The business of saving the planet: Niagara College embraces unique approach

Al Unwin is the dean of business, tourism and the environment at Niagara College.Al Unwin is the dean of business, tourism and the environment at Niagara College.

On the surface, it might not make sense that Niagara College would offer up its dean of business to speak about Earth Day.

After all, doesn’t business, unchecked capitalism and financial greed shoulder much of the blame for a planet in environmental peril? Maybe. But maybe that’s where the solution lies.

And to be clear, Al Unwin isn’t the college’s dean of business, full stop. He’s the dean of business, tourism and, yes, the environment. It’s a somewhat unique position that doesn’t take too long of an explanation to make sense.

“We have to change how the free-market capital system works, that it can’t be profit for pure profit motivation if it’s going to continue to degrade our natural systems. Because it’s clear that that will not only lead to an ecological disaster, it will lead to a business economic disaster as well,” he said.

“It’s OK to make money, but we can’t continue to do that unethically.”

Unwin has been with the college since the mid-1990s when he came on to help develop some environmental programs. Before that he’d spent a good chunk of his adult life exploring how mining operations affected the surrounding environment.

“I think for me (it was) a bit of a career changing moment when I saw the impact of some of these mining operations and how contaminated the water was,” he said.

After helping the college develop some environmental programs, he was asked to stay on to teach. Despite having two parents who were teachers, the job was never something he thought he’d pursue. However, he understands that solutions are going to take the efforts of many. What better way to amplify his impact than to teach others?

“If it was just me, if I was one farmer, I would do a lot. But now I’ve got 20 people each year doing it over time. I think that’s where you really start to see the true impact of education when it comes to schools,” he said.

Unwin’s not one to seek the limelight. If it were his choice, he probably wouldn’t do media interviews about his work, or even last December’s involvement with a United Nations conference on biodiversity in Montreal, something he considers one of his crowning career achievements.

However, in the space of a climate change and biodiversity crisis that could spell doom, he understands he has to go out of his comfort zone. Ironically, many think fighting climate change means leaving behind many of the comforts we enjoy.

The dean’s not so sure. Which brings us back to the business-environment duality of his job.

“I think part of that discussion needs to shift away from what we’re going to lose to what we we’re going to gain, and then really focus on where we can actually maintain what we presently have, but in a way that doesn’t create the impact that it has in the past,” he said.

Capitalism, he points out, isn’t going anywhere. Instead, we need the system to work in a way that makes money for people, but also protects the planet.

“Because, if the planet’s destroyed, who cares how big your bank account is?”

Based on his own interactions and on things he reads, Unwin does sense an increased urgency among young people today. It may be frustrating that fundamentally colleges and universities are teaching the same climate science they were teaching a couple decades ago, but the mood among students has shifted from interest to a motivation to act.

“The really interesting part about Gen Z is that they want to actually work on something that’s meaningful. They want to be collaborative and they understand climate change. They’re scared about it, they’re scared about biodiversity loss,” he said.


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