Earth Day: Sustainability is a team effort, says University of Saskatchewan research group

From left, Marie Rogel, Maureen Reed and Michaela Sidloski on April 17, 2024 at the University of Saskatchewan. PHOTO BY JULIA PETERSON /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

It takes all sorts to make a world — and to make the world more sustainable and able to respond and adapt to climate change.

Dr. Maureen Reed and her students put that guiding principle into practice every day.

Reed is a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, where she leads the PROGRESS (Practices of governance, resilience, environmental and social sustainability) lab. She holds the UNESCO chair in biocultural diversity, sustainability, reconciliation and renewal.

Under her mentorship, students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds have come together to tackle critical questions about environmental challenges.

“In this lab group, we have a communications specialist, we have geographers, we have biologists and environmental scientists (and) someone with legal training,” Reed said. “We are bringing all hands on deck.”

This collaborative approach also shapes how Reed and her students work with local communities and individuals who are experiencing the effects of climate change in their own specific ways and have their own priorities about which parts of the land, water and environment most need to be protected and preserved.

“Sustainability is not just about protecting the environment,” Reed noted. “We have to bring people on board, to want to and be able to make those decisions.”

In her research, Ph.D candidate Michaela Sidloski has focused on how different groups within a community — for example, men and women, or older and younger people — experience environmental risks and changes differently.

Understanding these social factors can lead to more helpful, locally-targeted strategies, rather than trying to address environmental issues with overly broad strokes, she said.

“A one-size-fits-all process … doesn’t work. To assume homogeneity, or to take a big idea about how people are affected and what solutions need to look like and apply it across the board, it doesn’t work. And when we try to apply these higher-level concepts at local levels without contextualizing them, we get into trouble.”

Another of Reed’s students, Marie Rogel, is focused on how and what an international community of sustainability scholars is learning right now — because studying sustainability education can improve the ways people teach these topics in the future.

“We need to understand what and how current sustainability students are learning and whether they are gaining the skills and knowledge that they need to face ever-changing sustainability challenges,” Rogel said.

“I’m a science communications professional, and I’ve always been interested in working with communities to find out what information they need and to provide that information in a way that different types of audiences can easily access and understand.”

With so many different approaches to environment, conservation and sustainability gathered in one lab, Reed said she is “so proud” of the unique collaborations her students have forged over the years.

“Because of their enthusiasm and commitment and ability to work with each other, and the relationships they build with communities, it’s a really rich environment,” she said.

According to Reed, these collaborations — and understanding that everybody has a role to play in the future of environmental sustainability — are an essential foundation for the work that needs to happen in Saskatchewan and around the world.

“We need to start building some very constructive and positive kinds of conversations, rather than the doom and gloom — because doom and gloom is not very motivating,” she said. “But for me, what is motivating is the relationship-building that can help foster better decisions and better practices in the future.”