My Year of Exuberant Optimism


Jess, Swathi, and Josée under the stars at Gault Nature Preserve.

by: Swathi Sadagopan

I was born at the start of a decade that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the beginning of exponential growth of the Internet, and the launch of the Hubble space telescope. While our near-supernatural ability to see beyond our planet grew, we were only starting to grapple with the limits of growth within our own fragile realm. The fate of our common future began gnawing at our collective psyche. Twenty seven years after the publication of the Brundtland report, commonly attributed to coining the term “sustainable development”, the situation is still far from resolved. We recognize the need for change, and are looking for ways to make it happen.

The McGill Office of Sustainability aspires to act as a bridge between ideas and transformation in a multitude of ways.  In facilitating positive change by sharing information, connecting people, and providing tools to support others in their own sustainability projects, we’re constantly asking what the ideal conditions for local action really are. The creation of the Local Action Research (LAR) internship came at a time when the focus of the Vision 2020 project was shifting from planning to action, and the question felt more important than ever. As the LAR intern working with Vision 2020 co-coordinators Josée Méthot and Jess Marais, I set out to develop a toolkit to inspire and enable action across the full breadth of sustainability, to establish a campus context of collaboration, accessibility, and transparency, and to share case studies of what works.

What made the process so fun was figuring out the steps, apparently invisible, at the beginning. How could we inspire and engage a community around a concept as slippery as sustainability? Although the roots of sustainability are embedded in the environmental movement, we now know that recycling, driving less and buying local produce are tokenistic without broad systemic change. This includes dismantling oppressive structures such as colonialism, racism, and heterosexism (among others) while also reworking our economic system to take much more than profit into consideration. To inspire and enable action in the full breadth of sustainability, we had to begin at the beginning – by exploring the breadth of sustainability in all its iridescent glory.

We did this in our first project: a short, concise exploration of the apparently simple question “what is sustainability?” Looking more closely at the concept, numerous notions and viewpoints appear like the layers of an onion. It’s an idea that many of us appreciate in the negative – I could tell if something was unsustainable, but grasping what was sustainable seemed to be harder to wrap my head around. What’s more, arriving at one homogenous definition of sustainability seemed improbable, even undesirable. In the end, acknowledging a diversity of beliefs and prizing an inclusive approach is helping us to create common ground and ensure that the concept evolves. Affectionately known as “the primer” within our team, this elegant document exploring the basics of what we’re working to create is a true work of collaboration, aimed at helping the reader RECOGnize[1] what sustainability really is.

The next step on the path towards increasing sustainability action at McGill was to highlight opportunities for members of the McGill community to step up. The most exciting aspect of this process was taking advantage of the collective brainpower available at McGill. Conversations with Anurag Dhir and Emily Boytinck at the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, the team at MOOS, change-makers Alan Chen and Rennie Jordan, and Johanne Houle at Organizational Development fed into what has become the brand new “Get Involved” webpage on the MOOS website. It’s heartening to see what months of dialogue, debate, and discussion can sprout into. While the ambiguity of the process was unnerving initially, the incredible support and intellectual resources of the McGill community brought our project to fruition.

I am curious to find out how the LAR tools on the Get Involved site will evolve, grow and contribute to inspiring small and powerful instances of collective action. Perhaps future versions of LAR will go even further towards weaving sustainability deep into the institutional fabric, making it a natural part of how we learn and how we work as a university community within both local and global contexts. While we had many ideas on this process of institutionalizing sustainability – for instance working directly with each faculty through its deans – the first round of the LAR project was all about laying the foundation for more action in the coming years.

As my work at MOOS as the LAR intern comes to an end, one particular quote by Margaret Mead keeps coming back to me – never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has. Transformation on the magnitude and scale I foresee will be slow and arduous, and yet my time at MOOS has shown me the tenacity of small groups of people sharing a grand vision and dedicating themselves to learning. Universities and schools have often been springboards for great societal change, and this year has taught me to keep the faith in these places of innovation. Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that the intertwined future of our people and our planet will be a remarkably sustainable one, at McGill and beyond!

– Swathi Sadagopan

[1] RECOG stands for Research, Education, Connectivity, Operations and Governance and Administration. These are the five categories that form the framework for Sustainability at McGill.