Education for a Sustainable University

McGill University Senior Faculty Lecturer George McCourt spoke to Lakeshore UU Congregation on Sunday 27 January 2019. His talk follows.

Good morning. I thought I would tell you a little about the recent work that McGill University has been involved in in terms of trying to create a more sustainable institution and to talk a little bit about some of the work I have done primarily through students to help contribute to this story.

George McCourt
George McCourt, McGill University School of Environment

Let me tell you a story about the Aral Sea which used to be the 4th largest sea in the world. Located at the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. During the Soviet era it was fed by two rivers – the Amur Darya and the Syr Darya. In the 1960’s the soviets redirected the water from these rivers for irrigation projects. By 1990 the sea was 10% its original size and split into a North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea. By 2000, the South Sea had disappeared. The regions once prosperous fishing economy was decimated and the economy collapsed. There are also serious health issues appearing as a result of the drying out of the sea beds. This is a very good example of an unsustainable practice even though it was not done intentionally.

So what is sustainability or sustainable development? Brundtland Commission definition – “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is not a particularly new definition as people like Antoine de Saint-Expupery, the author of the Little Prince, said a number of years ago “we do not inherit the Earth from our parents’ but we borrow it from our children”

Many of the first nations peoples have also been very aware for a long time of how we should live with nature and not overuse our resources. Chief Seattle, a Squamish Chief from the American northwest, and tried to accommodate the white settlers, has been quoted as saying in the mid 1800’s “Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”


What is the difference between sustainability and Environment – one other point I would like to make is there has been a shift away from using the word environment towards the word sustainability. Sustainability has a more positive feeling to it although I think that it is giving people the idea that we can continue to live as we do as long as we are sustainable. There are some of us who feel that it tends to sugar coat the situation that this and future generations are going to have to face. It has a more gentle, feel good, positive aspect to it than environment which has a very negative connotation these days

I will say up front that I don’t particularly like the idea of trying to get a very precise definition of sustainability because it suggests we are aiming for a goal, an end. Where we are trying to get to should always be reviewed regularly and is likely to constantly change.

For those of you who are not familiar with the broader definition of sustainability or as a reminder to those that are aware there are three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social and economic. The Aral Sea example is a very good example of how an unsustainable practice led to a breakdown of all three pillars of sustainability. I will point out that the pillar that students ignore the most is the economic sustainability component.

Many of our problems related to environmental or sustainability issues are of course related to our use of resources on a planet that has finite resources. We live in a world where economic growth as we currently define it is considered important. Economic growth generally means consumption of resources but once you have used up these resources you have to find other resources to use. Furthermore, the finding and extraction and use of these resources has contributed to many environmental problems and once we use up these resources we need to find other resources which generates more problems. Thus, the idea of using these resources in a sustainable manner has taken a front seat.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how we waste most of the resources that we currently use. We live in a throw-away society. A recent report showed that we currently re-use only 9% of the global resources that are part of the global daily life. There is great deal of discussion these days about reducing the use of resources and one way to do this is to create closed loops of consumption. That is once we have used a resource we collect it and reuse it thus not having to look for new sources of these resources. Currently we have a linear method of consumption in that we extract the resource and when we are finished we throw it away.

We do have good examples of trying to reuse resources. Aluminum cans and paper recycling have been quite successful. The energy saved from reusing aluminum cans is substantial (1/6 of what it takes to mine and extract aluminum (Iceland example). Our current issue with plastics is actually one of what we do with them after we use them. Using them is not actually the problem. If we created a closed loop of usage, then we would have less of a problem.

This applies to most of the things we use. We would be able to live much more sustainably (leaving resources for future generations) if we managed our waste of current resources in a better manner. Another good example is modern electronics and alternative energy sources. These things need new materials that are generally quite rare especially the electronic materials needed for phones and computers. We throw away our phones every few years. Some of them a recycled but we could create a more sustainable system of resource consumption if 100% of the electronics were being reused. 

In fact, climate change, biodiversity loss and the above-mentioned resource scarcity are the results of unsustainable practices related to over use of resources that have direct and indirect impacts on the environment

So where does McGill University fit into all of this. McGill as an institution has a massive impact on the local and even other parts of the provincial economy. It purchases $270 million dollars worth of goods every year, so we can have an impact when we try to initiate changes that are thought to be more environmentally friendly or contribute to making us a more sustainable entity. The institution can impact buyers and suppliers’ way of doing business and this can have significant ripple effects throughout the economy.

Because McGill is an educational institution it should also be a societal leader in creating a better world. And for the last 15 years or so there have been major attempts to make serious cultural changes within the institution. Much of this was driven because of the vision of one engineering professor, who as Associate Dean of Facilities was a leading force in contributing to a significant change in culture about how McGill is trying to function as a large more sustainable organism in a complex urban system. His name was Jim Nicell and he is the current Dean of Engineering.

His work led to the creation of the McGill Office of Sustainability (MOoS) that was the first attempt to centralize the many small grassroots actions that had been taking place disparately on the campus.

He also spearheaded the Development of the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) – an $800,000 a year fund supported by both students and the administration. Students contribute 50 cents per credit towards the fund. The administration matched the student’s contribution dollar for dollar. 

