“Climate change is more than just an economic or political problem. Climate change is a cultural problem in a sense that we need a perception shift.”
Since meeting Robert at the University of Toronto for its scholarship interviews, we’ve become best friends over the past three years. Whether it’s constantly learning from him and badgering him with philosophical anecdotes or book recommendations that he’ll be able to respond back with, I am always reflecting with him on some of the big questions or problems we see in our world. It comes as no surprise to recognize the work and research that he does as not only integral to what he believes is his purpose but also in empowering those around him to influence change. Today, this is no different. We have jumped on countless hours of conversations or calls but the one thing that was different this time, was aiming to keep this conversation under an hour with the respect to the readability of this article. Amidst this mix of advocacy and research, I am constantly amazed by his journey and achievements. As both a National Scholar at one of the best universities in the world and a Top 30 Under 30 by the North American Association for Environmental Education, we discuss here issues of environmentalism, climate change, and his latest research in machine learning.
“Essentially, environmental advocacy is about distilling a story to the world. Environmentalism isn’t just about an “ought to” that should become a moral responsibility. It’s a lot more than that. It’s an extension of our lives, our existence. The beauty of nature is a collective gift to humanity. Fundamentally, it’s a part of who we are, our human condition. The ability to interact with nature is privilege.”
C: So a big part of your life has been about environmentalism and advocating for its awareness. Tell me about what drew you to your work within environmentalism. Why is this important to you?
R: During the prime time of my youth, I hadn’t really understood what I was doing with life when the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic and learn about this planet with Students on Ice (SoI) came up. While I was there, what struck me transcended science. I saw this natural beauty that completely changed my perspective about why we should care about climate change and the environment. This change in perspective in part, came from recognizing the world’s transcendent beauty. It’s been five years digesting that experience and it is still one that I still am unable to comprehend; how the world is the way it is. It’s complexity. All these different ecosystems working in tandem. And seemingly enough, all of it sublimely beautiful in a way that makes sense even though complex. That became my motivator for protecting the environment. It wasn’t just the fact that the utilitarian end of making the world a better place was the right one but also because the world, itself, makes our human condition beautiful and amazing. It’s a privilege to be able to live here. And I hope only to continue to foster a sense of stewardship, gratitude, and awe for this beautiful planet. Essentially, environmental advocacy is about distilling a story to the world. Environmentalism isn’t just about an “ought to” that should become a moral responsibility. It’s a lot more than that. It’s an extension of our lives, our existence. The beauty of nature is a collective gift to humanity. Fundamentally, it’s a part of who we are, our human condition. The ability to interact with nature is privilege. Therefore, it is one of necessity to bring that out to people and especially youth.
C: Tell me a little bit more about your work with Our Poles, Our Planet. What inspired you to start it?
R: Coming back from the Arctic, I was filled with this awe and I couldn’t shake this desire of wanting to do something. To get as many stories about what I had experienced out there. I began using various platforms to get my voice out whether this was through conducting a local Toronto public schools tour in the GTA region, writing for local Toronto newspapers, or having conversations to talk to others about nature and giving them an opportunity to understand why we protect nature and the Antarctic. What I was met with was this amazing reception by students. There was this intrinsic interest by the students. How could I help to turn that excitement into action through creating opportunities for students to do so? That resulted in the beginnings of my organization Our Poles, Our Planet. It became a mission to get youth thinking about the environment they live in and giving them the platform to do so. Where “Our Poles” speaks to the world as our collective gift, and “Our Planet” speaking to the global responsibility we all have in being stewards of our home. Afterwards, I began bringing this message to a larger audience, well extending pass the GTA region, in order to get more professional story-tellers to share stories and work in engaging and inspiring people. So as a group of high school students in 2016, we came together and hosted a conference that had more than 200 youth across Toronto attend where we wanted to emphasize why the environment was important and to give them the tools and knowledge to make meaningful change. What I remember particularly, was one of the attendees who is an artist. She began an Instagram page where she paints endangered species to foster awareness about extinction through social media. That was the beginning of a national movement. We began to scale up our work across the country by reaching out to other students who went through similar experiences at SOI and wanted to share. We aimed to increase engagement by reaching to even more students by hosting a network of conferences across Canada.
C: It’s been a couple of years since Our Poles, Our Planet and a lot has changed not only for you but also the global context within which you have worked in since 2016. To move to a more macro level focus, I would love to hear about your thoughts or your current outlook about the future of environmentalism. What’s changed? What hasn’t? And are you excited for the future of climate advocacy?
