New McGill degree program in Sustainability, Science, and Society

(Guest blog post by Prof. Navin Ramankutty, Department of Geography)

Mongolian Family Uses Solar Energy to Power Home (UN Photo)

Mongolian Family Uses Solar Energy to Power Home (UN photo)

Is it more sustainable to eat locally grown grain-fed meat or organic vegetables imported from far away? If all nations decide to curtail global warming by 2°C, how much would we need to cut emissions, and what are the ethically responsible ways to distribute these reduced emissions? Who pays and who benefits when we create a national park in a developing country?

Do these questions intrigue you?  If so, try the new Sustainability, Science and Society (SSS) program.

In Fall 2008, Prof. Michel Lapointe and I were driving back from a Geography field course in the Eastern Townships.  We were discussing some of the inadequacies of typical global environmental change courses and programs, where we catalogue the suite of environmental problems, but leave students hanging in terms of seriously considering solutions.  Michel wondered whether we could create an alternate program that would offer a more integrated analysis of issues.  I mentioned the emerging field of “Sustainability Science”.  Thus began McGill’s new Bachelor of Arts & Science Interfaculty Program in Sustainability, Science and Society (SSS).

The concept of Sustainability Science was first proposed by the geographer Robert Kates at a Global Change Conference, “Earth’s Changing Land”, in Barcelona in 1998. I still recall, as a graduate student, listening to Kates’ keynote address titled “Changing Land, Changing Science: From Global Change to Sustainability”. In his lecture, Kates proposed Sustainability Science as a new conceptual model that would address some of the deficiencies of global environmental change programs including a very narrow focus on climate change at the expense of other global environmental changes and the profound global social, economic, and cultural changes (although some of these deficiencies have been addressed in the last decade).  Further, scholarship on the global environment was predominantly focused on top-down approaches, using impact studies to understand how global changes impact local places, and not the other way round thereby providing only a limited understanding of the linkage across scales.  Sustainability Science would address the multiple, grand challenges, of the 21st century using a more integrated perspective.

Since 1998, Sustainability Science has grown in stature.  The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA introduced a new section on Sustainability Science in 2007.  John Holdren, the Past President of the American Association for Advancement of Science (and presently the Science and Technology advisor to President Barack Obama), gave his Presidential Address in Feb 2007, on “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-being”.

So what is Sustainability Science?  It is an interdisciplinary endeavour concerned with the scholarship necessary to support Sustainable Well-being, and to imagine ways in which one could transition from the current world we live in to a future ideal.  In Holdren’s American Association for Advancement of Science address, later published as an article in Science in 2008, he considers “Sustainable Well-being” as having two components:

  1. In places where human well-being is absent, enhancing it through the process of sustainable development; and
  2. In places where well-being is present but attained through unsustainable means, converting to a sustainable basis.

We are familiar with the numerous shortfalls in sustainable well-being including poverty, disease, hunger, climate change, biodiversity loss, etc.  What role does Science play in addressing these multiple global challenges?  What are the economic, political, and institutional challenges?  What are the moral imperatives to face these challenges?  And what are the equity and social justice issues involved?  Climate change is here and now, and one of the proposed solutions, geoengineering, is raising huge institutional and ethical challenges.  The recent global food crisis of 2007-2008 has reminded us that we continue to face the challenge of providing food to the world’s neediest, nearly 200 years after Malthus first proposed the notion of food demand outstripping food supply.  We have to meet this challenge in the face of continued population growth and increasing per-capita consumption, increased scarcity of water resources for irrigation, increased demand for non-food uses such as biofuels, and increased pollution of our water bodies from fertilizer use.

SSS is a new interfaculty program, being jointly offered by the Department of Geography and the McGill School of Environment, with the aim of providing the intellectual foundations necessary to address such complex challenges.

The SSS program is built upon three pillars:

  1. Science and Technology, to provide an in-depth understanding of the underpinnings of the problems of concern;
  2. Economics, Policy, and Governance, to understand how we can make the Sustainability transition; and
  3. Ethics, Equity, and Justice, to discuss why we need change, and the issues of equity and justice associated with taking action.  While SSS will draw from the various disciplines that underpin these pillars, it is necessarily interdisciplinary, focused on the challenges at hand.

As William Clark put it in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article in 2007, Sustainability Science is neither basic research nor applied research, but “use-inspired basic research” that will advance “both useful knowledge and informed action by creating a dynamic bridge between the two.”

The SSS program has been available to students as of Fall 2010.  As a B.A. & Sc. program, students will be required to take 30 credits from both faculties, Arts and Science.  The SSS program itself is built around 54 credits of course work, of which half are required courses.  The large number of required credits reflects a highly structured program that caters to students interested in the concept of sustainability.  The required and complementary courses are well balanced between the Arts and Sciences.  The required courses included two new courses created explicitly for the program: GEOG 360 (Analyzing Sustainability) that will use case studies to introduce students to a variety of analytical approaches that have recently been developed to address sustainability challenges; and GEOG 460 (Research in Sustainability) that will involve students in a semester-long research project, and will serve as a capstone course.  In addition, an existing course, ENVR 201, serves to fill out the fundamental core.  The core faculty involved in designing the SSS program are also working on developing potential summer internship opportunities for students.

In summary, I am very excited about our new program.  As William Clark said in an introduction to a special feature on Sustainability Science in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “something different is surely ‘in the air,’ something that is intellectually exciting, practically compelling, and might as well be called ‘sustainability science.’ ”

For more information, please visit the Sustainability, Science and Society website:
Photo credit: Mongolian Family Uses Solar Energy to Power Home (United Nations Photo) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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