The SPF mandate is to build a culture of sustainability on McGill campuses through the development and seed-funding of interdisciplinary projects. It creates opportunities for the McGill community to actively engage in sustainability initiatives on campus, thus empowering individuals to be change agents in their own studying and working environment.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the work of Jonathan Glencross, and the impact of a single student in contributing to convincing the student body that this fund was a worthwhile cause. It required a referendum to create this fund. Now working with Gordon Brown, former PM of Britain and advising on sustainable investment opportunities. I should point out that Jonathan did an undergraduate research project with me related to examining the possibilities of alternate fund-raising opportunities to expand the sustainable funding opportunities. We did not succeed in this endeavour

I was involved with the initial committee that was set up to establish the working group that would administer this fund. I was a member of the working group for 6 years.

So far 92 projects worth 2.9 million dollars have been carried out over the last 8 years. Some of these projects include:

  • McGill Student Ecological Gardens – A student-run operation that now produces $40,000 worth of fruits and vegetables that are sold to the McGill Food and Dining Services
  • Farm egg production lamp for egg grade classification – eggs now can be sold internally to the Food and Dining Services – using produce grown within the McGill farm
  • Le Cave Bike repair service established by two students
  • Recycling of computers program established by another student
  • ECOLE – student community living – trying to live in a sustainable manner while still going to school. Six students chosen to live basically in a commune like habitat. The do sustainable living workshops in house and have a fair-trade coffee room that helps generate some revenue for the group

At the same time a written document called Vision 2020 was being put together– this was the result of a 2010 McGill policy that called for a sustainability strategy that had specific goals and objectives. This was approved by both the Board of Governors and the senate

The goals and actions were presented across 5 categories – Research, education, connectivity, operations and governance and administration

  • Research: This category encompasses the ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ of research at McGill and considers research activities conducted both on campus and elsewhere. From most students’ perspectives this means applied student research projects as opposed to blue sky projects. Examining social and ecological footprints.
  • Education: This category focuses on student, staff, faculty, and institutional learning. Knowledge and experience connected to sustainability and creating life long learners who will take a sustainable culture with them when they leave McGill.
  • Connectivity: This category emphasizes the need for strong connections, both within McGill and with the local and global communities of which we are a part. Community engagement – the McGill bubble. Wellness and health – there has been significant progress with dealing with mental health issues as this is an important pert of a sustainable community.
  • Operations: This category encompasses the physical activities that support the ongoing functioning of the University. Food systems. Material flows. Energy and water usage. Inventories currently being completed on GHG emissions for a variety of scenarios including travel. Water consumption is also being examined, and I will talk about this a bit later
  • Governance & Administration: This category addresses how the University is managed in terms of people, funding and finance, decision-making, and process implementation. Finance and investments, equity and diversity. You may be aware of the Fossil Fuel Divest movement that is fairly prominent at some university campuses and McGill is one of those campuses.

Where has my focus been with Vision 2020? My focus has been on the educational side and on the operations side

Many of my students get quite pessimistic about the world situation and the state of our planet so I have really had them focus on the “act local” side of trying to make things happen. I think there is also a feeling that working at the municipal level is more effective than at a provincial, state or federal level. Municipalities have more in common with each other than states and provinces. Easier to find common ground. 

For example, the C40 cities climate leadership coalition. About 90 cities, including Montreal, representing 650 million people who are focused on tackling climate change and creating urban change to reduce GHG emissions

With this in mind I have been focused mostly on the educational side using applied research projects to try and change the culture of the institution and in a number of cases at the municipal level on the island of Montreal.

We have had many successes using the research work of these students through their projects in initiating changes particularly in relation to the food supply chain in the university in general and the McGill residences in particular.

We have also contributed to the broader picture of managing McGill’s water system in a more sustainable manner. This includes getting a better handle on where the water is going, who is using it, and how better to use the excess surface runoff.

Allow me to describe some of the projects that the students have been and continue to work on over the last 10 years or so and to mention the names of a few of the students who have gone on to work in sustainable jobs:

Student projects completed under my supervision:

  • Developed a Sustainable Fish purchasing certification program for the McGill cafeterias.
  • Developed a Composting of food waste program. Again, for the McGill cafeterias.
  • Created Sustainable Procurement practices for fruit and vegetable produce for McGill food and dining services.
  • Created sustainable procurement practices for meat products purchased for McGill Food and Dining Services.
  • Determined the surface water flow patterns created during heavy rainstorms so that it can be captured and reused instead of going into the storm sewers.
  • Designed a landscape plan for this captured surface water flow.

What have been our successes? The food system within McGill. The operations side of the day to day running of McGill has made and continues to make great strides. I also believe that the administration side of Vision 2020 continues to make progress.

What have been our failures? The education side has had some success, but this is due to the work of individuals and not the institution as a whole. The change in the research culture towards sustainable research has been poor. Telling or suggesting to researchers what they should focus on has never been a good idea in a research intense university. There could be more of a focus on convincing researchers to look at how sustainable their day to day lab operations are and this is being worked on, but it is a hard slog.

Overall though McGill has been making headway and compared to many other institutes of a similar size we could be considered a leader in the field. We have a long way to go but we are ahead of the pack and we are slowly creating a group of students that are making there way into the real world and will have an impact.

We still have challenges, but the students are trying to do their part and we are making progress bit by bit. Thank you! 

George McCourt, Senior Faculty Lecturer, McGill University – 2019-01-27

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