Our Campus: John Robinson is sailing UBC toward a sustainable future

Over the past few decades, the concept of sustainability has become ubiquitous: it permeates every facet of life, from culture to economics. Today, the notion of a person growing up in Canada without learning about sustainability -- even in an abstract form -- is completely foreign. Yet John Robinson, UBC associate provost, sustainability, and the driving force behind UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), was first exposed to the concept of sustainability at 17 -- when Monte Hummel, president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund, gave a talk at his small-town Ontario high school.

“That got me quite excited, and when I went to UofT the next fall, I looked through the program for courses about environmental issues and found a bunch, and that’s how things got started.”

Robinson earned his degrees at UofT and York, and taught at the University of Waterloo for 11 years before taking a job at UBC in 1992. Robinson’s original position had a focus on research, but over the past two decades his job has evolved to bridge the gap between academic and operational sustainability.

“What we’re doing here that I think is really exciting is trying to deeply integrate [academic and operational sustainability]. So it’s the institution as a whole taking on sustainability, not just individual researchers or teachers or operational staff,” Robinson said. “And that speaks to a larger agenda about the role of the university in society … that the university is increasingly being asked to show its value to society.”

Robinson’s most significant project so far is CIRS: a LEED Platinum building, recipient of numerous sustainability awards and one of the world’s first “net-positive” buildings.

Though CIRS was first conceived as a landmark of environmental sustainability and a “living lab” in 1999, Robinson and his collaborators soon started to consider social aspects of sustainability, as well.

“We started to think, ‘what about adding human performance to the environmental performance idea?’ And then, secondly, how about going beyond just being less bad and reducing damage to being net positive? Could we imagine a building that would actually improve, simultaneously, environmental wellbeing and human wellbeing, just by its normal operation?” Robinson said. “So that became the guiding principle: a net-positive operation both in environmental and human terms. And we ended up designing a building that was designed to be net positive in seven ways: four environmental and three human.”

CIRS was designed to be net-positive in energy use, operational carbon, structural carbon and water quality. The social aspects are health, productivity and happiness. Though CIRS has seen many successes, Robinson pointed out that the entire project was undertaken with the expectation of some failures; failures from which UBC would learn so that other institutions would not make the same mistakes.

Robinson has a metaphor to explain his approach to sustainability which, itself, is a broad and complex concept and one that even specialists in the field sometimes struggle to define.

“[It’s] the difference between a powerboat and a sailboat. Both of them can get you where you want to go, but the powerboat consumes non-renewable environmental resources, degrades them and powers through the biogeochemical systems (waves) in a straight line -- just to get from here to there. And it powers through cultural systems, as well,” Robinson said.

“The sailboat uses the energy of the system but doesn’t degrade it, and it uses it to get where we want to go but it’s less controlled, it’s less a direct line … you’re kind of in a collaborative relationship with environmental flows. You still want to get where you want to go, but it’s a very different way of getting there. If you add the cultural side to it: we’ve typically powered through other cultures on the planet, just bulldozed them under … what would it be like if we sailed through cultures — if we used the energy of the cultures without degrading them? That’s the key.”

Though sustainability as a critical issue has largely been accepted in much of the world, some do still challenge its value. Robinson views sustainability’s importance as a question.

“The environmental challenges we face -- and the social ones, the challenges of poverty and disparity and intercultural issues and warfare -- those challenges basically confront us with the questions, ‘who do we want to be when we grow up? What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of neighbourhood do we want our kids to grow up in?’ Those are all the same question … the sustainability question.”

As far as solutions go, Robinson doesn’t think that there is a single be-all and end-all fix to the environmental issues facing the world. He does stress the importance of a combination of grassroots movements and high-level policymaking for success.

“I’m not a big fan of laying it all on the heads of people at the consumption level, like, ‘the reason the planet is in trouble is because you drive an SUV -- it’s all your fault, you’re consuming too much.’ We do way too much guilt tripping of people.” Robinson said. “I want a world in which the things you naturally do -- your normal social practice — is sustainable... where you don’t have to make a conscious choice to violate some other goal in order to be sustainable.”

Despite the challenges facing the world, Robinson remains optimistic about the future.

“I think we have to move from the powerboat to the sailboat and we have to sail the world, not power through it. The ‘world’ means the cultures of the world as well as the physical environment of the world. If we can use that, if we can learn how to use that energy without degrading it and still figure out where we want to go and processes of decision making that do that, wow -- that would be pretty cool.”