Nathan Postma's thoughts on the new Butterfield Environment & Sustainability Stream

This year we launched the new Butterfield Environment & Sustainability Stream thanks to the generous donation of Trinity College alumni George ’61 and Martha ’63 Butterfield.

“Martha and I are committed to supporting innovative change through education, and we couldn’t think of a better place than the school that is so meaningful to us. We believe that this stream has the potential to give students the foundation they need to effect real change as future leaders.” 

We wanted to hear from a current Environmental Studies student, so we reached out to Nathan Postma to see what he thought about our new stream and universities' role concerning climate change and sustainability. 

What do you think of the new Butterfield Environment & Sustainability Stream? How would this stream have affected your first-year studies?

Ah so many thoughts!

Firstly, one of the most exciting aspects of the Butterfield’s generous contribution is their commitment to sustainable investment. I am very excited to see that the program will be financially sustained via the returns from ecologically conscious portfolios. Thank you Greenchip Financial! Trinity is well positioned to perpetuate a trend that seeks, through the realignment of subsidies and investments, to push green innovation and drop prices for sustainable products (see the decline in solar energy prices over the last decade as an example of this trend in action). After all, genuinely pursuing a sustainable future means heavily polluting behaviours should be the expensive choice, not the other way around! Further, the funding structure aligns with divestment initiatives already present at this college --namely the inspiring work of Trinity College Humphreys Chaplain Andrea Budgey who, along with Anglican Minister Maggie Helwig and activist Taylor Flook, took direct action against TD Bank to express solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Switching to the benefits of the educational content itself, I love how the Butterfield Environment & Sustainability Stream will not shy away from teaching the complex, interwoven nature of environmental and social justice issues. For example, recognizing how increasing numbers of climate refugees --that is those forced to flee homes due to warming trends and rising seas--  influences domestic politics in the US (the world’s second largest carbon emitter), which in turn informs their recent undermining of international environmental protocols. Environmentalism, politics, humanitarian crises and climate are all wrapped up in one! Typically this understanding emerges slowly through course content over second and third year environmental studies; forefronting this connection early is an enormous benefit for first year students. Had I gained this lens in my first year studies, I would have been better positions to dive deeper into environmental and social justice course content. In my experience, thinking beyond the course is the best route to both personal intellectual growth and productive connections with professors (they are always more receptive to critically engaged students)!

Ultimately, the new stream inspires optimism in me. I am confident that the new TrinOne stream will guide its cohorts in challenging their assumptions about environmental problems, and about the natural world in general. Just framing the environmental crisis is a big part of the battle! Much of the environmental crisis can linked to a disconnect between people’s material demands, as informed by the assumptions of the political and economic structures that surround them, and the real limits of the planet itself. The Butterfield Environment & Sustainability Stream will get students exploring the subtle sources of this disconnect early. In my mind, I see this opening the window for more innovative thinking to happen around sustainability issues.


Nathan Postma on a Bike

As a fourth year student in Environmental Studies, what are some of the projects you are working on now?

In my role at Co-President of the Trinity College Environmental Society (TCES), I am helping a legacy of wastefree events (as left by now graduated presidents) continue through our reusable stein program. Organizing DIY workshops and trips to places like the Evergreen Brickworks are other ways the TCES makes sustainability issues engaging and fun. Huge compliments to the capable, passionate executive that engage with this club!

Additionally, I was fortunate to be hired as a Research Assistant with Professor John Robinson, Presidential Advisor on Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability. This project seeks to innovate how sustainability courses are organized and communicated at the University of Toronto. Accomplishing this goal means identifying all of the sustainability courses already being taught (over 1500 courses representing 20% of all UofT courses!) and crafting “Sustainability Pathways” -- that is a curricular structure which would show a student studying anything from English to Human Biology 1) the sustainability courses already present in their departments and 2) how they could be taken while still fulfilling degree requirements. Our team sees sustainability as a fundamentally interdisciplinary pursuit, so we are trying to change the education structure to reflect this.

Lastly (full disclosure this is the project I am most excited about!) I am working with a dedicated team, including fellow TCES members Emily Shaw and Emily Neeson, to turn a semester of research conducted in Professor Robinson’s “The UofT Campus as a Living Lab of Sustainability” course into a food producing green roof atop the Munk School of Global Affairs building. This project originated from Trinity’s Assistant Provost, Dr. Jonathan Steels, as a means to source local produce for food services as well as create a space to deliver environmental programming to students. We also intend to conduct research on the viability of roof gardens to retain rainfall after heavy storms --an important climate change adaptation strategy for cities with aging water treatment infrastructure. There is a stereotype that only engineers and computer science majors conduct this kind of practical fourth year project, but it is crucial that environmental studies majors pursue these as well! UofT has an enormous amount of support already waiting for students with initiative. 


What role do you think universities have when it comes to climate change and sustainability?

Over the course of my undergrad I’ve been able to reflect on the state of postsecondary education with a variety of faculty members.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Provincial and Federal Governments have been realigning their funding priorities to ensure that students leave University with “career ready” skills gained through experiential learning courses. I believe this is beneficial in the context of climate change and sustainability. University graduates should leave their education with both applied and research skills. To this end, engaging with the “Campus as a Living Lab” model is a promising way to deliver the aforementioned skills to students. The “Living Lab” model recognizes that Universities operate at an ideal scale --that is the community scale (smaller than a city, but larger than a neighbourhood) --and are relatively autonomous in their governance; thus, there is enormous potential to test out approaches to sustainability issues at the campus level. Here, it is ok if projects fail initially; there is another cohort of students right behind ready to learn from the mistakes and try again. Once a group gets an impactful and innovative approach down, a knowledge transfer can take place between the University and the global community connected to it. I believe Universities should also expand their role in creating robust networks between student sustainability advocates, frontline community members and pioneering actors in the private sector. Already students build lifelong connections between their peers during their studies and extracurricular involvement, but more needs to be done to achieve the level of change required to face the environmental crisis. Fortunately, the path to this sustainable future is not obscure: countless successful social movements have demonstrated that active community networks are a primary axis of progressive social change.  Fostering existing relationships with committed administrative support and building new networks through targeted outreach campaigns can, when coupled with engaging experiential learning courses, position Universities as “Agents of Change” in the context of sustainability and climate change issues.

Nathan Postma is a 4th year Trinity College student studying Environmental Studies and Anthropology.