UCs Bridget explores eco-activism at universities worldwide

There’s a bunch of great research happening at UC, but we get particularly excited when it is eco or sustainability related. We recently had a chat with UC student Bridget Snodgrass, whose research is exploring campus eco-activism at universities worldwide.

What are you qualifying in at UC? I’m in my last year of a double degree, a BSc majoring in Geology and endorsed in Environmental Science, and BA majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Russian. It’s my 5th year but I’m finishing up 3rd year courses at the moment. This research is being conducted as my project for the ARTS395 internship.

What are you researching and why? My project is looking at a number of universities worldwide, which have student organisations that are doing cool and interesting things with environmental activism. I was put in touch with Katie Nimmo (from the Sustainability Office). She had a project on campus eco activism in mind that could marry my interests with hers.

Which universities are you looking at? I only got a semester to do it, so I picked a few “western” universities with active, thriving student eco-activism scenes. University of Alberta in Canada, University of Massachusetts in USA, Newcastle University in Australia, University of Victoria for another New Zealand perspective, and I’m currently deciding on a UK one as well. I also looked at whether they had any relevant local environmental issues that might stimulate activism, to try and get insight into what local environments and social factors may result in successful, active clubs.

Even though you have just started data collection, what are you finding? So far I’m finding that the activism groups that are doing well are those that have managed to make people care – by building that personal connection to the issue they are fighting for. The reality of environmental issues is that everyone has a stake in them, everyone is tangibly affected, unlike other kinds of activism (like a petition to not let Chris Brown into Australia). So establishing that personal connection to the issue through actual people in the club, and arousing and directing their emotions, which mobilises people towards a solution, is what clubs that are doing well are good at.

I also find that universities with relatively notorious or controversial issues in their local environment tend to have environmental groups addressing that, either from an awareness raising perspective or a more practical go-get-em approach. For example, the University of Massachusetts has been really productive: remediating barren, eroding patches of land by replanting it with ecologically diverse permaculture gardens.

UMass’ permaculture project partly inspired this research. It’s such a well organised and designed project, that’s a win for everyone: it’s accessible to loads of students who get plant growing skills, the university’s dining service gets (actually tonnes of) produce, the land gets enriched, and the uni looks really good being this bastion of sustainability innovation. And students did it!

Why is activism so important do you think? From a personal development perspective, I think it’s important to not always go through life on autopilot, and to push back and try to make a positive change, which is usually quite difficult. When it’s a societal change even more so. It’s really important to look beyond yourself and meeting your immediate wants and needs, and think about what you can do make the world better for everyone. How can you inspire people and combine your forces to make big stuff happen. Activism is definitely one of those “the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” things.

Could some of your findings inform how things are done at UC?
I hope so! In the past few years a bunch of eco clubs have sprung up at UC and they are achieving some great things. It’ll be awesome to see what can be learnt from clubs at other universities about what they do, how they do it, and what are some of the driving and enabling factors behind their activities, in order to see if it’s something that could be implemented at UC.

There’s heaps of activities that probably aren’t realistic for UC at the moment for a bunch of reasons, some we have some influence over, like the extent to which our students care about the environment and want to make a difference, and some we don’t. A lot of the clubs I’ve looked at just have really awesome funding/financial capacity to do stuff. I think there’s still value though, in learning about things that won’t work and why, because circumstances can change.

Is the research affecting how you are thinking about your career choices?
A little! If anything it’s kind of opened my mind to all these other things that are actually viable to spend your life doing. Like, many of the universities I’m studying have dedicated staff helping the clubs achieving their goals. I’m attracted to the idea of such teaching/mentoring roles – though I think I’ve got a lot more learning to do before I get there!

Check here for more about how to get involved with Sustainability at UC.


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