2nd Prize, Post Secondary Education Category, "Making a Difference" Essay Contest, 2010

By Lisa Blake

February 9, 2011

McGill University. Credit: mirsasha (CC)

Lisa Blake, age 24, is studying for a Master of Arts in Religious Studies (Hinduism) at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Essay Question: How would you improve your school so that it prepares future leaders to protect the planet?

As we near the end of 2010, proclaimed the hottest decade on record, we are no closer to solving the problem of global warming than we were ten years ago. Since 1980, each decade has been progressively warmer, a problem that will conceivably continue into the next decade. This overall warming has resulted in higher ocean temperatures, causing melting of the polar ice caps and fears of extinction for large numbers of ocean dwellers. Devastating weather, such as flash floods, heat waves, and dangerous hurricanes, has become increasingly prevalent as our planet's temperature has continued to increase. Though this has repeatedly been linked to pollution, carbon emissions, and the general way in which waste is disposed of, changes in environmental policy have been alarmingly slow. Many people still respond apathetically to calls for environmental liability, citing the notion of global warming as a liberal conspiracy. This has negatively affected the ways in which sustainability has been broached by both large companies and individual households. For these reasons, I would propose that there is only one real solution to issues of sustainability—education.

For the past six years of my academic career I have attended McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Over these years, I have seen a great change in the way the university itself has approached questions of saving the planet. A sustainability task force has been implemented, and the campus teems with recycling bins and requests to avoid printing whenever possible. Though these are important steps towards a sustainable future, I can't help but think that McGill has somewhat missed the mark. As McGill itself states, its graduates will go on to become leaders in all echelons of society, from business, to politics, to education. By focusing solely on on-campus, physical initiatives, they are missing an important opportunity to educate these future leaders so that they will know and understand the importance of sustainability when in a position to directly affect it. Keeping in mind both McGill's reputation and its position in the Montreal community, I would propose that the university focus on the development of two programs—one focused towards the overall McGill and Montreal community, and the other focused towards McGill's undergraduate students. Through these programs, I believe that McGill could have a large impact on the way in which environmental sustainability is discussed and approached in the community at large.

The first program would be a yearlong event geared toward informing the public about environmental issues and how they can be a part of the solution. This program would include two types of lectures, those aimed at community members outside of academia, and those aimed at the students and academics of the institution. These lectures would include presentations and round-table events by environmental experts as well as leaders in business, science, and politics, with the purpose of educating people on the options and obstacles that are found in each of these areas when dealing with the environment. In addition to lectures, separate workshops for adults and children would be offered in order to show a physical representation of what will happen on the Earth, as well as giving concrete examples of ways in which even the individual can help. The entire year would be capped off with a large-scale community event where information would be available on sustainability, recycling, community organizations, and any current environmental issues that are being discussed in the political arena. The purpose of this entire event would be awareness, with the hope that each person would bring this awareness with them while voting and practicing sustainability in their own homes.

In addition to this community-based program, I would propose a new academic requirement for all undergraduate students at McGill. While studying towards their undergraduate degrees, students are separated into arts, science, management (business), and engineering faculties. In each faculty, McGill would add an additional requirement, a three-credit course focused on planet sustainability in conjunction with the specific area of study. The course would be taken in the last year of the program, when most other requirements would already have been met. In this way, students would be able to apply their previous knowledge of the subject. The course would ideally be taught by two or more professors and would engage a number of guest speakers from the same academic area to discuss their own experiences. Though the class itself may have to be quite large (as a required course at a large university), the students would be separated into smaller groups in order to work on a final project and presentation relevant to their area of study. As one example, a class that was made for those in the management faculty would focus on both the ways in which big businesses have, in the past, managed to skirt environmental regulations, and why it is important that they are held accountable for their actions. Guest speakers could include leaders from companies that have successfully implemented sustainability programs as well as those that have avoided doing so. For a final project, students would complete a presentation tailored specifically to their own program. For example, one group may present an advertising campaign for public awareness of environmental issues, while another group may present a mock business plan for a company detailing the ways in which it could change its own internal systems to further promote environmental sustainability. I believe that this course would serve two aims. The first, and most important, is that it would encourage students to care about the plight of our planet. By taking a subject that these students are already knowledgeable about, they will be better able to relate to the issues—a key factor in encouraging awareness and action. Secondly, those educated in these courses would be more likely to think of environmental issues when voting or while in leadership positions later in life.

McGill often prides itself as being one of the top universities in North America, a university that is at the forefront of higher education and is a creator of future world leaders. In order to maintain and even improve this reputation, the university must continuously look toward the future. By implementing the two programs that I have mentioned above, McGill would be looked on as a harbinger of the future and cited as a model for other universities trying to implement programs in environmental sustainability. By encouraging these programs, McGill would also show that it is serious about sustainability and would set an example for students and community members alike, ultimately encouraging the community to live in harmony with the planet it depends upon.

This contest was part of the Council's second annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, which kicked off a year of events and resources on sustainability. Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

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