Meeting the Minds – Interviews with AU’s Educators

Dr. Lorelei Hanson has authored two environmental studies courses and two geography courses at AU. She currently tutors her courses ENVS 200 and ENVS 435, and coordinates those as well ENVS 361 and GLST 243. She took some time to speak with Scott Jacobsen about her work with AU and general outlook in a two-part interview.

You are an Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator of Environmental Studies at Athabasca University and a Fellow of the Energy Futures Lab. In brief, what tasks and responsibilities come with the associate professorship for AU and the fellowship for EFL?
Like every academic across Canada I have three responsibilities: first, teaching; second, research; and third, community service. Teaching at Athabasca University includes tutoring and coordination. Coordination includes designing, updating, or revising courses, and, as a part of coordination, I also am developing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies.

As a Fellow of the Energy Futures Lab, I am expected to attend and actively participate in the in-person workshops. we’re also expected to develop and test out prototypes or innovations that will help us move to a new energy system. And finally I engage with people within my network around energy and the work of the EFL.

EFL comes from The Natural Step Canada supported by the Pembina Institute, Suncor Energy Foundation, the Banff Centre, and provincial government. Your expertise in “critical sustainability” seems relevant with respect to energy and climate change. Can you talk about that?
Critical sustainability is an analytical approach that starts from the premise that there are many definitions and uses of the term “sustainability” circulating, and each of those understandings offer quite different perspectives on and implications for both humanity and the non-human world. So, critical sustainability is a lens of analysis that that can be applied to interrogate how is it that somebody is using the word sustainability, and what the implications of that are for how humans should interact with each other, as well as how we interact with and impact the non-human world. As a professor of environmental studies and also an environmental and food activist, I bring that framework to my research and teaching, and how I think about what means to develop a more sustainable and resilient energy system.

How have your past research collaborations with the Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD) (Alberta Climate Dialogue, 2016) and the BC-Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) (BC-Alberts Social Economy Research Institute, 2016) influenced your work with the EFL?
Both ABCD and BATA are research projects that are winding down; we no longer have funding for these projects. Saying that, I am still actively involved with both of those networks. With respect to BALTA, we are developing a new research proposal on the role of social economy and social intermediaries in scaling up and down sustainability transition projects. With respect to Alberta Climate Dialogue I am currently editing a book tentatively titled, Changing the Conversations on Climate Change: Using Public Deliberation to Address the Wicked Problems of our Time, which is a collection of essays that explore the tensions and the trade-offs that exist when you undertake deliberative engagement that addresses ?wicked? issues like climate change. I bring experience and knowledge about collaboration on issues like climate change and sustainability transition that I developed through my participation in ABCD and BALTA to the work I am now doing with the EFL.

What are Alberta’s, and Canada’s, major energy challenges?
One’s perspective on that question depends very much on who You’re talking to, right? In Alberta, those questions direct us to consider the current state of the economy and the extraction, production, use, sale, and transportation of energy. When people respond to questions about Alberta’s major energy challenges they often mention that we have to do this in a responsible manner, or a sustainable manner. If we go back to that notion of critical sustainability, for me, the question to ask is who is going to define those terms?

From my perspective, and building from the collaborative work that I did with ABCD and as a member of BALTA, as well as that which I am now doing with the EFL, we want to step back and say, “It is not for one person to define what is Alberta or Canada’s major energy challenge.” The best way for us a province to respond to that question is to have a much broader discussion that starts with talking about what are the values that we really hold dear within our province and how can we plan an energy system that would work in accordance with those values.

Of course it is even more complicated than that within Alberta, because we don’t get to plan that system all on our own; we work within the context of a larger energy system, both nationally as well as internationally. So many of the key leverage points in the energy system we don’t have control over. Nonetheless, considering our energy future does demand that we start to look at how we can influence those leverage points. I think even within the hydrocarbon industry, many of the players there would say that we’ve lost some of our social license to go ahead and do those things that we used to do, whether that is in terms of the extraction, production, or transportation of hydrocarbons; those industrial practices have all come up for criticism, debate, and scrutiny in a way that they hadn’t before. As a result, we are now having to look more seriously at things like our environmental performance, both in terms of our greenhouse gas emissions, and our impacts on the landscape, such as the impact of bitumen extraction on water sources. As well we are having to carefully consider how are we impacting communities, and not only within Alberta; it is very important for us to be looking at the impacts of our energy system on communities, particularly disadvantaged communities that have been negatively impacted by the energy development system we have supported and developed in the past..

How can we create a more stable energy system within Alberta, but also across Canada and the rest of the world? Answering that question raises a whole bunch of issues around social license, greenhouse gases, climate change, and working collaboratively, not only within Alberta but across Canada and with our international partners. Recently the mayors in Quebec publicly opposed the construction of the Energy East pipeline across Quebec, which says to me that we in Alberta have to pay more attention to building good relations and developing partnerships across Canada because we need to find new trading partners; we have had too much reliance on the United States and That’s gotten us into trouble. But we need access to tidewater in order to transport our oil and gas to places other than the US. And as a part of that we need to look at how do we create a different energy mix. How do we de-carbonize our economy and allow for other forms of energy production and distribution? That all has to be a part of a discussion about Alberta’s energy future.

Those are very good points, especially the point about diversification of partnerships to create a robust and sustainable set of energy partnerships.
We cannot have dominance on one trading partner; we’ve done that for far too long.