Editorial, Opinion

Broadening the scope of sustainability at McGill

On Sept. 23, McGill hosted the first in a series of open forums to discuss sustainability with members of the McGill community. The forums were agreed to in the wake of Divest McGill’s sit-in at the James Administration Building in Winter 2016. The forums were structured to include segments on sustainability on campus, in academic research, and in investment practices, yet the majority of the conversation was focused on McGill’s investments in the fossil fuel industry.

The issue of sustainability at McGill is a complex and multifaceted one, in which the administration, faculty, and students all have a role to play. In assessing McGill’s progress in sustainability, it is necessary to examine the wide range of initiatives and policies adopted at all levels in the university community.

In an email sent to all students on Sept. 25, McGill announced that it has received a Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)—an upgrade from its 2012 Silver rating. The timing of the announcement stood in contrast to the other two events that took place within the same week—the Open Forum on Sustainability and Fossil Free week—both of which stemmed from dissatisfaction among certain student groups.

The university highlights developments in several key areas as the reason for its high rating. These include the maintenance of the Sustainability Projects Fund―the largest of its kind in North America―to provide funding to student and faculty sustainability initiatives; the inclusion of sustainability in the curriculum through a variety of Arts, Science, Engineering, and Management programs; as well as sustainable food sourcing, energy conservation, and procurement services. The extensive and diverse criteria in the AASHE report—including categories of academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership—is a reminder of the numerous ways a university can strive to be sustainable.

McGill should be commended for the areas in which it has successfully implemented sustainable practices, and held accountable for those where progress is lacking.

Judging McGill’s commitment to sustainability by considering only one criteria―such as divestment―would be a mistake. Instead, members of the McGill community must take a holistic approach to sustainability. Indeed, the McGill Office of Sustainability acknowledges that sustainability is multifaceted and complex. Its vision is framed around five key concepts—research, education, connectivity, operations, and governance and administration. McGill should be commended for the areas in which it has successfully implemented sustainable practices, and held accountable for those where progress is lacking.

For example, in the AASHE report, McGill scores notably low in certain criteria—specifically, sustainable investment, water use and rainwater management, and waste minimization and diversion. These are areas in which students can demand to see an improvement from the administration and expect an active response to.

Members of the McGill community should keep in mind that sustainability is a shared responsibility. While conversations about sustainability at the university can centre heavily around the administration’s role, faculty and students are also an integral part of McGill’s sustainability efforts. As the foundation of the university community, students are in a unique position to implement grassroots initiatives to promote sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices at McGill. Successful projects such as Plate Club, Fight the Power, and the Arts Undergraduate Society’s Snax’s on-site compost were all the result of mobilization at the student level.

A sustainable university is not just the result of administrative decisions, but of the efforts of all members of the university community. Administrators can set long-term sustainability goals―like McGill’s Vision 2020 Sustainability Strategy, faculty can incorporate sustainability into their research and course content, and students can work at the grassroots level to create sustainable campus initiatives. In turn, faculty and administration should encourage students to continue pursuing such initiatives; however, at the same time, students can and should continue to lobby the administrations on its big picture decisions, whether or not it chooses to listen. All three of these pistons must be firing for McGill to make substantial progress on the road to sustainability.

On campus, conversations about sustainability must acknowledge the many ways in which it can be achieved, and the roles of all members of the university community in achieving it. A proper assessment of McGill’s progress on this issue needs to take all relevant criteria into account. Administrators, faculty, and students must be aware of the unique ways in which they can each promote sustainable practices at McGill.




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  1. Jed Lenetsky

    It’s interesting how this article makes it seem as if Divest McGill only cares about divestment while many of the projects mentioned are or have been spearheaded by Divest McGill organizers. Also, the forums were always intended to be about divestment from fossil fuel companies, and the broadening of the scope of the forums was meant to serve as a distraction from divestment (the vision 2020 consultations were already happening at the start of the forums).

  2. I share Jed’s concern about the misconceptions that seem to be present in this article. I tend to think that it is indeed community members (most often students, but also some faculty and staff) who are pushing forward sustainability in the community. It could easily be argued that almost every significant initiative and sustainability success at McGill is a result of this, and it is so energizing to see the community implementing many of our own solutions. However, when it comes to implementing measures in a more formal and permanent way, my experience (and that of many that I have spoken to and worked with), is that the main barriers are lack of institutional support from administrators. For example, the first round of Vision 2020 consultations were extensive, and produced over 50 actions that the community wanted to be part of McGill’s sustainability strategy, but when the draft was brought forward to the Board, they refused to support something so “ambitious” and as a result our sustainability strategy was cut down to its current 14 actions.
    And yes, to reiterate, the consultations that Divest McGill asked for were (of course) meant to be specifically on divestment and CAMSR’s report, and the admin’s attempts to distract from the issue obviously failed since so many community members (both involved and uninvolved with our campaign) felt it was important to speak about it regardless. The right place for general sustainability conversations are the new V2020 category action teams! These were already being planned before the admin conceded to their general consultation to appease people sitting-in for divestment, and the admin framing their consultations so broadly made their formal purpose redundant and unnecessary, reflecting poorly on their connection to the groups and people doing the real work on sustainability on campus. Thankfully I think the people who showed up made them fruitful conversations at least, though it will be interesting to see whether the admin actually acts on anything reflected in the report which will be produced out of them.

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