Time for universities to lead the way on sustainability

Posted on Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jonathan Glencross / Photo: Adam Scotti

By Jonathan Glencross

As I arrived to my first ever university lecture hall in the fall of 2007, I can’t say I was particularly concerned about my undergraduate experience. After working full time for just under a year, I spent the majority of my summer travelling across the country and down the Pacific coast. Naturally, I began to strike up conversations with those students sitting next to me as if we were about to be stuck on Greyhound together for the next 36 hours.

Within a few weeks, my habit of conversing with students as fellow travellers landed me at a meeting of the Sustainable McGill Project (SMP). As I would learn, this group had worked with various professors and administrators to assess McGill’s sustainability performance using the widely acclaimed Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework tool. After completing the assessment, the students began to disseminate their research, ideas and recommendations throughout the University. Over time, it became increasingly apparent that without an internal mechanism to implement their recommendations, progress was going to be limited.

With some of the involved students graduating, institutional memory became a growing concern. The mandate of the group evolved as they hosted a series of community consultations, ultimately leading to a proposal for a “Sustainability Centre” at McGill. In April 2008, three members of the group, including me, were invited by the administration to sit on a steering committee over the summer to assist in the development of the McGill Office of Sustainability.

The need for a self-reporting mechanism to gauge our progress toward sustainability was not forgotten, either. McGill’s first annual Sustainability Report – including both the challenges and successes – will be released this year. So why are assessments important? We want to change things, not measure them, right? As I have said before, the goal is not to measure performance, but to unite people and effect change in a measurable way. If done properly, these assessments will serve as a basis for our decisions on what to do and how to do it. Influencing the measure of success inevitably influences the decisions we, as a community, are responsible for.

Around the same time that I was introduced to the SMP, I also came across a student-lead project called Gorilla Composting. Running a volunteer composting service on campus, the group aspired to have our University take direct responsibility for the enormous amount of food waste that ends up in landfills each year, and turn it into a valued resource for our campus. If you take a quick stroll past the Wong Building, you will now see an industrial composter, which is hopefully the first of many large efforts to confront the issue of waste on campus.

Until recently, one of the biggest challenges for the composting project was funding, both for the upfront capital costs of the machine as well as the ongoing operational costs associated with it. And their project was not alone, explaining in part the 99 applications that have been received by the Sustainability Projects Fund [see Page 8] in the past 12 months.

All of this progress is the result of persistent and often difficult work undertaken by individuals and groups across campus. I could write at equal length on the various obstacles and even failures that our campus’s sustainability movement has experienced over these years. In recognizing that we are a small part of a much larger system, it is impossible to overstate the truly global challenges that we face. As a result, the University is going to need to be even more intentional about the role it will play in preparing students to make the change that is needed.

Consider, for example, how few of the thousands of students who graduate each year believe they are prepared with the knowledge they need to address the sustainability issues facing their respective fields. A survey undertaken by a fourth-year Arts and Science student last year, in partnership with the administration, showed that the majority of students do not. Given the transient nature of the student population, and the amazing range of courses that already exist for this purpose, a shift here is essential and is going to require an incredible amount of attention.

If nothing else, it is the role of universities to ensure that their path toward sustainability includes an ongoing commitment to providing such an education. As I graduate this year, it is difficult to fully convey the sense of urgency I feel for these types of transformations. For hundreds of years, universities have proven to be remarkably resilient. Now it’s time for these institutions to spur our individual and collective capacity to transform the intentions of the larger human community in which they are situated.

Jonathan Glencross is a fourth-year student at the School of the Environment and one of the architects of the University’s Sustainability Projects Fund.

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