Commentary  Hyde Park: Will McGill lead or follow?

Reflections on this year’s Beatty lecture

It’s hard to look into the eyes of one of the today’s greatest environmental leaders and hear, “All we have to do to ruin the planet is to keep doing exactly what we’re doing today. Just keep releasing greenhouse gases at the current rates, continue impoverishing ecosystems, and in the latter part of this century, this will be a ruined planet.”

While Dr. James Gustav Speth, Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at Yale University, certainly offered a sobering reality during his visit to McGill on October 24, this year’s Beatty lecturer was far from demoralizing. Indeed, one month later, he is still inspiring members of the McGill community to push for change.

In Speth’s view, the environmental movement has been prisoner of the wider system for too long.

“Under Reagan, the world turned but we kept doing what we had been doing. We didn’t get political. We didn’t go into communities and organize. We stayed in our environmental silo,” Speth said.

Speth emphasized the need for a paradigm shift, suggesting that academic institutions may be one groundswell of support. But he shared students’ doubts that universities are leading the charge.

“I’m sitting at the end of ten years as Dean, feeling like I’ve pretty much failed. We’ve tripled the size of the school, increased the number of faculty by 50 per cent, and built a new building, but did we come up with a way of structuring the curriculum that really deals with these basic interdisciplinary issues?”

With the formidable challenges clearly laid out by a veritable environmental prophet, what is a student to do? Speth’s advice was clear: “get very political.” Advocating for a massive unification of citizens concerned about democracy, social justice, and environmental concerns, he is spending his last year as Dean challenging the status quo.

This mission resonated strongly with students.

“It was really cool to see someone who is in such a position of privilege speaking about pushing boundaries, someone who still has faith in the connection between action and results,” said U2 Environment student Jonathan Glencross.

“Starting Monday we can all affect change, what are we going to do? What radical changes need to happen? How do we move these structures? How do we make change and encourage active participation in that change?” Glencross said, adding that Speth’s presence has revitalized his commitment to sustainable change at McGill.

“[Campus sustainability is] a unique opportunity for administrative and student collaboration. It’s time to foster better exchanges between these groups and give McGill a chance to shine.”

U3 IDS and Environment student Maxime LeMoyne agreed.

“It felt good to hear someone of Dean Speth’s standing say out loud – and to an important part of the McGill intelligentsia – that present-day capitalism needs to be fundamentally reshaped. His arguments very much paralleled what we come to conclude in our courses, but that seldom make it out of the classroom,” LeMoyne said.

In his Beatty address, Speth quoted an unlikely bedfellow, Milton Friedman, who said, “only a crisis produces real change.” If the current financial turmoil is any indication, the world may finally be ready to heed Speth’s call to action. The real question is: will this University lead or follow?

Hilary is a U3 Honours Geography student and can be reach at The original version of this article appeared at