Features | Sustainability enlightenment

A re academics effectively adjusting what and how they teach in order to address the sustainability problem? At McGill the answer is inconsistent, even though nearly all academics agree that there is a serious problem. Some academics are staring sustainability in the eye, such as those of the School of Environment and those teaching green chemistry. Individuals in other areas of study – such as management, civil engineering, and history – are also taking it upon themselves to explore sustainability issues. What is lacking from an ideal McGill is a universal recognition of the problem that would necessitate concerted attempts to enlighten students in a sustainability sense.

Overuse and misunderstanding of “sustainability” as a term is one of the reasons it needs to become a larger part of this university’s curricula. Briefly, sustainability is about the air, soil, water, habitat, biodiversity, genetics, waste, and energy on earth collectively tied together then multiplied by factors of inequity and human nature all confounded by climate change. Many departments do not examine their relation to these issues in depth, leaving students confused and apathetic to the supposed problem of sustainability.

What do the high-ups in the McGill administration have to say about this? Dean of Science Martin Grant recognizes that there is a problem that must be remedied, but believes that people will, as he puts it, “vote with their feet.” In other words, if people see this as a problem, they will go into a program through something like the School of Environment or they will pursue research opportunities on their own accord. Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson has expressed similar views.

The main flaw with their stance is that students’ passions and worries are seldom identical. While I would love to study organismal biology my whole life, the future of this planet concerns me much more than how rabbit digestive tracts work (their tract is really cool). Students often choose to study what they are passionate about, and rightfully so. But how can they know how to link that to the serious problems in the world if they aren’t shown the problems? The trouble is that departments often become so focused on their area of study that they fail to show students how they fit into the bigger picture. McGill should actively make students aware of where their studies are currently located within the enormous problem of sustainability.

Telling students about grave problems sounds fairly simple and harmless, but, as Mendelson made clear at the ReThink 2009 Conference, “[McGill admin] do not force anything down people’s throats.” Try getting a BSc, BASc, BEng, or BCom without having calculus savagely forced down your throat. Do we not jam the general chemistry down the throats of chemists? Basic English into English majors? Is it such a bizarre idea that undergraduate students have some enlightenment as to sustainability issues in their field? It isn’t a matter of forcing anything down any throats but of exposing receptive ears and minds to the realities of the system they seek to explore.

The fall-back argument of administrators like Mendelson is that it isn’t the responsibility of the institution to drive this enlightenment. Instead, they say, this drive must be fostered by each individual department. While it is true that the faculty or principal cannot dictate and monitor what is taught in every department, they do control a huge amount of funding and can exert significant influence through its distribution. Also, it is hard to believe that departments are allowed to be entirely self-defined and there is no established definition of their place in the greater context in academia at McGill and beyond.

So, the future. The Sustainable Projects Fund is a big step forward, especially for students already passionate about sustainability. Hopefully it will catalyze a shift to a culture of sustainability. Unfortunately, the intellectual realm of McGill, which hides from disruptions under the guise of academic freedom, where convenient, may choose to change little. If it chose to change, what would it look like? Lectures within departments could show the context of the study. A course such as “Climate Change for Arts (or non-science) Students” may be helpful, since most people have a horrible understanding of the problem, the challenge, and the future brought on by climate change. Faculty-specific material could be made part of existing courses, or new courses on sustainability could be required. But that sort of enlightenment sounds too much like “forcing down the throat,” and McGill is probably decades away from such changes, given the administration’s current attitude.

While most people will admit there is a problem, I, along with many others I have spoken to, want a McGill where people actually do what is in their power to address problems and resist the lazy temptation to think of it as someone else’s domain.

An unfortunate trap some fall into is that this is just another problem where interest groups are making noise to secure funding, or that sustainability excludes issues such as disease or race. This is a misunderstanding. Any conflict or disturbance that threatens the integrity of the earth in supporting recognizable life is a sustainability problem.

Look out for a formal survey on this subject in the winter and a quick informal survey this Monday and Tuesday in one lucky department. If McGill is unwilling to change through helpful encouragement, maybe it will choose to move through shame.

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