In our goal-oriented world, it might seem strange to say that sustainability is a journey, not a destination. After all, as the old saying goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” (attributed variously to either Yogi Berra or Lewis Carroll). So why can’t we say, “Check off x, y and z on the list, and then we’ll be a sustainable university”?
The answer has to do with the nature of sustainability. Becoming more sustainable involves continually redesigning the way we live and work to leave the planet in better shape – environmentally, socially, financially – for future generations. Absolutely, there need to be goals along the way. But as the way we live and work changes with new technologies and demographic shifts and a thousand other things, so must our concept of sustainability evolve.
“Being” sustainable, then is about putting in place the conditions that allow an institution to grow and adapt. It involves building a university-wide culture of sustainability. That sounds daunting, but it all depends on how you approach it.
I tell my kids, “every little bit helps.” Usually, I’m trying to get them to clean their rooms, but my philosophy about sustainability follows a similar logic. At McGill, we’re focusing on ways to find and nurture ideas, big or small, to transform our culture. We have our big-picture projects – an energy management plan; new university-wide printing/copying devices that replace countless desktop devices with shared units, reduce waste and automatically double-side paper; greener construction and renovation standards and many more. But we’ve also found a very effective way to support smaller projects.
McGill’s Sustainable Projects Fund (SPF), allows any member of the McGill community – student, faculty or administrative and support staff – to bring forward a proposal and receive funding for their ideas. Since its inception in 2010, the SPF has funded more than 40 projects. The SPF was the brainchild of an accomplished McGill undergraduate, whose fellow students contribute $400,000 annually, matched by another $400,000 from the administration.
Like the veggies in our on-campus gardens, new sustainability ideas now sprout up organically everywhere at McGill. The SPF doesn’t just provide the financial means, but helps ideas flourish by linking people and even projects together. For example, a number of small ventures over time joined up to form the award-winning Food Systems project, which is improving our campus food operations throughout the entire food cycle: food production, sourcing, preparation, and disposal (composting).
In the Food Systems project, a handful of grassroots projects, started largely by students, ended up changing the way we do business. And that change happened because students and staff were willing to work together in a true collaborative partnership, disposing of hierarchies along the way (they recycled them).
It’s easy to see that becoming more sustainable can’t just happen from the top down. But I’ve learned it also can’t just happen from the bottom up. It needs leadership across the board. Sure, everyone has an area of expertise, but we can’t allow our titles – student, professor, chef, scientist – to limit what we allow ourselves, or others, to contribute, if we hope to effect the culture change needed to become a more sustainable institution.