R: Youth advocacy for the climate has increased since Trump’s election. A great example of this is the rise in prominence of Greta Thunberg a Swedish activist. We can also look to the social media’s mobilization of youth. I see advocacy going beyond the individual and going to the organizational level. There have been legal challenges to government. Where the focus has shifted to looking at future rights that are being infringed on are happening today. There are more companies coming together. Clean tech developments. Despite the critics and the age of disinformation, the world is getting on board. Nonetheless, as we generate this systematic action, we should never forget our personal responsibilities. Climate change is more than just an economic or political problem. Climate change is a cultural problem in a sense that we think it’s okay to be wasteful and that it’s okay to treat this planet with disrespect. It’s enshrined in our daily lives. Through the rush of convenience. And we always seem to compare ourselves with those that are not better or even worst for countries too. It’s about changing the culture. It’s not necessarily just about the small acts, it’s more than that. It’s about working towards a perception shift. First, that is the catalyst for social change and second, I would argue that would result in a healthier, happier society that values the society we come from.
C: So I know that often times when we ask people for tips or read blogs with tips, they can be so repetitive that people roll their eyes or skim over because they’ve been told again and again: Reduce, Reuse or Recycle for instance. Not that this phrase isn’t important because it is. But even nicely intended messages: To stop shopping at fast fashion stores or to stop using single-use items, don’t reach the people that we want. As often times, the people taking daily actions are those that are already passionate about protecting their environment. So with that in mind, what is something new you may want to share? What is a tip that is both feasible and specific enough that people reading can work to enact in their daily lives?
R: So let’s start with the ocean ecosystem where we look at the levels within the food chain for instance. At the bottom, we have these small organisms for the sake of simplicity we’ll call small plankton which are eaten by big plankton and then eaten by krill. Krill is this tiny organism that is integral to the Earth’s marine ecosystems. It is the main part of the diets of whales and penguins. It’s the foundational part of the food chain. Many oceanic organisms depend heavily on krill. Recent studies demonstrate the decreasing stocks of krill which can be attributed partly by global warming and countries that catch krill in the Antarctic for the production of Oméga 3 capsules pills. This is a huge problem for Antarctic food chains as the commercial fishing of krill for human nutritional supplements is having detrimental impacts for marine ecosystems. Do you see those enormous bottles of Oméga 3 supplements at Costco? Well I would highly urge people to look for different ways of getting their Oméga 3 intake. And not to buy Oméga 3 pills that are often derived from the production of krill.
C: Since knowing you, I’ve found it hard to just talk about one thing. So you’ve been trained as an engineering scientist and as of recent specialized within machine intelligence. I understand you work very hard within your research. As for the last couple of years, you’ve been working on self-driving cars which is also something that has stemmed from your approach to environmentalism too. Talk me through your work and research.
R: Our design team is based in the University of Toronto which is a great hub for working on the self-driving car from Point A to B in a very congested downtown core. Specifically, I work on outreach and leadership which consists of stakeholders relations as well as outreach with the public. I also do more technical work such as programming algorithms. And a focus on social responsibility that includes political responsibilities of writing professional reports. Technology has been a space where we’re able to do work that can impact people and their ecosystems in positive ways. What our team works on has the potential of decreasing the number of deaths associated with drunk driving. I’m always amazed and incredulous to go and do something with technology to make this world a better a place while recognizing the social responsibility of solving problems through recognizing the potential ramifications. Nonetheless, solving problems and sharing the potential and prospects of the future of technology is about getting people excited. It’s also about impacting humans and having open dialogues about the work that is possible.
C: Knowing me, you’ll probably anticipate this next question as embedded in a large philosophical hesitancy of the potential detrimental impacts of technological change that go beyond the immediacy of physical ramifications. Are you scared about self-driving? The impacts on decision making or people’s increasing dependence on technology?
R: For sure, technology can be wrong. Take the example of Ethiopian airline. When the pilot knew what was right. Where many deaths occurred due to an autonomous flight. So do I think there are problems within technology? For sure. We need to properly navigate that balance between recognizing the practical utilitarian benefit of technology while learning with reference to public trust. We have placed a lot of trust into the design and engineering of these systems where the input goes into a black box and the output comes out. It can be very hard to analyze even for those that are part of the process, know if they’re doing their jobs correctly. No one has really good solutions right now. But I do think that the right approach is to have cautious optimism and cautious commitment to implementation. Always asking the “why” questions to make sure that the technology we’re creating serves us and not the other way around. It requires active reflecting as a collective. Because the moment, we stop that reflection, we could potentially lose what it means to be human, our agency, and our free will.
To connect more or get in contact with Robert, find him on Linkedin.
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