools to address pressing issues ranging from climate change and land and water use to energy transition and social and economic inequality.
Graduates emerge from the program with a robust understanding of sustainability, commitment to enacting positive change and keen insight into holistic systems—looking at the bigger picture to ensure possible solutions don’t create more problems.
“There’s tremendous interest from students in anything to do with making our world better and more sustainable,” Dr. Hanna says. “The program really speaks to UBCO’s investment in the idea of sustainability. We’re committed to it.”
A distinct feature of the Bachelor of Sustainability is the concentration model. Students are divided into cohorts after choosing Environmental Analytics, Green Chemistry, Environmental Conservation and Management or Environmental Humanities as their concentration.
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Besides the academic curriculum, students engage in community service learning; preparing them for real-world work, they collaborate with external organizations in their third and fourth years. Students also take Indigeneity classes each year to learn how Indigenous communities practice sustainability on land they’ve occupied since the glaciers retreated.
One of the program’s more recognizable faces is Dr. Greg Garrard. Famous across campus for a wry smile and willingness to challenge students on their assumptions, Dr. Garrard teaches in the Environmental Humanities concentration, adding influence from the arts. He’s happy to tell students why sustainability issues need to consider social and cultural cues.
“In many ways, it’s quite an easy case to make because we have so many examples now of sustainability issues where scientific consensus exists, but social and cultural change is way behind,” says Dr. Garrard.
“The most obvious is climate change, but the same is true with wildfire. The need for prescribed burning to reduce forest fuels has been known by fire ecologists since the 1970s, yet the action in response was grossly inadequate. Whenever you see that obvious disjunction, you know that science isn’t going to do the job on its own.”
The Environmental Humanities concentration also underscores students’ evolving needs and interests in this field, Dr. Garrard says. He reminds students that they shouldn’t be satisfied with a degree focused solely on resource management or green chemistry, for example. They should be prepared to draw on a wide-ranging education that prepares them to understand the connections between disciplines.
Rowe admits, with a sly smile of her own, that Dr. Garrard’s way of thinking challenged her. However, she acknowledges that studying the humanities prepared her for situations she’s likely to face in the field after graduation.
Knowing how to think critically of sensitive subjects—our dependence on fossil fuels, for example, or our need to halt biodiversity loss—will make her more effective and more fulfilled as a professional. In turn, she’ll know she’s doing all she can to help preserve our planet.
“I still feel anxious about the future to some extent, but I feel now that I’m less affected by the doom and gloom and instead movement-motivated,” says Rowe. “Something has to change, and we’ve got to be the ones who do it.”