Commentary | Hyde Park: The Sustainability Office’s story

Sustainability is often regarded as a “buzzword,” which, according to some, tends to lose meaning with every additional utterance. But for my purposes, it remains a useful and relevant symbol of the long-term aspirations of any “successful” institution. I am writing this commentary to begin a new narrative for sustainability at McGill, and to clarify from whom we can expect it.

Although the story of the Sustainability Office – from the student perspective – started before our time, I am going to focus on the progress made since last April. With a recent Sustainability Report Card in mind, the final proposal for a sustainability centre was submitted to relevant administrators, and a faculty forum was held to elaborate the vision we inherited from past students.

Soon afterward, Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services,) invited us to sit on a steering committee to develop the mission and direction of what is now called the McGill Office of Sustainability. This was a conscious effort to bring students into the decision making process. It continues to be very open and transparent, but has moved slower than we anticipated.

Part of the Office’s coming should be to collect and disseminate the knowledge and information required to support long-term planning objectives and maintain institutional memory. This involves developing sustainability performance indicators and sharing the results with the community, as a means to facilitate action and make more informed decisions.

Anyone who has tried to do this in the past will tell you that in certain areas, we are missing the tools for detailed measurement, such as per building energy meters. In other cases, the existing data was not intended for our purposes and requires significant manipulation. Professor travel records are an obvious example of record-keeping that is financially thorough but often short on details, such as the city departure. It is difficult to accurately calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from employee travel without this, which forces any such calculations to make relatively large assumptions. Where these gaps in knowledge or information exist, however, they present opportunities for student projects or volunteers – in consult with relevant staff – to find creative ways to resolve these problems or develop entirely new methods of gauging our successes and failures.

Obviously, the goal is not to measure performance, but to unite people and effect change in a measureable way. But why are metrics important? We want to change things, not measure them, right?

Well, if they’re done properly, measurements will serve as the basis for the University’s 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. However, if we want to pay more than lip service to the popular staples of sustainability, such as recycling and energy conservation, we have to make a deliberate effort to coordinate amongst ourselves, and continue to increase McGill’s capacity to unite people.

To this end, we are working with Jim Nicell to create a coordinating body that will address how we can do this. I have also asked to have the SSMU Green Fee spill over from year-to-year to increase their ability to contribute to a full-time position of Sustainability Coordinator, or at the very least a significant work-study in tandem with such a position. Every corner of the University would benefit from additional staffing, so it has to be made clear that this position will empower individuals across campus to accomplish more. And these are only the preliminary steps.

But as a good friend of mine pointed out to me Tuesday morning, if universities fail to adapt to the demands placed upon them to become sustainable, they will cease to be relevant.

If I had one recommendation for those of us seeking this kind of change, it would be to break the habit of referring to McGill as some entity outside oneself. Credibility is hard to establish when one picks and chooses which parts of the institution to identify with, while benefitting from one’s membership as a whole.

Jonathan Glencross is a U2 Environment student and the Chair of the Sustainable McGill project. Send questions, comments, and feedback to